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Staff Picks/DVD Selections

Staff Picks: Short & Sweet


November marks the beginning of the holiday season: parties, friends & family, parties, gifts, and (did I mention?) parties! We, at the Mechanics’ Institute Library, understand. You don’t have time to read War and Peace (1412 pages) or Infinite Jest (1079 pages) during the holidays. Though both novels come highly recommended by members of the staff, most of us don’t have time to read them at the moment either.

But just because the days are both shorter and fuller, it doesn’t mean that we can do without reading for a whole season! Mechanics’ Institute staffers are happy to recommend our favorite short works in November: stories! essays! novellas! poetry!

Come check out the staff picks display on the second floor and see if any of our must-read short works strike your fancy. Here’s just a taste of what’s in store:


Jeremy recommends Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh (294.3 N57)

With the holiday rush upon us, this book is a good reminder to slow down and breathe. Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on peace and meditation are a great introduction to mindfulness and applicable ways to live a more peaceful life.

Chris recommends Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee (333.72 M17)

David Brower, the founder of the Sierra Club, is profiled in three separate essays, where he is joined by the author and a trio of his opponents. Brower meets with a miner, a developer, and the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation in their respective sites of conflict. Here, they argue, agree, bond, and frustrate one another. Originally published in the New Yorker, this collection serves as an introduction to the personality and politics of Brower himself, a portrait of some of America's most unique and gorgeous landscapes, and as a detailed study in the conflicts and connections of differing environmental ideologies.

Heather recommends Bartleby the Scrivener (found in Shorter Novels of Herman Melville) by Herman Melville (FIC)

If all you know of Melville is Moby Dick, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street will be a surprise to you. Although Bartleby never wakes up as a bug, his tale is reminiscent of Kafka’s absurdist work. This novella has many of my favorite things in literary characterization: an unreliable narrator, a protagonist whose motivations are wholly unclear, and a cast of supporting characters as strange as the main characters. This is one of those stories you can read in a sitting, but it stays with you for days.

Diane recommends The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (FIC)

A short, charming and humorous novel of only 120 pages, the author poses the question "what would happen if the Queen of England became a voracious reader late in life"?  One day, Queen Elizabeth follows one of her Corgis into a mobile library parked adjacent to Buckingham Palace and discovers the wonders of the written word.  Soon she is neglecting state business so that she can finish the latest novel!  Bennett imagines, in believable detail, the effect that the Queen's newfound passion for books has on her public and private affairs.

Posted on Oct. 31, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: A Dog's Tale


San Francisco residents love their dogs!  One only has to quickly survey the city’s sidewalks, especially on the weekends, and see the numerous dogs taking their humans out for a walk to know this for a fact.  The Mechanics’ Institute staff reflects the city’s passion for their pets by selecting their favorite dog tales for this month’s Staff Picks display.  Enjoy!

Deb recommends Thunder Dog: the True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero by Michael Hingson (eBook only)

Ever wonder what it was like to be in the World Trade Center when the first jet hit?  Michael Hingson tells a riveting and inspiring story of his escape along with his trusted guide dog, Roselle.  Born blind, but seeking no sympathy, he weaves this unforgettable experience into his life and lessons learned along the way.  A fast read that is truly a page turner.


Bobbie recommends The Dogs Who Found Me by Ken Foster (636.7 F75)

Ken Foster describes his life as a part-time animal rescuer and tells the stories of a few of the dogs that have made an impact on his life.  Each chapter is dedicated to one dog, how he found them, their sad tales, and the rescue and re-homing attempts.  Not all of the stories have happy endings but all left an impression and give Foster the inspiration to carry on with his mission of saving lost, lonely, and abandoned dogs.

Craig recommends The Complete West Highland White Terrier by John T. Marvin (636.7 M39w)

As the guardian of one Westie (Bella) at the moment, and two Westies (Emma and Chester) in the past, I found this book to be very informative.  It covers the history of this breed of terrier and what characteristics they were bred for.  There are plenty of photographs in the book, which make this title particularly interesting to peruse.  In the Library’s “bow-wow” collection are many other books about different breeds of terriers written by this same author.  You will want to peruse the Library collection at the Dewey Decimal class number “636.7” for other books on dogs, including ones that cover the day to day care of these wonderful companions.

Heather recommends The Dog of the Marriage: Stories by Amy Hempel (FIC)

Amy Hempel’s stories are so often about loss; one would presume that her work is of interest only to the naturally melancholy.  Not so!  You’ll be surprised at the catharsis the author’s sense of humor brings to her subject matter, whether it’s suicide, infidelity, a dead pet, natural disaster, or, even, the occasional love story.  She is subtle, and she is gracious, a masterful storyteller whose characters will stay with you long after you’ve read the few words Hempel has used to tell their stories.

Posted on Oct. 2, 2013 by Diane Lai

Staff Picks: September is Beach San Francisco

The September staff picks theme is Beach Reads.

You know: the kind of reading you do solely for pleasure. Sometimes, pleasure-reading is of the guilty variety, and sometimes it’s a luxurious read with no practical application whatsoever. A so-called beach read has the perfect balance of entertainment and engagement, inspiring that crucial suspension of disbelief in the author’s make-believe (or believe it or not – true!) world.

The Mechanics’ Institute staff has selected everything from the classic page-turner to books with sentences so complex and lovely you want to linger over every one of them. Whether you choose a beautifully-illustrated graphic novel or a gripping memoir, we hope you’ll find something on this month’s display of our favorites that strikes your fancy.

Jeremy recommends Zen Confidential: Confessions of a Wayward Monk (294.39 H368) by Shozan Jack Haubner

A 30-something monk living at a Buddhist temple in Southern California, Haubner's writing is self-deprecating at times, insightful at others, and often both. These personal essays cover a lot of ground from Haubner's experiences in monastic life to what drove him to leave the secular world. There's enough here to make you laugh, cry, and reflect about your own follies in life.

Diane recommends And the Mountains Echoed  by Khaled Hosseini

From the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini tells the touching tale of the enduring love between an Afghan brother and sister who are torn apart at a young age. This story, which spans many decades, explores the sacrifices that poor and desperate families must make in this war torn country to enable their own to survive. Read the final chapters with a tissue box by your side!

Deb recommends Beach Music  by Pat Conroy

Spanning three generations on two continents, Beach Music weaves together themes of loss and family loyalty with seemingly disparate historical events and locations (Rome, the rural South, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust). Despite its scope, this novel is a page-turner, which is really saying something about a book which contains 768 pages!

Heather recommends Fight Club  by Chuck Palahniuk

A classic tale of love, revolution, and beating your friends to a bloody pulp; if you’ve seen the film so many times that you forget how the book ends, it’s time to read it and fall in love/hate with Tyler Durden all over again. If this is your first time, I envy you the mayhem mingled with discovery that characterizes this, Palahniuk’s masterwork. And don’t forget the first rule of fight club…

Posted on Sep. 3, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Mysteries and Thrillers

Although summer isn't exactly beach weather in our fair city, I still like to spend the summer reading books that are, above all, entertaining.  What better fits the bill than a juicy mystery?! If you're like me, you tend to read the same tried-and-true authors, and it can be tough to figure out what, in the vast ocean of mystery stories, is worth the elbow-grease (turning pages that fast can be mildly athletic!) required to finish it.  This is where your friendly Mechanics' Institute staffers come in...

In August, we're recommending our favorite mysteries and thrillers to keep you on the edge of your seat. Here's just a taste of what we're suggesting this month:

Erika recommends Bangkok 8 by John Burdett

Although his ethnicity is half American, Sonchai Jitlicheep is one of the only honest policemen in Bangkok.  He is determined to find the person whose murder weapon - a cobra - managed to catch his partner in the crossfire.  Welcome to Bangkok, where the good guys and the bad guys are almost indistinguishable from one another...

Matt recommends House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

This is the first novel approved by Conan Doyle's estate to be included in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and deservedly so. It is rife with Victorian mores (and secrets) and is written in a style faithful to the original Holmes stories. A sequel to this critically lauded novel is expected in October 2014.

Heather recommends Fred Vargas's Commissaire Adamsberg mysteries 

If you've been paying attention to my picks, you'll know that I am constantly trying to get you to read books by Fred Vargas. She's a Medieval Historian who also writes nicely plotted (but not too tricky) mysteries that read more like a novel - plenty of character and setting development with a side of criminal pursuit. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is her newest addition to the series, but I recommend that you start from the beginning with The Chalk Circle Man, as these books comprise one cumulative story rather than an episodic series that can be picked up at any juncture.

Posted on Aug. 1, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Civil War Fiction

One hundred fifty years later, Americans are still fascinated by the War Between the States and the personalities that dominated the country at that crucial turning point in our nation’s history. Although the Civil War only lasted for three years (1861-1864), it left 600,000 dead, so many more wounded, plus a defunct infrastructure in the southern states, and a population of people set adrift with little or no social or financial support to advance their right to freedom from brutality at the hands of those who had enslaved them. With limited resources stretched thin, Reconstruction was nearly as daunting an experience as the Civil War itself.

This period in American history continues to capture the attention of scholars and the imagination of writers. In honor of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the conclusion of the Civil War, Mechanics’ Institute staff will be selecting literature from the era, and literature set in the era, which will be displayed on the 2nd floor Staff Picks shelves.

Diane recommends The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks

This novel grips the reader with its graphic details and agonizing tale of how a Civil War battle was fought on the plantation of Carrie McGavrick and changed her life forever. Not only did the plantation house become a hospital where countless limbs were amputated, but her lands became the final resting place for 1,500 soldiers. Based on a true story.

Taryn recommends The Civil War Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce, a former Mechanics' Institute member, is truly one of the great writers of the era and his Civil War stories are some of the best of the genre. His war experiences naturally colored the rest of his life, for better and for worse.

Heather recommends Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a must-read Civil War era novel, set just after the War. Its plot is inspired by the true -- and truly haunting -- story of a woman who escapes from slavery but is relentlessly pursued by a posse of thugs with the force of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 behind them. The book explores the lengths to which we will go to protect those we love from an unbearable fate. It’s a heartbreaking story, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988).

Posted on Jul. 2, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Fashion

Whether you love it or despise it, fashion (or anti-fashion, as it were) makes a statement about our values and our mood, both collectively and individually. Take a look at some of the Mechanics’ Institute staff selections for this month and maybe you’ll find that fashion can be a more complex topic of inquiry than you might have thought, with titles such as Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing, and Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. If you’re already fascinated by textiles, fashion, and its accompanying culture, there’s plenty here to whet your appetite for this visual and tactile subject.

Here are a few of our picks:

Taryn selected Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II by Philip Mansel

Why do you think they called him the Sun King? Not because he dressed in black! Learn how fashion has been influenced over time by the whims, desires, and styles of the royal court.

Sharon's picks reflect her interest in knitting:

Nicky Epstein’s Signature Scarves: Dazzling Designs to Knit by Nicky Epstein

Jewelry with a Hook: Crocheted Fiber Necklaces, Bracelets & More by Terry Taylor

Crochet Noro: 30 Dazzling Designs edited by Joy Aquilino, Michelle Bredeson, and Christina Behnke

Make your own! The best way to showcase your individuality is to put your creative skills to work. Making your own jewelry or accessory, such as a scarf or hat, allows total freedom in selecting your colors and fibers that feel good on your skin. If you are a knitter, try Nicky Epstein’s Signature Scarves as a starting point for ideas. Crochet some jewelry, using Jewelry with a Hook by Terry Taylor. For the sheer fun of color, I recommend Crochet Noro, a delightful collection of accessories using one of the best colored yarns available.

Heather chose Jacqueline Kennedy: the White House Years : Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum by Hamish Bowles, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Rachel Lambert Mellon

In this book, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents images from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum which exhibit the simplicity of Jackie’s inimitable style. This is a collection of lovely photographs to peruse while daydreaming about your own ideal wardrobe.

As usual, we’ll be adding additional titles in fiction and fashion throughout the month, so check in often at the second floor display!

Posted on May. 31, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: American Librarians Pick Their Faves!

In the spirit of staff picks, this month we’ll be offering books chosen by librarians across the nation! The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction was established in 2012 to recognize the best of the books published in the U.S. during the previous year: the shortlist is pulled from selections made by the library professionals’ magazine Booklist and the Reference and User Services Association’s “Notable Books List”. 

The prize will be awarded in June so, while you’re waiting for the recipient to be announced, read a few of the finalists’ works and decide for yourself who should win the 2013 Carnegie Medal! The staff picks display will include both 2012 and 2013 fiction nominees (the non-fiction nominees will be on display on the 3rd floor), with staff writing recommendations of their favorite books from amongst the honorees.

Here’s the full list of Carnegie Medal fiction nominees in the Mechanics’ Institute Library collection:

2013 nominees

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig

Astray by Emma Donoghue

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Canada by Richard Ford

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

In One Person by John Irving

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Home by Toni Morrison

Dear Life by Alice Munro

The Cove by Ron Rash

The Lower River by Paul Theroux

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper

The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins


2012 nominees

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (WINNER - 2012 Fiction) 

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks 

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes 

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt 

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman 

Faith by Jennifer Haigh 

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach 

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan 

Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Philips

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Luminarium by Alex Shakar

We the Animals by Justin Torres

American Boy by Larry Watson

Posted on Apr. 29, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Books on Film

Much like books, the visual arts are one of many media used for storytelling. This month, the Mechanics' Institute staff members have chosen materials at the intersection of film and print: books about film, books so fantastic that someone decided to make films out of them, and, maybe, even a few DVDs and film soundtracks as well.

Some of our picks were adapted into amazing films and television, and some were, well, not so great. A few of these celluloid adaptations were even…ahem…better than the book! See what you think. Was the 500+ page picaresque Youth in Revolt more engrossing as a novel, or did you like the film’s pacing better? What about Fight Club? Most of us know the spectacular David Fincher ending in the movie version, but how did author Chuck Palahniuk resolve the existential crisis of Tyler Durden? As always, we’ll be adding materials to the display throughout the month, so check back often.

Here are a few of our picks:

Jeremy selected Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music by John Caps

“Mancini’s themes remain some of the most recognized works of film music to date.  He wrote music for over 40 films and television series, several of which were adapted from plays and books. My personal favorite: Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Erika selected  Stardust : Being a Romance Within the Realms of Faerie by Neil Gaiman

“Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Coraline, the Sandman comics) has had many novels adapted to screen, but Stardust is probably the most uplifting work he has done. It is about Tristan, who has vowed to cross over the Wall to fetch a falling star to give to his girlfriend…but he makes some discoveries about properties of the star, and about himself, that complicate his task. Filled with Gaiman’s offbeat British humor, Stardust is light without being lightweight, sweet but substantial.”

Taryn selected An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

“When a pregnancy gets in the way of a young man’s climb up the social ladder, murder is the only answer.” Woody Allen adapted this book as Match Point.

Bobbie selected Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen edited by Stephanie Harrison

“Many a movie has been inspired not just by novels, but by short stories as well. Read on to find out which films started out as just a blip of a story.”

Posted on Apr. 1, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Found in Translation - Literature

Reading works that do not originate in our own culture can be enlightening as well as entertaining. This month’s staff selections span the gamut of everything from fiction, to memoir, to philosophy, and much more. The one thing all of these picks have in common? They weren’t originally written in English. Check out our collection of DVDs in a foreign language while you’re on the second floor, and get your fill of cross-cultural exchange.

Want to dip in your toe before you dive into this subject by considering the role of the translator? Check out Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman. The author makes a strong case for the cultural importance of the translator as a scholar and artist who should be held in great literary esteem. She says, “Translation always helps us to know, to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar.” This book will give you a whole new appreciation of the translator’s work, and will be available on the staff picks shelf this month. Here are a few more of our staff’s favorite titles:

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson ; translated by Anne Born

This book is one of my favorite reads of 2013.  A haunting novel about a widower who moves to a remote cabin in Norway to live out his retirement years. A chance encounter with a neighbor revives memories of his 15th year when he spent the summer with his father in another cabin in the woods.  Beautifully told (and translated); the imagery evokes a stark yet beautiful country. - recommended by Diane

Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet ; translated by Sian Reynolds

Sian Reynolds is one of my favorite translators; she also translates Fred Vargas’s (highly recommended) mysteries. This book is a meditation on the ways that our personal libraries reveal our true natures. Is your library extensive or selective? Tightly-organized or a hodge-podge? Well-read or aspirational? This is a charming book about how we interact with the books on our shelves. – recommended by Heather

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (graphic novel) by Stieg Larsson ; adapted by Denise Mina

A two-pronged translation: language (Swedish to English) and format (novel to graphic format). Even if you've read the book and/or seen the movie, the gritty artwork and storytelling of this adaptation will allow you to explore the start of the Millennium trilogy anew. The second and third parts of the series are coming in 2013 and 2014. - recommended by Jeremy

Posted on Mar. 7, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Science and Technology

Have you ever wanted to learn something about astrophysics?  Are you interested in the history (or future) of artificial intelligence?  The Mechanics' Institute staff members have chosen books to get your mental juices flowing.  Check out the 2nd floor display and satisfy your curiosity!

Sharon selected How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter by Sherwin Nuland.  This book is so comfortable in dealing with an uncomfortable subject matter that she deems it recommended reading before you even want to think about it!

Jeremy chose The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Maxwell Krauss.  Jeremy's a Trekkie and admits it!  But with NASA recently announcing that they're working on a warp drive that operates on the science similar to that which flings the Enterprise through space, maybe it's time to brush up on the theoretical physics that powers this popular sci-fi series.  Make it so!

Taryn recommends American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom.  A terribly sad expose of how much food Americans waste.  This will make you more cognizant of your own shopping and consuming habits.

Heather selected Computer Power and Human Reason by Joseph Weizenbaum.  Published in 1984, the author crafts a compelling argument that although artificial intelligence is an inevitable (and mostly good) technological development, only humans have the judgment to make the most important decisions.  This is a classic text on the proper role of technology.  (Bonus Fact: the author created ELIZA, the first natural language processing program whose applications had surprising results when human subjects began interacting with "her".)

Mechanics' Institute staff members have selected their favorite titles in science and tech, written in styles from confessional to conventional.  Whether you're a technology novice or an old hand, come see if there's something interesting to read on the 2nd floor!

If science isn't your game, the library staff has, as always, selected some interesting fiction for your consideration.

Posted on Jan. 31, 2013 by Heather Terrell