Tea Cups, Tempests and Sci-Fi

Over the last few months I’ve been reading a bit of science fiction. With the notable exception of the Glory Lane by Alan Dean Foster, I didn’t read much sci-fi growing up (As an aside, having re-read this book recently, I think it holds up remarkably well. If you enjoy lighter sci-fi with a nod to pop-culture, American subcultures, and general weirdness, give it a go!). I suppose I’m making up for lost time getting into a lot of stuff that is considered either New Weird or Sci-Fi. I’m quite taken with much of it. Earlier this summer, however, I found myself revisiting the (possible) origins of the genre.

When I was an English major back in college I remember a very excited Shakespeare professor saying that The Tempest was the first sci-fi work of Western Literature. At the time I seem to remember being entertained by the idea but not giving it much thought. I’m also not sure how true it is! I suppose a lot depends on this particular professor’s definition of science fiction! (Also, as an aside, if you want a great book on Shakespeare, check out Bill Bryson’s book on the bard. It’s well worth reading!) Years later, when post-colonial readings of the classics occurred more widely, I noted that The Tempest was getting more and more life breathed into it and was being staged everywhere from London to Pittsburgh.

So, earlier this summer when I was reading more sci-fi, I thought back to that Shakespeare professor and the idea that The Tempest was the first (or, maybe more accurately, ONE of the first) sci-fi work(s) in Western Literature. I decided to watch the 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest starring Helen Mirren as Prospera, Felicity Jones as Miranda, Reeve Carney as Price Ferdinand, Djimon Hounsou as Caliban and Russell Brand as Trinculo.







This more recent film adaptation by Julie Taymor is worth watching, if for nothing else the amazing performances of Housou, Mirren and Brand (yes, Russell Brand is excellent). The story, in case you aren’t familiar, consists of a user of the magical arts being cast away from civilization (usurped by a brother) supposedly for practicing said arts, with their child. Living on an island inhabited only by Caliban, the magician and daughter live for years, until the magician’s arts finally shipwreck the usurping brother and his companions. A story of revenge, difference, the “other”, and love comes to the surface.

This particular adaptation isn’t without difficulties. The character of Ariel (who is an other-worldly spirit daemon called into service, and forced to work for Prospera) is a fascinating character that opens the reader (or viewer in this case!) to a whole world of possible interactions and interplay between characters. Especially when one banks this relationship off of the relationship that Prospera has with Caliban, the whole production is ripe for some serious analysis and question asking! What I found a bit underwhelming were some of the special effects that the film-makers used with the Ariel character. Sure, Ariel is a sprite or spirit or demon or whatever, but at times the scenes featuring this other-worldly creation seemed more like a cruddy new-metal music video than a production by the Immortal Bard.

Aside from those scenes, the film is really worth seeing. Maybe it’s just my tastes in visual effects! You might think it looks pretty cool. Either way, I recommend the film highly. Get into some really classic sci-fi.

- Eric (who is reading and watching the New Weird, Old Weird and All Around Weird as fall descends on us here in Pittsburgh, AND who carefully LEFT OUT the part about how seeing this film had a lot to do with his wife demanding to see it because Russell Brand is in it and she has a major thing for Russell Brand)


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New Beginnings and Back to Basics

It’s that time of year again. Back to School (and Library card sign up month!). This is only the third fall that I am not going back to classes, and it is a whole new experience. So in honor of back to school, I picked out some of my favorite books that I would read during the school year and that anyone can request with a library card.

to kill a mockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I first read this book when I was a Sophomore in high school and it is a book that I have actually read over again, and I do not do that often. It’s a well-written book with an excellent story and so many lessons for any reader to take into consideration. Oh and to make this book even better, it’s on the list of Banned Books but is still read widely.

1984 by George Orwell. 1984 is a dystopian novel, and one of the first ones I ever read. It is a big reason why I continue to read dystopian novels. It is a great book that makes the reader think about a lot of different possibilities and is another banned book (are you seeing a pattern?)!

looking for alaska

Last but not least, Looking For Alaska by John Green. Many readers would know John Green because of his book The Fault In Our Stars. It was a great book in my opinion and Looking for Alaska is another great book in his collection. It’s the story of a boy and his adventures and lessons during his time at school. If you are looking for other recommendations, you don’t have to look very far because CLP has a Back to School, Teens page!

Whether these are repeat reads for some or new recommendations for others, I hope this post inspires you to pick up a new book in celebration of the new school year.

– Abbey

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Three For The Pennant Run

The Battling Buccos seem poised to make a run at the first or second Wild Card playoff berth, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that they can continue surging forward in September!  In the meantime, here are three titles for those among us who love Fall baseball.

baseball-codes The Baseball Codes : Beanballs, Sign Stealing, And Bench-clearing Brawls : The Unwritten Rules Of America’s Pastime by Jason Turbow with Michael Duca. No stage reveals baseball’s many esoteric “unwritten” rules quite like the playoffs. This book will provide the perfect companion to anyone wondering why the catcher  suddenly stands up and hurls epithets at the batter, or why a seemingly accidental hit-by-pitch sparks a series of 95 mph retaliation strikes!

 It-aint It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over : The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book edited by Steven Goldman.  This 2007 book looks at some of the most famous and fascinating baseball pennant run chases through the game’s long history. This slick collection of historical essays on the game includes a number of what-if stories, and also recounts great deadline trade deals, pennant races that weren’t, and much more.

 when-red When The Red Sox Ruled: Baseball’s First Dynasty, 1912 – 1918 by Thomas J. Whalen. Love them or hate them, the Red Sox represent a key pillar of Major League Baseball, and one of its most storied franchises. Mr. Whalen’s book explores the golden age before the Babe, and provides a telling glimpse into the professional baseball world of a bygone era.

–Scott P.





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France in My Pants

I wasn’t scheduled to post today, but I volunteered to do so on one condition: that I could call my post “France in My Pants.” Fortunately, our gracious editor accepted my terms, so here we are.

France in my pants, indeed.

Okay, there are pants in these books. But they aren’t my pants.

I must confess that this post isn’t really about pants, it’s about France in the late 1800s and the early days of forensics and murdering and stuff – so if you want to stop reading now, I won’t be offended. For those of you who’d like to carry on, away we go!

Eiffel's Tower

Oooh, shiny.

Eiffel’s Tower, by Jill Jonnes – Did you know that Gustav Eiffel had a swanky little apartment at the top of the Eiffel tower? He did! It was fully furnished with artwork, velvet fringed divans, and even a piano. (p. 152 and 237). And did you know that the tower had its own newspaper? It did! During the 1889 Paris Exposition, Le Figaro printed a daily special edition of their newspaper (Le Figaro de la Tour) in a tiny office on the tower’s second floor (p. 46).

This book is both a friendly romp through the history and construction of the tower and a nice general introduction to some of the Exposition’s famous visitors. Where else can you learn about the difficulties of constructing elevators that travel up and sideways at the same time? Where else can you learn about Annie Oakley’s living quarters and how Thomas Edison became an Italian count? Where else can you discover how the good people of Paris reacted to that most American of constructions, the Corn Palace? Spoiler: thumbs down (p. 125).

The tower itself was a parade of famous people – visitors included the Prince and Princess of Wales (who came even though Queen Victoria had called for a boycott of the fair), Isabella II of Spain, King George of Greece, not-yet Czar of Russia Nicholas II, and (almost) the Shah of Persia – his courage failed him on his first attempt to climb the tower, and he didn’t get far on his second visit before descending “as fast as his legs could carry him, and unassisted by any native dignity or borrowed decorum” (p. 187). Well, at least he tried.

Photographs scattered throughout the book show the early phases of the tower’s construction, which really puts the whole scale of the operation (and the Shah’s fears) into perspective.  Of course, there are the requisite images of the designers and engineers of the tower and the Exposition, but you’ll also come across a few spiffy interior shots of the exhibition halls and a charming picture of Buffalo Bill and some of his Native American employees enjoying a gondola ride in Venice (p. 278).

Note: If you’re only here for happy books, this would be a good place to stop reading.

The Killer of Little Sheperds

There’s a bloodstain on the cover, in case you couldn’t tell that this is a murdery book.

The Killer of Little Shepherds, by Douglas Starr – Catching serial killers is hard work, especially in the French countryside, especially in the late 1800s, especially when the local police departments don’t talk to each other, and especially when there are no standards for collecting and analyzing evidence. But you’ll see how science (yay, science!) overcomes all of these obstacles in this book, which tells the parallel stories of Joseph Vacher (our killer) and Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne (a pioneer in the field of forensic medicine).

Vacher was a soldier who didn’t take rejection well – he started his violent career by proposing to a young housemaid on their first date and shooting her in the face when she rejected him (p. 5). She survived; he went on to commit at least eleven murders – well, he confessed to eleven, though he was suspected of more than twenty-five (p. 148).

Lacassange,  a professor at the University of Lyon, worked with his students to compile a pocket-sized guide to pretty much every crime everywhere. His book became an indispensable tool for doctors and investigators – with its assistance, they could be sure of collecting evidence that would stand up in court (p. 45). He was also apparently the first person to use the rifling marks on a bullet to link it to a particular gun, way  back in 1888 (p.46)!

This book also contains many sensational newspaper illustrations of crime scene reenactments, scattered body parts, dramatic autopsies, handwriting samples, and a very discreet photograph of Vacher’s severed head. Something for everyone, really.

Little Demon in the City of Light

Look! It’s that shiny tower thingy again!

Little Demon in the City of Light, by Steven Livingston – Can a person be held accountable for a crime that they committed while hypnotized? That’s the underlying question in our final book, the story of the murder of Toussaint-Augustin Gouffe, a wealthy and swanky fellow done in by his intended mistress, Gabrielle Bompard.

At the time of the murder, Gabrielle was supposedly acting under the influence of her lover – con man, hypnotist, and all around creepy fellow Michel Eyraud (seriously – he was like, twenty years older than her. And while they were on the lam, he made her pose first as his son and then as his daughter).

The crime took place in Paris in 1889 (the year the Eiffel Tower opened), and Gouffe’s body was discovered in Lyon, where it was identified by Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne (the previously noted forensic medicine chap). See how nicely everything comes together? But alas, I’m still reading this one, so I’m afraid I don’t have many more details for you. So far, it’s fascinating stuff.

Like The Killer of Little Shepherds, this book also features a fun variety of illustrations and photographs. There are quite a few fancy mustaches, the bloody trunk that once contained Gouffe’s corpse, and a very tasteful picture of his remains (so don’t read this one on your lunch break).

- Amy, friend of pants, science, and history


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Explore the Unknown with Your Library Card

Since I was a kid I have looked to the library to indulge my curiosity for things that, well, let’s just say I might not want to ask about too loudly in polite company. The relative anonymity of the library’s nonfiction classification system is much better for exploring interests that you might be a little embarrassed about; you may be reading about continental philosophy, you might be reading about astrology, but unless somebody gets really nebby and takes a close look no one will ever know which one it really is.

The library in Richland Township was the first public place that I remember my mom allowing my older brother and me to be in without supervision. In those pre-Internet days, there wasn’t much trouble that a kid could get into in a small, suburban library in the time it took her to go to the Shop’ n’ Save, so during the summer we’d get dropped off for an hour or so. After a few visits, probably once I exhausted the library’s collection of Peanuts books, I decided to venture into the nonfiction section, and it was there that I somehow managed to stumble upon this:

Alien Encounters

Cover photo courtesy of Amazon.com.

For the uninitiated, this is Alien Encounters, part of the Mysteries of the Unknown series of books put out by Time-Life in the late ’80s and early ’90s. (Our collection of these is sparse because librarians, following good collection maintenance practices, have correctly weeded most of the copies from the collection.) These books are an encyclopedic reference to all kinds of paranormal activities, from alien abductions to psychic events to alchemy to straight up magic, supported by very clinical looking illustrations of aliens and monsters, and backed up by the kind of “Coincidence? Or…ALIENS?!” logic that has recently been taken to its logical extreme by the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens show. To a ten-year-old kid, finding these books on the shelf at the library in the company of history books, science books, and how-to books (and with embossed pleather covers no less) was like getting an official confirmation from the land of adults that those things that go bump in the night are in fact real, and are probably looking in your bedroom window every night. It was a rush! And although that building was demolished to make way for the lovely Northern Tier Library years ago, I can totally remember right where those books were on the shelf.

Of course, I never really believed in any of that stuff, and as I entered in to adolescence, I had plenty of other avenues of curiosity that I wanted to explore in the pages of books. (I can also remember exactly where on the magazine rack where you could find around that time the racy-by-early-90’s standards Rolling Stone with Janet Jackson on the cover.) And as my reading habits have evolved, and my to-read list has grown long enough that I probably won’t finish everything that I know I want to read in my lifetime, my reading about aliens, ghosts, Bigfoot, and anything else that may have appeared on an episode of the X Files has really dwindled down to none.

It had dwindled, that is, until a little over a year ago when the Library added digital magazines to our eCLP collection. Before Zinio launched publicly, staff had a chance to familiarize ourselves with the new collection. I quickly found some old favorites – Runner’s World, New York Review of Books, Bon Appetit, Saveur, Esquire — and while I was very excited about having digital access to these, I soon found that, like those Peanuts books when I was a kid, they soon felt a little stale. As I browsed the holdings, like young me wandering the nonfiction stacks, I stopped short when I came across this:

Courtesy of Zinio.

Suffice to say, I don’t make many paranormal discoveries these day, and this gave me a little taste of that excitement of reading “serious” writing about something that, while I really don’t believe in it (really!!), gives me a little thrill. In the spirit of sharing that discovery with you, I won’t go into detail about this. Let’s leave it at this — if the Weekly World News is like the New York Daily News of the world of the strange and paranormal publications, the Fortean Times is like the New Yorker for that world.

To read this awesome magazine, or any of the other hundreds of great, if less fantastical, magazines available through Zinio with your library card. But don’t blame me if you can’t sleep tonight!

-Dan, who, unlike Fox Mulder, believes that the truth is nowhere near as “out there” as he’d like it to be.


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The Odds are Stacked in Your Favor

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Have you ever wondered what’s in the library stacks? That mysterious part of the building that includes staff-only sections?  I’ll clear up the mystery for you – there are books. Some are tomes of historical value covering every topic under the sun. Some are volumes of the most obscure nature only of value to a dedicated researcher, but nevertheless important to save for a myriad of reasons.

Two and a half of the eleven floors are devoted to bound volumes of magazines, shelved by title. Three floors are open to the public; the 3rd stack aligns with the first floor (fiction, Teen, and a few subject collections), the 4th stack is the Mezzanine Level (nonfiction call numbers A – L), and the 5th stack aligns with the second floor (nonfiction call numbers M – R). The closed 8th stack aligns with the 3rd floor. That’s how high the ceilings are in here! Each volume is, in its own way, the culmination of the selective scrutiny of the librarians in charge of curating the collections.

One of the most important functions of the library is to be a repository of written documents representing the expanse of human knowledge and human endeavors for posterity. Each volume in the stacks not only represents an author’s expertise on a subject, but a publisher, a librarian as the collector, a cataloger to give it a unique call number, a staff of shelvers to keep them organized, a staff of building maintenance personnel to keep things tidy, IT personnel to let the collections become visible in online catalogs, library clerks to check out the circulating books, administrators to ensure continued funding and provide a vision for the future, and you, the public, who need to be able to access all of these books at whim.

Let’s hear it for preservation, access, and posterity!

Oh, and one more thing – legends have it that a judge has haunted the stacks since the early 1900s. He may or may not have left a note that may or may not keep on appearing on the ceiling. A note that says “sentio est hic” – Latin for “the judge is here.” Was that a draft I felt the last time I went to the stacks? Or was it The Judge?


*All photos of the stacks taken by Joelle Levitt Killebrew


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