Jen

About Jen

I'm an Adult Services Librarian at the Warrenville Public Library. I'll read just about anything you put in front of me, but I've always been a science fiction & fantasy fan. I'm also fond of history, true crime, thrillers, and popular anthropology that isn't written by Jared Diamond. When I'm not reading, I'm painting, watching movies from the 1930s and 40s, working on my novel, or out at the archery range playing with pointy sticks.

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Book – Even in the modern age, marriage is the defining question of a woman’s life – even if she decides not to marry, it’s an important decision, sometimes the most important. Through a lens of her own experiences and the stories of women writers she’s found inspiring through her life, Kate Bolick examines ways women have pushed back against this question, carving out lives for themselves in spite of society’s expectations for them.

I wasn’t terribly familiar with most of the women Bolick discusses – Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton – although I did know some of their work, so I was fascinated to learn more about their lives. Bolick is using a broad definition of “spinster” here. Many of these women did marry, but, she argues, they found marriage to be stultifying and damaging to their work, and so they also divorced or lived separately from their husbands rather than sacrifice their lives to something that didn’t work for them. Bolick compares their solitary lives with her own, where even though she’s never married, she dates compulsively throughout her twenties and thirties.

I enjoyed the historical parts of the book more than Bolick’s memoirs, but I think the personal story is important to the book as a whole. We get to learn not only from famous women writers but from Bolick herself, who struggles with modern expectations in an entirely different way from her heroines.

The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien

Book – Although his epic trilogy gave rise to the modern fantasy genre, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote dozens of stories simply for the entertainment of his children, John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla. (The spiders in The Hobbit were reportedly there specifically to scare Michael.) Between 1920, when John was three, and 1942, when Priscilla was 13, he wrote letters from Father Christmas to the children (presumably in answer to their own letters). They arrived in envelopes with stamps and a North Pole postage mark, fully illustrated, and told of all the adventures of Father Christmas, his elves and the North Polar Bear. (In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Father Christmas writes that they have been battling goblins.)

While nothing like Lord of the Rings, The Father Christmas Letters (and the second edition, Letters from Father Christmas, with slightly different content) are charming stories, and a wonderful addition to your seasonal celebrations. And maybe they’ll inspire a Christmas tradition for your own family. After all, what could be better than writing a letter to Santa and actually getting one in reply?

Hamilton: The Original Broadway Cast Recording

Music – If you’re into musical theater (or, indeed, if you watch late-night talk shows), surely by now you’ve heard of Hamilton, the outrageously popular hip-hop musical about Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. If you haven’t: It’s a hip-hop musical. About Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. It is, in a word, amazing.

The story follows Hamilton (played by writer & composer Lin-Manuel Miranda) from his arrival in New York City in 1776 through the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s presidency, and to his death in a duel with Aaron Burr (spoilers!) in 1804. Burr, played by Leslie Odom, Jr., narrates, offering a little distance from Hamilton’s own relentless enthusiasm. The music is a brilliant mashup of theatrical flair and the past several decades of hip-hop, quoting both lyrically and musically from sources as diverse as Les Miserables, Beyoncé, Company, Kanye West, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Biggie Smalls.

This show is so dense, complex, and uniformly strong it’s hard to pick out favorite pieces. General Lafayette’s (Daveed Diggs) rap in “Guns and Ships” is a huge amount of fun; Burr’s statement of purpose in “Wait for It” is outstanding; Thomas Jefferson (also Daveed Diggs, in a great piece of double casting) never gets his own showstopper, but he steals every piece he’s in anyway. When it comes down to it, though, it’s Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsbury) and Eliza Schuyler (Philippa Soo) I love best – their songs, particularly “Satisfied” and “Burn,” are some of the best depictions I’ve ever seen of strong women constrained by their place in history.

If you get hooked, there’s plenty of American history to keep you busy, from Ron Chernow’s biography that formed the basis of the show to new titles like War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Book – Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal, is having a rough time of it. England’s magicians are torn by internal strife at the same time the country is demanding their assistance in the war against Napoleon, and Zacharias’s own reform ideas are being shoved to the side. And the rumors surrounding his own ascension to the post after his mentor’s death are stirring. As the first African Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias is none too popular among England’s magical elite.

Meanwhile, Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race orphaned daughter of a mysterious wandering magician who has been raised by the mistress of a School for Magical Ladies, is growing frustrated with her lot. Ladies, after all, are not supposed to be magical, and those who are unfortunate enough to suffer the affliction have to be carefully trained to avoid using it at any cost. Prunella, on the other hand, is sure she could do something great with her life, if only she were given the chance.

The collision of these two – Zacharias who desperately wants to keep the peace, and Prunella who is determined to fend for herself no matter what society thinks – provides the largest part of the enjoyment of Cho’s first novel. Despite the cover, this is a Regency fantasy of the best kind, featuring dignified English magicians, grasping English politicians, and, uniquely, powerful and fascinating main characters from the underside of the empire. Fans of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Mary Robinette Kowall’s Glamourist Histories should love this.

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? by Guy Consolmagno & Paul Mueller

Book – Lots of people have this idea that science and faith are inherently opposed, but the authors of this book – both astronomers with the Vatican Observatory, one a Jesuit priest and the other a Jesuit brother – are good evidence that doesn’t have to be the case. In six casual, chatty chapters, they discuss everything from the beginning of the universe to the end of it; the nature of Pluto, the Star of Bethlehem, and Galileo’s persecution; and, yes, if they (or rather, if Father Paul) would baptize an extraterrestrial.

The authors are Jesuits, so this is definitely a Catholic perspective on both the universe and on the Bible, but I think it’s illuminating for anyone. They argue that both of those vast and profound entities require you to choose how you’re going to go about understanding them, and that if you choose wrong, you’re just going to be more confused than you started – and they offer examples both from the history of science and from the history of theology.

My favorite chapter, though, was the chapter on Pluto. It turns out that both authors were part of the process of re-defining the elements of our solar system that removed Pluto from the list of planets, and they explain the complicated tangle of human categories, actual celestial bodies, and plain old human emotion that made that process so difficult and controversial.

The Knitter’s Book of Yarn by Clara Parkes

Book – As the weather turns colder (at last!), my fingers itch to be knitting again. When planning new projects, I always take a look at this book first. Parkes knows her stuff. The book goes into detail on everything from the microscopic structure of different fibers to the confusing technical terminology of how yarn is spun to help you pick out the perfect material for your project. (Something I learned the hard way before reading this book: cotton just is not good for socks.) Best of all, there’s a nice array of patterns in the latter part of the book, designed specifically to show off the best qualities of the yarn used.

If you’ve ever been intimidated by the selection in a knitting boutique, or if you’re reluctant to branch out from acrylics and superwash wool because you’re concerned about delicate care requirements, this is the perfect book for you. But even if you’re an expert knitter, or you know you don’t have the budget for angora or mohair or buffalo wool, The Knitter’s Book of Yarn is an interesting and informative way to spend an afternoon. Unless, of course, you could be knitting.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Book – Dr. John Montague, eager to find incontrovertible proof of the supernatural, has invited a few guests to stay with him in the notorious Hill House for the summer. Luke, heir to the property, owns it but has never lived there; Theodora, the professor’s assistant, expects the whole thing to be a nice vacation. And Eleanor Vance, who has spent the past eleven years nursing her ailing mother, is finally free and hoping for some kind of adventure. She was not expecting the kind of adventure that Hill House has to offer.

The Haunting of Hill House is, quite simply, the best haunted house story ever written. (That’s not just my opinion – it’s been adapted twice to film, excellently in 1963 and somewhat less well in 1999, and Stephen King cites it as influential on The Shining.) The horror is subtle and omnipresent, but it never comes out into the light for you to see clearly (and be disappointed by). The characters are certainly of their time, contemporary with the book’s publication date of 1959, but they’re all fascinating, well-rounded people. Well – well-rounded characters, certainly, but Eleanor at least is not a particularly stable person. It’s her insecurities, combined with the house’s malevolent influence, that make this book so unforgettably chilling.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Book – Dr. Faraday is a respectable country physician, but he keeps his childhood a secret – his mother was a maid at Hundreds Hall, home of the ancient and established Ayres family. And now that the new maid of the household is his patient, he’s even more reluctant to let it be known where he came from. But the Ayreses – widowed Mrs. Ayres, her spinster daughter Caroline, and her son Roderick – have much more to worry about than their friend the doctor’s history. Strange things are happening at Hundreds Hall, things that are putting a strain on the well-being of the family. Dr. Faraday is convinced that it’s only the effects of living in an old and decrepit house, but the family is sure there’s something more sinister going on.

The Little Stranger takes its time getting where it’s going; this is no fast-paced thriller. Rather, you have plenty of time to get to know Dr. Faraday, Mrs. Ayres, Caroline, Roddy, and Hundreds Hall itself. It’s the kind of haunted house story where you’re never quite sure who’s right and what’s really happening – although it helps to remember that the narrator, Dr. Farraday, has his own biases that may be getting in his way and ours. This is the perfect novel for a cup of tea and a gloomy October afternoon.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

bccf75d26f52209597a6c2b5567444341587343Book – In a lilac wood lives a unicorn who has heard a rumor that she is the last of her kind. Although unicorns are solitary creatures, she does not like the thought of being the last, so she sets off on a quest to find the rest of them. Along the way she meets a witch running a questionable carnival, a slightly (but not entirely) inept magician, a band of outlaws and their long-suffering cook, and (of course) a prince.

Reading The Last Unicorn is like reading your favorite fairy tale for the first time. It’s a tremendously deep, rich fantasy story that is nothing at all like Tolkien, but contains all of those things that made you like fantasy stories when you were small – talking animals, wizards, an evil king, true love, and, of course, unicorns. When I was a kid, I wore out the local video store’s VHS copy of the movie, which is not only gorgeously animated but is a remarkably faithful adaptation. (The singing, well, the less said about Mia Farrow’s duet with Jeff Bridges, the better.) This is the book I always turn to when I want to feel good about the world.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr.

2873d4688a8572a593231496241444341587343Book – Alice Sheldon was one of the most remarkable science fiction writers of the sixties and seventies. Uninterested in once again being The Woman in a man’s world, she wrote under the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr. entirely anonymously until 1977, at which point several people who had praised the masculinity of her writing were very embarrassed.

Personally, I don’t see how people couldn’t see she was a woman. “The Women Men Don’t See” is a story that could be comfortably classified as women’s fiction, even with the aliens, and “The Screwfly Solution” is a science-fictional horror story of women’s fears. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” is a response to the feminist utopia novels popular at the time.

Every story in this collection (admittedly a best-of collection, but it represents a huge proportion of her short fiction overall) is outstanding. Many of them will linger on in your memory, cropping up in conversation when you’re talking to people who’ve never heard of Tiptree before. That’s all right – you’ll get to introduce them.