Today's Top Picks

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du BoisClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Honorée Fannone Jeffers

Summary

A New York Times Book Everyone Will Be Talking About • A People 5 Best Books of the Summer • A Ms. Most Anticipated Book of the Year • A Goodreads Most Anticipated Book of the Year • A Book Page Writer to Watch • An Essence Book of the Summer

The great scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois, once wrote about the Problem of race in America, and what he called "Double Consciousness," a sensitivity that every African American possesses in order to survive. Since childhood, Ailey Pearl Garfield has understood Du Bois's words all too well. Bearing the names of two formidable Black Americans—the revered choreographer Alvin Ailey and her great grandmother Pearl, the descendant of enslaved Georgians and tenant farmers—Ailey carries Du Bois's Problem on her shoulders.

Ailey is reared in the north in the City but spends summers in the small Georgia town of Chicasetta, where her mother's family has lived since their ancestors arrived from Africa in bondage. From an early age, Ailey fights a battle for belonging that's made all the more difficult by a hovering trauma, as well as the whispers of women—her mother, Belle, her sister, Lydia, and a maternal line reaching back two centuries—that urge Ailey to succeed in their stead.

To come to terms with her own identity, Ailey embarks on a journey through her family's past, uncovering the shocking tales of generations of ancestors—Indigenous, Black, and white—in the deep South. In doing so Ailey must learn to embrace her full heritage, a legacy of oppression and resistance, bondage and independence, cruelty and resilience that is the story—and the song—of America itself.

BookBrowse Review

Honorée Fannone Jeffers' The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois explores the Black experience in America through the lens of a middle-class girl and her family. Ailey is the youngest of three daughters born to Belle and Geoff Garfield, and we meet her when she is just three years old. Through her first-person account, we watch her mature from naïve child to confident and capable young woman, sharing her joys, sorrows, triumphs and failures along the way.

Although at its heart the novel is a coming-of-age story, that's not apparent until late in the book due to the various narrative techniques the author employs. A large and equally engaging portion of the story is historical fiction, following Ailey's ancestors from village life in Africa to their experiences being enslaved on a Georgia plantation and beyond. These sections have a mythic feel to them, their unnamed narrator weaving the early stories into the type of tale one might spin around a campfire. As the audience, we're aware that we're reading about Ailey's forebears, but their relevance isn't completely clear until the lineage catches up with what she knows of her family tree. Other chapters are relayed from the points of view of Belle and Lydia, Ailey's eldest sister. These third-person accounts fill in gaps in Ailey's knowledge while providing us with a comprehensive understanding of how she grows into the person we know at the book's conclusion. Love Songs contains an enormous cast, but all the characters' voices are unique and authentic — a truly remarkable feat.

Jeffers covers a wide range of topics throughout the novel, taking a finely nuanced approach to many of them. As one might expect, racism is a major theme: Some characters react to casual racism with anger or resentment, while others approach it as an annoyance — a day-to-day common occurrence to be expected and dealt with accordingly. The author also explores colorism within the Black community, where some seem to feel lighter-toned skin is more desirable. Another key theme centers on the sexual abuse of children and the ways such harm can manifest differently in individuals. The author additionally touches on subjects such as Black education, the importance of family (in particular, reverence for one's mother), marital fidelity, drug abuse, sexuality, interracial marriage and a host of other issues, some specific to the Black community, others universal.

I'd generally opine that when a work is this massive — over 800 pages — it perhaps would have been stronger had the author concentrated on fewer topics. But although Love Songs is big, sprawling and multi-faceted, there's not a sentence in it I'd have edited out. It's messy in the same way the experiences of most lives are messy — one goes through phases, finds romance, makes bad choices — but combine to form a whole. Jeffers brilliantly reflects these experiences throughout the novel, but her depiction of Ailey's growth in particular is perfect. That said, the book does require some patience and persistence, especially at first, when the reader has yet to become familiar with the characters (the family tree inserted at the front of the book is very helpful with keeping people straight).

I've found myself thinking about The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois for many days after completing it, and consider it one of the most well-crafted, entertaining novels I've encountered in quite some time. I highly recommend it for readers who appreciate complex, adult themes and enjoy big, meaty generational stories. Book groups who are able to select a novel of its length will find it yields many great topics for discussion as well.

Book reviewed by Kim Kovacs

Beyond the Book:
W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois, c. 1907 William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (aka W.E.B. Du Bois) was a noted author, historian, activist and sociologist as well as a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His philosophies play an important role throughout Honorée Fannone Jeffers' novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois; each section of the book begins with a relevant quote from his works, and an elderly family patriarch frequently engages in debates about the man's opinions on how to best confront racism.

Du Bois (pronounced "doo-BOYS") was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts — just three years after the end of the United States' Civil War. His father, a barber, deserted the family when Du Bois was two years old, and he and his elder half-brother Adelbert were raised by their mother, Mary Silvina Burghardt. Du Bois, who identified as "mulatto" (a person of mixed Black and white heritage, now considered an offensive term), grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and attended a racially integrated high school. His teachers encouraged him to pursue higher education after he graduated in 1884, as the valedictorian of his class and the first Black student to graduate from the institution.

In 1885, he began attending Fisk University, an HBCU in Tennessee. Relocating to the state resulted in the young man's first encounters with the South's discriminatory Jim Crow laws. He graduated in 1888 and applied to study history at Harvard, where he earned a second bachelor's degree, graduated cum laude and went on to earn his master's degree at the same institution. Following this, he began doctoral work in Germany at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (commonly known as the University of Berlin, now renamed Humboldt-Universität), but eventually ran out of funds and returned to Harvard, where he completed a doctorate in 1895, becoming the first Black person to earn a PhD from the school.

Although Du Bois' initial main area of study was history, he gradually became more interested in social issues, particularly those concerning Black people in the United States. While teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896, he conducted an extensive survey of Philadelphia's Seventh Ward, embarking on hundreds of door-to-door interviews with the city's residents in one of the earliest examples of statistics being compiled for sociological purposes. His resulting paper, The Philadelphia Negro, concluded that the greatest challenges posed to the Black community were poverty, crime, inadequate education and distrust of people outside of the community. It was in this paper that he popularized the phrase "the talented tenth," referring to the potential of one in every ten Black men to become leaders of their race. He was subsequently employed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, where he conducted similar groundbreaking studies in Virginia, Alabama and Georgia that uncovered how the legacy of slavery continued to impact Black American lives decades after emancipation.

Du Bois became increasingly well-known in the intellectual community and his influence grew. Around the turn of the century, he began a very vocal opposition to the opinions of another Black leader, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Washington was born into slavery and was widely viewed as the spokesperson for his generation of Black Americans, even advising Presidents Roosevelt and Taft on issues impacting the Black community. In a nutshell, his "Atlanta Compromise" asserted that vocational education was more valuable to Black people than pursuing higher education or political office. Du Bois was highly critical of this approach, insisting on a level playing field with equal opportunities for all.

In 1905, Du Bois created the Niagara Movement, which called for rights for Black Americans and opposed Washington's policies. While the group was short-lived, it ultimately provided the start for the NAACP, which Du Bois co-founded in 1909. He would eventually go on to serve as the director of research, but more importantly, he was editor of the organization's immensely popular monthly magazine, The Crisis. During his time with the NAACP, he continued expressing his viewpoints on Black society and the best ways to achieve equality for Black Americans.

As Du Bois aged, he moved further to the political left, espousing Marxist ideals through the 1940s and into the McCarthy era, when he came under suspicion for his beliefs. After running unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1950, he was arrested in 1951, accused of being an agent for a foreign power. He was acquitted but became disillusioned with the U.S., eventually leaving to continue his work overseas in the African nation of Ghana. He died there in 1963, one day before Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

W.E.B. Du Bois, circa 1907 (unknown photographer), via Wikimedia Commons

Beautiful World, Where Are YouClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Sally Rooney

Summary

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he'd like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up, and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.

Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young―but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

BookBrowse Review

Beautiful World, Where Are You centers around four key characters, the most prominent of which are Eileen and Alice, both in their late 20s, who have been friends since their university days at Trinity College. Since then, their lives have followed very different trajectories: While Eileen works in a low-paid — if enjoyable — job for a Dublin-based literary magazine, Alice has rapidly found fame and fortune as a young novelist, an ascent that has resulted in her hospitalization for burnout and depression. The novel primarily pivots around the relationship between these two young women.

This relationship is complicated by Alice and Eileen's connection with staunch Catholic Simon, who works for the Irish Parliament and becomes increasingly aware of his inability to effect positive social change despite his political insider status. Simon has known Eileen all her life and is five years her senior. The relationship between the two has always been based on a close emotional bond, occasionally veering into something more. Neither, however, verbalizes their true feelings for the other, providing a "will they or won't they" element for the reader. Add to the mix Felix, a warehouse worker who meets Alice on a dating app and happens to live in the coastal town to which she has fled post-breakdown, and the scene is set for the hotbed of insecurities, yearnings and ambiguities that make up Rooney's typical subject matter, as previously explored in Conversations with Friends and the acclaimed Normal People.

The novel's title is posed as a question, yet the omission of the question mark may cause the reader to wonder as to the reason for this. It could suggest that the characters are on some kind of quest to find meaning in their lives; however, the tentative tone of the question indicates that there is no real expectation of an answer. Indeed, the lack of centeredness that young adults face in the early 21st century seems to be a theme that Rooney is examining.

Much of the narrative is epistolary in form, comprised of lengthy email exchanges — whole chapters — between Eileen and Alice. It is through these highly introspective communications that the characters' lack of direction and purpose, as well as their helplessness, are revealed. Very early in the novel, for example, Eileen recounts an episode in a local convenience store, during which it suddenly strikes her that the vast array of choice on offer is a "culmination of all the labor in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the back-breaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations." She ruminates that this "lifestyle" supported by the world's capitalist enterprises is not even satisfying; it is later noted that much of the modern world, with all its plastic and concrete, is in fact rather ugly. Such political awareness is pronounced in today's young adults, who stand at a unique moment in time wherein many global concerns are made inescapably apparent via mass media. Because of this, Eileen's sense of discontent will strike a chord only too well with contemporary readers, and echoes the sentiments of the novel's title.

Despite their awareness of global crises and injustices, the characters always circle back to the "trivialities" that define their immediate, intimate world. They perceive it as "vulgar, decadent" to invest their efforts in personal relationships while "human civilization is facing collapse." But is it in society where their "beautiful world" can be found? Is this where they will locate their center? After all, public acclaim has brought the economically affluent Alice financial security but no happiness. These are questions with which the characters must grapple as they struggle to reconcile their personal lives with more public concerns.

Rooney speaks to a generation of readers caught up in zeitgeisty dilemmas, much like J.D. Salinger held up a mirror to 1950s America in The Catcher in the Rye. At every turn, the novel confronts familiar features of our time, such as when Eileen reveals that two-thirds of her salary (only 20,000 euros per annum) goes to rent; this will resonate with young workers struggling to make it onto the housing ladder with little hope of a secure future. Such weighty concerns could be deeply depressing (at one point Eileen describes life as "standing in the last lighted room before the apocalypse"), yet Rooney does hint that there is joy to be found — most likely in the realm of the personal.

Rooney connoisseurs will be unfazed by her trademark stylistic practices, including her eschewing of quotation marks in direct speech. She is far from the first writer to reject this convention — among many others, her fellow Dubliner James Joyce completely disregarded the punctuation device. A lack of quotation marks is perhaps consistent with the fluency of communication in all its forms, whether email, direct speech or interior monologue. While it may be a source of irritation to some readers, for Rooney, it seems to reflect a cohesive marriage of style and subject matter. As we observe the relationship between Eileen and Alice imploding and unraveling, we bear witness to how blurred the boundaries of communication have become — but these more "modern" ways of communicating also form the bridge that allows them to rebuild their relationship.

Beautiful World, Where Are You will appeal to anyone interested in the human condition and the psychology of relationships — and it's quite the page-turner too.

Book reviewed by Amanda Ellison

Beyond the Book:
Literary Dublin

Bloomsday performers outside Davy Byrnes pub The backdrop of Sally Rooney's Beautiful World, Where Are You is the city of Dublin and its environs. Rooney herself lives in this UNESCO City of Literature, a metropolis that boasts a flourishing literary scene and an impressive inventory of influential authors, poets and playwrights. The streets of the vibrant capital are infused with the presence of its bookish greats, with landmarks never more than a few minutes away.

Cross a bridge over the River Liffey, and it most likely has a literary connection — three are named after Sean O'Casey, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, the last of which faces the house mentioned in "The Dead," the final story in the author's Dubliners: "the dark, gaunt house on Usher's Island." Dublin even has its own unofficial literary holiday — Bloomsday — designated as acknowledgement of one of Joyce's most acclaimed novels, Ulysses, which recounts a day in the life of Leopold Bloom (the book's protagonist): June 16, 1904.

Visitors to Dublin can bask in the wealth of literary luxury this city has to offer. What follows are some of its most celebrated libraries, bookshops, pubs and eateries.

Libraries

Tucked away along St. Patrick's Close is Marsh's Library, dating back to 1707 and Ireland's first public library. Housing 25,000 books and showcasing beautifully preserved dark oak bookcases and original seating, it is worth a place on any book-lover's itinerary.

Dublin's jewel in the crown, however, is the Trinity College library. With over six million volumes, it is little wonder that its alumni are so illustrious: Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett, Sally Rooney and more.

The Trinity library's "Old Library" is home to the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript dating to between the 6th and 8th centuries that includes the four gospels of the New Testament. The main chamber of the Old Library is called the Long Room; it is lined with marble busts of philosophers and writers. Since 1801 the library has enjoyed legal deposit status, which means that it can claim a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Bookshops

No visit to a city of literature can be complete without patronizing at least one of its bookshops. Ireland's oldest bookshop (and believed to be the third oldest in the world), Hodges Figgis, has graced Dawson Street since 1768. Although giving every appearance of being independent, it was in fact purchased by the Waterstones chain several years ago. It is yet another Dublin location appearing in Ulysses. The shop also gets a mention in Sally Rooney's first two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People.

To experience a truly independent bookshop, make your way to Ormond Quay, where The Winding Stair is located. The inspiration behind the store's name is a poem by William Butler Yeats: "My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair." There is a restaurant upstairs where patrons can sample traditional Irish fare while reading a book and accessing views over the Liffey. Following its popularity in the 1970s and 80s, The Winding Stair was close to closure in 2005, but bounced back and is now thriving in the heart of literary Dublin.

Pubs and Eateries

Davy Byrnes on Duke Street has established its reputation through its literary clientele. This is where Leopold Bloom of Ulysses popped in for his cheese sandwich.

He entered Davy Byrnes. Moral pub. He doesn't chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in a leap year once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once.

Davy Byrne came forward from the hindbar in tuckstitched shirtsleeves, cleaning his lips with two wipes of his napkin. Herring's blush. Whose smile upon each feature plays with such and such replete. Too much fat on the parsnips.

The pub's interior is something of a medley of styles, with a colorful ceiling, murals of historic Dublin and small statues adorning the area behind the bar. Joyce frequented this pub and knew Davy Byrne himself, who founded the establishment in the 1880s.

Also mentioned in Ulysses is the Shelbourne Hotel's 1824 Bar. The 5-star hotel has been a favorite of celebrities past and present, including Charlie Chaplin and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as literary heavyweights like William Thackeray and Seamus Heaney. Elizabeth Bowen even wrote a book, The Shelbourne, about the hotel, which is located at St. Stephen's Green. The 1824 Bar, with its decadent dark paneling and green leather furniture, can be found at the top of the Shelbourne's grand staircase.

Of course, the aforementioned venues are simply the tip of Dublin's literary iceberg; there are many more quirky and significant links to the city's rich creative heritage. The Abbey Theatre, for example, is revered for its connection to Yeats, who opened the venue with Lady Gregory in 1904. It is well worth a visit simply because of its history and its relative affordability.

Joyce once famously commented, "When I die Dublin will be written in my heart." Today, literary Dublin will surely touch the heart of any literature enthusiast.

Bloomsday performers outside Davy Byrnes pub in Dublin, 2003, via Wikimedia Commons

The Gallery of Miracles and MadnessClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Charlie English

Summary

As a veteran of the First World War, and an expert in art history and medicine, Hans Prinzhorn was uniquely placed to explore the connection between art and madness. The work he collected—ranging from expressive paintings to life-size rag dolls and fragile sculptures made from chewed bread—contained a raw, emotional power, and the book he published about the material inspired a new generation of modern artists, Max Ernst, André Breton, and Salvador Dalí among them. By the mid-1930s, however, Prinzhorn's collection had begun to attract the attention of a far more sinister group.

Modernism was in full swing when Adolf Hitler arrived in Vienna in 1907, hoping to forge a career as a painter. Rejected from art school, this troubled young man became convinced that modern art was degrading the Aryan soul, and once he had risen to power he ordered that modern works be seized and publicly shamed in "degenerate art" exhibitions, which became wildly popular. But this culture war was a mere curtain-raiser for Hitler's next campaign, against allegedly "degenerate" humans, and Prinzhorn's artist-patients were caught up in both. By 1941, the Nazis had murdered 70,000 psychiatric patients in killing centers that would serve as prototypes for the death camps of the Final Solution. Dozens of Prinzhorn artists were among the victims.

The Gallery of Miracles and Madness is a spellbinding, emotionally resonant tale of this complex and troubling history that uncovers Hitler's wars on modern art and the mentally ill and how they paved the way for the Holocaust. Charlie English tells an eerie story of genius, madness, and dehumanization that offers readers a fresh perspective on the brutal ideology of the Nazi regime.

BookBrowse Review

In the annals of Nazi crimes, the industrialized killing of human beings didn't begin with the Jewish concentration camps. In the early days of World War II, failed-artist-turned-Fuhrer Adolf Hitler ordered the mass roundup of the mentally ill, severely disabled and others he believed contributed to the "degeneration" of the Aryan bloodline. In The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Modernism, and Hitler's War on Art, Charlie English makes the case that this was the murderous extension of Hitler's vitriolic culture war against modern, "degenerate" art, and the human beings he deemed "life unworthy of life."

English, a former journalist at the Guardian and author of two previous books (The Storied City and The Snow Tourist), weaves a compelling and richly researched study that begins with psychiatrist and decorated combat veteran, Hans Prinzhorn. In 1919, Prinzhorn was home from the war and freshly installed at the University of Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, where he intended to build the largest collection of psychiatric art the world had ever known. As he amassed his collection of patient artwork, Prinzhorn (who had a PhD in art history) underwent a "transcendent experience" that went beyond the purely diagnostic.

Examining the variety of art, whether it was crayon drawings, paintings or tiny sculptures made from chewed bread, he realized, as English explains, "he had uncovered an untapped source of schizophrenic creativity that matched or even surpassed professional art in its expressive power." After two-and-a-half years of study, his monumental book Bildnerei Der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the mentally ill) was published in 1922 to wide acclaim and controversy. It became the "bible" to a new generation of expressive modern artists but a travesty to hidebound cultural conservatives.

English deftly juxtaposes the intellectual and artistic ferment of 1920s Germany with the turgid drawings and morose outlook of a young, adrift Adolf Hitler, at odds with himself and the world after the country's defeat in World War I. Projecting his own failures onto the "degenerate" culture of Germany under the Weimar Republic, Hitler envisioned himself as the "artist-Fuhrer," one who could return Germany to greatness by establishing a culture based on ethnic purity and heroic depictions of the Aryan man. Thus he took aim at the modern art scene in the 1920s and '30s, culminating in the "psychiatric Holocaust" of 1940-41. English persuasively argues throughout that Hitler's "mass murder programs and his views on art were intimately connected." Hitler and his minions would seize on patient art as a tool to beat down the modern art movement: in one popular propaganda exhibit organized by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, pieces from Prinzhorn's art collection were presented alongside the works of "degenerate" modern artists. The goal? To let the viewer judge who was more insane.

It was only after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, that two key orders were signed by Hitler to make his artistic "restoration" of the German ethnic community complete. These orders decreed that sterilization as the main method of combating degeneracy would be supplanted by involuntary euthanasia. The final portion of English's relatively brief study is probably the toughest to absorb, revealing as it does the sad and inhuman details around the mass incarceration and killing of mentally ill patients at several "euthanasia centers" across Germany. In all, more than 70,000 people were herded into locked rooms and gassed with carbon monoxide until they asphyxiated, their bodies burned in hastily assembled crematoriums. English makes the chilling observation that with this successful elimination of Germany's "undesirables," Hitler realized that mass genocide was, indeed, feasible.

This little-known holocaust has been sensitively rendered by English in The Gallery of Miracles and Madness, which balances the Hitlerian horrors with the immortal hope that art can provide, both to the artist and to society. The voices and artwork of these abandoned and forgotten psychiatric patients are reintroduced to a new audience with lean, empathetic prose and unforgettable images. Indeed, the book contains 16 pages of photographs and color reproductions of psychiatric art that transmit more than words ever could. This is a must-read history for anyone who cares about art, culture and — most importantly — humanity.

Book reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski

Beyond the Book:
Dadaism

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, an upside down urinal with writing scrawled on the lower left sideIn The Gallery of Miracles and Madness, Charlie English connects the psychological effects of World War I to the evolving art scene in the early decades of the 20th century. The war not only killed upwards of 20 million people, but it also had an enormous impact on European culture in the decades after the guns fell silent in 1918. One of the most notable reactions to the war was a controversial artistic movement mocking traditional style and elevating nonsense to an art form. Called "Dada," it was founded by poet Hugo Ball in Zurich, Switzerland. Ball and other avant-garde artists from across Europe converged on the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich to form an absurdist response to the catastrophe of WWI. Springing from their disgust of the rational world order, "their aim was to destroy traditional values in art and to create a new art to replace the old," according to the Tate art gallery, as well as to promote anti-war, anti-bourgeois attitudes.

Preceded and deeply influenced by the movements of Cubism, Expressionism and Futurism, Dadaism established a new level of "non-art" expression centered around the ideas of "spontaneity, negation and absurdity," Tate explains. Disillusioned and appalled by the horrors wreaked by The Great War, Dada artists turned their back on traditional values and, indeed, rationalism itself, which they believed led to catastrophe. The music, literature, paintings, sculpture, performance art and photography of this style aimed at provocation, an idea illustrated by its name: Dada. There are different stories as to how this name came about, but Ball wrote of stumbling upon the term in a French-German dictionary in his diary: "Dada is 'yes, yes' in Rumanian, 'rocking horse' and 'hobby horse' in French...For Germans it is a sign of foolish naiveté, joy in procreation..." Often called "anti-art" by practitioners and critics alike, Dada had a short run of popularity (or notoriety, based on your viewpoint) from 1916-1923 and eventually gave birth to the more long-lived art movement of Surrealism.

While at the height of its fame, prominent artists of the genre included Hugh Ball, André Breton, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp, and Raoul Hausmann, to name a few. Channeling and exhibiting creative chaos in every available medium, Dada artists often sought to shock and offend, as with Duchamp's Fountain, which was nothing more than a urinal turned upside down and signed with a fictitious name. Dada art often enraged both the public and art critics, which seemed only to fuel its devotees. Indeed, as it flouted conventional mores, Dada art can be viewed as more of a radical political statement or way of seeing life. Ball's 1916 Dada "Manifesto" declares:

How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, Europeanized, enervated? By saying dada.

The Dada "moment" lasted roughly six years, but influenced its later manifestation, Surrealism, and continues to inspire today's modern artists. Channeling Duchamp, art provocateur Maurizio Cattelan's controversial piece America was nothing more than a solid gold toilet installed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. (In 2019, the toilet was stolen from Blenheim Palace in the UK, where it had been lent for an exhibition; several thieves were arrested, but the toilet's fate remains unknown.) For many, the Dadaists were visionaries, broadening the definition of "art" to include even its antithesis. As one writer observed upon the 100th anniversary of Dada in 2016, "in their subversiveness and experimentation, the Dadaists were forging modes of working and forms of art that would either anticipate or directly influence the shape of much art to come."

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917, courtesy of Tate

The Last Chance LibraryClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Freya Sampson

Summary

Lonely librarian June Jones has never left the sleepy English village where she grew up. Shy and reclusive, the thirty-year-old would rather spend her time buried in books than venture out into the world. But when her library is threatened with closure, June is forced to emerge from behind the shelves to save the heart of her community and the place that holds the dearest memories of her mother.

Joining a band of eccentric yet dedicated locals in a campaign to keep the library, June opens herself up to other people for the first time since her mother died. It just so happens that her old school friend Alex Chen is back in town and willing to lend a helping hand. The kindhearted lawyer's feelings for her are obvious to everyone but June, who won't believe that anyone could ever care for her in that way.

To save the place and the books that mean so much to her, June must finally make some changes to her life. For once, she's determined not to go down without a fight. And maybe, in fighting for her cherished library, June can save herself, too.

BookBrowse Review

The Last Chance Library, Freya Sampson's debut novel, was popular with our First Impressions readers, earning an average rating of 4.4 out of 5 stars.

What the book is about:

What is a library and what role does it play within its township? Freya Sampson addresses these questions in The Last Chance Library when a small village library faces permanent closure by vote of the city council. As the local community rallies to show their library is far more than a repository for books, an introverted librarian caught in the shadow of her late mother's former job emerges. Despite her extreme social anxieties, the young librarian discovers her own voice via her pen, and most importantly, finds her friendships amongst the eclectic cast of library patrons are truer and more reliable than the characters in the well-worn pages of her beloved novels (Maryanne).

Readers were captivated by Sampson's unique and believable characters from the start.

This novel is a joy! June Jones is an unlikely but endearing heroine surrounded by a cast of charming, quirky characters. You'll root for them all, all the way through (Madeline M). This book about a library closure in a small town in the UK has some very delightful characters that are so developed that you can almost see them (Carolyn S). The characters are believable and, mostly, likable. I found myself caring and rooting for them, especially June (Loren B).

And they commented that the novel was a quick read with a fast-moving plot.

The fast-paced plot led me to nearly devour the book in one sitting (Grace W). A quick one-day read that has left me smiling and just feeling so completely satisfied (Barbara C). I really enjoyed The Last Chance Library by Freya Sampson, and I read it in one day (Elizabeth D).

Some reviewers thought the book was a bit predictable and clichéd, but still found it charming and enjoyable.

This feel-good book is a bit predictable but that's okay as sometimes we just need to escape from the realities of modern-day life (Barbara C). A charming story, told with humor, that is at times predictable but in a heartwarming way (Joan N). While this book isn't groundbreaking or especially original in its story, it is nicely told and I appreciated the support for libraries (Elizabeth D).

Many cheered Sampson's focus on the importance of libraries.

As a librarian who worked in a library for 36 years this book caught my interest immediately. Our library went through the same crisis as the Chalcot Library. A library is more than shelves of books, as this book helps the reader appreciate (Mary W). Freya Sampson's fiction debut is a heartfelt homage to libraries and the pivotal role they serve in our communities (Ruth C). This will be an enjoyable read for anyone who has fought to save a beloved institution and for anyone who can smell, feel and savor the ambience of a library (Janet O).

Overall, readers considered The Last Chance Library to be a feel-good work of fiction about the power of togetherness.

I loved how this diverse cast of characters found a way to come together to support a cause they all believed in (Betty C). It is both a heartwarming and poignant portrayal of a small-town library and its patrons (Susan M). If you're looking for a feel-good read, this is it. It will do your heart good (Madeline M).

Book reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Beyond the Book:
Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda by Roald Dahl In The Last Chance Library by Freya Sampson, main character June is attached to certain favorite childhood books, including the young adult novel Matilda by acclaimed and bestselling author Roald Dahl, also known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG. Matilda won the Children's Book Award shortly after its publication in 1988 and is today considered a classic of children's literature. Time magazine has listed it as one of the 100 top YA books of all time.

The novel follows Matilda Wormwood, a girl of extraordinary abilities whose dishonest and selfish parents fail to appreciate her. Like June, Matilda has a great love for books, but the rest of her family prefers television and cannot relate to her. Matilda also encounters problems at school, where the cruel headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, terrorizes staff and students alike. Matilda's kindhearted teacher, Miss Honey, bonds with her and offers her support, but is unable to have Matilda moved to a higher grade despite her advanced knowledge, due to Miss Trunchbull's refusal. It eventually becomes clear that Miss Honey is more compromised in her position at the school than Matilda at first realized, and it also emerges that Matilda has special powers that she may be able to use to combat Miss Trunchbull's bullying. Matilda subsequently comes up with a plan to end the headmistress's terrible reign once and for all.

In its initial form, the novel was quite different, and arguably less appropriate for children: Matilda was not the eminently sympathetic heroine she is known as today, but an ill-behaved girl who uses her powers to help her teacher by fixing a horse race and dies as a result. After Dahl's editor described an early draft of the story as "hopeless," the author rewrote it into its now-popular final version. However, despite the sunnier makeover the book received, part of its appeal lies in its entertainingly grotesque and humorously unsavory elements. A 2013 review appearing in the Guardian emphasizes this, stating that "many readers will be drawn to the larger-than-life, extrovert, humourous and strangely likeable headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Her unique reprimands to the children, with phrases such as 'blithering idiot' and 'stagnant cesspool' will leave you in stitches."

Another part of the appeal of Matilda is the main character's underdog identity. As Matilda is a girl who finds herself in neglectful and abusive environments and must fight for a better situation for herself and those around her, she has sometimes been seen as relatable by marginalized groups. In a New Statesman article, Louis Staples reflects on the book's status as an LGBT+ classic, suggesting that queer people can relate to Matilda's isolation and inability to fit in with her family, as well as her general lack of adherence to norms and expectations.

Matilda has now appeared in several formats beyond its original incarnation, including an audiobook narrated by Kate Winslet, a 1996 film starring Mara Wilson in the lead role that has become a cult classic, and a musical produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. A current edition of the book available from Penguin Random House comes in a chocolate-scented package, a nod to an incident in the book where Miss Trunchbull forces a boy named Bruce Bogtrotter to eat an entire chocolate cake as a punishment and he surprisingly rises to the challenge. Multiple online sources offer recipes inspired by this particular chocolate cake, just one example of how beloved and culturally relevant Dahl's novel remains.

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