Ten Things Every American Should Know

Just over a year ago, in the fall 2015 edition of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Eric Liu published an article called “How to Be American: Why cultivating a shared cultural core is more important than ever—and why such a project serves progressive ends.”

Liu writes, “Americanness and whiteness are fitfully, achingly, but finally becoming delinked—and like it or not, over the course of this generation, we’re all going to have to learn a new way to be American.” He wrote that it is “necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as ours, one where rising economic inequality begets worsening civic inequality, to cultivate continuously a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols. Yet that generational distance now also requires us to see that any such core has to be radically reimagined if it’s to be worthy of America’s actual and accelerating diversity.”

In 1987, E.D. Hirsch Jr., an English professor at the University of Virginia, published a book called Cultural Literacy that contained an appendix of 5,000 names, phrases, dates, and concepts that “every American needs to know.” As any reader of Rolling Stone (or BuzzFeed, for that matter) knows, lists spark discussion and debate, and that’s what happened then – and it’s what’s happening again now.

Liu writes, “The…challenge, for Americans new and old, is to make a common culture that’s greater than the sum of our increasingly diverse parts. It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish; in order to make our diversity a true asset, we need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. We need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that our diversity can be most fully activated.”

How do we go about reimagining our “shared cultural core” and developing a common vocabulary? How do we decide what’s important? We can start by making a list – together. Anyone can contribute to an ongoing online list at whateveryamericanshouldknow.org. And for the month of December, we’ll have an in-person, interactive display where everyone can write their ideas – it will truly be a living, evolving document all month.

“Multiculturalism is not at odds with a single common culture; it is our single common culture.” -Eric Liu, “How to Be American”

What do you think is important for all Americans to know? It could be a person, an event, a document, a phrase, a book, a piece of music, a poem; it could be something you learned in elementary school or in college or yesterday. Come write your ideas on the display at Robbins Library, and at the end of the month we’ll have an idea of what Arlingtonians think every American should know.

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Making the story’s world come alive

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is concluded for another year! Congratulations to all participants; whether you wrote 500 words or 50,000 words, you created something new. Now you can take a deep breath, relax, and…start editing! Or write some more. Or take a month off. It’s up to you!

Jennifer Brown is a NaNoWriMo “winner” several times over, and the author of Modern Girls. In addition to writing historical fiction (Modern Girls is set in New York in the 1930s), Brown loves reading historical novels. We asked her about the process of researching and writing historical fiction, and to tell us about a few of her favorite historical novels.

How (if at all) has writing a historical novel changed the way you read historical fiction?

Most writers tend to be critical readers in general. If a book is successful—it doesn’t matter the genre—then I’m swept away by the story and not thinking about the elements that go into it. If a book isn’t well written, however, then I’m hyper aware of the problems. Things like structural flaws or too much exposition or info dumps (when the author has a lot of back story to convey and instead of weaving it into the story the writer simply plops it all down in a big chunk) or characters without depth or a myriad other issues will vividly stand out. Reading a book requires willful suspension of disbelief; if I can’t achieve that then there’s a problem.

For historical fiction specifically, I don’t think about the historical elements while I’m reading unless the author is heavy handed. A historical writer must do unbelievable amounts of research to make the story’s world come alive. But the temptation exists to put all that research in the novel. After all, you learned the facts so you want to show off. That, however, can weigh a story down, pull the reader out of the moment. Currently I’m in the middle of The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati. Her details are exquisite and she’s found the right balance to make me see 1883 New York but not be consciously aware that I’m reading about 1883 New York; it’s simply the world of her novel and I’m caught up in it.

Once I finish a book, I always read an author’s acknowledgment to see who guided the research and what resources were used. I’m always on the lookout for ideas on where to find historical experts. It’s also amazing to see how much a writer put into the novel. I appreciate the depths the author went to in order to become an expert, but I also understand the author didn’t have a choice; it’s what’s required to be a historical fiction author.

What are some of your favorite historical novels?

Picking favorites is hard as I adore historical fiction (though I make it a point to read other genres as well, because reading widely is important in honing writing skills). My list of favorites shifts depending on my mood, what I’ve read most recently, and my poor memory (thank goodness I could refer to my Goodreads list for this).

The majority of historical fiction I read takes place in the early twentieth century because I have such a fascination with that period. In that era, I’d have to recommend The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine, which captivated me in its retelling of the Grimm’s fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princess” set in the speakeasies of 1920s New York. Also of that time period is Mary Morris’s The Jazz Palace, which takes place in the music halls of Chicago. Morris is the first writer who has lushly and lyrically written about music in a way that I could hear it playing. Heather Young wrote a dual time period narrative, The Lost Girls, which combines two elements I enjoy: historical fiction and thriller. It’s a captivating story. Wherever There Is Light by Peter Golden about an interracial romance spanning many decades. Susan Jane Gilman creates the most likable unlikable character I’ve ever read in The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street.

For the younger set, and a series I read with my own daughter, I highly recommend the All of a Kind series, by Sydney Taylor, which captures a household of sprightly girls in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. For a local treat, I suggest Connie Hertzberg Mayo’s The Island of Worthy Boys, about the boys’ school on Boston’s own Thompson Island. For a completely different way of looking at historical fiction, I recommend Unterzakhn by Leela Corman, a graphic novel, with some similar themes to Modern Girls, that takes place on the gritty Lower East Side at the turn of the century.

A second type of historical fiction I enjoy includes real people in fictional situations. Laura Moriarty’s  The Chaperone is an engrossing glimpse into Louise Brooks’s life while Jillian Cantor’s The Hours Count is a peek into the world of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain recounts the story of Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley. Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman is both stylistically interesting and thought-provoking as she tells the story of Margaret Sanger, the woman who founded the birth control movement in the United States. Andromeda Romano-Lax wrote a book that will be of particular interest to parents: her novel Behave tells the fictional story of the wife of behavioral psychologist John B. Watson, whose views of child rearing were unusually strict. His wife, Rosalie, was also a scientist and her views change when the couple has children of their own.

Finally, I have been known to branch outside of the 1900s and the United States. Julie Wu, who is a local author, wrote a gripping story called The Third Son that begins in Taiwan in 1943. I learned a lot from her novel. Going back all the way to biblical times, I rave about Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel, which is a fascinating and controversial retelling of the life of Jesus. Her details of life in that period are astounding. A perfect complement to that book is Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, which is the same story with a completely different take.

I could seriously go on for a few pages on the books I love; this is by no means a definitive list. Can you tell I really like historical fiction?

We can! Thanks for these suggestions – they should keep our historical fiction fans busy for a while!

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Beautiful new art prints to borrow

We’ve just updated our framed art print collection with 9 new prints! If you see something you like hanging in the stairwell hallway, take it off the wall and check it out at the circulation desk (6 weeks, no renewals). You can also browse the bins on the 2nd floor.

Here’s a look at some of your new options for spontaneous, no-commitment home decorating!



“Black Iris”, Georgia O’Keefe


“Luncheon on the Boating Party”, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Also new to the collection:

“Coral Shells II”, Donna Geisler

“David Ortiz” (photograph)

“Head Over Heels”, Helen Shulman

“Impression Sunrise”, Claude Monet

“Portrait of Mademoiselle LeGrand”, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

“Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros”, William-Adolfe Bouguereau

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Brand New Books: November Edition

Happy Thanksgiving! Here at the library, we are always thankful for new books. Here are some of this month’s new titles:

Cover images of Moonglow, Night School, Wrong Side of Goodbye, Victoria

Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Chabon is an accomplished novelist of big literary fiction (e.g. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Telegraph Avenue). In Moonglow, the narrator’s grandfather breaks his lifelong reticence on his deathbed, telling stories of boyhood in Philly, moon missions and WWII bombardments, science and war crimes.

Night School by Lee Child
The 21st Jack Reacher novel is set back in the mid-1990s, when Jack is sent to night school as an undercover to unravel a scheme that stretches back to the Cold War; Jack gets to show his deductive side.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connolly
A billionaire hires former LAPD detective Harry Bosch to find a possible heir and report back; Harry does the former but the latter is impossible, since the billionaire has been murdered in the meantime. Harry’s other case involves catching a serial rapist with his partner from the San Fernando Police Department.

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin
Goodwin draws on Queen Victoria’s own diaries to create this portrait of the young queen during her accession to the throne and her marriage proposal to Prince Albert. Goodwin also wrote the screenplay to the upcoming Masterpiece TV series.

Cover images of Faithful, Fate of the Tearling, I'll Take You There, Swing Time

Faithful by Alice Hoffman
Veteran novelist Hoffman presents the story of Shelby Richmond, who is wracked with guilt after a car accident that leaves her best friend permanently damaged. Shelby herself is traumatized when her stay in a mental institution does far more harm than good. Eventually a mysterious “angel” encourages her to return to life in the world, and she moves to New York.

The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
The Tearling trilogy (The Queen of the Tearling, The Invasion of the Tearling) concludes with The Fate of the Tearling. There is great unrest in the land, and Queen Kelsea Glynn has surrendered herself to the enemy. She is still having visions of one of the first settlers of the Tearling. Booklist writes, “The finale of this popular series expands upon the past and provides answers to unresolved issues from earlier in the series...This is a thrilling conclusion to a fantastic trilogy.”

I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb
Sixty-year-old film professor Felix Funicello is visited by a pair of ghosts who show him films of his own life – including the story of his older sister, who was adopted before he was born – enabling him to understand his own family dynamics more fully than before.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Two girls in northwest London in the 1980s form a competitive friendship over a love of dance. Their lives diverge, with Tracey pursuing dance seriously and our unnamed narrator becoming the assistant to a pop star who wants to build a school in a Muslim West African country. Booklist calls Swing Time an “acidly funny, fluently global, and head-spinning novel.” Fans of Smith’s previous novels (White Teeth, On Beauty, NW) will be pleased, and new readers will be drawn in.

Remember to check out the November 2016 LibraryReads list for more book suggestions, or catch up on the October edition of Brand New Books.

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AIFF presents A GOOD EGG and TASHI & THE MONK on 12/15

It’s the final screening of the AIFF and Robbins Library film series, and it’s a double feature! Join us on Thursday December 15th at 7 p.m. in the Robbins Library Community Room for these two films. 

Sabrina McCormick, Director | N.Y | 2015 | Nar | WORLD PREMIERE
A comedic drama that tells the story of 37-year old Mimi. She has a miscarriage and must decide to either try again with her out-of-touch boyfriend or hold out for someone else or both.

Andrew Hinton & Johnny Burke, Directors | MA, USA | 2014 | Doc
On a remote mountaintop a brave social experiment is taking place. Former Buddhist monk Lobsang was trained under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but eight years ago he left his life as a spiritual teacher in the United States to create a unique community in the foothills of the Himalayas which rescues orphaned and neglected children. Five-year-old Tashi is the newest arrival. Her mother recently passed away and she’s been abandoned by her alcoholic father. Wild and troubled, Tashi is struggling to find her place among 84 new siblings. Can the community’s love and compassion transform Tashi’s alienation and tantrums into a capacity to make her first real friend? One of the filmmakers will be in attendance.

Tashi and the Monk from Pilgrim Films on Vimeo.

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NaNoWriMo Q&A with author Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown is the author of Modern Girls. She has lived in New York, Florida, and Seattle, and now lives in Massachusetts. Jennifer has participated in NaNoWriMo multiple times, and Modern Girls started out as a NaNoWriMo project. Jennifer contributed to the NaNoWriMo blog in late September this year (“My Writerly Weakness: A Novel Not About Me”), and she has graciously agreed to answer some questions for this blog as well.

You participated in NaNoWriMo several times before producing the first draft of Modern Girls. What did you learn from each time? What did you do differently the year you started Modern Girls?

This year marks my ninth time participating since my first try in 2001, and I’ve “won” four times, though I should probably put an asterisk on that “won.” I’m a big believer in being a rebel (one who doesn’t follow the NaNoWriMo rules, though rebels are sanctioned and have their own official badge and forum on the website). Two years I worked on novels that were not brand new. In fact I wrote half of Modern Girls one year and finished it the next.

The most important thing I learned is that you have to write simply for the sake of writing, with no expectations that anyone else is going to read the work. Many people finish NaNoWriMo and think, “Wow, I have a novel! Now I’ll query agents.” No, no, no, no, no. NaNoWriMo is the start of a novel, not the finish. My first couple of novels were not-so-cleverly disguised autobiographies that were of no interest to anyone other than me, but I wanted to write them, so I did. Why write a novel no one will read? For the satisfaction of doing it and for the practice. Writing a novel is like any other skill; you need to do it over and over as you perfect your craft.

When I was ready to tackle the novel that would be Modern Girls, I already had practice writing. I was ready to move beyond my own life and tackle a subject outside of myself. I was still writing for me, in the sense that I didn’t expect anyone else to read it, but I began with a topic, put in the research time, and tried something new.

What about NaNoWriMo was most valuable to you – the community of writers, the “pep talks” from published authors, the organized time frame, something else? How was it different from just choosing any month and setting your own word count goal?

For me it’s having the time frame. Sure, I can set goals for myself, but no one bats an eye when those deadlines go whooshing by. By participating in NaNoWriMo—and telling everyone I’m participating—I’m accountable. People will ask me about my word count. Friends on Facebook will challenge me to sprints (nonstop writing for a set period of time). That status bar stares me in the face when I log onto the NaNoWriMo web site. That accountability makes me put my butt in the chair and get writing, even when the writing is rough. No one does that for me in April.

Because of the emphasis on a high word count in a short time, there isn’t a lot of time for editing during NaNoWriMo. Does that fit with your usual writing style, or was it a change for you? How did it feel to focus on writing without that internal editor?

High word count in a short time is the most beautiful writing tool ever created. Here’s the thing: I hate first drafts. Forcing those words out the first go-round is pure torture. But revising? I love revising. I will rework pages over and over until I feel they are perfect. Having a month where I’m not allowed to revise (or rather, if I do revise, I waste precious time and often end up having a negative word count as I cut words instead of adding them) forces me to get the crappy first draft down on the page. As the saying goes, “You can’t revise a blank page.” NaNoWriMo insures my pages aren’t blank and that I have something to revise come the new year.

cover image of Modern GirlsOne approach is to dive right in on November 1, but if you are writing a certain type of novel – historical fiction, say – preparation is important. How did researching in advance help you succeed during NaNoWriMo?

Had I not researched ahead of time, I couldn’t have finished Modern Girls. My entire month would have been spent looking up facts and wondering if what I wrote were even possible. The summer before NaNoWriMo I dedicated all my reading to research, from novels that were written in the 1930s to newspapers and magazines to other historical fiction novels. I learned about the Depression, New York City, socialism, reproductive rights, what was playing at the movies, the popular nail polish colors, transit schedules, and all sorts of tidbits, some of which I used in the novel and some of which will only resurface again if I enter a trivia contest.

To organize myself, I write using a program called Scrivener, which allows me to store my research. I created my document before the month started and copied notes, articles, and photos into Scrivener, so when I was writing, I could quickly flip to find what I needed. There was still a great deal I had to learn when November was done, but when I came to a fact I didn’t know, I simply wrote TK and filled in the facts later. I then rounded out the research using all sorts of methods such as museums, movies, cookbooks, oral histories, and the like.

For this year’s NaNoWriMo, my story takes place in Miami Beach from 1913 to 1926. For the past three months, my house has been filled with books about South Florida, and much of it is going in the novel, although how much will live through the revision process is anyone’s guess.

Follow-up is as important as preparation: once you’ve reached the end of the month and hit your word count goal (or not), where do you go from there?

First off, I pat myself on the back. Whether I wrote 5,000 words or 50,000 words, it’s more words than I had when I started. I hope everyone who participates in NaNoWriMo remembers that “winning” at 50,000 words is arbitrary; getting the words down on the page is what counts. The fact that you even attempted NaNoWriMo is an amazing feat, and it proves you are a writer and that you can continue on this crazy adventure of creating a novel. Everyone who wrote during the month of November is a winner, whether s/he achieved a desired word count or not.

Second, I take a break. I’ve been living the novel for a full month nonstop and perspective is needed. In December I generally don’t think about the novel.

The third step is to finish the novel. While some genres, such as middle grade and young adult, are on the shorter side, the typical adult novel has between 80,000 and 100,000 words. NaNoWriMo is only the beginning.

Finally, I revise. Revise, revise, revise. The novel is shaped in the revision process. I’m finally free to cut. I move things. I add things. Once all this is done, then it will go to my writing group and the revision process starts all over again.

Thank you, Jennifer! Readers, stay tuned for a special bonus Q&A about the author’s favorite historical novels. And NaNoWriMo participants…just two days to go!

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Next NSYA Book Group Meeting

highlyThe Not-So-Young Adult Book Group will next meet on December 14 at 7pm in the Robbins Library Conference Room.

We’ll be discussing Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley.

Here’s the description from Goodreads:

“Sixteen-year-old Solomon is agoraphobic. He hasn’t left the house in three years, which is fine by him.

Ambitious Lisa desperately wants to get into the second-best psychology program for college (she’s being realistic). But is ambition alone enough to get her in?

Determined to “fix” Sol, Lisa steps into his world, along with her charming boyfriend, Clark, and soon the three form an unexpected bond. But, as Lisa learns more about Sol and he and Clark grow closer and closer, the walls they’ve built around themselves start to collapse and their friendships threaten to do the same.”

Copies of the book are available now at the front desk at Robbins.

The Not-So-Young Adult Book Group is a group for adults in which we read and discuss books written for teens. Newcomers are always welcome!

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“Becoming Nicole” is the 2017 Arlington Reads Together Pick

We recently learned from GLAAD that November 14th through November 20th is Transgender Awareness Week #TransWeek, created “to help raise the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and address the issues the community faces.”

It seems like a great week to announce that the Arlington Reads Together committee has selected “Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family” by Amy Ellis Nutt as the 2017 community read. Programming around this book will take place in March 2017, and will include book discussions, panels, films, and more.  This book stood out to the committee as an aspect of diversity that has not yet been explored through a community read. Arlington has a history of supporting LGBTQ+ rights. Most recently, Arlington Town Meeting passed Article 18 expanding equal protection to cover gender identity and expression in Arlington. 

Becoming Nicole, published in 2015, is the story of an American family, rural living, middle-class, politically conservative, who adopt identical twin boys. Around the age of 2, one of them begins to identify as a girl. Becoming Nicole tells the story of a mother trying to ensure her family’s safety, a father struggling to understand and accept, a twin brother, loyal to and protective of his sister, and Nicole at the center, a young girl fighting for her place in the world. Amy Ellis Nutt places the family’s journey in the larger social, legal and medical context.

Amy Ellis Nutt is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Washington Post where she writes about science. “Becoming Nicole” was a 2015 New York Times Notable Book, named a Top Ten Book of 2015 by People Magazine, and was a finalist for the LAMBDA Literary Award for Transgender nonfiction.

Arlington Reads Together started in 2002 as a way to bringing together the community through literature. The goal is to address issues, understand differences and create connections through the shared experience of one book. Watch this space for program updates and news! 


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…Like a complete unknown – Bob Dylan snags 2016 Nobel Prize for literature



Bob Dylan born Robert Allen Zimmerman

Bob Dylan born Robert Allen Zimmerman


Unlike other literary awards such as the Man Booker Prize or the National Book Award, to name just a few, the Nobel Prize in literature recognizes an author’s entire body of work –  rather than a single work.

Per Wikipedia…

Official website of the Nobel Prize

BOOKS                                                                                                           dylancd

Bob Dylan all the songs: the story behind every track

Bob Dylan: American troubadour

Bob Dylan: prophet, mystic, poet

Highway 61 revisited: Bob Dylan’s road from Minnesota to the world

No direction home: the life and music of Bob Dylan

Revolution in the air: the songs of Bob Dylan, 1957 – 1973


Bob Dylan writings 1968 – 2010

Chronicles                                                         bobdylanLyrics since 1962

Song and dance man: the art of Bob Dylan

Tarantula: poems

Writings and drawings

MUSIC CDs                                                                                         dylan-cd

Best of the cutting edge: 1965 – 1966

I’m not there: original soundtrack

Shadows in the night

Tell tale signs: rare and unreleased, 1989 – 2006


Bob Dylan the 30th anniversary concert celebration

Bob Dylan the unauthorized documentaries


                                                  About Bob Dylan  from Wikipedia


        Hope to see you at the Bob Dylan display currently at Robbins Library.

















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So you’ve written a book…

…or you’re in the process of writing one (ahem, NaNoWriMo participants!). In the midst of developing your characters, finding the perfect words to evoke your setting, and twisting together plot strands, you might start daydreaming about the end of the writing process, and what comes next.

There are a lot of options – everything from sticking your book in a drawer for a year to finding an agent and pursuing a book deal with a traditional publisher. One in-between option is SELF-e, a program that “allows authors to produce professional-quality e-books and distribute them to patrons…through their public library.”

Local authors are always welcome to donate a print copy of their book(s) to the library – read more about our Local Author Shelf here – and now there is a way to make e-books available to library readers too!

Indie Massachusetts logo

Want to learn more? Read the SELF-e Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) here, or check out the SELF-e blog here. Authors who feel ready to jump right in can start the submission process here – it takes about ten minutes. Books submitted through SELF-e are made available to readers in Massachusetts (the Indie Massachusetts collection) through the Commonwealth eBook Collections, and may be selected to be made available nationwide through the SELF-e Select program; authors can read more here.

SELF-e Library Journal logo

Readers can access e-books from the SELF-e program through BiblioBoard, one of the e-book platforms available through the Commonwealth eBook Collections – just sign in with your library card number. There are no waiting lists for e-books in BiblioBoard – you can start reading right away!

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