Books in the Park

suggestions from the Barbara S. Ponce Public Library at Pinellas Park


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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

cabinet of dr caligariA young man named Francis sits with an old man and begins to tell a tale of terror that befell him, and his fiancé.

Francis was once a happy man, caught up in a friendly competition with his friend, Alan, for the affection of their mutual acquaintance, Jane. The two men spend a day at the local fair, where they have the misfortune to encounter the sinister Dr. Caligari, and his future-telling somnambulist, Cesare. From here on, Francis’ life is hopelessly entangled with that of the Doctor’s, and the pain and sorrow that follow is unavoidable.

One reason I love this movie is the design! Everything from the backgrounds, to the costumes is bizarre and distorted. Buildings are slanted at almost random angles, trees twist menacingly, and characters are smeared with black paint to highlight their most important features. The design creates a very effective sense of dread, which screams “HORROR MOVIE” even before the viewer gets past the first scene. The stylization, while dark, is also beautiful. The real life characters blend in with the illustrated backdrops, so as to give the effect that one is watching an animated film.

The film also has an excellent ending. It’s is surprising, disheartening, but still a tiny bit hopeful. I think that even modern audiences will be entertained.

I would strongly recommend The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to anyone who holds even a vague interest in silent films.

As a work in the United States public domain, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available as a free stream and download on Archive.org. There’s also a version on YouTube. Also check out this extended film commentary on Open Culture.

We also have physical copies available in the library system. Check the PPLC Catalog for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.


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Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

20000 Leagues Under the SeaIf your New Year’s resolution is to read the classics, I recommend starting with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. And even if your resolution is not to read the classics, I still recommend it. It is a fantastic adventure story that’s as entertaining as it is classic.

The seas the world over are plagued by sightings of a huge “thing” that everyone believes to be some kind of sea monster. After it punches a hole in the side of a passenger vessel, the U.S. government funds an expedition to track and neutralize the threat. Professor Pierre Aronnax, an internationally respected marine biologist, and his loyal companion, Conseil, join expert harpooner Ned Land aboard a U.S. Navy frigate that goes searching for the creature. What they finally encounter, however, is not an animal at all, but a technologically advanced submarine commanded by an imposing figure who introduces himself as Captain Nemo.

My favorite part of this story is definitely Captain Nemo. Dark and enigmatic, his backstory, though tantalizingly hinted at, remains a mystery up to the end. When you read about him here, it’s easy to see why his character endures in popular culture 150+ years after the book’s initial publication. His entire history was eventually revealed in Verne’s The Mysterious Island, which is a curious crossover with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and In Search of the Castaways, but I was strangely disappointed to learn that the character’s past was disclosed in its entirety. I think I’d prefer it to remain a point of conjecture, but I’m sure I’m in the minority with that opinion.

Also, I was surprised by how many times I laughed out loud while reading this book. If the dialog in the story is any indication, Verne had a great sense of humor.

Now I want to read the rest of Jules Verne’s work. Which of his stories do you recommend I read next?

As a work in the United States public domain, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is available as a free ebook from the Gutenberg Project.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.


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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

frankenstein shelleyI don’t normally give into hype when I see a movie trailer (looking at you, The Force Awakens), but when I saw the trailer for Victor Frankenstein starring Daniel Radcliffe, my interest was piqued. The trailer also conjured fond memories of me reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by flashlight and shivering at the description of the monster.

Although scifi master Brian Aldiss has unequivocally stated that Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel, it’s a bit hard to convince modern audiences of that fact.  Frankenstein is much more overtly gothic and romantic than scifi, but upon closer inspection, the scifi elements are definitely there. I’m interested to see how this newest movie version lives up to the scifi element, especially since it’s being billed as scifi horror.

No matter how many movie versions are made, the original novel is highly recommended. It’s not very long and an easy, suspenseful read. Pick this up for a school project or summer reading and your teacher will be very impressed. And for all of you for whom school is but a memory, Frankenstein is a great book to have in your reading repertoire.

As a work in the United States public domain, Frankenstein is available as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Frankenstein.


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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

house of mirthIf you’re a Jane Austen fan but haven’t read anything by Edith Wharton, then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of The House of Mirth. Although Austen and Wharton lived nearly a century apart, Wharton’s The House of Mirth touches on many of the same themes as Austen’s work, exchanging English high society for American. Just one caveat: Wharton’s stories tend to be much more tragic than Austen’s.

Lily Bart, a 29-year-old beauty born into high society in New York City, has fallen on hard times since the dissolution of her father’s business and the subsequent deaths of both her parents. She now lives off the good graces of her pitiless aunt. As Lily struggles to maintain social standing, she must bury her feelings for the handsome Lawrence Selden, because his status wouldn’t elevate Lily high enough to recover what she has lost since her parents’ deaths.

My coworker describes Wharton as the Anti-Austen, because their stories have very different outcomes even though their writing styles and subjects are similar. Writing around the time of the publication of Darwin’s famous theory of evolution, Wharton was possessed with the idea of “social determinism,” meaning that people who are born into a social circle are unable to function outside it. So much for the American Dream, huh? Regardless of how you feel about that, Wharton’s ingenious writing is food for thought and still relevant 100 years later.

As a work in the United States public domain, The House of Mirth is available as a free ebook download from Project Gutenberg.

The library also has physical copies available. Check the PPLC Catalog for The House of Mirth.


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The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

phantom of the opera coverIt is rumored that in the vast dark spaces of the Paris Opera House lurks a demonic presence: the Opera Ghost. The new owners of the house, MM. Moncharmin and Richard, write this off as the superstitions of theatre folk, and will do everything in their power to ignore the demanding letters left by the “Ghost”. For others, however the Ghost is all too real. One such soul is the comely Christine Daae, whose recent rise to stardom in the opera house can only be described as other-worldly. At one of Christine’s performances she catches the eye, and heart, of her childhood friend, Viscount Raoul de Chagny.

As Raoul begins a clandestine affair with Christine, and the new managers begin a battle with the opera ghost, the sinister forces at work in the Paris Opera House begin to reveal themselves to the world!

This novel was written 1900s, but despite the ‘age gap’, it still remains an exciting adventure. There is action, horror and romance that will appeal to readers of today.

As a work in the United States Public Domain, The Phantom of the Opera novel by Gaston Leroux is available as a free ebook download from Project Gutenberg.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Phantom of the Opera.


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Letters from an American Farmer, by J. Hector St. John

letters from an american farmerHector St. John de Crevecoeur, an emigrant French aristocrat-turned-farmer, provides an “everyday life” account about the emerging United States.

The year was 1765 in Orange County, New York. After having acquired his citizenship, de Crevecoeur became a landowner. His property generated both a food staple and a “literary staple.” In a series of observant and erudite letters, he interprets the development of American society.

Letters from an American Farmer paints a vivid portrait of the young country, not only detailing the hardships of frontier living but the perilous unrest that existed between fanatical patriots, back-country loyalists and plantation culture in the south.

“For many [Europeans], his essays offered the first major impressions of the American landscapes, the people, the institutions, and the problems that stood in the way of making one nation out of the diverse former colonies.”

For a glimpse into “everyday life” from 18th century America and general colonial history, Letters from an American Farmer provides candid insight.

As a work in the Public Domain, Letters from an American Farmer is available as a free download from Gutenberg.org.

Check the PPLC Catalog for a physical copy of Letters from an American Farmer.


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The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence

My “50” project is to read, starting with number 50 and working my way to number one, the top 50 of the top 100 titles on the Modern Library’s top 100 novels list. We’ve created a tag for Dave’s 50 After 50, and you are welcome to read along with me.

the rainbow penguin coverAs I have committed to reading the top 50 list in reverse order, I seem to be reading the prequel to Women in Love, my last Top 50 title (number 49). Number 48 is The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence, which introduces the Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, near the end of the book.

The book is much different than Women in Love, spanning the Brangwen family for three generations: a period of roughly 65 years from the 1840s to 1905. I love these sort of stories, much like Ken Follet’s two series The Century Trilogy and the Pillars of the Earth/World Without End duology. Multi-generational tales like these guide the reader through the evolution of a family (in the case of The Rainbow) or a community (like Ken Follet above) and give a picture of the forces that shape and grow the family.

In the case of The Rainbow, it begins with the Brangwens as a yeoman class family. Tom knows little of the world outside his couple of small counties. He meets and falls in love with a Polish refugee and widow, Lydia. Her daughter from a previous marriage, Anna, and her husband, Will (the son of one of Tom’s brothers), take up the second part of the tale. They share a tumultuous relationship and it’s their daughter, Ursula (who we recognize from Women in Love), who has the last and longest part of the story. The evolution of the family is the framework that allows Ursula to seek her fulfillment.

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