Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Committed - by Elizabeth Gilbert

When I searched the web for images of the book cover to use here I found some that were different than the edition I read. This happens occasionally, and normally I don't worry about finding an exact match, but in this case I did because the subtitles on the covers were different. It appears that later editions had the subtitle "A Love Story" whereas this one is a decidedly less romantic "A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage". Having gone through a difficult divorce (which you can read all about in Gilbert's phenomenal bestseller Eat, Pray, Love) the author is indeed pretty skeptical about marriage, as is her boyfriend, Felipe, for reasons similar to Gilbert's own. The two are essentially "sentenced" to matrimony when Felipe has some serious problems with the U.S. immigration service. It is made clear to the happily unmarried couple that Felipe (a Brazilian-born Australian citizen) will be unable to return to the country without a fiancé visa. During the long wait it takes to obtain the visa Gilbert explores her feelings and does some research on the meaning of marriage across time and space.

This memoir is bookended (so to speak) with two nearly identical library metaphors. Near the start of the story Gilbert and Felipe arrive at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport together after a trip abroad. Gilbert "passed through immigration first, moving easily through the line of ...fellow American citizens." Meanwhile she waited for Felipe to get through his much longer line. When he finally had his turn with the immigration official she watched as "he studied Felipe's bible-thick Australian passport, scrutinizing every page, every mark, every hologram" growing ever more apprehensive as she waited for the anticipated "thick, solid, librarian-like thunk of a welcoming visa-entry stamp. But it never came." And it is therefore, with some relief at the end of the book that Felipe finally hears "that satisfying librarian-like thunk in his passport."

Of course since I look for libraries in books this use of the metaphor would pique my interest more than some other readers. A "thunk" can be a sound for a lot of things, perhaps some rather unpleasant - the thunk of a jail cell closing behind you, or the thunk of a head hitting the floor, for instance. But here it is used as a reassuring sound - a sound you might expect to hear in a library, a place where one feels safe. And I do think that Gilbert and Felipe ultimately feel safe together in their marriage.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

She's Come Undone - by Wally Lamb

This is the second book I've selected from the Little Free Library on Washington Street in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. It turns out both were choices from Oprah's Book Club. I never participated in Oprah's book club, but back in my public library days I was always aware of what her picks were because people would start calling the library as soon as they were announced to find out if we had them. Anyway, I enjoyed both books I chose (the other was Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts).

In this coming-of-age novel young Delores Price faces a tragedy that eventually tears her family apart. After he parents divorce she is sent to live with her grandmother while her mother recuperates from a mental breakdown, and Delores' life begins a downward spiral. She is obese, and essentially friendless when she leaves for college where more torment awaits her. After several years in a psychiatric ward she tries to strike out on her own, but her pain has not been fully explored or healed.

The copyright on this book is 1992, and the story follows Delores from her childhood in the 1950s through adulthood. All the action takes place before the time of Google, indeed, personal computers were virtually unknown to the characters in this work. Of course that means that they had to go to the library to find things out. Delores in a prolific library user. This is especially evident when she mentions that her school guidance counselor, Mr. Pucci, saw her though "$230 worth of unreturned library books". She doesn't get much better at returning books as an adult.When she takes the feminist classic Our Bodies Ourselves out of the Montpelier (VT) public library she apparently ignores the overdue notices that "begin to appear" along with her bills in the mail.

She takes advantage of the Providence (RI) Public Library's vast collection of telephone books from around the country ("thousands and thousands of pounds of tissue paper pages") to find the address of someone she's been stalking. I guess this is one library service that is no longer needed. Who uses phone books anymore? And it is so much easier to stalk people online as well.

And finally, a first. This is the first book I've blogged about a book that mentioned a hospital library.

The writing is first-rate, and despite Delores' deep cynicism she is someone the reader wants to cheer for. The book really isn't as depressing as my post might make it sound. It has some truly sweet spots.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age - by Daniel J. Levitin

I downloaded this e-book after watching this short interview with the author. Levitan has a lot to say about information literacy and includes chapters on understanding numbers, graphs, and statistics (and how all can be used to deceive); and how to think critically and logically so as to avoid being duped. Crucially, he discusses the importance of doing our own research in order to verify claims we've heard
Time spent evaluating claims is not just time well spent, it should be considered part of an implicit bargain we've all made. Information gathering and research that used to take anywhere from hours to weeks now takes just seconds. We've saved incalculable numbers of hours of trips to libraries and far-flung archives, or hunting through thick books for the one passage that will answer our questions. The implicit bargain that we all need to make explicit is that we will use just some [emphasis in original] of that time we saved in information acquisition to perform proper information verification.
Levitan also makes clear the importance of librarians in the information age. He specifically mentions asking a librarian for assistance in finding the origin of a quote often misattributed to Mark Twain ("It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."). He tells of consulting expert research librarian Gretchen Lieb at Vassar who explained the difficulty in tracking it down explaining that "Quotations are tricky things. They're the literary equivalent of statistics, really, in terms of lies, damn lies, etc." The quote in question most likely originated with humorist Josh Billings.

Levitan also explains about the scientific process, and what peer-review entails. Further he explains that it is becoming more difficult to tell which journals are reputable with the "proliferation of open-access journals that will print anything for a fee, in a parallel world of pseudo-academia". He goes on to say that "Reference librarians can help you distinguish the two" and specifically gives a shout out to Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver who has created a "blacklist" of disreputable journals.

This book was especially useful for me as I am currently researching how to teach students how best to evaluate websites and other open-access sources. In fact, I would recommend this book to all budding researchers (and I know a few experienced ones who might benefit from it as well). It is written clearly with just enough illustrations and was well worth the time I spent reading it.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - based on a story by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

I spent the weekend before Halloween reading the eighth book in the Harry Potter series - a script rather than a novel. Harry and his friends (and enemies, and frenemies) return as adults with jobs, children, and presumably mortgages, and all the other impedimenta (pun intended!) of grown up life.

The story begins where the epilogue of book seven left off - at Platform 9 3/4 with Harry and Ginny's son Albus Severus heading to Hogwarts for the first time. Albus develops a unlikely friendship with Scorpius Malfoy, son of Draco, and it is quickly made clear that it's the Potter kid who is the bad influence in this duo.

There is a lot here to entertain Potter fans. I enjoyed the work, and there were plenty of allusions to the rest of the series including fun with the invisibility cloak, the Marauder's Map, and Time Turners.

Libraries and books are key in this work. Hermione (now the Minister for Magic) not surprisingly has a large library in her office, and as Scorpius points out "There are some serious books here. Banned books. Cursed Books" including some that are "not even allowed in Hogwarts!" even in the Restricted Section.

So what we see is that Hermione, who in book five so enthusiastically points out that "if [Professor Umbridge] could have done one thing to make absolutely sure that every single person in this school will read your interview, it was banning it!", now is a practitioner of  censorship herself. It appears that like many book banners she believes that she can handle the information found in the threatening works, but must protect from others from the dangers within. This is not the only place in the story where we see the government hiding information from its people. So scary, really.

There are two scenes in the story that take place in the Hogwarts library. The librarian's role is most disappointing. The unnamed librarian has exactly one line.

All together now, let's hear it...



Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Paper Chase - the movie

There's nothing like a good library caper! In this classic film, first-year Harvard Law student James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) sneaks into Langdell Library, not once, but twice! The first time it appears he merely wants to get a book when the library is closed, but this sets the stage for the second more daring breach. After he is told by an appropriately dowdy librarian (Irma Hurley) sporting a brown jumper and white collared blouse, that the "red set" (the first drafts of all the law-school professor's writings) is off limits to him Hart and his accomplice, Ford, sneak in to the gated area to read the notes written by their hard-nosed contracts professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) from when he was a student at Harvard. Although I certainly can't condone the behavior of Hart and Ford, I must admit that the librarian wasn't very helpful, and the students do seem to give proper respect and awe to the archives.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Peanuts Movie

Charlie Brown wants to impress the Little Red-Haired Girl, and what better way than to read the greatest work of literature ever for his book report: Tolstoy's War and Peace. Our hero goes to the library, and due to a misunderstanding, is looking for something called "Leo's Toy Store" by Warren Peace. Marcie comes to the rescue, telling him the proper title and author, and then pointing out the tome located on the top shelf. Marcie suggests that he pick something else, since he only has the weekend to read the book and write the report, but Charlie Brown is undeterred. Charlie Brown really could have saved himself a lot of trouble by asking a librarian (completely absent in this film - not even by way of the the familiar "wa wa" voice). A librarian could have helped Good Ol' Charlie Brown with book selection, as well as provided the proper title and author information of the book he was looking for, and helped him use the catalog to find its location in the library. Such a lost opportunity. On the plus side, though, this one does pass the Bechdel Test thanks to Marcie and Peppermint Patty who discuss their own book review.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Where the Heart Is - by Billie Letts

This is the third Billie Letts book I've blogged about here. Each one was found by serendipity - the first (Made in the U.S.A.) while browsing the leisure reading shelf of the library where I work, and the other (Shoot the Moon) at Somethin's Brewing Book Cafe. This one I found at The Little Free Library which recently appeared on Washington St. in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, near where my beach house is located. I was thrilled to be able to ride my bike there and pick out a book.

Of the three Letts' books this one is the most library-centric, and includes at least three different kinds of libraries (public, academic, and prison). The libraries tend to be positive forces for the characters in the books; the librarians, however leave a bit to be desired.

When seven-months-pregnant Novalee Nation is abandoned by her boyfriend at the Wal-Mart in Sequoya, Oklahoma she meets an eclectic group of people who help her out in some unexpected ways. She camps out at the store each night, and hides from the employees as they open it each morning. During the day she explores Sequoya and finds the public library "a two-story brick building with a black wrought-iron fence, the lawn planted with joseph's coat, calendula and foxglove." The first library Novalee had ever been in that "didn't have wheels under it". Inside she discovered
a room with dark wood carved into intricate designs, tall windows of thick, frosted glass and red velvet drapes held back with silver cord, chandeliers whose crystal drops caught fragments  of light transfused into rich blues and deep greens, paintings in gold frames of nude women with heavy bellies and thick thighs. And books. Racks of books, stacks of books, walls of books.
The librarian, however, was absent, as she was informed by the only other person in the building. Forney Hull turned out to be the alcoholic librarian's brother who took care of both his sister and her patrons. Forney and his sister live in the library, which before becoming the library was their childhood home. Novalee is enchanted with the idea of  being able to live at the library "to have all those books to read..." She also gets to celebrate her birthday at the library. This is the first library birthday celebration I have come across, and I had actually been wondering if I would ever find one!

Meanwhile, Novalee's good-for-nothing ex, Willy Jack (a.k.a. Billy Shadow), winds up in prison for theft. There he meets Claire Hudson, prison librarian:
She was a big woman who had to shop for queen tall pantyhose and size eleven shoes, double E. She wore dark clothes - stiff gray gabardines, navy twills and black serges...boxy suits with high necks, long sleeves and tight collars. Claire avoided garments with lace, bows and fancy buttons and she owned no jewelry, not even a watch. She held strong disdain for anything showy, allowing herself only one extravagance: Band-Aids....She wore them constantly and in abundance...She covered her warts, moles and ingrown hairs...pimples, cuts and fever blisters...burns, abrasions, hangnails and bites...eczema, psoriasis, scratches and rashes. 
Clair Hudson changes Willy Jack's life when she helps him to get a guitar to keep in his cell and he writes a song. Ultimately, though, she betrays him. It is unclear whether it is out of simple meanness, or perhaps because of some mental illness.

One other library gets a shout out - the one at Bowdoin College in Maine. No other information about the library is provided except that is is "great".

This book had a lot of surprises, and ultimately a happy ending, without being too sappy. Libraries play an important role as places of turning points for the characters.