Friday, May 18, 2018

You Think It, I'll Say It stories - by Curtis Sittenfeld

One thing I've learned about listening to audio books is that if I expect that I might want to blog about the book I should download the Kindle version if available, in addition to the Audible edition. This provides me with (searchable) text version in which I can go back and find references to libraries after I'm done listening.

Sittenfeld's stories create a witty yet biting look at suburbia - each with its own surprises. The author shows us that beyond the superficial existences we observe, multi-faceted individuals live. Characters who are portrayed as one-dimensional are given depth once we see them from other angles. And some even use the library.

In "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" the undergraduate narrator at Dartmouth College's is a user of the Baker-Berry Library

Kirsten, former a former close acquaintance of Lucy Headrick (a.k.a. "The Prairie Wife") is anxious to read Headrick's new memoir. She decides it is worth buying when she discovers that there are over 300 people ahead of her on her local library's waiting list also desperate to read what the "lifestyle" guru, with over 3.1 million Twitter followers, has to say.

Good stories of imperfect, flawed individuals. This was fun listening.

Monday, May 14, 2018

How to Be a Muslim: An American Story - by Haroon Moghul

Baltimore County Public Library's April 2018 #BWellRead Challenge category was to "a memoir/biography about a person who doesn't look like you". Of course, as my husband pointed out, this could mean anyone who is not my sister, but I took it in the spirit of the challenge and selected Moghul's story. A Pakistani Muslim who grew up in New England, Moghul was born with a myriad of health problems, which relegated him to being one of the "geeky" kids growing up. And where there are geeks there are libraries.

Early in the work Moghul describes the very well-educated family into which he was born - one that
appreciated, encouraged, and rewarded bookishness - which made life easier, since [he] was the kid who made a beeline for the library when the last bell rang.
It is a good thing he was so comfortable in the library as it is a place with which he would became quite familiar. As the only kid whose parents wouldn't sign his permission slip to take sex ed the  "doofy twelve-year-old" was dispatched to the school library while the rest of the kids in his class received their illicit lessons. He became so well-known in his library he described it as a place where "everyone fist-bumped him". As an adult he also made good use of a "well funded public library systen" while waiting for his bookish mother to give lessons on Islam to "housewives".

As an about-to-graduate student of New York University (shortly post 9/11) Moghul proposes that the University hire a Muslim chaplin (himself) to "a senior university official, a woman whose stunning workspace occupied the rarefied top floor of NYU's library". It is here that he learns that "there were levels of power and influence that [he] hadn't the slightest idea of." It has always seemed more than a bit ironic to me that University officials are so quick to recognize the value of library space only when they want to claim it for other-than-library needs.

I learned quite a bit about Islam from this work. I have enjoyed reading several religious memoirs of late. You can see my other posts here, here, here, and here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Abortion: an historical romance 1966 - by Richard Brautigan

Earlier this year I posted a link to a list of 100 Must-Read Books about Libraries and Bookstores which included Brautigan's The Abortion. When I discovered that the Brautigan Library of Unpublished Manuscripts is a real place, and featured in Atlas Obscura I immediately requested the book from Inter-library loan. It is a rather quick read, and as the title suggests, it is a love story. The unnamed narrator is the librarian at this unusual library where people can drop off their unpublished works at any time of the day or night. The
library came into being because of an overwhelming need and desire for such a place. There just had to be a library like this. The desire brought into existence this library building which isn't very large...
The narrator lives in the library and never leaves the building, as he must always stay at his post in case someone rings the bell requesting a drop off. Authors and their books are listed in the Library Contents Ledger, and then authors are invited to place their book on any shelf they "fancy".
It doesn't matter where the book is placed because nobody ever checks them out and nobody ever comes here to read them. 
The narrator is not without company. His girlfriend, Vida, often stays with him at night. It is through this arrangement that Vida finds herself pregnant and begins to make plans for an abortion in Mexico, and the narrator prepares to leave the library for the first time since he took the job several years before in order to accompany her. He must find someone to watch the library, get several hundred dollars, make travel plans to fly to the border, make a hotel reservation, make a doctor's appointment, and return plans. All of which he does rather easily with the help of Foster, who had once made similar arrangements for a lady friend.

I have to admit that I was a bit jealous of the librarian in the story, who as Vida jokes, lives a hermit's life. Those who know me well know that I someday aspire to become a hermit. It seems that our narrator has the best of several worlds. He gets to be a hermit, and be a librarian, and have company when he wants. He does, however, return to the library after his excursion with Vida to an unexpected surprise.

A surreal read.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Library on Wheels - by Sharlee Glenn

This week (April 8-14) is National Library Week. Wednesday (April 11) was National Bookmobile Day. It was also the day that Glenn's book about the very first Bookmobile was published. I had pre-ordered it from Amazon, and it was shipped on Wednesday, arrived to Thursday, and read (by me) on Friday. Well researched and illustrated with historic photographs, letters, and other period artifacts, this book tells the story of Mary Lemist Titcomb, chief librarian of the Washington County (Maryland) Free Library from 1901-1931. Titcomb established several innovative library programs in the early 19th century, including instituting one of the first children's rooms, and delivering books and other library materials to schools. Not content with simply serving those who were able to come to the public library in Hagerstown (the county seat) Titcomb launched a story hour program for rural children, and set up book depositories in smaller towns, to ensure that access to books and reading was widespread. Realizing she was still not serving all residents, she commissioned the first bookmobile in the United States - a horse drawn wagon whose route included family farms and other isolated areas. The wagon was driven by the library's janitor, Joshua Thomas, who proclaimed himself to be a "Book Missionary" on the 1910 U.S. census.

My favorite part of this book has to be this bit from a newspaper article written about Ms. Titcomb for The (Hagerstown) Builder 
The hostess was most gracious, most charming. She wore a soft gray silk and a dainty slipper was visible. The hostile one saw it, saw too-could she believe it?-the feminine frivolity, a jeweled buckle. She heard too, the little woman discussing "Spring Fashions" vivaciously, knowingly, for Miss Titcomb is no mean authority on style and her dress, like her work, is always up-to-date.
It seems you can be fashionable while wearing sensible shoes.

For more books that feature bookmobiles (including another one about the very first bookmobile) you can see my previous posts here.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Educated - by Tara Westover

Raised and home-schooled by survivalist parents in the Idaho mountains Tara Westover rejected her family's admonishments not to go to college and enrolled in Brigham Young University (BYU) before she turned 18. Ultimately she becomes a Cambridge-educated PhD, but not without painfully examining her role in the family. Her father's conspiracy theories about universities and the Illuminati were made known to her long before she thought about going to college herself. Her mother had taken charge of her children's homeschooling, which mostly consisted of letting them learn what they wanted when they wanted, and included occasional trips to "the Carnegie library in the center of town".

Westover recognized that she was one of the least disciplined of her siblings when it came to "doing school" which gave her a lot of reason to doubt her abilities when she arrived at BYU. Her misgivings were magnified when she discovered that her classmates had an understanding of US culture and history that she did not share. Her realization that everyone else knew what the Holocaust was, for instance, caused her not only embarrassment, but also opened her eyes to the fact that her peers shared a collective knowledge that she was missing. She did not even know what she did not know.

If Westover had anxieties about her place at BYU they were only compounded when she arrived at Cambridge. Upon her arrival on campus she and her denizens were invited to take a tour of the chapel, including the roof. She describes the experience of watching her classmates, and her professor fight the wind on top of the building as they cling to the wall while she climbs higher. Finally explaining to her professor that "she'd roofed [her] share of hay sheds" and that
The wind is just wind. You could withstand these gusts on the ground, so you can withstand them in the air. There is no difference. Except the difference you make in your head...I'm just standing...You are all trying to compensate...You've made yourselves vulnerable. If you could just control your panic, this wind would be nothing.
Even this insight though, was accompanied by apprehension
I wanted the mind of a scholar, but it seemed that Dr. Kerry saw in me the mind of a roofer. The other students belonged in a library; I belonged on a crane.
Her ultimate success in earning her PhD demonstrates that she certainly did belong in a library, and the final third of the book (from the time she lands in Cambridge for the first time) is scattered with references to using it. This stands in stark contrast to the first 200 (plus) pages, where there is only one.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Commonwealth - by Ann Patchet

This year I am participating in the Baltimore County Public Library's #BWellRead Challenge which specifies one kind of book to read each month. I grew up in Baltimore County and I got my very first library card from BCPL in the 1970s, so although I now live and work in Massachusetts I am delighted to be a part of this endeavor. So far I've read Mona's Simpson's Anywhere But Here (January) and Beloved by Toni Morrison for February (no libraries in that one). March's challenge is to read a book with a one word title. I found Patchett's book on the Leisure Reading shelf of the Maxwell Library. I assumed it would be about Massachusetts, but it turns out the commonwealth in question is Virginia (FYI Kentucky and Pennsylvania are also commonwealths). And, like Irving Wallace's The Seven Minutes, the title of this book actually refers to a fictitious book of the same name.

This bit of meta-fiction about a blended family in the 1970s with six children is hardly the stuff of the Brady Bunch. Their parents' infidelity is what brings the Cousins and Keating children together and a disdain for their progenitors is what binds them. The novel follows the siblings through five decades. One of them, Franny, lands a job in the law library at the University of Chicago. This is what she refers to as her "real job". She also has an un-real job at the Palmer House restaurant as a cocktail waitress. The waitress job is the one that pays well while the pay at the library "is appalling".

As a child Franny was a heavy library user. She loved to read, forcing her father to make a comment that "It's a good thing there're going to be two lawyers in the family...Somebody's going to have to make the money to buy you all those books." To which Franny retorts "they're free...I check them out of the library."  Her sister Caroline makes a final condescending remark "Well, thank God for libraries".

Thank God, indeed.

Franny's stepbrother Albie finds that he can make good use of the public library as a free place to spend his evenings in order to give his sister and her family some privacy while he is sleeping on their couch. He always has a good book to read while he's there thanks to his job as a messenger which often has him delivering manuscripts to publishers. It is through this job that he finds himself with a copy of a novel that is clearly a thinly disguised story of his own family.

I found this work to be a true page-turner, and a perfect vacation read for my spring break trip to Florida. It was especially good for keeping my mind off of the airplane ride. My Florida friend saw that I was reading it and said that she had also recently read it for her book club and generally liked Ann Patchett's books. I will have to look for others.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Night Bookmobile - by Audrey Niffnegger

The unnamed narrator in this surreal tale discovers a special mobile library that contains everything she has ever read - not just the books but also "periodicals and ephemera-cereal boxes and such". "It's a very complete collection" the enigmatic librarian, Mr. Openshaw, tells her. She spends a few hours with her books, but as the sun rises Mr. Openshaw shoos her out of the shabby Winnebago that serves as her literary memory explaining that the library's hours are "dusk to dawn". The narrator's obsession with finding the bookmobile again leads to several major life changes for her - including becoming a librarian herself.

A story about the love of books, and reading, and how books hold and become our memories.