Monday, June 17, 2019

Becoming - by Michelle Obama

As the semester wrapped up this spring two different students came to the reference desk and excitedly asked me if the library owned this book (we do). When I walked them to the shelf to show them where it was they also both asked if I'd read it yet (I hadn't). So, once classes were over I checked it out to see what all the fuss was about.

This, in fact, is a very good book. Obama is witty, and demonstrates grace and dignity in her writing. She is well educated and wicked smart (as we Bay Staters say) and as such she knows the value of libraries. She first mentions them on page 4.
My mother taught me how to read early, walking me to the public library, sitting with me as I sounded out words on a page 
After "plow[ing] through" the library's collection of Dick and Jane books (the same ones I learned to read with - she and I were born in the same year) she was excited to have new things to read when she entered kindergarten.

After graduating from high school she matriculated at Princeton (despite the comments of a thoughtless counselor had told her she was hardly Princeton material). Her awe of the university library is evident in her description
The main library was like an old-world cathedral, with high ceilings and glossy hardwood tables where we could lay out our textbooks and study in silence
She made good use of the library, studying in the carrels, and doing research about multiple sclerosis - the disease that afflicted her father - photocopying articles from medical journals to send to her parents.

Her observation about legacy kids "whose families had funded the building of a dorm or library" seems especially prescient given recent headlines about Ivy league admissions scandals.

Recognizing that she became successful in part due to the guidance of any number of people who came before her, mentoring others became one of Obama's passions. As the leader of a nonprofit group called Public Allies she worked with young people to help them find internships in the public sector. One of these protégés was a "twenty-six year old from Grand Boulevard who'd left high school but had kept up his education with library books and later gone back to earn his diploma". Who says libraries don't matter?

Just before moving into the White House she was treated to an insider's tour by outgoing first lady Laura Bush "a former schoolteacher and librarian". Obama writes graciously about Mrs. Bush, and other politicians, even those with whom she does not see eye to eye. However, when writing about 45 she pulls no punches. Her concerns about his vulgar language, his "birther" conspiracy theories, and ultimately, for the very safety of the country are made abundantly clear. I was especially interested to learn that 45 attended one of Barack Obama's White House Correspondents' dinners where he sat "stone-faced and stewing". Since 45 has not, in fact, attended any of the Correspondents' dinners since he entered the White House it is particularly intriguing that he attended one of his predecessors.

Written with finesse, this book is worthy of all the bubbly excitement demonstrated by the two students who asked me if I'd read it.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread - by Cailin O'Connor and James Owen Weatherall

While libraries are never specifically mentioned in this work, it's place on this blog is secured due to the information literacy theme. This work not only tells how false beliefs are spread (twitter isn't the only way) but also how some might be slowed down or stopped. This also explains how truth is malleable, and how even scientists and other experts can be mislead. No one is immune from false beliefs (not even librarians).

I was most interested in the conclusions because the authors make the same point I did when I presented on fake news at a conference two years ago. We cannot expect social media platforms, news aggregators, or algorithms to do this work for us.
...we need to recognize that fake news stories - and propaganda more generally - are not fixed targets. These problems cannot be solved once and for all. Economist Charles Goodhart is know for "Goodhart's law"..."When measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." In other words, whenever there are interests that would like to game an instrument of measurement, they will surely figure to how to do it - and once they do, the measurement is useless...As soon as we develop algorithms that block fake news sites, the creators of these sites will have tremendous incentive to find creative ways to outwit the detectors. 
The more we, as individuals, know the better we each can become at identifying fake news, fake research, and propaganda. My advice is to read as much as you can.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Ahab's Return: or, The Last Voyage - by Jeffrey Ford

In a re-imagined world of Melville's Moby Dick Captain Ahab (along with others of the crew of the Pequod) survived the attack of the white whale. A reformed Ahab comes to Manhattan in search of his wife and son, whom he has been told moved from Nantucket to live with a relative. In a tale of manticores and monsters Ahab reveals more about his travels. He also runs into Daggoo (aka Madi), harpooneer from the ill-fated Pequod. We learn a bit of Madi's back story - that he was young and wanted to see the world - and remembers very little of Africa
I only dimly recall my mother and father. My homeland and Islam. All that was washed out of me by the rolling sea. I've been on a voyage to another world, suffered solid months of stillness at the equator, and been lashed by furious typhoons. At night, I have fleeting glimpses of my father's handiwork, the jewels and metals he shaped like a sprinkling of gold dust in my dreams. That and a story my grandfather told me when I was a child of the fabulous libraries of Timbuktu.
Ahab enlists the help of a journalist George Harrow to navigate the city. Harrow, in turn, seeks assistance from Mrs. Pease, the archivist for the Gorgon's Mirror (the tabloid for which Harrow works). The archive comprised
shelves and drawers and cabinets containing various and sundry articles and clippings from myriad  local newspapers and magazines-all catalogued, filed, and cross-referenced according to a system devised by Mrs. Pease. How the materials were chosen-and the criteria by which they were arranged-was a mystery
Mrs. Pease knew the system though, and could find anything within. With information she found she was able to do research and create maps. Of course any one could tell you that a person with these duties and skills is a librarian. And, indeed, Harrow eventually identifies her as such.

A fun bit of fiction. I'm not sure how true Melville fans will feel about it, though.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Night Library - by David Zeltser

I'm always on the lookout books about libraries that also intersect with holidays and special events. Zeltser's picture book tells the story of a boy who learns about the magic of libraries on the eve of his eighth birthday (aka his "attainment day"). 

The unnamed narrator is somewhat less than impressed when his parents give him a book for his birthday. But with the help of New York Public Library's lions (Patience and Fortitude) and a fantastic night in the library when books come alive, he remembers the thrill of learning to read on his grandfather's lap. Now one book seems hardly enough! Thank goodness for library cards!

I bought this as a birthday present to myself. My husband and I read it together on my 55th birthday.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Who Killed the Fonz? - by James Boice

Mystery Month May continues with the gang from Happy Days. Unwilling to believe that the motorcycle crash that killed their super cool friend was an accident Richie, Potsie, and Ralph take on the Milwaukee political machine.

Set in the 1980s the paunchy, middle-aged friends start their own investigation into the accident and discover something much more sinister than they could have imagined.

There is a lot of re-hashing of individual plot lines from the old television show including the infamous jumping of the shark. For this blogger, however, the most important reminder was that Richie and Lori Beth met at their college library. So important was this detail, in fact, that it is mentioned twice in this rather short novel.

Fans of the show will likely enjoy this nostalgia trip. And you can be sure that, dead or alive, Fonzie will always save the day.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Everything I Never Told You - by Celeste Ng

Lydia Lee has a lot of pressure on her. Her mother (Marilyn) wants her to be a doctor (a dream she did not fulfill herself) and her Chinese-American father (James) wants her to be popular and to fit in (a dream he never realized). When their daughter's body is discovered at the bottom of  Middlewood Lake the Lees must come to grips with her death. The omniscient narrator gives the reader insight into each of the other members of the family and their histories, as well  as Jack, a classmate, and a person of interest in Lydia's disappearance. Readers eventually know for sure what happened. The Lees, however, are never convinced.

The story takes place during the late spring and summer of 1977. A time when Nath Lee, Lydia's older brother, is looking forward to starting Harvard. Harvard played an important role in the Lee family history; it is where Marilyn and James met in 1957 (in the history department which "had the peaceful quiet of a library"); and it was where James, notoriously, did not get hired once he earned his Ph.D.

Just before his sister's death Nath visited the Harvard campus where he
wandered awestruck, trying to take it all in: the fluted pillars of the enormous library, the red brick of the buildings against the bright green of the lawns, the sweet chalk smell that lingered in each lecture hall.
It is clear that James also remains in awe of Harvard. And that perhaps his son's acceptance is a vindication for him.

James' upbringing in Iowa, where he was the only person of Asian descent at the elite boarding school where his parents worked as a groundskeeper and kitchen worker made him long to be like everyone else. He surprised everyone at Lloyd Academy by passing the admission test, which allowed him to attend the school for free as the child of employees. He had no trouble answering the exam questions having learned so much from reading "all the books his father had bought, a nickel a bag, at library book sales."

Nath also took advantage of the library growing up. As a child he managed to get the librarian to allow him to borrow books from the adult section, and remained engrossed in learning about outer space, physics, and flight mechanics throughout his high school years.

And, finally, on a non-library note I feel compelled, as the wife of a geographer, to snark about this bit of undeserved Harvard fascination:

James' teaching assistant Louisa is less than impressed with some of the responses she found on student exams and tells him
I hope the summer students will be better... A few people insisted that that the Cape-to-Cairo Railroad was in Europe. For college students, they have surprising trouble with geography.
To which James responds:
Well, this isn't Harvard, that's for sure.
Except that it appears that where geography is concerned Middlewood College may indeed be able to hold a candle to our friends in Cambridge. Harvard, in fact, infamously got rid of its Geography department in 1948 when University President, and homophobe, James Conant declared geography "not an academic department".

This YouTube video give us some insight about the current state of geographic understanding at Harvard.

Death Overdue-by Allison Brook

It's Mystery Month May and so, although I don't really like mystery novels, I read one. Of course I picked one about a librarian.

This is a rather light mystery about a young librarian, Carrie, who with the help of a friendly ghost, Evelyn Havens (former library employee, and aunt to Carrie's nemisis "prune-faced" Dorothy), solves the 15-year old murder of Laura (another library employee) in the fictional town of Clover Ridge, Connecticut.

Some interesting tidbits worthy of comment here (besides the fact that Evelyn "shushes" Carrie when she first meets her).

Dorothy is quite an unpleasant sort and furthermore had been envious of Laura back in the day "because all the patrons liked her and wanted her to help them". Evelyn had tried to explain to Dorothy that she should smile more and speak in a "pleasant manner" so that patrons would like her too. Dorothy's response had been that
her job was to answer questions and look up information. She wasn't paid to be an entertainer as well 
And here I must give some acknowledgement to Dorothy's point of view. The expectation that we smile, and that part of our work must involve getting people to like us is a burden demanded heavily upon women. Somehow I doubt that if Dorothy had been a man anyone would have made the same suggestion. In fact, I expect that the opposite would have been true. Her serious manner would have instead have been seen as a sign that she knew what she was talking about.

Meanwhile, Carrie endures a bit of "mansplaining" from police Lieutenant Mathers who suggests that she can find out more about Laura's murder from the newspaper articles online, which she can read at the library.

I think the best line though (and what obviously makes this fiction is) when Carrie is offered the job of head of programs and events and is informed that while the work is demanding "the salary's quite good" LOL.