Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Stranger Things 2 - Episode 3 (The Pollywog)

Back in 1984 you couldn't just Google how to take care of a pollywog, or for that matter, shine your iphone's supernatural creature identification app at unknown beings to find out more about them. You had to go to the library. And look things up in books.

"Mr. Henderson, you know the rules. Five at a time." says the unnamed librarian when young Dustin attempts to check out five books, although Miss Librarian Lady knows he already has five books out. Dustin strategically tries to appeal to her sense of discovery, but she will have none of that. Five. At. A. Time. She emphasizes. The whole stereotypical exchange is so hokey we can almost forgive the cliche solution Dustin comes up with when he points to something behind Miss Librarian Lady and gasps "what the hell...", and then runs out with the five books. Does he ever return the stolen books? We may never know.

The Pleasure of My Company - by Steve Martin

Daniel Pecan Cambridge lives in Santa Monica, but inhabits a rather small world. His myriad phobias, obsessions, and preoccupations prevent him from going very far, or very fast. He knows few people yet somehow manages to become a murder suspect, a hero, and to win the Most Average American essay contest. Most incredible is that he is able to make a road trip to Texas with his therapist. It is during this trip that our protagonist makes an unprecedented stop at a library in order to do some research on investing.

This short book has some wonderful character development.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

WLT: A Radio Romance - by Garrison Keillor

Spanning three decades (seven if you count the epilogue) this novel tells the story of the Soderbjerg Brothers (Ray & Roy) and their radio station. Started in the 1920s, along with a sandwich shop, the brothers built a following of listeners as they produced radio programs from weather and crop reports, to cooking shows, to gospel music, to drama. Listeners became attached to the characters from their favorite serial programs as they remained blissfully unaware of the drama and animosity that sometimes played behind the idyllic stories.

One of those stories was Avis Burnett, Small Town Librarian "starring Marcia Rowles as the ever-patient Avis, the woman who sacrifices her own happiness in the service of others", as well as "recommending good books to the ladies of town and fending off the men..."

WLT refused to hire college graduates, especially not fraternity boys, for fear that a "smutty remark" might be made. Ray specifically imagined a scenario that involved Avis
going to work weekends in a tavern, and Dad Benson of Friendly Neighbor unbuttoning her bodice and drinking sloe gin. "Your breasts are as firm as a tabletop," he would exclaim as thousand of families across Minnesota and Wisconsin leaned forward. "Oh boy! and look at those pert nipples!"
Burnett's was not the only library to make an appearance in a radio play. The Darkest Hour featured a plot line in which a grief-stricken Mrs. Colfax
left a large legacy to the [Johnson Corners] library, which stupid Mr. Hooley dropped in a snowbank the same day her playboy pal Emerson Dupont arrived to fetch her in a long black Packard...and the money was lost, and nothing to do but wait until spring and hope for the best
Brother Ray made semi-annual trips to New York City. Sometimes he went with his wife, Vesta, but "more often, with an Other Woman...With Vesta along, it was all High Purpose: they made the rounds of bookstores and toured the sacred sites (Cooper Union, the Public Library, the Museum of Natural History). But with an O.W. he reclined in bed in gorgeous yellow pajamas and was waited on by the dear thing...

Away from the radio station, there were no rules about who could sleep with whom, but Brother Ray had a firm rule of "No Sex On The Premises...spelled out to every man he hired, even the Rev. Irving James Knox way back in 1927". At the time Knox expressed some indignation that Ray would even suggest that such a rule would have to be expressed to a man of the cloth, but Ray was adamant that Knox understand the mandate that "fornication [be kept] out of the station". Knox, as one might expect, succumbed to his weaknesses with a girl from the typing pool. And Ray opened the floodgates of fornication when he failed to fire the minister after he wept and told Roy "that he was troubled by unnatural sexual urges". WLT went through months of heavy erotic activity which included "John Tippy falling in love with the music librarian, a young pianist named Jeff".

It also turned out that the minister's peccadilloes were many. A file box marked "Knox: Testimony in re Patrimony: SAVE" told the story of a man "besotted with lust". Letters gave evidence of "Offers of private swimming lessons! Invitations to travel!  Invitations to pose for photographs! Hikes in the woods! Rendezvouses in the library stacks!"

The Library as salvation is a theme seen through the story of Francis With (a.k.a. Frank White) and his sister Jodie. Following the gruesome death of their father young Jodie found solace in the school library reading "picture books about the lives of rich people in New York City". Francis went to live with his Aunt Clare and Uncle Art (who worked at WLT) in Minneapolis where he "liked to ride the Como-Xerxes streetcar downtown, spend an hour at the main library, and walk to the Hotel Ogden and hang around WLT...".

Ultimately, young Frank gets a job at WLT. It is noteworthy that his first day on the air finds him giving a PSA during Library Week and "sincerely urging people to please, support their public library".

Brother Roy had an epiphany about radio's place in the history of storytelling after reading Soren Blak's Experience of Innocence. Most important though, about Blak's work was that we learn that he "had taught himself reading John Greenleaf Whitterier, the only English book in the Glomfjord Library". 

A cast of quirky characters who use their libraries always makes for a good read.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 - by David Sedaris

I went to my fourth David Sedaris event last Thursday in New Bedford (MA). The very next day James and I wrapped up our reading his latest book together. In the introduction to this work of diary entries he makes clear that this is only a "small fraction" of all that actually appears in the 156 volumes of his diaries. And that a different edit "from the same source material could make [him] appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even...sensitive". What I saw, as a fan who has been following him since I first heard him on NPR in the early 1990s, was a person who was all these things, as well as a person who is a regular, if not frequent, user of libraries.

His introduction points out that the "early years, 1977-1983, were the bleakest" and "fueled by meth". I think it is also significant, then, that he mentions going to the library only infrequently during this time period. The word "library" appears three times during the first five years of entries, and only two of those were to discuss his own visits to the library, the other was as part of an overheard conversation at the IHOP - a place Sedaris appears to have frequented more often than the library - between two blind men one of whom talked about "the library for the blind and some good books he'd listened to lately." There is a definite change in the tone of the entries in 1984 when he moves to Chicago, and, I would add, a slight uptick in his frequency of discussing his use of the library, or reading of a library book.

In one of his first entries after moving to New York in 1990 he rambles about working out his "coffee situation". He is not crazy about either the IHOP which while they serve awful coffee (no surprise), they do give customers a whole pot, nor the Bagel Buffet which serves coffee in paper cups (blech) for .60 each. He wraps all this up with this truth: "Now I need a library card." There is no mention at all of the library in any of his 1991 entries, but he makes up for it by making two references (pun intended) in 1992 - one to lament that the library is closed on Lincoln's birthday. After this there is a concerning drop in the number of times the author uses the word library. I can only hope that this was simply an editing oversight, and that a different edit of this diaries would be in fact teeming discussions of all the great library books the author read, and how helpful and friendly the librarians were, but this edit has only mentions the word library twice after 1994 - one in 1998 (Paris) which was only to relate a story told to him about a friend of a friend, who, when he starting flipping through a magazine at a newsstand was told by the proprietor that they were not a "lending library".

I found the final mention of the word "library" in the last entry for 2001. It was poignant in its wistfulness. While contemplating what to wish for as he blew out the candles on his birthday cake Sedaris laments
When told to make a wish, I settled back in my chair, realizing I should have given it some prior thought. One option was an apartment in London, but in the end I wished for the opposite: the absence of things. Over the past few years I've fallen deeper into the luxury pit. I used to get pleasure from sitting at the pancake house with a new library book, but now I mainly buy things and work crossword puzzles.
Here's hoping that we see a resurgence of library use in the second volume.

If you haven't yet discovered David Sedaris, you really are missing some great humor. Find out more at

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

What's New About Fake News

Last fall I was on sabbatical. My intention during my time of reflection and scholarship was to research how to teach students to evaluate web resources. However, as the 2016 election season heated up I became concerned, as did many, with the proliferation of fake news and falsehoods being reported (both intentionally and unintentionally) in news sources and social media. And so my research was refocused. Ultimately what I concluded was that people need to read more, and read deeply if they are to become informed, critical thinkers, especially where the news in concerned.

I was excited to learn that the MassHumanities Fall Forum this year would bring together a panel of top-notch journalists to discuss the very topic I have been studying and presenting about during the past year. The panel included documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson; Managing Editor of The Onion Marne Shure; and Claire Wardle, Strategy and Research Director of First Draft. Moderating this impressive group was Pulitzer Prizer winner Sacha Pfeiffer.

Ms. Wardle opened the discussion by admonishing all (panelists and audience members alike) to abolish the use of the term "fake news". She instead identified three different types of information that have been given this moniker:

Misinformation has no bad intent - perhaps something that is mistakenly reported by news media. Once the news source recognizes the mistake they rectify or clarify with the correct information.

Disinformation is deliberate, intentional spreading of news that is not true.

Malinformation is news that while true, should not be disseminated.

Ms. Shure followed with commentary about satire, which is assuredly not the same as "fake news". Satire intends to train, not trick. Satire is used to help us see a larger truth through the use of humor. She specifically stated that when one of the stories from The Onion starts going viral as a "true" story it means that the writers have failed at their job. I especially liked what she said about Facebook's labeling of "satire" for stories such as those from The Onion. Labeling removes the burden of the "mental labor" required on the part of readers to identify satire themselves. This is not a good thing. Labeling essentially takes away the reader's agency.

I learned some new terms from the panel that helped me to think more deeply about how news is consumed and disseminated:

  • Frankenbiting - splicing together of sound bites to make it appear that a person said something they didn't, even though all the words are theirs.
  • Strategic Silence - a move on the part of the news media not to mention a fake news story, even with the intention of debunking it. Even when they report it as false, it helps the story to spread.
  • Emotional Skepticism - Something that we should all employ before hitting the "share" button (or posting a comment). That which tells us to actually read a news story, and then wait a few minutes before sharing it, rather than simply reading the headline and allowing ourselves to become indignant.
  • Arms race on technology - as new technologies are applied to programs in order to fight malicious information, we can be sure something else will be created in order to combat those. When we allow technology to make decisions for us how long is it before the technology is hijaked? Again, this conclusion mirrors one that I came to myself when I did some research for a presentation I gave at the Tafila Technical University in Jordon this summer. Technology is a tool, but it is not the end answer, (there is never just one answer)! Fresh concerns over consumers' agency arise. Most of us (myself included) do not understand the algorithms being used to tell us what to read. When we let other people, and machines, decide what we see we give up control. 

Once upon a time we all consumed the same news. Everyone in the neighborhood got the same paper, and watched the news from the same three networks on television. Now, each person can choose what they see, and what they don't see. This makes for a challenging way to run a democracy.

A special thanks to David Leonard, President of the Boston Public Library for the "shout out" to librarians at the end of the program!

More information about the forum and the panelists can be found here My husband's insights on the program can be found on his Environmental Geography blog.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Knight to Remember - by Bridget Essex

I don't always read romances, but when I do they are about librarians.

One of the tasks in the Book Riot Read Harder 2017 Challenge is to read an LBGTQ+ romance novel. Since I have previously read, and blogged about, a same sex romance featuring men (see my post on Adrian's Librarian), I decided that this year's read-a-romance-month book should be about women.

Librarian Holly doesn't have much in common with her girlfriend Nicole. Nicole isn't crazy about Renaissance Festivals, or Holly's dog, or even (gasp) reading! So when sexy Virago appears in all her knightly-ness to save the world from a supernatural beast it isn't a hard sell for Holly to give up Nicole to follow her fantasy woman.

The book didn't have a whole lot of the straight dope on Holly's library work, except for one section in which Holly takes Virago to work with her. When Holly explains that she works in a library that's "full of books" Virago explains that she has libraries in her world, too. And she loves them.

Holly goes about her day doing library things such as helping her friend Alice with story time. Alice has the sexy librarian thing going with "her long blonde hair...piled on top of her head in a sweeping curve, and her cat glasses twinkl[ing] from a beaded chain around her neck...wearing skinny jeans and a vanilla blouse". Virago meanwhile settles into reading in the castle-like library (with "three brick towers and turrets...and stained glass windows colorfully marching along the side of the building"). The description of Virago sitting on the floor reading is quite sensual (I found it even more enticing than the rather gosh-darn explicit sex scene). After being admonished to be quiet ("with the universal gesture of 'sh'") by fellow librarian Alice, Holly finds her knight
seated on the floor, her back against a shelf of books, her legs folded in front of her gracefully, a book propped up on her lap, and her elbows propped on her knees as she carefully curves her body over the book, utterly intent on devouring it. Her brows are furrowed in concentration, and she traces a few lines from the page with a long finger, entranced by what she's reading.
My heart skips a beat as I watch her read that book. She's so obviously engrossed and delighted by what she's finding between the covers...She seems to be devouring information...
It's no wonder that Holly's best friend Carly reminds her that "librarians are super desirable - they're hot! I mean, they make porn about librarians".

As a librarian herself, Holly understands the importance of super-hero librarians in the lives of others, and remembers the one who inspired her as a geeky gay kid in high school - the one who introduced her to her favorite book The Knight and the Rose. Miss T knew that "everyone need[ed] a heroine like them" and suggests a book about a girl named Miranda who becomes a knight, and falls in love with a princess. 

The book is a "comfort read" for Holly - the one she turns to when she's had a bad day. And so, when Holly's lover leaves her at the Renaissance Faire, Holly eschews her "to be read" pile and instead her "fingers grasp a familiar and well-worn volume" as she remembers the first time she read it, after a good cry in her high school bathroom.

A good librarian book with two different kinds of libraries A fun read overall.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Mermaid Chair - by Sue Monk Kidd

Set in a fictitious place called Egret Island off the coast of South Carolina, Kidd's book tells the story of Jessie, who falls in love with a monk when she travels to visit her mother, Nelle, a cook for the island's religious brotherhood. Estranged from her mother for the previous five years Jessie is called back to her childhood home by a family friend, Kat, who gives Jessie the disturbing news that her mother has purposefully cut off one of her fingers.

Father Dominick is the librarian in this work. It is through him that Jessie's paramour (Whit) learns that Nelle had taken two books out of the library before chopping off her digit. Legenda Aurea: Readings on the Saints contained the story of St. Eudoria a twelfth-century prostitute who cut off her finger and planted it in a wheat field. Indigenous Religious Traditions relates the story of Sedna, an Inuit sea goddess whose fingers are severed by her father as she tries to hold onto a boat. All ten of her fingers become sea creatures. 

I was most intrigued by Sedna's story. When Paloma was young we often read the picture book Song of Sedna together. The version we had was a bit scary, but not as gruesome as the one depicted in Kidd's book. The story of St. Eudoria, by the way, was an invention of the author.

Well, I guess this just goes to show that books are dangerous. If Nelle had not found those books she probably would still have all of her appendages. The idea that reading can be harmful is reinforced by The Reverend Father, Dom Anthony, who forbids Whit (aka Brother Thomas) from reading anything by the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer when it was discovered the Bonhoeffer's writings were feeding Thomas' doubts.

The library is also the site of one clandestine meeting between the forbidden lovers. I don't think that Kidd intended to write a book with the purpose of demonstrating the dangers lurking in libraries, but when reading only the passages that highlight books, the message is clear.