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.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's - by Greg O'Brien

O'Brien's book is Bridgewater's One Book One Community Read for fall 2017. The author - a father, journalist, and Alzheimer's patient - tells his story of living with the disease and the pain of watching himself lose control of basic skills. Diagnosed at age 59 with early-onset Alzheimer's his frustrations were compounded by the fact that he was still caring for his aging parents, his mother, likewise, suffering from dementia.

One one occasion, while O'Brien's father was recovering from surgery in a rehabilitation facility, his mother, who could not safely stay home alone, was also cared for there
the devoted staff took her by the hand to the library filled with four walls of books, they asked her what she wanted to read...she scanned the shelves for 15 minutes and then pulled out two books.
'I think I'll read these,' she finally said, not grasping title or author.
The books she chose were Secrets in the Sand and Nature on Cape Cod and the Islands - two books of mine...
'They just felt comfortable in her hands', the nurse told me later.
A true testimony to the power of books.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Splendora - by Edward Swift

Originally published in 1978, Swift's tale of about the new librarian (Miss Jessie Gatewood) in a small east Texas town features an ensemble cast of quirky characters. When the enigmatic Miss Jessie arrives in Splendora from New Orleans to set up the town's new bookmobile  (really just "a battered-up school bus with shelves") women begin to imitate her Victorian style of dress and vie to become her new best friend. Miss Jessie has eyes for Brother Anthony Leggett, assistant pastor of the First Baptist Church. He is likewise smitten with the new librarian. Each, however, has a secret that they believe may keep them apart.

Beyond her wearing her hair in a loosely twisted bun, Miss Jessie goes all out in dressing the part of a librarian.
That morning she had dressed beyond her thirty-three years in order to meet the town's and the committee's approval. She was well aware that her hemline fell halfway below her knees and a little farther still for good measure. She was secure in her dress of white eyelet over mint green cut with leg-o'-mutton sleeves, a high neckline, and trimmed with white silk ribbons...Her friend Magnolia had designed the dress and had carefully chosen the accessories: white silk, sweet-scented gloves, flowers at her throat, a pocket watch on a hold chain around her neck, and a white sash tied about her waist giving to her dress a slightly blousy effect, so right for her role...from her elbow dangled a white linen bag...and on her wrist hung a beaded reticule inside which she carried a white lace handkerchief, her cosmetics, and a few cigarettes she had no intention of smoking in public. Her lace-up shoes with one-inch heels have her the feeling a a matron, and her gold wire-rimmed glasses and Gibson-girl hair were just the right touches...
This costume is important, especially considering her credentials are fabricated. She has no library degree or training, Nevertheless, she set to work
converting the school bus into a library on wheels. She designed shelves of various sizes and asked the Ag boys to construct them. She sewed gingham curtains with lace trim for all the windows and found space in the back for a small table and three chairs. Then she began stocking the shelves with every title available and ordered more with funds the county provided.
Miss Jessie, furthermore, makes a map of the county "and a list of all the communities and crossroads to be included on [her] stops" and types "hundreds of file cards" - these of course would be for the card catalog, which libraries in 1978 would most certainly still have been using.

I was most intrigued by Miss Jessie's concern over some donated works, many of which "she lamented, are not suitable as they contain nothing that will advance the mind." This kind of thinking among librarians - that we should be gatekeepers of information, rather than connecting people with whatever information they want - was more common in the mid 1800s  (according to Wayne Wiegand's A Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library) than it is today, but certainly fit perfectly with Miss Jessie's Victorian ideals.

The rather Victorian courtship between the assistant pastor and the librarian was, of course, hot gossip for the town.
Chester Galloway saw them in his pasture and said that he did not think it looked too good for the assistant pastor and the town librarian to be entertaining themselves on the ground. His main concern was what the young people would think. But his wife, Verna, said that it looked perfectly all right as long as they were carrying a Bible. 
A quick check through spy glasses (and what's wrong with that?!) confirmed that the two were indeed using a Bible to hold down one corner of the blanket.

Their relationship takes some rather unexpected twists, especially when the town conspires to make it the focus of the annual Crepe Myrtle Pageant. Ultimately, the two find their own way, and more importantly, the town library finds a permanent home on the top floor of the newly renovated courthouse.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Orange is the New Black - by Piper Kerman

I've been intending to read Kerman's memoir ever since the debut of the Netflix series of the same name in premiered in 2013. After recently watching the fifth season, I finally got over to my public library and checked the book out. Much less edgy than the television show, Kerman's book is, nevertheless, a quick and fascinating read.

While the television show's characters Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) might have one believe that the prison library is a hub of activity, it was in fact barely mentioned in the book. Most of Kerman's reading materials were sent to her by friends and family, so much so that she ended up with her own personal library, which she was glad to share with others. When she left the federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut she donated all of her books to the prison library. She knows her books are being used when a year after her release she receives a letter from Danbury
Formal and stilted, it was from Rosemarie, and folded into it were two photographs of my grandmother. My cousin had sent them to me in prison...Rosemarie wrote that she hoped I was doing well on the outs, and that she had found these photos in a book in the library and recognized who it was. 
Photographs are among the more innocuous things found in returned library books. For some real tales from the stacks see this post from BookRiot, and this one from BuzzFeed.

Another fellow inmate, Levy, upon being released was interviewed by the Hartford Courant newspaper and described her six-month sentence as a "holiday" with a "wide range of classes" as well as "two libraries with a wide array of books and magazines, including Town and Country and People". All of this, of course was a surprise to her fellow inmates who listened to her complain and cry every day of her incarceration.

In the book's Afterword Kerman (now serving on the board of the Women's Prison Association) points out that the United States has the world's biggest prison population with 25% of the wold's prisoners, but only 5% of the world's population. Low level offenders make up a huge proportion of these inmates. She further explains
Most of the women I know from prison have lived lives that were missing opportunities many of us take for granted. It sometimes seems that we have built revolving doors between our poorest communities and correctional facilities, and created perverse financial incentives to keep those prisons full, at taxpayers' expense. America has invested heavily in prison, while the public institutions that actually prevent crime and strengthen communities - schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, community centers - go without.
Sing it, Sister!