Monday, December 2, 2019

Mrs. Fletcher - by Tom Perrotta



Divorced Eve Fletcher is getting ready to send her only son, Brendan, to college. In this case the college is the fictitious Berkshire State University in Massachusetts (aka BSU - the shortened version of  the non-fictitious Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, where I work). This novel alternates between a third-person narration of Eve's life and a first-person narration of Brendan's.

Brendan meets Amber while trying to study at the University library. She comes to the library along with a group of students who are protesting the Michael Brown shooting (Ferguson, Missouri). For Amber Brendan is a "bouquet of red flags" but the two do share the fact that they each have an autistic sibling in common. This, however, is not enough to sustain a relationship. And despite the fact that he occasionally goes to the library to study, Brendan doesn't do well in college, and drops out by Thanksgiving.

Eve, meanwhile has been attending classes at the local community college. She enjoys her class in gender studies and interacting with her classmates, but in the spring when Brendan decides to enroll in classes there she gives this up so as to "spare him the embarrassment of attending the same college as his mother, of possibly bumping into her at the library..."

Something else Eve explores when she becomes an empty-nester is her own sexuality. One way she does is through a three way involving one of her much younger classmates (Julian) and one of her employees (Amanda). Not surprisingly Amanda leaves her job at the Senior Center shortly thereafter in order to take a job at the Public Library as Director of Children's Events "in charge of story time, arts and crafts, author visits, holiday celebrations...Kind of like here (the senior center) just with kids instead of old people." It is at the library that Amanda finds her soul mate "an excommunicated Mormon research librarian named Betsy".

This is good satire. Looking forward to watching the HBO series.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder - by John Waters



John Waters was the keynote speaker at the Association of College and Research Libraries Conference at the Baltimore Convention Center in 2007. And I was there. As a dyed-in-the-wool Baltimoreon I was happy to visit my hometown and hear this native son giving us exceptional advice  on how to get more people to visit the library ("be nude").

In this collection of essays he reflects on his work over the last 50 years, and looks at his life today. I was glad to find five places where libraries were mentioned, although all were a bit unusual.

In "Bye, Bye Underground" in which he describes his "odorama" gimmick in the film Polyester using scratch and sniff cards he tells of 3M's inspriational "library of smells".

He recounts many of the strange things people have asked him to autograph, including a freshly used tampon, in "Overexposed". It is of course not unusual to ask an author to sign a book and he relates the story of a girl he scolded for "bending the paperback cover back far enough to break the spine when she asked for autograph on the tile page". The fan snapped back at him "I bought the book, so I can do anything I want with it." Waters accepts this and paraphrases the young woman: "In other words, take your library-science bullshit and shove it, Mr. Know-It-All."

Few people would suggest that their ideal home would be in the Brutalist architecture style, but Waters' describes a house of horrors to rival the Addams Family's in "My Brutalist Dream House". The house does have a library, though which one would be able to enter a panic room
by pulling a faux spine of a book you grab like a handle and the whole shelf spins around. Once you saw the horrifying selection of fascist books displayed here in my satellite reading room, you'd feel anything but safe. Hitler at Home, Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler's Germany, Magda Goebbles: First Lady of the Third Reich, and Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families. We've got all the other monsters, too: Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Ronald Reagan, even On Democracy by Saddam Hussein.  
As this essay wraps up Waters fetishizes Brutalism as he fantasizes about his favorite coffee-table book This Brutal World by Peter Chadwick. "Damn" he says "that giant concrete mushroom sprouting rigidly from the top of the Geisel Library in San Diego (architect: William Pereira) is hot!"


I'd never heard about Betsy the finger-painting chimpanzee before reading "Betsy". This monkey artist, like Waters and me, hailed from Baltimore. Betsy had some fame in the 1950s, but it was short-lived. Likewise her boyfriend Dr. Thom (a relationship created by her managers) was unable to find success playing piano.
Dr. Watson tried to make him a star in his own right, buying him a piano and hoping to donate some of the recordings of his banging on the keys to the public library to be cataloged and placed alongside the the composers Beethoven, Bartók, and Brahms. The library politely declined. 
I do wonder which library was contacted. Enoch Pratt? Baltimore County Public?

Fans of Waters won't be surprised by his raunchy brand of humor. Those who don't like him, still won't like him, and those who don't know him will likely find out more than they bargained for.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Enough Said - the movie


Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) meets Marianne (Catherine Keener) and Albert (James Gandolfini) at a party. She becomes friends with Marianne, and begins dating Albert unaware that he is Marianne's ex-husband. Eva has heard Marianne bad-mouthing her ex on any number of occasions, and when she discovers that Marianne's ex is her new boyfriend, what she once found endearing about him, suddenly becomes annoying.

Albert works at a television and movie archive and has an uncanny ability to provide historic television lineup information for any day of the week.

Daughter of Fortune - by Isabel Allende



My summer vacation was spent in Chile and Argentina this year. I watched a total eclipse of the sun in the Elqui Valley of Chile, and visited a number of wineries in both countries. Valpariso was not far from where we stayed in Chile, and is the location of much of the action in Allende's book. The story centers on Eliza Sommers, ward of siblings Jeremy and Rose Sommers. Eliza is an adventurer and thus the novel takes the reader not only to nineteenth century Chile, but also to China, and to California during the gold rush.

Libraries play a role in several character's lives. Jacob Todd "a charismatic redhead with the most beautiful preacher's voice" who traveled to Chile from England on a bet uses the archives of the British Museum to research the the land, and discovers that
in 1810 Chile opened its doors to immigrants, who had come by the hundreds...The English quickly made fortunes as merchants and ships' outfitters... 
Todd also spent some time in the Sommers' private library trying to find out more about the Patagonia Indians, but gave up after making a "a few half-hearted sweeps through some heavy tomes" when he discovered that "it made little matter what he knew or didn't know since ignorance of the subject was universal".

The library is also a place of sanctuary at different times for Eliza and Jeremy. It also served as a place for Eliza to meet her clandestine lover.

Tao Chi'en, a Chinese doctor made use of the library of his mentor to learn the "two hundred twenty-two love positions" as well as the "countless ways of pleasing a woman". Additionally, he learned the necessary medical knowledge to make herbal medicines, and perform surgery.

This is a wonderful novel with just a touch of Allende's signature Magic Realism.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Testaments - by Margaret Atwood



Among Harry Potter fans there is a stretch of time known as the three-year-summer -the period between July 2000 and June 2003. It references the spacing between the fourth and fifth books in the series. It was a difficult time for us to be sure, but it was nothing compared to the 35-year wait Atwood fans endured for this sequel to The Handmaid's Tale.

This was well worth the wait. While not a continuation of Offred's story we do discover what happened to her and the baby she was carrying. Instead this is a novel in three voices.

The first is Aunt Lydia by way of the Ardua Hall Holograph, a clandestine memoir, secretly written, a la Winston Smith in George Orwell's 1984. The difference here is that Aunt Lydia is less likely to be discovered by the cameras because, as she tells us "I know where they are, having placed them myself". The other two voices are those of Agnes Jemima a young woman who grew up in Gilead; and Daisy, who grew up in Canada where she learned about Gilead through her parents and her lessons at school. Both of these young women have several different aliases.

Aunt Lydia lives in Ardua Hall, along with all the other aunts in the city. Each evening she heads to her "private sanctum" in the Hildegard library "one of the few libraries remaining after the enthusiastic book-burnings that have been going on..." The Ardua Hall library has different rooms with different levels of access. Aunt Lydia has access to all - the General section where new supplicants learn to read; the Reading room "where the Bibles brood in the darkness of their locked boxes, glowing with arcane energy"; and the Bloodlines Genealogical Archives with their classified files. Aunt Lydia knows that knowledge is power, something that clearly the Commanders of Gilead are also quite aware, otherwise they would have no reason to deny the ability to read to women. Even some of the Aunts believe that reading can be too dangerous. The residents of Ardua Hall know all too well the story of poor Aunt Lily who neither wanted to marry nor stay in Ardua Hall instead "she wanted to live on her own and work on a farm. Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Vidala said this was what came of reading too early...before her mind was strengthened enough to reject [the wrong ideas] and there were a lot of questionable books that should be destroyed".

Daisy and Aunt Lydia both describe visiting their school libraries as a children, and both tell of a specific book they remember from their respective school libraries. Contrary to the experiences of Aunt Lydia and Daisy, going to a library is privilege that Agnes Jemima never had. Her experiences in a library (a word she never even heard as a child) would come later in her life. When she does enter a library for the first time she is overwhelmed
It's hard to describe the feeling this gave me. The first time I passed through its doors, I felt as if a golden key had been given to me - a key that would unlock one secret door after another, revealing to me the riches that lay within. 
Eventually, Agnes does some work in the Hildegard library, as does her friend Becka (aka Aunt Immortell). Agnes' job is to make "fair copies of Aunt Lydia's speeches". It is through working on this task that she discovers some disturbing information about her family. Someone who knows that knowledge is power begins slipping files with classified information in between the files of speeches to be copied.

We don't know much about what Becka's job in the library is, except that she sometimes has "night duty" there. Aunt Lydia does mention that there is a "night librarian" on duty whom she greets on the way to her sanctum.

Aunt Lydia uses the library as a cover on behalf of two residents of Ardua Hall when it is discovered that they are not at lunch. Aunt Lydia knows their whereabouts but instead tells the others "I believe they are fasting...I glimpsed them in the Hildegard Library yesterday, studying their Bibles".

Reading and writing are forbidden for women and girls in Gilead, with the exception of the Aunts. Books were apparently their consolation prize for not being able to have husband or babies. As Agnes Jemima tells us "the Aunts were not married; they were not allowed to be. That was why they could have writing and books". I've thought about this passage a lot as a person who loves reading and writing and who is also a woman who has had a husband for 33 years. For me the choice of family or literacy seems a particularly grim game of  "Would you rather..." If I had never fallen in love with my husband in the first place the answer would be clear, but given the choice of leaving my husband or keeping my privilege of literacy what would I do?

Of course the Aunts don't really make this choice. They don't leave their husbands, they never had them to begin with.  They have their books and writing, and they have each other for company. Although Aunt Lydia doesn't have close friends among the other Aunts, she understands that she needs their companionship. As she discovered when placed in solitary confinement prior to facing her own Hobson's Choice of Aunt-hood or death "One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person".

Across from Ardua Hall, the Eyes also have headquarters in what used to be a library. Aunt Lydia tells us that "It now shelters no books but their (the Eyes) own, the original contents having been burned or, if valuable, added to the private collections of various sticky-fingered Commanders."

As with The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments ends with an epilogue in the form of an academic conference. Here we read the transcripts of The Thirteenth Symposium of Gileadean Studies, International Historical Association Convention, Passamaquoddy, Maine, June 29-30, 2197. The keynote speaker is Professor James Darcy Pieixoto who immediately, condescendingly, points out that the Chair of the Symposium, Professor Maryanne Crescent Moon, would never have had that position in Gilead, and  that in fact "women are usurping leadership positions to...a terrifying extent".
As in The Handmaid's Tale Pieixoto is the only male narrator, and similar to his comments in that novel, he begins by questioning the authenticity of the recently discovered holograph, and the two witness testimonies (discovered in the library of the Innu University in Sheshatshiu, Labrador), but ultimately, charitably suggests "why not take them at their word?" The testimonies were discovered by a graduate student, a woman - Mia Smith, who shared them with her professor, who of course first questioned their authenticity. Once a team of graduate students followed the route described in the transcripts, and validated certain details was Peixioto ready to take on the work of doing the seminal research on them - talk about a usurper.


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Behold the Dreamers - by Imbolo Mbue


Jende Jonga lives in Harlem with his wife Neni, and son Liomi. Immigrants from Cameroon, Jende lands a job as a chauffeur for an executive at Lehman Brothers while Neni studies to become a pharmacist. They don't have a lot of money, and they know that they can get good, free assistance at the library. This is evident in the first paragraph of the first page of the book.
He'd never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his résumé. He hadn't even owned a résumé until the previous week when he'd gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him...

Neni also makes good use of her college library to do her homework.



Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Now and Then - the movie


How can it be that even the "now" part of this movie is nostalgia? I first saw this movie, in which a bunch of 30-something women reminisce about the summer of 1970, on VHS tape over two decades ago. I had forgotten that library research was an important part of the plot.

Four old friends get together as one of their crew is set to give birth to her first child. They remember a summer when, as preteens, they worked to earn enough money to buy a tree-house from Sears. Exactly what kind of work they were doing is unclear. They only thing we know for sure is that they got $10 for painting a garage door. Everything else is a mystery. Perhaps they were babysitting, but in 1970 they were getting $1 per hour - at best.

Anyway, in addition to earning money for the tree-house the friends also spend some time trying to discover how Johnny Simms (aka "Dear Johnny") died. Intrigued by a headstone located in the local cemetery of a boy who perished in 1945 at the age of twelve, they set out to find how a child of their age could have passed at such a young age. Logically, they go to the public library to see if they can find newspaper articles, but they are informed that the newspapers from the period they need were destroyed in a fire. However, they are informed, the Greenfield library did have all the copies. "We can't ride our bikes all the way to Greenfield, can we?" asks one of the girls? Well, perhaps back in 1970 when parents just assumed their kids were all right unless they heard otherwise four young girls could ride 180 miles to go to the library but I can't imagine that the library would still be open when they arrived, and they'd never be able to return on the same day. We'll chalk this one up to "art doesn't have to imitate life".
Google maps screenshot indicating that it is a 14-hour bike ride from Shelby to Greenfield

When they do arrive at their destination they are disappointed to discover that someone has torn some of the pages out of the bound newspapers, just the pages they need to find out the truth of what happened to Dear Johnny. A true hazard of the pre-digital age. I must say I was impressed that they managed to use a photocopier without going to a librarian and explaining that they'd never used one before and therefore needed help. Apparently they did what I did the first time I used a library photocopier and simply read the directions. I really wish more people would do that.

Lagniappe:
As a little meta-bonus surprise this film had a clip from Love Story which itself is a library movie!

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Chestnut Street - by Maeve Binchy


I picked this book from a free book exchange shelf. I was drawn to the title as Chestnut Street is also the name of the street where my beach house is located. Binchy's Chestnut, however, is in Dublin, Ireland rather than on the south coast of Massachusetts.

Like the similarly titled The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros Binchy's book is a series of vignettes. Some of the characters and events overlap, but each chapter can stand on its own. The stories represent different periods of time from the 1950s to the 2000s. 

Several of the stories involve library users or library workers. 

First up is young Nessa (aka Vanessa) who was told by her sophisticated Aunt Elizabeth that "All that matters is seeing places of elegance, places with high standards". Such places include the Chester Beatty Library. Her aunt also explains that there is no reason for her (Vanessa) to take piano lessons as she can learn to appreciate music by borrowing music CDs from the library.

Additionally we meet:

  • Libby who found solace in volunteering in bookshops and libraries when her marriage fell apart
  • Molly who discovered that going to the library and reading all the books she "meant to read" was part of a miracle cure for insomnia
  • Brian "Bucket" Maguire who sought assistance from "Miss Mack in the library - before she went blind - for suitable books and games he could share with [his son] Eddie on his visits" 
  • And Gwendoline who wondered why her new neighbor Carla owned so many paperbacks "instead of borrowing them from the library, where they were free"
Usually when I take a book from a free book exchange, I send it back out into the universe of book readers by placing it on another free shelf, or in a Little Free Library. This one, though, I will put in a place of honor on the shelf in my own house on Chestnut Street.


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Loves, Lies, and Hocus Pocus: Beginnings - by Lydia Sherrer


Gotta love a magical librarian.

Lily Singer only had a vague sense that she was different growing up in Alabama with her mother, step-father, and step-siblings. She knew little about her birth father and her mother was evasive about him. Feeling like an outsider, she left home as soon as she could and ultimately became a librarian landing a job in the Archives at the Agnes Scott College McCain Library. The description of her office was enough to make me question the verisimilitude of the story, although the College and library are indeed real places.
Her office was a spacious room on the first floor, with a high ceiling and expansive windows. Tall bookshelves covered most of the other three walls, and a large, mahogany desk dominated the center of the room...The desk's dark wood surface was polished to a shine...
Also hard to believe is that not only has twenty-five year old Lily landed the prestigious position of Administrative Coordinator/Archives Manager, she did so without ever earning an advanced degree. While she has "four-years undergraduate work-study in the stacks" as well as a "BA in history and a minor in classics", generally such a position in an academic library in the 21st century would require, at the very least, a Master's of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree. In Lily's case it looks like nepotism of the wizarding sort played a large part in her procuring the position.
Of course, Lily's love of books, organized nature, and library experience weren't the only reasons behind Madam Barrington's choice. The real reason was she'd needed someone to to take over as curator of the "Basement"- a secret archive beneath the McCain Library containing a private collection of occult books on magic, wizardry, and arcane science. Being a wizard herself, Madam Barrington had recognized Lily's innate ability soon after she'd begun her freshman year. 
This book contains two stories (or "episodes"). In each we find Lily using both her wisdom and her wizardry to solve a magical problem.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Richard Wright and the Library Card - by William Miller



In honor of Library Card Sign-up Month I chose this story based on an episode from Wright's autobiography Black Boy. 

Growing up in the segregated south young Richard Wright had limited educational opportunities. Neither was he able to use the library as it was open for whites only. As a young man he left his home in Mississippi and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. In Memphis he asked a white co-worker, Jim Falk, to help him to get books from the library. Wright took Falk's card to the library and told the librarian he was checking out books for Mr. Falk who was too busy to come himself. When further questioned by the librarian Wright insisted that we couldn't be checking out the books for himself because he couldn't even read. Once the librarian believed this lie Wright was able to check out any book he liked.

Richard Wright's love of reading ultimately inspired him to become a writer himself.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Waiting for the Biblioburro=Esperando el Biblioburro - by Monica Brown


Ana lives in rural Colombia and owns one book. She loves to read, but her village has no teacher, so she has no access to more books. One day she hears the clip-clop of hooves and discovers a librarian coming with two donkeys who are carrying books! The librarian tells her she can borrow some books and he will come back in a few weeks so she can return them and borrow others. Ana not only loves to read stories, she likes to tell them, too, so she writes her own book. A book about the biblioburros!

This is the second book I've read about the Biblioburro, but the first that is written in parallel English and Spanish text, which means this one is my favorite.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free



Based on her own experiences, and interviews with dozens of women, Klein's scholarly memoir describes how the purity movement (or what Jessica Valenti calls "the cult of virginity") perpetuates rape culture and creates a climate of humiliation for women. Far from being healthy, many of those who grew up with abstinence-only messages not only found themselves unable to have a healthy sexual relationship, their mental and physical health often suffered as well.

Libraries are mentioned in only three places in this work, but of course that is three times as many as are needed to secure a spot on my blog. They all came near the end. One involved a young evangelical man concerned about his obsession with women's bodies. He would walk "around campus, the library, the supermarket, perpetually hoping to see another accidental glimpse of ...something [cleavage, leg, skin]". He was, laughably, advised by his pastor to attend a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting, where, not surprisingly, he was met with "an awkward silence" after sharing his story.

Another passage recounted a gay lawyer's research in Washington, DC's theological libraries "where he continued to wrestle with the rift between theology he loved and the lived experience he couldn't refute."

The most interesting, however, was this passage of a young woman who told her story of contemplating suicide
Rosemary prepared for a trip to Europe, where she would spend her sophomore year of college. By the time she was packing her bags...she was so depressed that she was seriously planning her suicide. She would kill herself in a European library, she told herself. She had always loved books so much.
Ultimately, the trip had a healing effect when Rosemary found a brand of Christianity in Europe that focused on fellowship rather than shaming.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

American Dreamer - by Adriana Herrera


The most important criterion I have when I make my selection for Read-A-Romance-Month is that the book have a librarian as one of the main characters. Of course many books fill the bill, but since I only read 1-2 books of the genre per year any book I select has to be extra. Herrera's book made the final cut for this gringa bilingual librarian because Jude Fuller.

When blond librarian Jude surprises the swarthy Ernesto (Nesto) Vasquez (owner of the Afro-Caribbean food truck parked outside the library) by flirting with him in Spanish Nesto falls hard. The two waste no time in beginning a hot and steamy relationship. So lucky that it turns out they are neighbors, too!

This one follows the expected three point romance plot with a "boy meets boy" twist. I also liked that in lieu of the "sassy gay friend" we so often see in boy-girl romances Herrera gives that role to the meddling Carmen, smart-aleck straight friend to Jude. And, of course, I loved that Herrera recognizes that not only do librarians have sex, it can actually be intense.

I have to admit though that the millennial main characters in this book stressed this baby boomer out a bit. They worked 12-14 hour days and then came home and seemed to have energy for acrobatic sex at 11:00 at night. I was always worried that they would oversleep the next day, or simply burn themselves out.

Find out more about the author and her works at https://adrianaherreraromance.com/

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls - by Anissa Gray


When Althea and Proctor Cochran are arrested on food-stamp fraud, and for skimming money from the fundraising charities they organized, their teen aged twin daughters, Kim and Baby Vi, are left in the care of Althea's sister Lillian. Lillian also cares for her deceased ex-husband's grandmother. Additionally, she must negotiate the relationships she has with her other siblings (Joe and Viola).

There are three types of libraries mentioned in this work: prison, public, and home. Each appears to  represent both a place of hope and of harsh reality.

Proctor uses the prison library to verify that there is a women's prison in West Virginia, when he is told he could potentially end up at a men's facility in Virginia. He writes to his wife
I was talking to our friend the other day, and he was naming off a couple of possibilities. He mentioned a prison out there in Virginia...He was going on about how he heard it was easy time out there in the federal system and I said, man, I don't know what "easy time" is. He got me and tried to make up for it by telling me about a ladies' prison out in West Virginia, and he said wouldn't it be nice if Althea ended up there?...And you know what? For a minute, your boy was happy, just imagining it. I even went to the library and looked it up. And there it was, West Virginia with what looked like a little arm, snuggled up there with Virginia. Then, it hit me: This is what it's come down to...I can't believe that this is the best we can hope for...

Althea's fellow inmate Mercedes describes a favorite teacher (Ms. Peterson) she had growing up who would stop by the house when I didn't make it to school. "And she started taking me to the library and everything like that...She took me to my first Disney movie...The Fox and the Hound."  Ms. Peterson's encouragement led Mercedes to aspire to a career drawing for Disney. But ultimately, Mercedes determines that "Some of us just got Kick Me signs tacked to our backs straight outta the womb."

When Kim runs away from Lillian's home there are a number of leads, and people reporting having seen her, including a report of
a girl sleeping in the library. From the description, Hop thought it could have been her, but when he got there whoever it was was gone.
Lillian renovated the family home following her father's death, creating a library where the living room used to be. A place "enveloped in warmth" where "orange flames writhe and rise in the stacked stone fireplace..." the warmth is deceptive to Viola, who would have left the room exactly as it was had it been up to her. She would rather remember the space as it was when he mother hosted Tupperware parties, a memory that
lives in a burst of color: green plastic bowls, pink plastic pitchers, orange plastic cups; gold couch, gold chains, gold charms; Mama's white dress; her lotioned, light brown skin.
I often see libraries in novels representing some kind of promise. It seems that these all do, too, but that the promise remains unfulfilled.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Goin' Someplace Special - by Patricia McKissack


A post in honor of National Book Lovers Day

In the 1950s Jim Crow south, 'Trisha Ann faces a number of indignities on her way to "someplace special". She is forced to stand in the back of the "colored" section of the bus, even as she can see empty seats in the front area reserved for whites. She can't sit on the bench for "whites only" to look at the fountain her grandfather helped to build in the park, and she is forced out of the fancy Southland Hotel after she gets caught up in a crowd of people trying to catch of glimpse of a famous person. Remembering her grandmother's encouraging words help her to make the difficult trip to the library - someplace special where she is treated with respect, a place her grandmother calls "a doorway to freedom".

Winner of the Coretta Scott King Award.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Finding Dorothy - by Elizabeth Letts


When I was very young everyone I knew enthusiastically anticipated the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz on network television. When our family finally got a color television set in the mid '70s I was stunned to discover that the Wizard  was filmed in black and white. My mother assured me that the color scenes were coming. It seems that the tradition of the yearly national viewing ended in 1980, around the time that the VHS tape became popular. Once anyone could record or purchase the movie to watch whenever they wanted the ritual viewing was relegated to nostalgia. As for me, I purchased the 50th anniversary edition of the tape in 1989, after I'd seen the movie perhaps 20 times. It came with some extra footage including deleted scenes, a Wizard-themed commercial for Downy fabric softener. It also had a little booklet with trivia and other information about the filming of the movie. I still own this tape and a videocassette player on which to view it.

The movie is based on L. Frank Baum's book of the same title, the first of many books in the "Oz" series. Elizabeth Letts' book is a fictionalized account of the life of Maud Baum, widow of the author. The story alternates between 1939 and Maud's involvement in the filming of the movie and her relationship with Judy Garland, and her life in the late 1800s - growing up, meeting and marrying Frank, and raising a family with him. A dreamer with a vivid imagination L. Frank Baum wasn't exactly the person suffragist Matilda Gage had in mind to marry her daughter. Maud was one of the early co-eds accepted to Cornell University and Matilda had great plans for her. But the elder Gage also knew she had raised a daughter who would make up her own mind, and that she wasn't going to be browbeat by her mother into a decision not her own. The Baum's moved a number of times as Frank chased jobs and financial opportunities. Maud always made the best of whatever life had in store for them. They never could have imagined the success they found when Frank's first "Oz" book was published.

There are several passages describing Maud's time at Cornell, including some in which she utilized the Sage library, a place she knew she could find quiet and solitude.

I was especially intrigued by the two passages regarding censorship of feminist materials. Matilda Gage was a force to be reckoned with and not one to let censorship prevent her from sharing knowledge and information. On the eve of Maud's marriage she lets her daughter in on the secret to limiting family size - information found in a booklet entitled A Woman's Companion - a book "outlawed" by Anthony Comstock "the United States postal director and...vehement anti-suffragist". The booklet advised soaking a sponge in carbolic acid and "push[ing] it all the way to the mouth of the womb" in order to prevent pregnancy. More about Anthony Comstock and his war on contraception can be found here.

As Matilda Gage nears her death she tells her daughter how she'd like her fortune distributed, a fortune that is not as big as she'd hoped. As her own book Woman, Church and State had been "banned from libraries" she did not "earn as much as [she] should have." I expect she would be happy to know that her book is now freely available online for anyone who wishes to read it.

As is often the case with historical fiction the reader wonders which parts are true and what is imagined. Letts helps with this in the Afterword, explaining how she did her research, and where she took artistic licence. One thing we learn is that women in Hollywood (and elsewhere) have been enduring sexual harassment since long before "me too" was a hashtag.


Friday, July 19, 2019

The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe - by Ann Morgan


I wrote my first blog "My Year of Reading 'Year of' Books" ten years ago. During that year I read, and wrote about, 33 books that documented some stunt that the author had undertaken for a period of twelve months. Some were about diet choices, others about not spending, travel, religion, and indeed, reading. I still like to pick up "year of " books. It is even one of the labels I still use for this blog. I can't remember where I found out about this book, but it seemed like a good choice for my geographer husband and I to enjoy together as an audiobook. We listened to much of it during the long drive between Maryland and Massachusetts while coming back from a visit with our families, and we finished it while we were vacationing in South America to see a total eclipse of the sun (and drink wine). It was fitting that we were traveling as we listened to this book.

This was unlike the other "year of" books I read in that it did not follow a chronology. Instead Morgan divided her work into themes based on what she learned from doing her rather ambitious project of reading a work in English translation from every country in the world during the course of one year. Her first challenge was to determine how to define a country, which isn't as easy as it might seem. She also explored questions of what and whom to read, and how to get English translations in languages that hadn't been translated before, and how she would get books at all from countries without publishing industries at all. Also, exactly, how was she going to find the time to read almost 200 books, and blog about them, and do her "day job" in the course of one year. One very important lesson she learns is that just because she wishes something to exist, doesn't mean that it does. She realizes early on that she has to break a lot of the rules she set out for herself, and determines that "instead of me reading the world, it seemed the world was reading me - and forcing me to rewrite the bits with which it didn't agree."

Morgan's partner builds her a bookshelf on which to hold all the works she reads during her year of reading the world. She opts to own all the books, rather than getting any library copies. However, her affection and admiration for libraries is evident throughout. She begins her book with a loving tribute to the Cambridge University Library, and her memories of it from her days as an undergraduate. Clearly enchanted by the building and all within she describes it as a "time machine", "magical", "mythical", and "a Narnia of reading". Beyond bewitching, the library was an erotic place as well with stories of "intrepid third years having sex in obscure corners" and tales of the porn-stuffed "magnificent erection" seventeen-storey tower. She continues for several more pages using all manner of metaphor to describe the awesomeness of the place.

Morgan refers to other libraries throughout and recognizes that they will not be replaced by the internet or "googling". While the author realizes that technology was necessary for her project to come to fruition and that "reading the world in a single language would have been almost impossible thirty ago" she also knows that hard copy books still matter, pointing out that when the Tucson-Pima (Arizona) Public Library opened a bookless branch in 2002 "users obliged the management to bring in physical books". And when she asked an unnamed academic for suggestions on underrepresented African authors "he suggested rather gruffly that I could find everything I was looking for on Google Books." To which she added "he's not right". Several pages later she comes back to the question of Google Books and kind of library it is. She quotes academic librarian and historian Robert Darnton
When businesses like Google look at libraries, they do not merely see temples of learning. The see potential assets or what they call "content", ready to be mined.
And follows up with this word from author Nicholas Carr from his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains 
That great library that Google is rushing to create shouldn't be confused with the libraries we've known up until now. It's not a library of books. It's a library of snippets.
The chapter entitled "Encountering Roadblocks: Censorship, Propaganda, and Exiled Writers" details how getting the materials we want can be made difficult by religious zealots, governments, and fascists who believe that certain works in the hands of the masses are dangerous. She describes the attempt to "wipe out Bosnian culture by bombarding the National Library in Sarajevo in 1992" as well as the Hitler's attempt to rid Germany of all Jewish authors, and other undesirable "foreign influences". What I hadn't known about before was the Library of Burned Books, created by a resistance movement in Paris and containing copies of all the works the Nazi's burned.

Morgan also notes that censors are at work on the internet as well and that as their tools become more sophisticated it becomes harder and harder to realize that anything is even being hidden from us.

Not a beginner's "year of" book. This is the most sophisticated work of the genre I've read. Morgan has some truly deep insights, not just about herself but about reading, technology, geography, globalization, censorship, and how we see ourselves in the world.

Even after reading books from 196 countries (plus Kurdistan) Morgan recognizes that her undertaking constituted less than a drop in the bucket of what there is to read, and learn, and know. I especially liked this quote from Argentine author Alberto Manguel in a History of Reading

"We are always at the beginning of the beginning of the letter A".

This book did inspire my husband and I (no strangers to world literature) to double down and begin reading more other-than-American authors. We will begin with Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. Others might find something of interest on this list of recently published translations.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Hired Girl - by Laura Amy Schlitz



I'm not sure how I found out about this historical novel, but I expect I must have read a review that indicated that it was a Baltimore (aka my hometown) story.

Schlitz tells the tale of  Joan Skraggs (alias Janet Lovelace) a young girl who runs away from her abusive father (who burned her books!) and ends up working for the Rosenbach family in Baltimore. She tells her employers that she is eighteen, although her actual age is much younger. Janet loves to read and is thrilled when she is invited to use the Rosenbach's private library. Still she dreams of one day visiting the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and getting a proper education. Since she only has Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons off during which she either attends Mass, or receives religious instruction it seems as if she will never have time to explore the libraries, art galleries, or any of the other myriad benefits the city has to offer.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Year of the Flood - by Margaret Atwood


My husband and I anxiously await Atwood's Testimony (a sequel to the Handmaid's Tale) in September. In the meantime, we are taking some time to read some of her other works - some that we've read before and others that we haven't. This was our first go-round for The Year of the Flood - the second of the Maddaddam Trilogy.

This story centers on the lives of the Gardeners who, in a age of everything biotech, are still trying to live organic lives by growing their own food and eschewing technology.

There is only one passing mention of a school library in this book, however, another passage was so reminiscent of things I've read in my research on book banning that it warranted some space on this blog.

Upon entering the inner circle of the Gardeners, Toby (aka Eve Six) is surprised to discover that
the Adams and Eves had a laptop...wasn't such a device a direct contravention of Gardener Principles? - but Adam One had asured her: they never went online with it except with extreme precaution, they used it mostly for the storage of crucial data pertaining to the Exfernal World, and they took care to conceal such a dangerous objects from the Gardener membership at large - especially the children. Nevertheless they had one. "It's like the Vatican's porn collection," Zeb told her. "Safe in our hands."
Ah, the eternal cry of the paternalistic censor. 'Only we can handle the information. All others must be protected from it'.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Harley Merlin and the Secret Coven - by Bella Forrest


For those who like stories about orphans who discover that they're magical, Forrest brings us a bit of a lighter series than that of J.K. Rowling. While readers who like to see a magical rumble won't be disappointed, Harley Merlin (aka Harley Smith) hasn't been cursed with having to save the entire magical and non-magical worlds, so the skirmishes she faces, while not without real danger, aren't quite as dire as those faced by Harry Potter and his friends.

While she is not fully aware of all of her talents, Harley does know that she has some extraordinary abilities. Most notably she is an empath, a gift that makes her exceptionally good at her job spotting cheaters in a Las Vegas casino. It is there that Wade Crowley observes her work, recognizes her for what she is and recruits her to join his coven. The coven has a secret entrance at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego, where Harley lands her "cover" job at the Center's Archives and Library. She is naturally skeptical that she can earn enough money "to keep [her] financially satisfied" working in a library three to four hours a day, four days a week, pointing out that she can earn $3000 in one good night at the casino. Coven director Alton Waterhouse, assures her that he will make sure to match her salary through the Library and Archives job.

Wow! That's some magic!

While we don't know what, exactly, Harley does in her job at the Library and Archives we do know that she does a bit of archival research for her own purposes, which is how she discovers that she is a Merlin (yes, that Merlin).

My husband and I listened to the Audible version of this work. Since there are already eight books out in this series (with number nine due to be released in a week) we will expect to enjoy listening to this series for a while, without the frustration of a "three-year summer" between books.

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.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

To All the Boys I've Loved Before - by Jenny Han


What could have been a trite YA comedy of errors about a teenager who wants to die of embarrassment was, in fact, a much more thoughtful story.

High School junior Lara Jean has a complicated love life, but at least she knows that the library is a good place to study with the boys she's dating/wants to date/pretends to date. She also considers the library a good place to volunteer (although as far as I can tell she never actually follows through on that plan). And the only library book she mentions is one she bought at the Friends book sale. At least it was cheap (75¢) if not free. The only appearance a librarian makes is, of course, to shush.

I picked up this book at the Little Free Library at Borderland State Park. A fun, quick read.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Adequate Yearly Progress-by Roxanna Elden


This satire about the fictitious Brae Hill Valley High School in Texas provides readers with a view of teachers' lives, both inside and outside the classroom. There are a lot of acronyms and, as one might expect from the title, there is much here about assessment, binders full of data, and standardized tests. It is somewhat prescient that this story about Texas' STARR assessment tests, and the real poet who couldn't answer the questions about her own poem has been making the rounds recently.

Brae Hill Valley has a media center "formerly known as the library". Its only use in this work is for a meeting of the Pre-Holiday Cross-Departmental Midyear-Assessment Data Chat ("PHCDMAC for short"). The only mention of the media specialist's (aka librarian's) work involves cutting out a laminated sign warning students to keep their distance from the creepy mechanical Santa Claus that was making its annual appearance from the school's supply room. Ah, well, at least BHVHS has a librarian. Many school districts find librarians to be easy targets when budgets are cut. This story from the Spokane (Washington) Spokesman-Review makes clear how little attention is actually paid to all the assessment data that educators are required to collect. Although there is a strong positive correlation between having school libraries with professional librarians and better student achievement librarian positions continue to be eliminated across the country.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Oryx and Crake - by Margaret Atwood


I first read this work when it was published in 2003. It is the first book of a trilogy, and I've been planning on reading the other two (The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam) but it had been so long since I read this one that I wanted to re-read it before delving in to the other two. My husband and I took the opportunity for a read aloud and will finish the trilogy together.

This is the story of Snowman (aka Jimmy), his best friend Crake, and their shared lover, Oryx. The novel alternates between a time in the near future where the bio-tech industry is running just about everything, including schools; and a bit more distant future, after just about everything has been destroyed. In the former time Jimmy goes to school, schools that even have libraries. Each mention of his school library is about technology. He uses computers and CD ROMs, but never mentions a hard-copy book. When Jimmy graduates he goes to a third-rate college - The Martha Graham Academy - which focuses on the humanities rather than STEM. Martha Graham's library is full of mildewing books, unlike the
better libraries, at institutions with more money, [which] had long ago burned their actual books and kept everything on CD-ROM, but Martha Graham was behind the times in that, as in everything.  
  After graduation Jimmy
snared a job at the Martha Graham library, going through old books and earmarking them for destruction while deciding which should remain on earth in digital form...he lost his post halfway through because he couldn't bear to throw anything out.
Ah, Jimmy, every librarian feels your pain. Just as gardens need weeding to keep them healthy, we know we need to "weed" our collections, too. But throwing out books just seems sacrilegious. What to do?

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Library at the Edge of the World - by Felicity Hayes-McCoy


When I read a review of this work I was intrigued not only because it was about a library, but also because the author has a hyphenated name that starts with Hayes, which is also true of me. I downloaded this and my husband and I listened to it on the Kindle app during a long drive back to our New England home from Chicago. 

We listened to it almost two months ago, making it rather hard to write about now. Also, since I was listening to it, rather than reading it I didn't mark anything. And a search on the word library, or librarian would be rather like a google search resulting in so many hits as to be overwhelming. In any case I will make my attempt to create a post, giving this work its due. 

The story takes place in the fictitious town of Finfarran, Ireland. Our heroine/librarian is Hanna who has returned to Finfarran (her childhood home) following her divorce and taken a job as the director of the public library - a job that she isn't particularly excited about. Mostly she keeps things going, and tries not to rock the boat, until she discovers a dastardly plan to shut the library down. With the help of some elderly nuns she discovers the importance of keeping the library relevant and how to rally the town in support. 

A lovely listen, read by Emma Rowe in her beautiful Irish lilt.
  


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Sembrando historias: Pura Belpre: bibliotecaria y narradora de cuentos - por Anika Aldamuy Denise


In honor of Children's Book Week (this week) and Día de los libros/ Día de los niños (yesterday) a Spanish-language book about Pura Belpré - the first Spanish-speaking librarian in New York City. This beautifully illustrated work tells of Belpré's arrival in Manhattan from her native Puerto Rico. After she got a job at the New York Public Library she lamented that there were no books with the stories she grew up with on the shelves, so she wrote her own collection and created puppets to illustrate the stories during story time.

This book is available in English as Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré. 

See also The Storyteller's Candle/La velita de los cuentos.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Shakespeare Requirement - by Julie Schumacher



Picking up where Dear Committee Members left off, our still beleaguered professor Jason T. Fitger finds himself chair of the English Department and unable to get his colleagues to agree on the Statement of Vision (SoV) required by the University Administration in order to get a budget, schedule an event, or anything else. While searching for previous SoVs  Fitger discovers, among other things in the departmental files, "miscellaneous library fines". It is not clear if these fines belonged to the previous Chair (one Ted Boti) or if they were for a whole host of faculty from the English department.

We are also introduced to young Angela Vackrey, one of Fitger's advisees. Angela is a first-generation, home-schooled freshman. A bright, if naive, fish out of water.

Her first impressions of Payne University include a survey of some of the buildings, including the library. She likens the tendrils of ivy on the brick facade to "witches fingers".

This sinister view of the library is revisited later when Fitger is attacked by a "frigid cascade of slush" which "slipped down" the "sloping overhang" and "landed with a slap against Fitger's neck".

The menacing feel of Library at Payne University wasn't limited to the outside of the building.
the building was sadly in need of modernization. Its towering metal rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves created a catacomb-like effect, and the overhead lights, cued to old-fashioned timers, had a way of clicking off all at once, leaving patrons stranded in the airless dark.
It was "known as a place where undergraduates went to nap (and, some said, to engage in intercourse in the group study rooms)". 

The foreboding continues as pencils are imagined as murder weapons in the "gloomy" space of a faculty carrel.

I'm sure, however, that despite all of this, the President of Payne University hails the Library as "the heart and soul of the university".

Go ahead and google the phrase "library heart and soul of university" and see what I'm talking about.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Summer Hours and the Robbers Library - by Sue Halpern


The hardest posts to write for this blog are those that are for the most library-centric books. I can't simply put a post-it note on each page that has the word library lest the entire book be marked. Writing about this book is made even harder by the fact that I read it over a month ago while I was on vacation. While I did enjoy a lot of reading (I read, or listened to, four books) while I was away  I got quite far behind on my blogging while I was on vacation last month, and returning from my trip I had so many other things I had to take care of that writing was put on the back burner.

Halpern's book tells the story of the intersecting lives of Solstice (Sunny) and Katherine (Kit) who work together at the Riverton Public (Robbers) library in New Hampshire. Kit is a forty-something reference librarian and Sunny is a fifteen-year-old who "had been sentenced to work at the...library for the summer after she was caught trying to steal a dictionary from a bookstore in the mall." Sunny procured her sentence in kids' court "the place where good kids, or kids who haven't yet gone bad, are sent when they do something wrong, or dumb, or both..."

So, while I didn't mark every time the word "library" was used, it turns out I did mark more than a few passages. Let's start with the word sesquipedalian.

When asked by the judge why she stole the book  (a dictionary of all things) her response that she didn't have enough money elicited further explanation. To which Sunny explained that she wanted to be able to look up the meaning of words she didn't know - words like sesquipedalian. Poor Sunny still didn't know what it meant because she didn't have the dictionary. Of course I could have told her the meaning of my favorite word: sesquipedalian - a foot and a half long - from the roots sesqui (one and a half) and ped (foot) - a word that essentially defines itself. But Sunny wanted to be able to look up the word herself. She was "tired of always having to ask someone when [she] didn't know the meaning of a word."

It is a bit coincidental that I marked a page that mentioned icky library vending machine food, although I had not yet written my most recent post about Dear Committee Members in which I wrote for the first time about such things.

Halpern plays a bit with stereotypes. Kit is a single (really divorced) childless middle-aged woman, who tells Sunny that she's "a big fan of silence" asked why she works in a library.

The Library Director, Barbara is described as
sturdy, with angular features and a white pageboy, handsome, not pretty - a sensible shoes kind of woman with proper manners, manners proper enough to keep her from prying into the lives of the people she worked with or trading gossip... 
There is also one instance of a "shushing" which takes place when a patron laughs loudly at learning why Sunny was "sentenced" to work in the library.

Much of the book is Kit describing her life before the Robbers Library. We find out about library school, and her first job in a library archive room, and a later job at a the Science Library at Emory University. In describing each of her jobs she does admits a dark secret that all library workers know, but don't want to admit - sometimes our work is tedious, or even boring. It is true that sometimes we wonder why the building we're sitting in, waiting for a "stray question", is even open. Or that sometimes our job is just searching fruitlessly for a missing book, or making sure people aren't destroying materials. Meanwhile, we also know that we must convince others that we are "busy" at all times, lest we lose funding, or worse, the vocational awe perceived of us by those outside our occupation.

Ultimately, though we learn that Kit recognizes the value of libraries and librarians. And that while her job may not be "as awesome as being a neurosurgeon" she knows that "putting books in the hands of readers...save[s] lives, too".

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Public (the movie)



I've been waiting well over a year to see this. It finally showed up in theaters earlier this month, just in time for National Library Week. I spent most of National Library Week attending the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) national conference in Cleveland, and was glad to wrap up my time in the Rock & Roll Capital of the World at the Cedar Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights. As a former Ohioan it was a special treat to see this Ohio-based film in the state where it was filmed.

Written and directed by and starring Emilio Estevez, this film tells the story of  librarian Stuart Goodson who works at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. During an especially cold spell in the city a population of homeless men decide to occupy the library overnight as they have no where else to go to escape the bitter temperatures when the building closes. Goodson stands with his patrons and likewise refuses to leave the library. Speculation from law enforcement, local politicians, and the media about what is happening inside the barricaded building leads to misinformation, and some "fake news" reporting.

The last thing I did at the ACRL conference was attend the keynote address and book signing by Alison Bechdel. I had her sign my copy of Essential Dykes to Watch Out For From there my husband and I had lunch and then made our way to the theatre. I must say that was getting a bit worried that this film would not pass the Bechdel Test, but ultimately it came through (but just barely). It really would have been especially tragic to watch a failing movie on the very day that I met Bechdel. It seems a film about a profession that is dominated by women could have done better than to just squeak by. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this film. It was well acted, well directed, and had a good surprise ending.

More about Alison Bechdel's keynote can be found here.

Passing the Bechdel Test with Alison Bechdel



Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Dear Committee Members - by Julie Schumacher


Recommended to me by more than a few of my colleagues at the university, this satire was excellent listening fare for my husband and me during our regular weekend drives to our beach house. Told in epistolary style, this book is a series of letters written by English professor Jason T. Fitger of the fictitious Payne University (located somewhere in the Midwest). Fitger's letters are addressed not only to committee members, but to ex-wives, colleagues, friends, and administrators as well as to various people who are in positions to hire some of Fitger's acquaintances. These infamous Letters of Reference (aka LORs) were easily my favorite parts of the book. Fitger's outsized ego is revealed, as is his sarcasm, and any number of his myriad peccadilloes through his letters. Still, in the end we wish him no ill will. He is already dealing with plenty of BS that anyone in academics will readily recognize. I daresay that the descriptions of the shabby state of the offices in the Department of English hit too close to home when compared with the accommodations afforded to the Humanities at my own University.

Of course any academician worth their salt knows the value of a library. While we can never be sure that Our Dear Professor Fitger actually ever darkens the door of a library himself, he does seem to recognize them for their importance in exploring academic pursuits. For instance, in one LOR for student Gunner Lang (who is seeking work-study student employment anywhere on campus) Fitger's supplication that the young man be placed in the "library rather than the slops of food service" acknowledges that the library is a superior place and one that a student such as Gunner, who has "bona fide thoughts and knows how to apportion them into relatively grammatical sentences" certainly deserves to be. This LOR is written rather early in the book (which takes place over one academic year). A second LOR for young Gunner is written much later in the year in hopes of procuring the lad a summer research fellowship so as to write a literary criticism of O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods. Fitger surmises that Gunner will put the $400 award to good use
by availing himself of the foul-smelling vending machine sandwiches in Appleton library while immersing himself in a study of narrative uncertainty and violence
This is not the first time, however, that Fitger mentions bad library vending machine food in an LOR. This honor goes to the letter written for his friend Troy Larpenteur, who rather inexplicably, is looking for a job as a sales associate at the Zentex Corporation. In his letter Fitger reminisces back twenty-three years
to the sight of Troy...at the Seminar table, his hair looking as if he had slept on the floor of the library by the vending machines (he usually had)... 
One other letter makes mention of the library: one written on behalf of Fitger's unfortunate colleague  Karolyi Pazmentalyi whose department (Slavic Languages) was a victim of the evil Provost's recent reorganization. Fitger describes his hapless friend's lonely work over the previous decade
holed up in a corner of the library his craggy profile visible in the the fluorescent glare of the overheads when everyone else was uncorking a beverage at home
which resulted in publication of a scholarly book, the type of work that would normally bring with it a promotion, but in Pazmentalyi's case was dismissed since his entire department was being purged. Again, I found that this passage hit a bit too close to home for me.

This book is truly a must-read for anyone in the Academy, although I expect that faculty will find it a lot funnier than those in administration will.