Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Nantucket Christmas - by Nancy Thayer

'Tis the season for light reading. I noticed this book while we were shopping at Costco and threw it in the cart because I love Nantucket, and I love Christmas. Last year I even got to go to Nantucket during the Christmas season and enjoy all the lovely Christmas trees still decorated from the annual Christmas Stroll.

This book has everything you might expect from a Christmas story: a love story, a martyr, family drama, friends, redemption, a birth, a cute kid, a dog, and of course, a library. The library is the Nantucket Atheneum, which doesn't really have a big role in the book (it is simply the place where the protagonist, Nicole, drops off some cookies for the Christmas Stroll). But, for me it especially significant because it is also the place where I have actually heard the author of this work give a book talk, and where I am personally acquainted with one of the employees. And, in fact, my husband and I gave a coffee talk there ourselves a few years ago. I enjoyed visualizing all of the places Thayer mentions in the book making this an especially fun to read for me.

The Hayes-Bohanan's talk about coffee at the Atheneum November 2007

Monday, December 23, 2013

Love Overdue - by Pamela Morsi

I don't believe I have ever read a Harlequin Romance before. I rarely read romance novels, and I admit to becoming somewhat jaded about them during my long ago bookstore clerk days. The series romances would come in monthly installments, and then the same women (they were always women) would show up and buy the lot of them. I would hear them chattering while they waited in line about how they needed to get to the store the day they came out, lest they miss one. Occasionally, they would explain that such a calamity had befallen them at some point in the past, and they were not about to let it happen again. Even without reading these novels I sensed that they were all pretty much the same, and couldn't understand why missing one was such a big deal. I once made the mistake of suggesting to one of our customers that perhaps she could go to the library and read the books she was missing. No, this was not good enough because, she explained, she needed to own them.

So anyway, I read a review of Morsi's novel in one on the endless stream of trade magazines that comes across my desk, and just couldn't resist putting in an Interlibrary loan request for it. Just take a look at the cover! Look at those sensible shoes! I must admit that this was a fun mindless read. The story starts with librarian Dorothy Jarrow moving to Kansas with her little dog. The "Oz" allusions continue throughout without any subtlety. In fact, there is nothing subtle about this book. Morsi appears to have had a lot of fun playing with the stereotypes, which again, she didn't even try to pretend were anything else:

"...librarians were expected to be law-abiding, as well as sedate, slightly stuffy and incredibly sexless. D.J. was pretty certain she fit that bill perfectly."

It is suggested that the new librarian must be "a homely old maid, married to her cat." Disbelief is expressed when someone says that she actually "looks kind of pretty."

Despite the fact that she is young and "kind of pretty" she is also described as going for that "old maid look... [with a] stuffy business suit, gray on gray with her hair pulled back into a little bun like somebody's grandmother." Variations on this description pop up several more times throughout.

The book flashes back several times, however, to a Dorothy who is eight years younger, and enjoying spring break at South Padre Island, Texas. And it is here that we find out that the librarian is perhaps not as stuffy as she makes herself out to be. Will she ever remove those "bookworm" glasses and let her hair down again? The answer, of course, was not really a big surprise.

I will also say that despite having a rather stereotypical look about her, D.J. is portrayed as a very competent librarian - recognizing how she can better serve her community; figuring out how to rearrange the library for better light; and she of course believes that everyone, including children, should be able to select their own reading materials. She is anti-book banning, and anti-censorship.

One other thing I should point out is that this work not only has a librarian, but also a busybody Library Trustee whom D.J., for some reason, thinks should call her "Ms. Jarrow". Really? I'm a trustee, and we all use first names.

Although entirely predictable (really, there was not plot turn that I didn't see coming pages out) I have to admit to enjoying this one. This is not to say I'm about to start a romance book subscription, or wait in line at the bookstore once a month.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Things You Find on the Appalachian Trail: A Memoir of Discovery, Endurance and a Lazy Dog - by Kevin Runolfson

Bridgewater, Massachusetts' One Book One Community selection for spring 2014 is Bill Bryson's memoir of an ill-fated attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trial.  A Walk in the Woods is a book which I found hysterically funny. There was some discussion on the One Book Steering Committee, though, about whether some might not enjoy Bryson's particular brand of humor the way that I do, and that perhaps we should suggest some alternative selections. Runolfson's book looks like it is clearly in the running. I think it will have wide appeal with a variety of populations, especially since the author's faithful dog, Rufus plays such an endearing role in the work.

Hiking the entire trail from Georgia to Maine between March and October 2001 in an effort to recover from a bad divorce Runolfson learns much about himself, and the kindness of strangers, as he also finds love on the trail.

Of course, I was thrilled to read that he stopped at several libraries during his six-month quest. He specifically mentions this for the first time as he walks through the Virginia portion of the trail. He first mentions one small library in Glasgow, which I am not sure he actually stopped in, but he is clearly happy to find a "huge library two blocks from the campsite" in Waynesboro where he can access e-mail. He also uses the public library near the end of the New York portion of the trail to use a pay phone (I wonder if those are still functional along the AT?) and to "waste the rest of the day reading". Although normally I would take issue with the using the verb "waste" in conjunction with reading and spending time in a library, I'm going to let this one slide, he did after all, have a long journey with a bit of a deadline. He also mentions visiting the library in Rutland, Vermont.

Public libraries are important institutions that serve many constituencies. It is good to know that a visitor to a town can use the public library to read, check e-mail, use the rest room, refill their water bottle, use a pay phone, or simply take a break. Supporting the library in your own town is the ultimate act of kindness to strangers. When you use the library in another town you are the beneficiary of the kindness of others. This is how a civil society functions.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Dewey's Christmas at the Library - by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter

I first blogged about Dewey the Library Cat three years ago during my year of "Celebrating the States" during which I celebrated the anniversary of each state with a movie, a book, and an appropriate food item. For my Iowa book I read Vicki Myron's Dewey: The Library Cat, a book for middle-grade readers about a real cat who was left in a book drop at the public library in Spencer, Iowa. Dewey Readmore Books was subsequently adopted by the whole town. This book was based on the orginal "Dewey" book: Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat who Touched the World. There are several children's picture books about the Library Cat, including Dewey's Christmas in the Library, which I was able to download on my iPad for a mere $2.99. I am a sucker for Christmas stories, and this one was extra special to me, being about a library after all. This story tells about Dewey's first Christmas and how he helped to decorate the library's award-winning Christmas tree. A sweet story based on Dewey's real life adventures.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Liberal Arts - the movie

During a visit to his alma mater for the retirement party of a favorite professor, Jesse meets Zibby, a sophomore. The two are quite taken with each other, but Jesse is concerned about their 16 year age difference.


In a twist on the usual and expected three plot points, in this movie boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets...librarian!

What I also found refreshing about this film was that normally in a movie where there are two women and one man, the audience is made to feel unsympathetic to the woman who doesn't get the man. Not so in this film.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lean In:Women, Work, and the Will to Lead - by Sheryl Sandberg

Back in June I blogged about Betty Friedan's classic feminist work The Feminine Mystique. I mentioned then that I had just started to read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In commenting that if there were any libraries in the book you would find out here. So here I make good on my promise. There is one. Sandberg tells of the first job she took out of college "at the World Bank as research assistant to Larry Summers...[She] spent the first nine months  in the stacks of the Bank library...looking up facts and figures for Larry's papers and speeches." We can safely assume that she was not Summers' assistant, though, when he made his now infamous remarks at Harvard in 2005 about women's (lack of) aptitude in the sciences. I actually found it rather ironic how much she praised Summers in this book. A quick look at the index indicated that he actually gets twelve times as much print space as libraries do!

When this work first came out earlier this year it got a lot of press. There was some controversy of course, what with a woman suggesting that other women can be leaders and all. I read this slowly (two chapters a month) as part of a discussion group on our campus. We met monthly to discuss what we read, and to reflect on how the book might relate to us. There were several dozen women who were part of this group, which included not only librarians, but administrators, clerical workers, maintenance workers, and faculty members. I think it is fair to say that Sandberg's book reflects her own socioeconomic, heteronormative status, but that is not to say that her words are not relevant to those who do not share those statuses. In our discussions we were all able to see how we could lead from where we were, and to suggest ways to make things better for ourselves, and others. There were places though where we recognized that Sandberg's privilege plays a big role in what she is able to accomplish. We also agreed that while we can make some changes for ourselves, there is much that needs to be recognized by society at large. Sandberg, for example suggests to "make your partner a partner". For those of us who have partners this is fine advice as far as it goes, but even for those of us whose husband's drive the carpool, and share other household responsibilities we still have to contend with things like schools only ever calling the mother to pick up a sick child (even when the father's name and number are listed first). I also find that while I generally enjoy working in the same organization as my husband, one major drawback is that some people seem to think of me as his messenger. If he isn't in his office when they happen to stop by, or he is slow to respond to e-mail they have no compunction of contacting me and asking me to "let him know that...", or even ask me to deliver something to him. He virtually never gets messages for me unless they are of the 'remember me to your wife' variety.

Sandberg's message that women should decide what is important to them and ask for it is another place where her socioeconomic status seems to make her unaware of how much of the world functions. I can hardly imagine a woman working two minimum wage jobs having the privilege of telling her boss that she'd like to be home for dinner with her children most days of the week. While she may be just as likely to want such a simple thing, she is not likely to have much flexibility in her scheduled hours, and may be too busy getting from one job to the other to even consider making that dream come true.

Despite its problems, ultimately I give this book a thumbs up. I do believe Sandberg has the best interests of everyone (men, women, and children) at the heart of this work, and everyone can find something from which to benefit in it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mona in the Promised Land - by Gish Jen

I read this novel over about a 10-week period as part of a weekly book discussion, along with some students at the University. The story tells of Mona, a Chinese American teenager growing up in Scarshill, New York in the 1960s. Mona begins to volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline that is run by a local Jewish Temple, and decides to convert to Judiaism, much to her Catholic parents' chagrin. The students in my discussion group, who were all Latin American, were surprised to find so many themes in this work that resonated with them. For instance it is universally true that teenagers will have conflicts with their parents.

Libraries didn't play any real role in this book, but there were a few passing mentions of them. Mona's best friend is Barbara whose family moves to a huge house with six bedrooms, and among other amenities has "a library with chestnut paneling".What home would be complete without books, after all?

Mona is quite bright, and does exceptionally well in school. This leads some of her peers to steer clear of her ("Mona has never admitted how much she reads, figuring, Why act brainier?"). However, the handsome Seth, a pseudo-bohemian/pseudo-intellectual is very interested in spending time with Mona. He is also very interested in spending time with Barbara, and deflowers each in turn. Foreplay involves impressing them with deep philosophical discussions of Kant. "Mona can tell Barbara feels left out by the fact that she's even checked that Kant book out of the library to see how it ends." Seth eventually "begins to share with Barbara his synopses and hypotheses and analyses, his assumptions and suppositions. Whereupon to Mona's confoundment, Barbara goes intellectual."

Throw into the mix the charming Andy Kaplan who everyone wants to be connected to although "for a long time he was just like anybody else, only shorter...[b]ut after he suddenly grew eleven inches, he became the sort of guy  with whom people like to claim some connection. His mom worked his their mom on the library committee. They used to be on his paper route. Even Seth claims to play chess with Andy now and then..."

Barbara, Mona, and Seth spend a lot of time getting high, eating, drinking and "rapping". Their discussions sometimes question whose oppression is the worst: Chinese immigrants, blacks, or Jews. Contemplating history as well as current events they recognize "the auction blocks and the Ku Klux Klan and the fuss over getting even a library card..."

There is one rather convoluted library metaphor. I had to read it several times to get it. Seth and Mona, in trying to help a friend, ultimately feel betrayed. Mona considers how Seth perceives this:
It is as if he is just discovering that he grew up an only child, which in a way, he did. His step-brothers were all buy out of the house by the time he came along; and what with his interests, he could practically have been a Old World scholar boy, the kind with cuff links and green skin and no appetite. Even now, she can see him with a piano, and an illuminated globe, and a sliding wooden ladder that he really does need, to get to all his books. They one day: Enter a group of playmates. And when they leave, the library is a whole different place.
I think my favorite library mention though, was reading that Barbara's parents decided to take a last minute June vacation, even though "it mean[t] doing two research papers without a library." What were they thinking?!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Celestial Bed - by Irving Wallace

As in Wallace's The Seven Minutes this work explores a modern day witch hunt involving sex and an over zealous district attorney (Hoyt Lewis). Aided and abetted by a phony televangelist (Rev. Josh Scrafield), and an aspiring newspaper reporter suffering from premature ejaculation (Chet Hunter), Lewis sets out to investigate and arrest the renowned sex therapist Dr. Arnold Freeburg, and one of the sex surrogates he employs, the lovely Gayle Miller.

Ironically, it is Hunter's girlfriend Suzy Edwards, who is also Freeburg's secretary, who provides the lead that gets her employer arrested. In referring her boyfriend to the sex therapist she also unwittingly opens the door to the investigation.

Hunter and Edwards first meet at the Hillsdale Main Public Library, where Hunter is doing some research for hire:
This fellow, probably in his thirties, surely no more than five years older than she, was carrying some books from the shelves, and the only spot open was the chair next to hers. Apologetically, he eased into the chair tight against her own. She had been taken by him at once. He was of medium build, receding neat brown hair, high forehead, soulful brown eyes highlighted by steel-framed spectacles set near the tip of his pug nose, his manner reserved but obviously an intellectual type.
It is also clear, however, that his work at the Acme Research Bureau "digging up facts from countless sources for free-lance writers graduate students, magazines, newspapers" is no job for a real man, as it barely pays subsistence wages, and at least one of his clients, the Revered Josh Scrafield had always looked at the researcher with "mild contempt [and as] something of a frail grub and intellectual nerd, sallow and frightened of life".

Ultimately, Hunter sees the error of his ways (once he experiences a successful coupling with Edwards), and refuses to cooperate with the DA, and of course, is rewarded with the real job at the newspaper he always dreamed of. A true fairy tale ending in which good sex conquers all.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Reader - the movie

An enigmatic woman, Hanna Smitz (played by Kate Winslet) helps a teenage boy, Michael Berg (David Kross) return to his home after he falls ill and the two begin an affair. Set in 1950s Germany the Hanna insists that  Michael read to her each time they meet, before they make love. Eventually she disappears from his life and the next time Michael sees Hanna she is a defendant at a Nazi war crimes trial. Hanna is sentenced and adult Michael (played by Ralph Fiennes) continues to read to her by way of recorded cassette tapes sent to her in prison.

There is one scene in the prison library in which Hanna asks for one of the books she has been listening to.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ghosts of the Bridgewater Triangle - by Christopher Balzano

Last month my husband and I attended the premiere of the documentary The Bridgewater Triangle. For those who are not familiar with this paranormal place the Triangle is located in southeastern Massachusetts, centered on the Hockomock Swamp. Bigfoot has been sighted there, along with a big chicken, big cats, UFOs, Pukwudgies, and a host of ghosts. It is named for the three "Bridgewaters" (Bridgewater, East Bridgewater, and West Bridgewater) but includes many other towns, and the spooky stuff also leaks out from the borders of the Triangle.

I am a bit of a skeptic myself when it comes to ghosts and other paranormal stuff, but since I live and work in the Bridgewater Triangle, and make it a habit to explore all things Bridgewater, I was very interested to see the movie, and likewise could not resist this book when I saw it on display at the Bridgewater Public Library. After I began reading it I almost put it down, as it was rather poorly edited - rife with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and awkward syntax - but since I was so interested in the topic I decided to keep reading. My resolve was rewarded with several stories about librarian ghosts - a first for this blog! 

Just a piece up the road from Bridgewater, is Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. According to Balzano's book, Wheaton has several ghosts, including the "old librarian" Mary Armstrong (aka Aunt Mary) who rides the elevator, moves books, and opens and closes doors. 
The story goes that she joined the staff in the early 1920s and became overworked. She moved away to live with her sister, and for reasons unknown, perhaps the stress of the job she had just left, took her own life. She returned to her true passion though, and continues the job she both loved and hated.
The Wareham Public Library is said to have ghost who (stereo-typically of librarians) doesn't like loud music and is responsible for changing the radio station of cars that pass by the library to classical music.
No name is even given for the librarian, and in fact, she never really existed. The uncommon occurrence in Wareham has nothing to do with a ghost. It just so happens that right on that spot is a weird split in the town's radio reception. Near that spot is a convergence of two different radio stations. One is a rock station and the other a classical, and a radio with weak reception will switch between the two as it drives down the street.
(See what I mean about the poor editing).

The author also mentions a haunted library in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, but does not provide details.

This work also includes details about some of the ghosts who haunt Bridgewater State University (where I work). I've been here 16 years and only learned recently (from a program at the Bridgewater Public Library) that there were ghosts on campus! I never knew about George (who haunts the theater), nor the dorm ghosts in Shea-Durgin Hall and Woodward Hall, nor the phantom horse on the athletic field, nor the ghost that haunts Tillinghast Hall, where I once had an office.

More Information on Bridgewater State University ghosts can be found here and here.

More information about the Bridgewater Triangle can be found here.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Miss Smith and the Haunted Library - by Michael Garland

Busting all sorts of stereotypes, librarian Virginia Creeper has blue hair and purple nail polish, and a "high-pitched squeaky voice." She also can truly make books come alive! When Miss Smith brings her class to the library they end up partying with a host of literary monsters including Sleepy Hollow's Headless Horseman, Count Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and the Wicked Witch of the West. In a scene reminiscent of Jumanji, as Ms. Creeper reads from the Incredible Storybook each of the characters appears in the library.

A not-so-scary book with bright illustrations, plus a cool teacher and a cool librarian.

The book includes a key as to which story each of the spooky characters comes from, in case anyone does want to read a spooky book for Halloween!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia - by Jeanette Winter

From author Jeanette Winter, who brought us The Librarian of Basra,is another true story of a librarian who goes beyond the unexpected.

I've blogged about the Biblioburro before (here and here). I did not realize that there was a book about the Biblioburro though (although, really, I should have!). This book relates the story of Luis Soriano; his wife, Diana; and his two trusty burros Alpha, and Beto. Luis' own love of reading and his work as a teacher prompted him to share books with people in remote parts of Colombia, many of whom had no books of their own. This is a wonderful story that demonstrates how librarians are called to their work through a passion not only for books, but for sharing information.

This book's brightly-colored illustrations also give it an authentic Latin flair.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

1984 - by George Orwell

The first time I read Orwell's book was at the start of its titular year, as a requirement for a course I was taking that year in college - Literature and Social Change. The class was team taught by a Psychology professor and a Spanish professor who did an excellent job of getting me to think critically about the book and to see how Orwell was not so far off the mark. It was during the Reagan administration and I remember clearly how the media reported that his administration was going to change the way it counted the unemployed so that people who had been out of work longer than six months would no longer be considered, even if they were still looking. Then the country rejoiced when the government was able to report that the unemployment rate went down for the first time in many months. It was stunning. Reading 1984 twenty-nine years later of course I only see more parallels to what Orwell predicted and what is happening.

I wasn't surprised when news broke over the summer that the NSA was spying on citizens through the collection of metadata on cell phones. I didn't even understand how anyone could be. That the government was keeping these kind of tabs on us was all made perfectly clear when the USA PATRIOT Act was first passed in 2001. I cannot tell you how many times I heard people say things like 'if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to worry about' or 'as long as we are all safer, what does it matter.' I wonder what those folks are saying now?

While cleaning up my e-mail recently I found a link to this video  which I had sent to myself over the summer and forgot about. It was just chance that I ended up watching it while I was reading Orwell's book. The connections between what the video shows us about the level of surveillance on citizens and what Orwell wrote about are uncanny. There isn't really anything subtle about the spying of citizens in London, or the U.S. The video is about 32 minutes long. At about 16:30 we see a U.S. official being asked questions about NSA collecting data on citizens: each one he answers with an uncatergoric "No". Early on in the video we also find out how smart cameras are used to track "unusual movement" and "mark" people. One of the developers of these cameras is the aptly named James ORWELL of Kingston University. I had to listen twice to the name to be sure, and then I Googled him. Yep. Orwell.

George Orwell also predicted the kind of scrutiny James Orwell conducts:
A Party member lives from birth to death under the eye of the Thought Police. Even when he is alone he can never be sure that he is alone. Wherever he may be, asleep or awake, working or resting, in his bath or in bed, he can be inspected without warning and without knowing that he is being inspected. Nothing that he does is  indifferent. His friendships, his relaxations, his behavior toward his wife and children, the expression of his face when he is alone, the words he mutters in sleep, even the characteristic movements of his body, are all jealously scrutinized. Not only any actual misdemeanor, but any eccentricity, however small, any change in habits, any nervous mannerism that could possibly be the symptom of an inner struggle is certain to be detected. 
In one passage our protagonist, Winston, gets his hopes up that the proles are creating an uprising against the Party, only to discover it is instead women fighting over cooking pots at the market
a mob of two or three hundred women crowding round the stalls...with faces as tragic as though they had been doomed passengers on a sinking ship...It appeared that one of the stalls had been selling tin saucepans. They were wretched, flimsy things, but cooking pots of any kind are always difficult to get. Now the supply had unexpectedly given out. The successful women, bumped and jostled by the rest, were trying to make off with their saucepans while dozens of others clamored round the stall, accusing the stallkeeper of favoritism and of having more saucepans somewhere in reserve. There was a fresh outburst of yells. Two bloated women, one of them with her hair coming down, had got hold of the same saucepan and were trying to tear it out of one another's hands. For a moment they were both tugging, and then the handle came off.
I can almost believe that Orwell had some sort of supernatural power to see into the future when I compare this passage with the infamous Walmart Waffle Iron Riot of 2011.

It is not just the parallel of the riot over cheap kitchen gadgets that strikes me here, but that the people in the video are indeed falling in line with expectations. Lining up to get in to a store in Black Friday is just what the "Party" wants from its proletariat. Very shortly, as the holiday season cranks up, we will start hearing stories (from our "liberal" media) about how consumers (a.k.a. U.S. citizens) are disappointing the "Party" (a.k.a retailers) by not spending enough money. After all, it is our duty to consume for the good of the economy.

There really aren't libraries or librarians in this work, per se, as it is a work about information loss. What we do see is a lot of irony in naming of the various Party ministries and departments. For instance "reference clerks" were those who were tasked with "draw[ing] up lists of books and periodicals which were due for recall. There were the vast respositories where the corrected documents were stored, and the hidden furnaces where the original copies were destroyed."

The Records Department, a branch of the Ministry of Truth, provided all information, and entertainment everyone on every level. There was no free press, the government controlled all information. This is eerily familiar for those of us who, in past weeks, tried to get onto government websites. Virtually all federal government websites were inaccessible during the recent government shut down. I found this aspect of the shut down particularly egregious as the websites were already up, someone had to go to the trouble of taking them down.

Books are produced by the Party for the "proles." Winston's girlfriend Julia, who works for the Fiction Department, explains how they are produced - her particular specialty is pornography
It (Pornosec) was nicknamed Muck House by the people who worked in it, she remarked. There she had remained for a year, helping to produce booklets in sealed packets with titles like Spanking Stories or One Night in a Girls' School to be bought furtively by proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal...'ghastly rubbish. They're boring really. They only have six plots, but they swap them around a bit'.
Julia also is a (phony) member of the Junior Anti-Sex League. The description of the sash tied around the waist of her overalls that identifies her as such caused me to wonder if the "True Love Waits" chastity program (with its telltale "purity rings") used 1984 as a "How To" book.

I close my post with this thought from Winston's illicit diary:

"If there is hope it lies in the proles"

Come and get me Big Brother.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Dreaming in Cuban - Cristina Garcia

Last Monday, when I wrote about Banned Books Week I provided a link to a recent news story about García's book being removed from the High School Curriculum in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The removal was spurred by the complaint of one parent, who objected to one page in the book that describes a graphic sex scene. Since the story broke just in time for Banned Books Week, and at the same time my elementary Spanish class happened to have a short reading about CristinaGarcía&nbsp in our textbook it seemed the time was ripe to finally read the book myself. Taken out of context the scene in question may seem like pornography, but I read the whole work (something many censors do not do) and found the passage to be an essential part of the story, rather than simply a gratuitous sex scene. The passage in question can be read in this story from the Huffington Post.

One review I read of this work compared it to Gabriel García Márquez's  One Hundred Years of Solitude which I read many years ago, back in my college days. Something I remembered about One Hundred Years was that there was a family tree at the beginning of the book, which I constantly had to turn back to in order to keep the characters straight. Dreaming also had such a chart, but since I was reading this on my iPad, I was never able to find it again once I started in reading the book. This left me to rely on my memory to keep the three generations of characters sorted. Each time I put the book down I would have to re-create what I remembered about the relationships between the characters. Score one for old-fashioned print books.

This work tells the story of Pilar, a young woman who came to the United States from Cuba with her parents as a young child. As a young woman she returns to Cuba for the first time in order to explore her roots. Set in the 1960s and 1970s the tumultuous politics of both countries at this time in history creates a backdrop to the story that illustrates generation gaps on a variety of levels.

Libraries are mentioned a few times in this book. Pilar, while tripping on some sort of herbal bath says
In the library nothing made sense. The flourescent lights transmit conversations from passing cars on Broadway. Someone's ordering a bucket of chicken wings on 103rd Street. The chairman of the linguistics department is fucking a graduate student named Betsy. Ghandi was a carnivore. He came of age in Samoa. He traversed a subcontinent in blue suede shoes. Maybe this is the truth.

Pilar, who attends Barnard College does specifically say she used the library there on at least one occasion. She also mentions someone playing music on the steps of Columbia University's Low Library. As we know from my Fear of Flying post, Low Library no longer functions as the library.

Well, a funny thing just happened. Since I borrowed this e-book from a library my access to it "expired" right in the middle of my blogging, so that I cannot easily find the other two pages I marked. I did discover that I can go through the book page by page and find the markers, a bit more inconvenient, but worth it of course. I would have gladly paid the 10 cent fine in order to have kept this book one more day. In fact, if I had borrowed an old-fashioned print book I would have been able to keep it all day today, returned it this evening, finished my blog post, and still not have had to pay the dime. Score two for old-fashioned print books.

So, back to the libraries...
We learn that Pilar's mother Lourdes uses her college library to check out books for other members of her family, and my final bookmark did not concern libraries at all, but rather a mark of my realization the bezoar was not something simply made up by J.K. Rowling for the "Harry Potter" books, but rather a real thing, which was at one time was believed to be an antidote to poison. Well who knew?

Update Oct. 10, 2013
The Sierra Vista School Committee has reconsidered. Dreaming in Cuban will remain in the library and classrooms.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Banned Books Week - Why I "let" my daughter read Twilight books

...or maybe not...

Stephenie Meyer's series of books about a teenage vampire falling in love with a human are immensely popular, and also rank among the most banned or challenged books in the country. Why are these books that are sometimes referred to as "mind candy" and that really do have so much not to like about them, still so popular? Even among feminists like me.

 I took my first women's studies course (Women and the Media)  in the early 1980s at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. One of my classmates talked about her 13-year old daughter reading Young Miss and Seventeen magazines and said these magazines made clear the messages about body image and gender stereotypes that we'd been discussing in class. "I can't believe you let your daughter read that stuff" retorted another (childless) classmate, immediately putting the first woman on the defensive (way to go, Sisters!). That was the first time I heard the "why would you let your daughter read that crap?" question, but it certainly wasn't the last. I have heard it many times in the 30 years since the incident took place, and thought about it quite a bit, especially in the last 16 years, since I became the parent of a daughter myself. I have never been asked the question directly, but I have heard it asked about the Twilight books. So without getting too defensive, here is my response.

When my daughter was first learning to read, she noticed a sign in our local public library that said that all library records were private regardless of the patron's age (I'm paraphrasing). My first grader could read the words, but did not understand their meaning and asked me about it. I explained to her it meant that she could check out whatever book she wanted whenever she wanted, and neither I, nor her father, nor anyone else could find out.  The sign, of course, was there for me, not for her. It was there to let me know that if I wanted to know what my child was reading I should accompany her to the library. Of course, my six-year old wasn't likely to be going to the library by herself anyway. But, as a pre-teen she did start going by herself, and I was happy we lived in a place that had a library my daughter could walk or bike to on her own. She is a voracious reader, and I have always told her that she could read whatever she wanted, whenever she felt ready to read it. Because here's the thing I knew: children want to read things that interest them. She didn't read novels about teenagers having sex, or sucking blood, or taking drugs, or skipping school when she was in elementary school because those things were not part of her reality at the time, and books with those themes generally aren't written for young children anyway. She wanted books about animals, and babies, and friends playing together and sharing. When she was old enough to read Young Adult novels I was glad for her to be able to explore difficult or disturbing subjects through the safe venue of books. I sometimes asked her about books she was reading, but I didn't pry. Sometimes I suggested books she might like, which she sometimes actually read. One of my suggestions, in fact, was the Twilight series. Our whole family has traveled to Transylvania and we are fascinated with vampire lore. My daughter and I both read the entire series, and the whole family has seen all the movies (the books are way better, btw). Here's my dirty little secret: I like them. No, I didn't find them to be exceptionally well written, or to have especially deep or complex story lines. I do like the way Meyers built up the sexual tension (and was completely let down when Mr. and Mrs. Edward Cullen finally consummated their relationship). And I like the fact that the Twilight books are a mindless read in an otherwise complicated world; I like that I had something I could talk to my daughter and her friends about. My daughter does not share much about her life with me, much to my chagrin, so when I find something we can bond over, I take it, even a sucky (pun intended) novel. It turns out something we have in common is we both read and enjoyed the Twilight series when it was all the rage to do so. We got caught up in a movement, and it was fun. Here's an even nastier little secret about me: I'm on "Team Edward" and I think people on "Team Jacob" should have their heads examined.

Earlier this year, I told my daughter she might like to read Beautiful Creatures (see yesterday's blog post), as it would probably be of interest to those who also like stories about sparkly vampires. "I think I'm done with sparkly vampires" she answered. Later that week I found her Twilight poster in the garbage. She is maturing. There are other things she wants to read. Things that are more sophisticated, and more interesting to a sixteen-year old.

So just what kind of a feminist do I think I am, anyway, extolling the virtues of a trashy novel that is rather dis-empowering to women, and "letting" my daughter read them, to boot. I am a feminist who knows that young women are smart enough to make their own decisions about what to read, and then to distinguish fantasy from reality. A feminist who knows that girls are completely competent to read something and then contextualize it, and critique it, and discuss issues such as stalking; and whether girls need a boyfriend to protect them, or make them complete. A feminist who is not afraid to discuss dating and sex with my daughter, much to her chagrin! I did not "let" my daughter read Twilight. She is an incredibly intelligent young woman who can make choices for herself. I also know that if I tried to tell her she wasn't allowed to read it, that she would have found a way to read it. Parents who think they can forbid their teenagers from reading something are completely fooling themselves.

I've talked to her about fantasized aspects of this book, especially regarding sex. For instance a girl who asks a boy for sex is not going to receive this response: "after we're married" (snort - don't watch this scene while drinking milk!)  Another, unlikely scenario: two virgins having sex together for the first time - a magical experience in which the young woman can surely expect to climax - not bloody likely! (again, pun intended). I must admit that it was a nice touch for Edward to make Bella an omelet the next morning, though.

Of real concern, though, is the way libraries are dissed, at least in the first book (which I re-read in order to write this post-I don't like the series enough to have re-read them all, though). The lovely Bella mentions the Forks public library three times. Twice to say how woefully inadequate it is, and once uses as a convenient lie to her hapless father so she can sneak out with her vampire boyfriend.

I wrote this post months ago, and waited until Banned Books Week to publish it. In the meantime I happened upon this other feminist perspective of the book written by a young adult librarian who likewise points out that we don't give young women enough credit to think for themselves.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Banned Books Week: The Complete Persepolis - by Marjane Satrapi

This graphic memoir that tells the author's story of growing up during Iran's Islamic Revolution got a lot of coverage in March and April of this year when it was banned in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for its graphic images of torture. While denying it banned the books CPS did say it ordered the book removed from seventh grade curriculum and classrooms. Hmmm...let's take a look at the American Library Association definition of  banning
A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.  A banning is the removal of those materials.  Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum (emphasis mine) or library, thereby restricting the access of others.  Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.
Like Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 there is true irony in the challenge of this work in that part of it treats the issues of loss of information as well as the censorship of ideas. As a young schoolgirl Marjane is confused when she is told to tear all the pictures of the Shah from her schoolbooks; and finds her dreams of visiting the United States and going to University dashed when the US Embassy is occupied and hostages are taken. All the Universities were closed for two years while books at "all levels" were revised so as not to lead young people "astray from the true path of Islam".

The book also specifically tells of Marjane getting information from a library on at least two occasions. In one her father goes to the library and brings back three books that she reads in a matter of ten days: The Secrets of the CIA; Freemasonry in Iran; and The Memoirs of Mossagegh. In the other, she and her husband spend the summer in museums and libraries researching mythological heroes in order to design a theme park in Tehran, a plan which never is implemented.

Find out more about this controversy

Chicago Public Schools denies it banned the book "Persepolis"

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Banned Books Week - Banned Websites Awareness Day

In yesterday's post about The Handmaid's Tale I mentioned that a government will have better control over electronic sources than it does over books. Banned Websites Awareness Day recognizes this truth. The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which has now been in place for ten years, is largely misunderstood and overused. While CIPA does require web-filtering technology for schools and libraries receiving e-rate discounts, it does not apply to any entity that does not receive these discounts. Furthermore for those libraries that do receive the funding, the rules only require the blocking of pictures that are "obscene; child pornography; or harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors). Before adopting this Internet safety policy, schools and libraries must provide reasonable notice and hold at least one public hearing or meeting to address the proposal." Moreover, CIPA does not require blocking of any text-only content, including unorthodox or unpopular ideas (more information here). Nor does it require blocking any kind of religious content, as the Salem, Missouri library discovered when it censored web content on the Wiccan religion (yes, a town called Salem was blocking information about witches). Likewise, neither schools nor libraries can filter pro-lgbt content out, especially when they allow web content that provides information that condemns homosexuality, as the Mifflin, Pennsylvania school district discovered.

According to this article from eSchool news CIPA needs a serious overhaul - "even the best filter is only 83 percent effective for factors such as link analysis and IP addresses, and only 50 percent accurate for images or videos." Of course tech savvy children can easily get around a block that is only 20-50 percent effective. The guise of "protection" is part of the rhetoric of censorship, whether it is book banning, blocked web content, or any other limitation of free speech. These "protections" are almost always a veneer.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Banned Books Week - The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I have a clear memory of myself, as a college student who had recently been introduced to feminism and feminist literature, picking this book off of a cart of new stock at the bookstore where I worked and being drawn in by the cover illustration. Why were those nuns wearing red habits? The description on the back cover of a dystopian world intrigued me. The story stayed with me long after I read it. Some books are pure escape, and even if I remember that I read them, I don't always remember what they were about, but this one haunted me. Each time I've read it (this was at least my fouth go round) I've experienced a new realization that the world is growing ever closer to the chilling reality faced by the narrator, Handmaid Offred. In this day of "legitmate rape" arguments as an excuse for the constant picking away at women's rights to birth control and abortion, and "Islamic fanatic" blaming, this books hits dangerously close to home.

My most recent revisit of this work, in honor of banned books week, was prompted by this article which mentions that it has a book burning scene (which I had not remembered) and which, ironically, takes place in the "time before" and, in fact, our narrator actually participated in the destruction herself. It must have been some time since I last read this. Surely I have not read it since my now 16-year-old daughter was born, before I moved to Massachusetts. I don't recall having the same "triggers" I felt while reading it this time around. The loss felt by Offred when her daughter was taken from her, and the realization that the story takes place in Boston, only about 30 miles from where I now live, prompted me to have a lot more to say than I might have.

When I became a mother, I became a "Mom" to the rest of the world. "You're Paloma's Mom" people would say, or "the Moms can wait over there" once our roles of chauffeur to whatever event had been fulfilled. I found out that some foods were "Mom approved" as were some activities, and others weren't. I couldn't quite put my finger on why all of this creeped me out. I didn't mind my daughter calling me "Mom" as an endearment, but I really resented that to others "Mom" was the only thing that identified me. In The Handmaid's Tale I noticed that women were only defined by one role: Wife, Martha, Handmaid, Aunt. Each of these was capitalized no matter where it fell in the sentence, and whether it was being used as a title or not. However, the same was not true of the men. Some of them had multiple roles, so they could be a husband, (with a small "h") as well as a Commander, and have a first name. I guess I saw the use of "Mom" as a stripping away of my other identities: my first name; my profession as a librarian; my roles as wife, daughter, sister, world traveler, beer brewer, recorder player...

Reading this work again in a post-Boston-Marathon-bombing world, a world in which "if you see something, say something" has created at least three different situations on my campus in which an unattended backpack was reported to police within a one-week period, the "you can never be too safe" cry really resonates. Imagine, a backpack on a college campus! Sound the alarm! I, frankly, did not feel especially safe when one of the "non-bombs" prompted my own street to be cordoned off. It is truly disconcerting to have a police officer tell you that you cannot enter your own home. Following these incidents backpacks were banned at my university's graduation ceremony.

Our narrator explains that during the transition from the "time before" to her present that "newspapers were censored and some were closed down for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn't be too careful." The Handmaids are told by the Aunts there is "freedom to and freedom from". They had experienced "freedom to" before, "in the days of anarchy" now they would experience "freedom from". Of course the Aunts meant they would experience freedom from objectification, and freedom from pornography, but the Handmaids also experienced freedom from ever having to think for themselves again, from getting to read or write, from feeling loved. And they actually didn't get to experience "freedom from" objectification either.

There is also a more surreal aspect to reading the book this time around. Previously, I felt as if I was reading about a time in the not-too-distant future, but this time it felt more like reading about a future-that-was-already-passed. Much like reading Orwell's 1984 now would feel. It is hard to tell what time period for the work is set in. It was written in the 1980s, and references to any decade stop in the 1990s. It is hard to ascertain since the author could not have known about DVDs or cell phones and other technologies that came just after the publication of the work. Are they not mentioned because their time had come and gone, or because Atwood could not have imagined such things? Paper money is not used at all, all commercial transactions are electronic, but Polaroid pictures still exist. The Epilogue, which takes place in the year 2195, refers to the story being found on a cassette tapes, and specifically says such tapes became obsolete in the '80s or '90s, after CDs became popular, and a machine having to be made that could play such devices. This makes reading it a bit more eerie than the first few times I read it.

Loss of information is a definite theme in this work. Reading or writing anything is forbidden for women, so that even playing a game of scrabble becomes an illicit fling.

The Commander has his own library, although the word is not used. It is the place where he summons his Handmaid to come and meet him clandestinely through a signal from his chauffeur, Nick. Offred wonders what Nick gets out of it
How does he feel, pimping in this ambiguous way for the Commander? Does it fill him with disgust, or make him want more of me, want me more? Because he has no idea what really goes on in there, among the books. Acts of perversion, for all he knows. The Commander and me, covering each other with ink, licking it off, or making love on stacks of forbidden newsprint.
The Commander explains to Offred why it is okay for some to read, but not others. His reasoning is something I hear often. Certain materials can fall into the "wrong hands". The censors, however, are able to handle the information.

"'What's dangerous in the hands of the multitudes', he said, with what may or may not have been irony, 'is safe enough for those whose motives are...'

'Beyond reproach' I said."

Even the Bible is edited, and changed.
Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed be the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking.
Because, as Offred explains, the Bible in the Commander's home is kept locked up. "It is an incendiary device: who knows what we'd make of it, if we ever got our hands on it? We can be read to from it, by him, but we cannot read."

Offred's mother was a feminist. She was a single mother by choice, protested at anti-abortion rallys,  and gave her daughter a "pop up book of sexual organs by the time [she] was four". She burned porn magazines  and brought her daughter along to the burning. The censorship of pornography is one place where the continuum of liberal and conservative will sometimes come together. Religious Right and Feminist Left make strange bedfellows here.There are those in the religious right who would have burned the pop up books as well. Those who are burning the magazines are described in terms such as "ecstatic","happy", "cheerful". The event is likened to Christmas. A holiday. The Commander allows Offred to read some of the forbidden artifacts from "the time before" during their secret meetings and she tells us that "The Vogue magazine should have been destroyed. There were house-to-house searches, bonfires..." Again, we see both the right and left wings using the same tactic: burning what they don't like.Who gets to decide? What information are we willing to be "free from".

Much of the setting is in and around the area of Harvard Square, which I doubt I would have fully realized on any of the other times I read this book. Harvard University has become some kind of government headquarters. The University Library itself has become a place for a different sort of enlightenment.
We file onto the wide lawn in front of what used to be the library. The white steps going up are the same, the main entrance is unaltered. There's a wooden stage erected on the lawn, something like the one they used every spring, for commencement, in the time before....But this stage is not the same after all, because of the three wooden posts that stand on it, with loops of rope.
Offred and her denizens are forced to watch as three of their own become object lessons. Earlier in the book she describes the library as she remembered it from "the time before" as a "temple".

The Handmaid worked in a library in her previous life. She transferred books to computer discs "to cut down on storage space and replacement costs".
Discers, we called oursevles. We called the library a discotheque... After the books were transferred they were supposed to go to the shredder..."
Offred, along with all the other women who worked in the library were dismissed en masse. The Library director had told them "If there's any trouble the books might be lost". Of course all the books were lost anyway.

Again, I have to imagine what Atwood thinks about what all the advances in technology would bring. Today e-books aren't stored on discs, they are in the ether of cyberspace. I even read The Handmaid's Tale in electronic format which I borrowed from my public library. In an expected, yet almost unreal twist, it disappeared from my iPad after seven days.

Those who say libraries don't matter because everything is online do not understand that once everything is online it is easier to control. The Chinese and Cuban governments already know this. Searching Google in China results in many links that are "unavailable". Cubans simply don't have access to the internet.

Like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 the banning of this book is truly ironic. The Handmaid's Tale has been challenged on grounds of being anti-Christian, sexually explicit, and violent. One parent in Guilford County, North Carolina had this to say about the book "I was not happy with what I found because I did not find anything inspirational, anything to help our young people." Find out more here. While I concede that the book does denigrate a certain type of Christian (those who would wield their riches and power over those less fortunate hmmmm.....), and is sexually explicit as well as violent, but un-inspirational? My goodness, it inspired me to write one of my longest blog posts yet! Last week the Guilford County School Board voted to retain the book on the reading list.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Banned Books Week

As I do every year, I will be blogging all this week about banned books and censorship in honor of the American Library Association's annual recognition of Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week is "an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information" (from the American Library Association website).

Recent news stories of challenges to books include Randolph County (North Carolina's) removal of The Invisible Man from school libraries; a call by an Alabama state legislator to ban Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye from public schools; a grandparent's request that children's book Mommy Laid an Egg be moved "out of the reach of children" in the Lodi (California) public library to "an education or reference section"; and removal of Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban from the high school curriculum in Sierra Vista, Arizona.

See my Banned Books Week website and MaxGuide for more information about censorship and banned books.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The World's Strongest Librarian - by Josh Hanagarne

Well, I couldn't resist this one! Librarian Hanagarne begins each chapter of his life story with an anecdote about his work in the Salt Lake City Public Library, but most of what this book is really about is found in the subtitle: "A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family". As he tries to find the best way to live with Tourette Syndrome, he is also on a journey of strength training, parenting, and religious questioning.

Hanagarne writes about visiting the library as a baby and how he developed a true love for books and reading from a very early age, and all the librarians knew him by name. I was reminded about taking my own daughter to "book babies" story time at my own public library so that by the time she could walk the librarian remarked that she "strutted around like she owned the place". Now at age 16 she still loves the library, and in fact has a job at her high school library.

I loved reading that as a child Harnagarne's mother let him pick out whatever he wanted from the library. "He can read what he wants" she tells his father who worries that his son will "drive his teachers crazy" when he starts school. His mother's proclamation only goes so far though. She is unhappy about her fifth grader's choice of Stephen King's Misery and puts her foot down, telling him the book is not appropriate for him. Hanagarne, however, finds ways around his mother's prohibition. (See the Wikipedia entry on The Streisand Effect for more information about how forbidding something will only make it more desirable.) I also loved that as a fifth-grader Hanagarne read Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret . While reading Judy Blume's classic work was de riguer for all the girls in my fifth grade class, if any of the boys in my class ever read it, they certainly didn't do it in public.

Throughout the work we see Hanagarne's love affair with books demonstrated over and over again.  As a fifth-grader at a newly built elementary school he marvels at the all the brand new books in the library "a virgin landscape of pages and paragraphs and dust jackets...". He packs eight boxes of books to take with him to college; and knows he has found the woman of his dreams when she shows him the accessories she made for her Strawberry Shortcake dolls as a girl which included  homemade backbacks, each carrying tiny hand-sewn books. "That Jeanette had spent her childhood sewing books so that her dolls could be literate was too perfect." Of course he instills a love of libraries and reading in his own young son, and puts no restrictions on what he can read (at least he doesn't admit to any). Stay tuned next week for my Banned Books Week essay about why I let my daughter read whatever she wants.

I was especially intrigued by his description of a patron in his library who traveled from Nicaragua. The visitor was awed by the huge library, where information was free. A "miracle" he called it, so different than anything he was used to. The following pictures may give readers an idea as to what he meant.

Here is your blogger is at the National Museum in Managua in 2006. Notice not only the use of the card catalog, but that several of the drawers are missing.

Here I am six years later, in front of a library that is closed during the coffee-picking season.

After 10 years of picking away at his undergraduate degree, Hanagarne manages to get his Masters degree in Library Science in just one year. The author sums up his library school experience thusly: "Library school was uninspiring." I often wonder about those librarians I speak with who did find their studies inspiring. Did they take better classes? Go to a better school? or do they just think that much differently than the rest of us? Uninspiring indeed.

The descriptions of body building were the least interesting aspect of the book to me, though I was bemused by the reactions of those who found out what the super-tall, muscular man did for a living. People really seemed to have a hard time reconciling these two facets of his life. "You're a strong guy" one observer says. "Do you work in construction or something?" "I'm a librarian" responds Hanagarne. "Oh. Wait, what - like in a library". Yeah.

I checked  this book out from the library where I work. Our standard location for a barcode is on the top of inside back flap of the book jacket, where one likely finds a short "about the author" biography. And so it is for this book. I got a kick out of the fact that the photo of Hanagarne, holding a boulder over his head, has been altered by the barcode placement, so that he looks like he is holding up the barcode over his head. Seems appropriate somehow for the world's strongest librarian.

Read Josh Hanagarne's blog at http://worldsstrongestlibrarian.com/

Friday, September 6, 2013

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Today in Library History


I love the Boston Public Library. Free library cards from BPL are available to all residents of Massachusetts, all students in any college or university in Massachusetts, and anyone who works in Massachusetts.  You can even
I use my card to access resources I can't get at the university library I work in, and to download e-books to my iPad

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Glass Castle - by Jeannette Walls

Although I lived for a time in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and witnessed neighborhoods where the residents lived in corrugated steel houses without running water or electricity, I could never have imagined the true depth of the poverty. Walls' memoir tells the story of a family constantly on the move, often going hungry for days, her alcoholic father and negligent mother always a step ahead of the creditors. The family often slept outside, or in their car. When they had homes there was never money for repairs so collapsing floors, porches and ceilings were a normal part of life for the author and her three siblings. Although they sometimes went to school, and sometimes didn't, the Walls children were all taught to read by their mother, and learned the value of the public library. They found and used the library whenever they moved and despite the family's dysfunction, they all enjoyed reading together and "read whatever Mom brought home from her weekly trips to the library."

After the family moved from the southwest to West Virginia Walls used the public library to research options on how the family might improve its situation. And, she also discovers the sad truth that librarians aren't always able to answer questions. When she realized that her family would never be able to afford braces for her, she asked for a book on orthodontia. "The librarian looked at me funny and said she didn't have one, so I realized I'd have to figure it out as I went along." After experimenting she came up with a device to wear at night made from a coat hanger, rubber bands and a "Kotex sanitary napkin for padding".

As they got older the Walls children planned an escape to New York, where after a few false starts they all eventually ended up. Ultimately their parents joined them, although they remained homeless, even as the children got jobs and found their own shelter. The elder Walls' discovered "the public libraries with the good bathrooms where you could wash thoroughly - 'We wash as far down as possible and as far up as possible, but we don't wash possible,' was how Mom put it..." as well they made use of the libraries that were open late when the weather got cold. However, they also used the library to find reading material, and when Walls enrolled in Barnard University her father followed her assigned readings by borrowing the books from the library and "read every single one...so he could answer any questions [his daughter] might have...it was his way of getting a college education." When she got a job writing a column about "movers and shakers" for a magazine her father not only became a faithful reader, he researched "the skinny dames and fat cats" she wrote about at the library and gave her tips.

Even amid severe turmoil, a good library will provide stability.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

September is Library Card Sign-up Month

In honor of Library Card Sign-up Month I read Harry in Trouble by Barbara Ann Porte. Harry isn't really in very much trouble, he just thinks he is because he lost his library card, for the second time! He is sure the librarian, Ms. Katz, will never replace his card again. Ms. Katz puts on a good show, but as the good librarian she is, would really never deny a child his books and comes up with a clever solution to the lost-card problem.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Okay For Now - by Gary D. Schmidt

Lucas laughed. So good. "It sounds like you know what you're talking about."
Mr. Powell raised an eyebrow. "I'm a librarian," he said. "I always know what I'm talking about..."
Thirteen-year old Doug has an alcoholic, abusive father; one brother who's a bully; another who is a wounded Vietnam veteran; and a mother with a winning smile. When the family moves to Marysville, New York during the summer before Doug starts eighth grade he expects things can only get worse. But Doug soon discovers the Marysville Public Library. Although open only on Saturdays, librarian Mr. Powell helps Doug discovers a love of books through an unlikely source - volume 3 of John James Audubon's Birds of America. It is the artwork that initially piques Doug's interest and Mr. Powell sees the potential artist in Doug and teaches him to see the depth, movement, and composition in Audubon's work. He also teaches Doug that not everyone understands that books should not be sabotaged for profit. "You can't sell the pages of a whole book one by one." Doug tells Mr. Powell when he discovers that Plate CCXCIII (The Large-billed Puffin) has been sliced out of the book. Mr.Powell explains that "When it's an Audubon, you can. Most buyers can't afford a whole book, but they can buy one plate at a time - if they find someone low enough to cut them out of a folio." Doug learns that when the town needs money the Town Council goes to the library "like it was a bank or something" with a razorblade. Doug's quest to find and return the missing plates has him doing some true wheeling and dealing.

Audubon's artwork provides the segue for Doug to appreciate books and reading. This passage in which he wheedles a rare book from the private collection of Mrs. Windermere demonstrates a turning point in Doug
"You have something up you sleeve," she said.
I told her.
Mrs. Windermere smiled. Almost like my mother, which kind of surprised me. "The God of Creativity has folded his wings by your desk too," she said. She took the book, held it lightly to her lips, and kissed it. It wasn't weird. It was beautiful. Then she handed it back to me. "Nothing should ever sit and gather dust," she said...
Set in the days just prior to the first moon landing, Schmidt gives a true sense of time and place in this wonderfully library-centric work which tells a story of redemption on many levels.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - by Rebecca Skloot

I've been intrigued by this title for several years. So, recently when two different friends of mine suggested that it be would be a good choice for Bridgewater's One Book One Community (OBOC) reading program several of us on the OBOC steering committee decided to read it. It does look like an excellent choice for a community-wide read with a lot of issues for discussion including race, class, medical ethics, legal ethics, and science vs. religion.

Author Rebecca Skloot, sets out to find out about the real person behind the HeLa cell line. In 1951 cancer cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks who was being treated at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland (one of the few places that offered treatment to African American patients at the time). Lacks' cells turned out to have an incredible rate of reproduction and were the first cells that were able to be kept alive in a culture. Still reproducing today they have been used in countless medical, and other scientific experiments. Lacks' family did not find out about the cells until 25 years later. And virtually none of the people doing research with Lacks' cells knew anything about the woman they came from (most thought her name was Helen Lane). In Skloot's quest to find out about the mother of five who died of cervical cancer at age 31 she consulted doctors and researchers; traveled to Lacks' family home in Clover, Virginia; and interviewed family members, much of the time accompanied Lacks' daughter Deborah, who knew almost as little about her mother as Skloot did.

Henrietta Lacks moved from her hometown of Clover to Turner Station, a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland for her husband to take a job at Bethlehem Steel. So, it is at the Turner Station Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library that Skloot meets the librarian who shows her a VHS tape of the BBC program The Way of All Flesh.

At the time of Lacks' death there were no laws or ethical codes that required doctors to ask permission from patients to take living tissue. There were laws requiring permission of the family before removal of tissue from dead bodies. Controversy remains as to when the cells were removed, and whether consent was granted.

This work is completely readable and accessible, even for those of us who have not had a science class since tenth grade biology.

More information
Recent article from the New York Times tells of the Lacks family finally being given a place at the table.
Remembering Henrietta Lacks
The Supreme Court ruled in June that naturally occurring genes could not be patented, although synthetic ones can be.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Some books about libraries that I am unlikely to read

My weekly American Libraries Direct newsletter included this blog post from "My Sentimental Library" about "My books about Libraries" many of these are catalogs, some are history books. While they may be fascinating on some level, especially to a librarian I doubt I will add them to my reading list.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Antarctica - the movie

Omer is an Israeli, about-to-turn-thirty, gay librarian looking for love. There are a lot of characters in this film moving in and out and around his life including his lesbian sister Shirley, who isn't sure what she wants out of life, perhaps she'd like to go to Antarctica she tells her girlfriend (this is the only mention of the title word). Other characters include his mother and her boyfriend, both played by Noam Huberman (Miss Lalia Carry); promiscuous Boaz; author Matilda Rose, who regularly attends a support group for those abducted by aliens; as well as several boyfriends, friends, and friends of boyfriends. Keeping track of all the characters took some concentration. The library setting wasn't really integral to the story, but as Omer's workplace it provided him some respite from having to deal with everything else that was going on in his life.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Revenge of the Saguaro - by Tom Miller

Two decades ago, when I was but a mere library school student at the University of Arizona, I had the opportunity to work for an author (Tom Miller) who was then working on a book about his travels in Cuba. I did some research and fact checking for him, and was eventually gifted with a signed copy of the book Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro's Cuba. It was the first time I would see my own name on an "Acknowledgements" page - so thrilling. It was especially fun reading the book and seeing things that I'd helped the author to research.

I moved away from Tucson shortly thereafter, and lost touch with Tom. A few years ago, as I was doing some book ordering I came across a review of TWtE which had just been reprinted. I ordered the book for my library, and then did a bit of online searching and found Tom's webpage with an e-mail address and sent him a greeting. From that bit of online contact, we exchanged some more e-mails, and have since traveled to Cuba together when he lead a tour of "Literary Havana" this past January. As well, he has come to Bridgewater State University to talk to some writing students and Latin American Studies students about his work. While he was here, my husband and I purchased one of his more recent books Revenge of the Saguaro: Offbeat Travels Through America's Southwest - a collection of quirky essays. The titular essay tells of a majestic Saguaro cactus that in a final act of poetic justice, snuffs its own killer by toppling on him.

My husband, James, read the book before I did and assured me that there were librarians in it, but I was beginning to despair that the only thing I would have to blog about was one mention of Joan "a feisty high-school librarian with fire-engine-red toe-nail polish" who picked up trash with a group of volunteers along High Lonesome Road near Bisbee, Arizona. But the final essay in the book, "The Occidental Tsuris" was a true gold (or should I say copper) mine of all things library. (BTW I tried looking up tsuris in two different dictionaries, before I resorted to Googling it - here's the definition for those readers who are yiddish-ly challenged, as I am.)

In "Tsuris" Miller writes about Cochise County, Arizona, and its county seat, Bisbee, an old copper mining town on the U.S. / Mexico border. Cochise County is a place I occasionally enjoyed visiting during my own stint as an Arizonan, but I never knew about its sordid history of book banning. During the 1980s Saint David (a town I had not heard of before reading Miller's book) removed Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and Conrad's Lord of the Rings from the high school reading list. Likewise, a history textbook was rejected for use when one (woman) citizen who had "gone through it very carefully, making a note of each time there was a reference to a woman" showed up at a school committee meeting, and explained that "Women belong in the home. Not in history". Miller writes about three bookstore owners, two of whom worked in libraries, and one (Walter Swan) who earned a D- in library in school, before dropping out in eighth grade. I remembered meeting Swan, author of me 'n Henry, and proprietor of the One Book Bookstore. Swan's brilliant plan of publishing the book himself, and selling only it in his storefront on Main Street in Bisbee earned him quite a bit of celebrity, so much so that he had articles written about him in several national publications, and he knew that "every library in the state's got a copy" of his book. I purchased a copy of the book for my mother many years ago, and had a Polaroid picture taken with him. I imagine I read the book, but I don't remember it well, and I have no idea what happened to the photograph, perhaps it is in my folder of unsorted mementos marked "Arizona".

The two other bookstore owners were John Kuehn, who also drove the county bookmobile; and former librarian David Eshner. Their bookstores were adjacent to each other, and the strengths of their collections complemented one another. On the day that Miller rode in the bookmobile with Kuehn, he (Kuehn) signed up a young couple for library cards. They had just moved to town and told him that "one of the first things [they] wanted to do was get library cards." It reminded me of my arrival in Bridgewater, Massachusetts 16 years ago. James and I moved here on August 5, 1997. Our daughter was born on August 19 of that year. One of the few things we managed to do between our arrival and our baby's arrival was get our library cards. Essential.

Swan, Kuehn and Eshner have all since died. Swan's book is still available through amazon.

Tom talks about "Revenge" in this YouTube video.