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

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 he could answer any questions [his daughter] might 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.