Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Unfamiliar Fishes - by Sarah Vowell

I think I first learned about the missionaries who left Massachusetts almost 200 years ago to go to Hawaii from my e-mail subscription to MassMoments which provides me with a daily bit of trivia from my adopted home state. I have enjoyed listening to Sarah Vowell on NPR for at least two decades. My husband and I have also read some of her other books out loud together. Such was the case with Unfamiliar Fishes.

Ms. Vowell is tireless in her research. She visits Hawaiian landmarks, museums, and libraries in her quest to tell Hawaii's history. Her travels take her to the Mission Houses Museum's library where she reads the letters and diaries left behind by New England missionaries. The Mission Houses Museum is a complex of homes where the original missionaries lived - huts made out of tufted pili grass.
In his memoir Hiram Bingham wrote, "A house thus thatched assumes the appearance of a long hay stack." Fitting that a pious expedition first envisioned at the Haystack Meeting in Massachusetts  would find New England missionaries holed up in thatched homes in Polynesia-much to Hiram Bingham's dismay. "Such houses," he grumbled, "are ill adapted to promote health of body, vigor of intellect, neatness of person, food, clothing or lodging, and much less, longevity. They cannot be washed, scoured, polished, or painted." They are no place, he continued, "for the security of valuable writings, books, or treasures." He would be relieved to learn that some day the mission descendants would build a climate-controlled library next door to care for (and lock up) his and his fellows' writings.
Fun Fact:
The Hiram Bingham to which she refers in the above is the grandfather of the Hiram Bingham credited with "discovering" Machu Picchu in 1911

Also at the Mission Houses Museum, she meets librarian Laurel Douglass, alumna of the Punahou School (the same school from which President Barak Obama graduated).
Within about a minute of the librarian from the Hawaiian Historical Society introducing us she (Douglass) was rifling through a thick folder of papers to show me her morning's research. She had been reading the diary of Moses, a student at the school who was a grandson of Kamehameha I.
Vowell quickly realizes, however, that Douglass is not just doing your "garden-variety" genealogical research.
The way she talks about Moses and his schoolmates speaks to her interest in uncovering truth about her forebears. Like any genealogical researcher, her blood pressures rises a bit when she sees Amos Cooke's name in print; in her case it is because she despises Cooke for beating the royal children with a whip.
Douglass also tells Vowell that she lived in Reno, Nevada for a while working as a blackjack dealer - "the worst blackjack dealer Harrah's ever turned out" in fact.

The book includes quite a bit of information about the hula, and its history, and the fact that the missionaries found it rather distasteful. The dance that is now almost synonymous with Hawaii, was actually outlawed at one point in its history when Queen Kaahumanu converted to Christianity. It was brought back to the culture of the islands by Kalakaua who celebrated his coronation with two weeks of festivities, during which "hula performances were featured prominently."

Vowell goes on to connect the censoring of the dance to the censoring of words. She quotes John-Mario Sevilla
When he placed the hula at the center of his coronation, Kalkakua made a significant gesture to the past, which is where Hawaiians traditionally looked for truth and meaning, in the face of rapid contemporary change. By challenging the foreign shame of the hula, he popularized and, therefore, politicized it. It's as if he decided to write and publish books after all the libraries had been burned. (emphasis mine).
The censorship connection was more than just metaphorical, however,
A missionary descendant, William R. Castle, held on to his forebears' disdain for the art form and insisted that the printers who published the coronation program of the hula chants be arrested for obscenity. One of the issues was the inclusion of hula ma'i, the traditional songs praising a chief's genitals. Noenoe Silva points out that the sexuality of these hula was meaningful to the king and his people because the natives "had suffered depopulation caused by epidemics of foreign disease and also by childlessness".
I am again reminded of an important lesson I learned in my library school days: there is something to offend everyone, and everyone is offended by something.

My husband also blogged about this book when we finished reading it last night. His post can be found here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Cold Case to Case Closed : Lizbeth Borden: My Story - by Rich Little and Beverly Folstad

Living in Massachusetts has piqued my interests in several things. One is the Salem witch trials, another is the Lizzie Borden ax murder case. Of course the jump rope rhyme about Lizzie Borden is well known, and I have seen at least two movies about the crime. I watched The Legend of Lizzie Borden starring Elizabeth Montgomery when it first aired on television in 1975, and more recently Lizzie Borden Took an Ax with Christina Ricci in the title role. We have also toured the Borden home in Fall River, which is now run as a (creepy) B & B. This is the first book I have read about her though. Our town's One Book One Community Committee is considering this self-published work for the spring 2015 read. Although it is subtitled "My Story" only some of the sections of this work are from Lizzie Borden's point of view. Much of it is a factual retelling of what was known, police reports, and how the trial played out. These parts of the work read like any other "true crime" book. I was, personally, much more entertained by the sections of the book that comprised the imagined words of Miss Borden. And I was especially interested in learning how important her library card was to her while she was imprisoned
In my ten months at Taunton (prison), there was seldom another woman incarcerated; the result was a very quiet environment. I spent my time reading, one of my favorite pastimes. When Emma came in on the train to visit every week, she always brought fresh reading materials. The Taunton Free library was only two blocks away; they issued me a library card which I still cherish. While shopping for jail supplies and provisions, Mrs. Wright would pick up several newly published books from the library each week.
I can only imagine that without the solace Miss Borden found in reading that her time in prison would have been akin to solitary confinement - alone with only her thoughts day after day. Books are our friends.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

My Year of Meats - by Ruth Ozeki

Jane is a documentary filmmaker who lives in New York City. Akiko is a housewife in Tokyo. Both are being abused by the same man: Joichi "John" Ueno who is Akiko's husband and Jane's boss. Jane is working with John on a television program for the Japanese market called My American Wife! which features a different wife preparing a different meat-based recipe each week. John insists that Jane only scout out "wholesome" white families, and insists that Akiko make each "recipe of the week". As Jane learns more about the beef industry (the sponsor of the show) she begins to subvert the message. The diverse families she showcases also provide Akiko with some new ideas for changing her own life.

The story takes place in 1991, a time before the internet, or e-mail. Communication was done by telephone or fax, and research was done at the library. Jane speaks of going to her hometown public library as a child to research her perfect mate. As the daughter of a Japanese mother and a white father she wanted to produce an offspring who "embodied the United Nations"
In my early teens when Polly and the the other girls were assembling ideal boyfriends from the body parts of teen movie idols and lead guitarists, I was conjuring a mate along very different lines. The way I figured it, I had the chance to make a baby who could one day be King of the World...I went to the Quam (Minnesota) Public Library and looked up "The Races of Men" in an old Frye's geography book
The passages she goes on to describe, written in 1902, are certainly racist by today's standards, which is one reason she feels justified in removing Frye's book from the same library when she returns as an adult.
Call it censorship, but on that trip home to visit Ma after the Bukowsky show, I stole Frye's Grammar School Geography from the public library. It was the least I could do for the children of Quam.
Ah, the rallying cry of the censor! 'I must protect others from this book from which I, myself, do not need protection. I have the knowledge and the critical thinking abilities to handle this work, but alas others do not.'

She continues with her other reason for taking the book
But to be perfectly honest, I wanted the book, and it's not the kind of thing you can easily pick up at a Barnes & Nobel superstore. It felt like antique pornography to me, with its musty old text, quaint etchings, and poisonous thoughts. From time to time I still pore over its stained chamois-soft pages, satisfying my documentarian's prurient interest in the primary sources of the past.
She has no concern for other researchers who might also want the book for the same reasons she does. My advice to those who question what a particular book is doing in a library is to ask a librarian about it.  It might be that the the horribly understaffed library has not been able to take on a "weeding" project to remove outdated materials, or that books are still available as primary sources for researchers. Perhaps a case could be made that Frye's work no longer belonged in the children's department, but that does not necessarily mean that it should be removed from the library entirely, perhaps it should simply be moved to the archives.

Grammar School Geography by Alexis Everett Frye is a real book. You can read the whole thing here.

This was a good read, with a lot of disturbing information about the beef industry, feedlots, and hormones. Ozeki skillfully weaves many different themes together, as well as several story lines.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Frankenstein - by Mary Shelley

Every once in a while I feel the need to read a classic piece of literature. Over Halloween weekend I decided the time was ripe to finally read Frankenstein. It is always interesting to read things that have become such a part of popular culture only to discover what is NOT in them. Just as Dorothy does not have red shoes in the original Wizard of Oz (they are silver in the book), and Count Dracula is not burned up by sunlight in Bram Stoker's classic work, indeed the Count walks around in broad daylight, I found several things "missing" from the original novel. There does not appear to be any character named "Igor", nor could I find any indication that Frankenstein's monster comes to life following an electrical storm. In fact, the creation of the monster in a very small part of the story, and Frankenstein spends virtually no time with his creation before it sets out on its own.

Libraries in this book were limited to personal libraries. There was also some information about the importance of lifelong learning and the scientific method as well.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bulllspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation - by Loren Collins

Heuristics are mental shortcuts that allow people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently... and allow people to function without constantly stopping to think about their next course of action. While heuristics are helpful in many situations, they can also lead to biases (from about education)

I've been working with one of the Psychology professors at my University for the last few years researching how students use heuristics in making choices about what to "click" when confronted with thousands of choices in a "Google" result list. Collins explains how we evolved to use heuristics and how the scientific method developed over a long period of time.

As a librarian who teaches Information Literacy (IL) this book wasn't so much "eye opening" for me as it was validation and clarification. Collins explores why people believe pseudo-science, rather than examining things via the scientific method (hint: it's easier and faster) and also how we can be more effective in our critical thinking in an age where false information can be sent around the world in a less than a day.

The author also looks at pseudo-history, and pseudo-law, explaining why "the crank in his basement...with a high school diploma [insists] that he understands American jurisprudence better than the Supreme Court."

I was reminded while reading the chapter on pseudo-law that the O.J. Simpson trial was taking place in 1995 while I was working in a public library. About once a week during the nine-month trial someone would call and ask how they could get in touch with Marcia Clark, the prosecutor in the case, always telling me they had some key information they needed to share with her.

There were a few specific mentions of libraries, but the interest in this one for librarians is less on where and how Collins refers to them, as it is on how librarians can better understand why and how our users are looking for information.