Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Pictured above: a terrific new sculpture on the grounds of the Wheeler Taft Abbett, Sr. Branch Library, Pima County Public Library in Tucson Arizona. Made of galvanized steel, and lit by
three of the world's most powerful LEDs, its contents reflect 1000 words chosen from literature and local oral history, including selections in English, Spanish and O'odham (a Uto-Aztecan language). It was constructed by a group called Creative Machines, who also design interactive museum exhibits. How playful and resonant, a sculpture to make any library or cultural center proud. This takes Wordle a step beyond, not to mention Magnetic Poetry! For more photos of the sculpture, see Flickr.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Season of Light

The photo above is from an interactive installation called The Hanukkah Project: The Sound of Light by Julianne Swartz, now showing at the Jewish Museum in New York City. Reading about it inspired me to do a post on an assortment of topics related to light during this winter solstice/winter holidays season.

My brother-in-law, Carl Johnson, is a Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University, where he does research on luminescence. When we visited there during May, he took us around his laboratory and showed us several experiments in progress. Since then, I've become aware of the many kinds of luminescence. I am far from scientifically gifted, but do find the subject fascinating. I've learned that bioluminescence is light produced by living organisms. Think of fish below the ocean; the deeper you go, the brighter they get. You might have seen luminescent ocean waves, especially at night. Some flowers fluoresce naturally within a humanly visible light range, among them portulaca and four-o'clocks. How about triboluminescence? Translated into people-speak, this is an optical phenomenon illustrated by sparks from sugar. Centuries ago, sugar was formed into large cones for transportation, and then later when it was chipped down into more usable sizes, in low light, the cone could be seen giving off tiny sparkling bursts of light. English scholar Francis Bacon is cited as making this discovery. So luminescence is everywhere.

Scientists are working with the insertion of light-sensitive neurons into the spinal cord for treatment of injuries. See the full story in the Nov. 15, 2008 Economist. The latest research on fighting seasonal affective disorder with light therapy is available from The Center for Environmental Therapeutics. A Consumer Reports on Health article entitled "Light Up Your Life" (12/08) cited a study showing that nursing home residents exposed to enough daily bright light had improved memory capabilities. See the Harris County Public Library Databases page for access to this article via Masterfile Premier Magazine Index (you will need to enter your HCPL card number for access from anywhere outside our library buildings. HCPL cards are available to all residents of Texas, as well as visitors from other states).

In this holiday season coupled with the economic crisis, some businesses and municipalities are "undecking the halls" by dimming or decreasing their holiday light displays. LED holiday lights are a fantastic way to lower the electric bill. They use 90% less energy than conventional lights. Looking around my neighborhood, I see no change in the amount of Christmas lighting, but maybe that's our brash big Texan way of putting on a show, no matter what!

James Turrell is a light sculptor and installation artist whose work can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House. His installations enlist the common properties of light to communicate feelings of transcendence and the Divine.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen

Friday, December 19, 2008

Trees: a Visual Guide

The University of California Press recently published a wonderful book entitled Trees: a Visual Guide (ISBN 978-0-520-25650-7, $29.95). Horticultural botanist Tony Rudd and horticulturalist Jennifer Stackhouse are the authors; both are from Australia, but the book is global in scope. How splendidly it presents the magnificent organisms that we call trees, referring to them as the "big game of the plant world."

I bought a couple of copies to give as Christmas presents. To me, the most striking element about the book is its photography, which is absolutely stunning. This kind of photography makes me want to paint and draw. The cropped shots of bark, branches, cones, etc., are near abstract in their beauty. Meant more as a scientific survey concerned with the botany, diversity and adaptations of trees, surely it will also attract as many readers with its visual richness.

That said, I learned a lot dipping into the annotations and chapters. That massive Baobob trees have inside them some kind of juicy substance that is very appealing to elephants, who are able to thrust through the tree's bark. That cones on conifers and other gymnosperms are both male and female. That an orange is technically a berry. That Batai trees can grow as much as 25 feet in a year. That Yew trees contain the anticancer compound of taxol. One chapter presents Remarkable Trees of the World. I was delighted to see that Sugar Maples were included since I used to make maple syrup when I lived in upstate New York. Also deemed remarkable: the Baobob, the Monkey Puzzle, the Pacific Madrone, Paper Birch, Calabash and Cannonball trees, among others. Their names alone are pure poetry.

My husband is a cabinetmaker, so we love all kinds of wood. His shop is full of scraps I'd love to make things with when I retire. I went through a period more than thirty years ago where I enjoyed crafting with ironwood. I had several slices cut from a hollow tree which I made into frames and mirrors, using crochet, leather and beads, etc. The practical uses of wood and tree byproducts are also highlighted in the visual guide. Not only wood for furniture and housing, but also for musical instruments, ships, and railroad ties. How about spices, fruit and drink? Also as medicine: think of quinine, eucalyptus oil, and salicin from which aspirin is derived.

I love trees in winter, their branches bare against sky. At solstice time, having just last night trimmed a Christmas tree, a post about trees seemed timely. The holidays are here. Enjoy! And don't forget to buy books for the holidays!

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Blog known as Annoyed Librarian

Library Journal picked up a blog known as The Annoyed Librarian a few months back. I was familiar with it in its earlier days before it became so prominent. I always liked its sardonic tagline: "Whatever it is, I'm against it." Whoever is writing this blog remains anonymous, but there is much speculation over who she or he really is.

Now that this blog has such a mainstream imprint, it is amazing to watch the flurry of comments every post attracts. As far as I'm concerned, "The Annoyed Librarian" could just as easily be Betty Crocker. This personage could be entirely concocted, a pastiche of various writers introducing library controversies. What's important is that this blog opens up a forum for our profession.

Apparently librarians need to let off a lot of steam; there is a thick vein of sarcasm and dark humor displayed in the daily comments. Also, we get defensive. Public librarians think academic librarians don't understand them and vice versa. The great Annoyed One provokes us, asking questions such as: "If there are no reference librarians in 20 years is that good or bad for society?" That is bound to get a reaction from most of us! Other controversies: library closings, gaming in libraries, banned books, etc.

There is tone of mockery to "The Annoyed Librarian", an irreverance that I find both fascinating and repulsive. I'm not sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for every post, but when I peek in on the blog, I almost feel like I am driving by the scene of an accident. Whose feelings can we trample on today? I read through the comments looking for someone who speaks back with respect. I'm not sure that happens often enough. Instead there is a tit for tat atmosphere. Possibly this novelty will wear thin and "The Annoyed Librarian" will become passe. But in any case, it is interesting/commendable that a well-established mainstream periodical such as Library Journal, allows this wild, chaotic, black and white and every shade of gray, purple, red and blue cacophony of a blog to exist. After all, it's the American way.

photo by KAO: John Runnels Sidewalk Art, Houston, with Shadow

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Best Books of 2008

As an easy post at the end of a very busy week (we always pay dearly for taking four days off at Thanksgiving), here are my favorite reads from 2008. Many of them earned blog entries throughout the year, so I will not write at length about each of them, but instead add a line or two about why I liked them.

The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber. A warm, loving culinary memoir from a Jordanian-American author.

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. A touch of magical realism here, in a novel about two sisters reunited in small town North Carolina.

The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg. Various friends of mine heard him speak at this year's Texas Book Festival; they said he was terrific -- wish I could have been there. I like his colloquial storytelling style and down home ways. All of his memoirs are among my favorites.

Run by Ann Patchett. Themes of nature vs. nurture, love, family, adoption, Catholicism: a novel of uncommon decency that warms the old cockles of the heart.

Home by Marilynne Robinson. An understated literary masterpiece; very fine character development. The alcoholic brother who returns home and the dutiful sister who welcomes him are characters I will not soon forget.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. I look forward to doing this one at the library's book group because it has that old fashioned "jolly good read" quality. The island setting, the time period following World War II and the folksiness of the island characters all contribute mightily to this charming novel of letters.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Best novel narrated by a dog I've ever read! It had a certain unique philosophical and Zenlike quality.

Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout. Another character I will never forget, even though she was an annoying curmudgeon.

The Road Home by Rose Tremain. A classic modern day immigrant's tale, set in England.

Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson. A prequel worthy of recommending to all the followers of L.M. Montgomery's original series, Anne of Green Gables.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Not So Commonplace Books

Writers are word collectors, quote collectors. I know I am. I like to hand write favorite quotes into notebooks. One name for such a collection is: a commonplace book. Wikipedia tells us that commonplace books are a way to compile knowledge, scrapbooks if you will. Quotes, prayers, proverbs -- each collection is unique to its creator's interests and intentions.

A friend who attended a spiritual seminar recently came back with a suggestion to do this as a spiritual practice and/or starting place for further revelations: enter meaningful quotes into a notebook or journal. Plenty of ministers must do this as part of their perpetual search for sermon material.

My commonplace books reflect my obsessions. About a decade and a half ago, my entire social life revolved around writers' groups and poetry readings, etc. So it was natural for me to collect quotes about writing. Here's one from Leonard Cohen: "Poetry is just the evidence of a life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash." (Look magazine, 6-10-1969) I used that quote sometimes when I gave poetry readings.

And this one from Annie Dillard: "I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better." (from The Writing Life, Harper and Row, 1989)

Any reader runs into those special sentences that beg to be read again and again. You can't turn the page or go on until you capture them for all time. Such as this from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Euxpery: "And here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see. What is essential is invisible to the eye." In fact, I found I had written this down twice in two different notebooks.....

As a person who requires a fair amount of alone time, I love this quote from May Sarton: "Solitude itself is a way of waiting for the inaudible and the invisible to make itself known." (Plant Dreaming Deep, W.W. Norton, 1968)

And this one which is applicable to so many situations in life, said to be a cowboy saying: "Good judgement comes from experience and a lot of that comes from bad judgement." As a manager, I try to remember that when anyone makes a mistake, me included.

One final offering, this from Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711 - 1776): "Reading and sauntering and lounging and dozing, which I call thinking, is my supreme happiness."

And so the commonplace notebook grows thicker and thicker until it is full and time to start another one. Taking up not but a few inches of shelf space on one's bookshelf or tucked into a drawer, such collections are invaluable, surely anything but common. Wikipedia makes the point that some writers see blogs as analogous to commonplace books. I'll take both. The notebooks are essentially for me, and the blog goes out and beyond. As Linda Ellerbee would say, "And so it goes...."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cherished and Inherited Books

A poem by Emory & Henry College professor Felicia Mitchell published in a recent issue of Blue Fifth Review provided me not only with a moment's pause and subsequent delight in her fine-tuned sensitivity, but also with the inspiration for this blog post. Here are some lines from the middle of her poem, "Zen and the Art of My Brother", a poem inspired by her brother's copy of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

Inner peace is a state of mind.
I value quietness as much as my brother did,
the two-dimensional world of the book.
Inside his books, hard edges seem rounder,
like worry stones or river rocks.
When I am inside them,
I am almost inside my brother inside himself.

Felicia, a long distance friend and pen pal, lost her brother, John Henry when she was 20 and he was 21. In a short essay accompanying the poem, she tells how she keeps this book of her brother's on her desk at college, "as much for the fact that his hands held it as for what it contains."

I couldn't agree with her more on the tactile resonance of books which used to belong to people we loved. By the time I was age seven or eight, reading Little Women and The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, or the Little House books, not only did I very much want to own and keep my favorite books on a special shelf, I became fascinated by the books on my father's bookshelf. I loved to study their titles. I sensed they had totemic powers. Some of the books were well worn, as if Dad had carried them from pillar to post, and I knew they meant something to him. You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe: that title mystified me until I got a little older. Dad was from North Carolina, and he had a complete collection of Thomas Wolfe. The View from Pompey's Head by Hamilton Basso: to me that seemed like a good book title since that was what I most liked about the newly discovered joy of reading chapter books, that I could get inside someone else's mind (and life and soul).

I own a few of Dad's books now. He passed away in 2003. I especially value the ones he wrote his name in. Also, if there were clippings or bookmarks left in the books, I keep them. My mother has more of Dad's books, which I'll probably inherit some day. I took down his copy of Butterfield 8 by John O'Hara from my bookshelf last night and the paper cover turned to dust in my hands. But the binding and book pages are in excellent condition. I have been meaning to read that book ever since I adopted it....

There is much debate in the library world and elsewhere as to whether the book as we know it will continue much longer. I hear my fellow librarians (as well as Oprah) extolling the virtues of Kindle, an electronic book reading device. Nothing against the thing, and it seems to make them happy, but I am a real book with real pages person. I like the heft and weight of books, their covers, their pages with or without deckled edges, even their aromas when freshly printed. If books are no longer three dimensional objects, they can not be passed along from one to another in quite the same way. I like turning the pages of a book my Dad once read. Call me sentimental, but loving books is in my blood. Inheriting someone's Kindle doesn't quite inspire the same warm, fuzzy feelings.

So kudos to Felicia for her poem and essay, both fine forays into the multiple connections we make reading and turning the pages of a book once owned by someone we have lost. The intimacy of reading the same book they loved, the very same book, is one of the most therapeutic ways of grieving I've ever heard of. As well as bushy eyebrows and the shape of my feet, my Dad passed along his love of reading. I think it's time to read Butterfield 8.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Passalong" Plants

I forget where I first acquired one of these little succulent plants some twenty-odd years ago, but ever since then, I have not been without a few pots of them. They easily make pups and have become one of my favorite "passalong" plants. Probably one of the haworthia species of succulents, they are easy to grow. All you have to do is ignore them and keep them out of the hot sun.

Wikipedia tells us succulents are also known as "fat plants" because of their water-storing ability. My haworthia don't seem to care if you water them or not, although a little rain never hurts. Their roots don't seem very tenacious. The plants sit loosely in their soil. Yet they are alive, and I appreciate their steadfastness.

I learned there is a Haworthia Society. They even have a plant exchange for their members, and publish a magazine for their members called the Haworthiad. Perhaps when I retire in a year or two, I will join and become even more of a plant geek than I already am.

Aloe vera plants are also easy passalong succulents to grow, and very good to have on hand for burns. I love the whole concept of passalong plants. The last passalong plant I received was some oxalis triangularis, which seemed to die out but then came back last spring. I was elated, because this particular kind of clover is very odd-looking. (I tend to have the "one of everything" plant disease.) Often passalongs are old fashioned species not usually found in retail stores, such as antique roses. Legend has it you don't thank the giver for such a plant or it will die. Now that's just plain silly in my book (if you have good manners, saying thank you is just natural!), but an alternative may be giving thinks to Mother Nature. I feel grateful to live in a relatively frost-free locale where it is easy to keep lots of plants alive over the winter. The Houston winter is not so much a cold season as it is "not summer". And that's fine with me!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian is the first national museum dedicated to the preservation, study, and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of Native Americans. I am proud to say I am longtime member of this particular Smithsonian museum. I have not been to the NMAI on the National Mall in Washington DC, but I do visit Manhattan often enough that I’ve been able to get to the George Gustav Heye Center, a smaller branch of the NMAI. Both locations are currently running an exhibition called “Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian”, which I plan to see this January.

Born in 1937, Scholder grew up “non-Indian” in Minnesota and South Dakota. He was one-quarter Luseino, a California Mission tribe. He was the fifth Fritz in a family of primarily German ancestry. The family story goes that his German ancestor wandered around California after the Civil War, and when he got lost in the desert, he lay down to die. He was found by a Native American woman and later married her. What a romantic story.....

In high school, Fritz Scholder was mentored by Sioux artist, Oscar Howe. During his college years he studied with Wayne Thiebaud (one of my favorite painters). After exhibiting his early paintings in shows around California, he became involved with the Rockefeller Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona during the 1960s. In the 70s his fame rose following the exhibition of his “Indians Forever”, a series of lithographs. For the rest of his life, his work was often controversial (he vowed to paint "real, not red"), but his success was large. He lived in Santa Fe and Manhattan.

Many people recognize Scholder as the painter who presented Indians in an almost pop-art context; a painting that comes to mind is one he did of a Native American man wrapped in an American flag. (I learned this painting was based on actual 19th century photographs of Indians dressed in surplus flags after their tribal regalia had been confiscated.) Other artifacts found in his paintings along with his native subjects were beer cans and cats. He strove to break down sentimental stereotypes of Indians as “noble savages”. He thought of himself as an “American Expressionist”. His paintings celebrate the medium of paint, drips, smears and all. His method of working often involved playing music and painting wildly late into the night. He loved to do research, read and prepare for his paintings. He was also successful in many other mediums: sculpture, photography, collage, etc. He passed away in 2005.

Here are a few more particulars I picked up researching this venerable American artist. He collected artifacts, including animal skulls, mummies, taxidermic creatures, and Day of the Dead stuff. He loved ancient Egypt. He owned a 1979 gold Rolls Royce. He said he woke up happy every morning and was a natural optimist. Critic Malcolm Margolin said that Fritz Scholder had “a greatness of spirit” and a “deep, dark playfulness”. In an article published in the National Review (4-2-1976), Ruth Berenson said “his figures have an uncompromising monumentality and strength”. The Fritz Scholder webpage and Artcyclopedia are further places to find out more about the artist.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Blue Zone

The "Blue Zone": it sounds like a place to drink absinthe or something from the world of science fiction and fantasy, but it is a term related to longevity. Blue Zones are places in the world where people have a higher chance of reaching a healthy age 90 and beyond. Scientists have identified Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica as Blue Zones. I first read a snippet about blue zones in an AARP magazine.

My mother lives in the Northeast and she will be 90 soon. All things considered, she is still pretty spry. I am hoping to follow in her footsteps. Guess I need to read The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner. We have 15 copies on order @ HCPL, with 22 holds at this time. From what I've heard, there are a lot of common sense factors involved: exercise, eating less meat, alcohol in moderation, a positive outlook, etc. You can create your own "blue zone"; you do not have to move to the Mediterranean, much as many of us might like to...

For more about this phenomenon, see Blue and this AARP story by Dan Buettner.

photo: "Blue Salvage" by KAO

Monday, October 27, 2008

Dewey Mania

I can't get enough of Dewey! I spent the weekend with him and felt blue when our time together was done. In case you're not sure who I mean, he is the adorable cat named Dewey Readmore Books who lived in the Spencer Public Library (Iowa) for nineteen years. I've met him before: he was one of the stars of a short film called "Puss in Books", a film I own and often show to visitors. In fact, my husband and I watched it again last night.

Dewey: the Small-town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter is a word-of-mouth bestseller amongst librarians, and did appear on the New York Times Best Seller list at number 13 during the week of October 5, 2008. The book gives us three interwoven portraits. First and foremost: we get to know the spunky cat who never met a stranger and who so many people adored. There was really something different about him. I think he had a big heart. Number two: we also get to know his "Mom", the author Vicki Myron, who rescued Dewey from the book drop one cold winter morning when he weighed less than a pound. Vicki's life as a librarian and single mom is a big part of the book, including some very tough times in her family history. Third: we become familiar with the town of Spencer itself, a town full of hard-working people with rural roots.

You don't even have to be a cat person to enjoy this book! The unity that one little cat brings to the library staff, to a librarian mother and her daughter, indeed, to a whole town, is phenomenal. During his long life, his story spread round the world, bringing tourists, filmmakers and journalists to this otherwise less-than-famous town. If you can't get your hands on the book right away, check out these links: Hachette Books, Spencer Library and Dewey's FaceBook page.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Home Again, Home Again

What a book-enriched week. I finished Home by Marilynne Robinson, and shortly thereafter found myself picking up The Road Home by Rose Tremain, both literary gems.

Home is the kind of book that's hard to booktalk because it sounds like a downer. The person who comes home is prodigal son Jack, an alcoholic. His family have been looking for him for twenty years. Left at home in Gilead, Iowa are his father, a frail retired minister, and his dutiful single sister, Glory. I'm not going to go into the plot anymore that, because for me just the profile of those three characters almost says it all. The potential drama and turmoil is all there. Marilynne Robinson reveals all three characters to the absolute depth of their souls, and yes, there is a lot of pain. Rarely do these characters leave the house, and it doesn't matter, there is so much going on. How strongly we come to care for Jack, Glory and for the dwindling husk of their father. Along with their pain is a whole lot of human decency, and that alone brought me near tears several times.

The Road Home by Rose Tremain is all about Lev, who leaves his hometown in Eastern Europe because there is no work there, and his wife has died. We meet him as he sinks down in his bus seat for the long ride towards London, where he hopes to make enough money to support his young daughter and her grandmother. I always enjoy an immigrant's tale, and this one is superb. I've read so many that feature newcomers to America, such as The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri or A Free Life by Ha Jin. So it was interesting to read one set in England instead. Lev knows some English, and after a rough patch of sleeping on the streets, settles in with a job at a posh restaurant and a flatmate. He washes dishes and observes how the cooks achieve their masterpieces. He gets a cell phone and is able to communicate with those he left behind. Although he thinks he won't ever fall in love again, he does. And then he loses that love, and he struggles. He is always running out of money. He has a dream of returning home and starting a restaurant. He learns that his hometown is due to be flooded when a new dam is built. Lev is a daydreamer, and the author uses this characteristic well, deftly revealing Lev's hopes and favorite memories. Read The Road Home to find out if Lev's dreams come true.

Both titles are shoe-ins for my Best Books of 2008 list.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Picturing America

West University Branch Library and many other branches of Harris County Public Library are the recipients of a Picturing America grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities/We the People flagship initiative. What this means is we were given a large portfolio of 40 laminated art reproductions representative of both American Art history and the whole story of America as a country. Pictured above is "Cityscape 1" (1963) by California artist Richard Diebenkorn (1922 - 1993).

Diebenkorn is one of those artists whose work fits many categories. He used abstraction before abstraction was cool; when that tide turned he renounced abstraction and became more figurative. "Cityscape 1" is one of his semi-representational works, a bird's-eye view of San Francisco where it once met undeveloped land. Other painters whose work his brings to mind: Edward Hopper, Wayne Thiebaud, Henri Matisse. They say that Diebenkorn was an introspective man, modest and professorial. This quote from him helps interpret his work: "I came to mistrust my desire to explode the picture and supercharge it in some way... what is more important is a feeling of strength in reserve – tension beneath calm."

There was an interesting article about Diebenkorn in the Wall Street Journal recently. It questioned why Diebenkorn is not "more famous". I would like to have been in the room when members of the NEH or their consultants decided which works of art would be included in the Picturing America program. I'm glad they included Diebenkorn. But where, oh where is Georgia O'Keeffe, Joan Mitchell, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollack, to mention a few? Ah, well, with only forty slots open, it is understandable the choices were limited.

We have opened our Picturing America mini-museum with 2 works of art. Facing out on the library's front window is a poster featuring mostly native American pottery and baskets. Facing in we have a portrait of Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley. I have enjoyed using the Picturing America Teachers Resource Guide to create short curated blurbs to accompany the posters. We will change the posters out ever week or two, so the "museum" should be open for many months to come. The old art major in me is thrilled, and I hope the public gets something our of these displays. Some days there are customers lined up outside our windows waiting for the library to open. Now they have some art to look at while they are waiting.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ravioli Reading

Laura Schenone is the author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: a Search for Food and Family, a book that must have taken her many years to write. There are at least three trips to Italy and lots of years go by. At book's start, she realizes she wants to connect with her Italian family's food heritage, specifically ravioli, a traditional food of festivity and celebration. There has been a disconnect in her family, and no one has collected the family recipes. There may be an old ravioli press or two, but that's it. And many members of her father's New Jersey-based family are not even speaking to each other.

But Schenone is a persistent (some would say obsessed) food historian. I'm a big admirer of her James Beard Award-winning book, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: a History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances. I never tired reading of her quest for authentic ravioli. After all, there's a lot to cover: the pasta itself and the fillings, also the sauce. She learns how to make pasta herself, with and without a pasta machine, under the tutelage of aged ravioli crones in Italy, as well as American relatives she reconnects with. Like many food memoirs, the book is as much about life, family, self-identity and geography as it is about food. By book's end, Schenone's family has truly reconnected over the ravioli rituals, and it's a good thing to see!

I found myself thinking I'd like to make pasta sometime myself. I grew up just down the street from an Italian family whose wonderful mother made pasta by hand. I got used to seeing long strips of it hanging on the backs of chairs and elsewhere. An unusual ingredient connected to pasta Schenone introduces readers to is chestnut flour. In the Liguria region of Italy where her relatives came from, chestnut trees are everywhere, thus the use of chestnuts in all kinds of recipes. (Perhaps now I know why roasted chestnuts are sold from handcarts on the streets of Manhattan; it must have been the influence of Italian immigrants.) Lost Ravioli Recipes is a zesty, sensory idyll introducing all sorts of ingredients that go into various pastas and Italian dishes. The fillings for ravioli often depended on local ingredients, and relative wealth. Lesser cuts of meat were used by poorer peoples, if meat was used at all. Herbs and greens varied from hilltop to mountainside.

I think the first culinary memoir I read was Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl. It was great, and I forevermore was hooked on the genre. For a culinary memoirs reading list, link to one we did at the HCPL eBranch. Next up: I'm looking forward to reading Bento Box in the Heartland: my Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America by Linda Furiya.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Coal Soot and How It Appeals to Me

Authoress Bathsheba Monk has written a fine book of interconnected short stories titled Now You See It: Stories from Cokesville, PA. Whenever I hear that someone has written a book set in a coal town, I want to read it. Maybe it harks back to my teen aged forays into the works of D.H. Lawrence. Other titles with coal soot appeal include: Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh and Sister Mine by Tawni O'Dell.

Bathsheba Monk grew up in a family of Pennsylvania coal miners, and clearly she knows of what she writes. Most of these stories are set in the aftermath of the great days when coal was king. The men that went in to the mines are unemployed or dead, some by their own hand. Cokesville was also a steel town, and steel too has done a runner. Not surprisingly, many of Monk's characters aspire to make it out of Cokesville. Best friends Annie Kusiak and Theresa Gojuck, one a writer, the other an actress, never quite get over their coal town childhoods, even though they make it as far away as California. The character of Annie appears most often, lending a stability to this varied collection of stories. She is misunderstood by her family, who see no value in her literary ambitions. When Teresa's celebrity is slipping, all she has to do is go back to Cokesville, where she is guaranteed to be hounded for autographs.

A favorite story here is "Little Yellow Dogs" featuring Mrs. Wojic, who was known throughout Cokesville for her cleanliness. She and her husband had nine children, and everyone was put to to work keeping their house clean ("You'd think the Pope was coming to visit the way they cleaned that house.") Sidewalks were scoured, siding was hosed down and gardens were neatly tended. Then after the children grow up and leave, and Mrs. Wojic loses her husband, a curious thing happens. Mrs. Wojic adopts a stray yellow dog who comes to her door. She lets the cleaning slide. But oh, how she tends that dog, brushing his hair and talking to him. We come to find out that shortly before Mr. Wojic died, he promised his wife he would come back as an animal, say, a little yellow dog, and keep her company. The problem comes when a second little yellow dog appears at her door. Which one is her husband departed?

What is about the coal town setting that appeals to me? Maybe its the down to earth characters. Or the clannishness of the families. Or the desperate edge they live on, sacrificing their lives for the middle class comfort of the rest of the country. I read and enjoy so many books with Manhattan or beachtown settings. Also I'm drawn to anything set in the legendary West. Then there is a vast "other" settings category. I've never known a coal miner, and have barely seen a slag heap or blast furnace, but I'm curious just the same. The United States of America has and does include characters of coal, and Ms. Monk has successfully carved their images in sharp contrast to the great majority of red, white and blue lives.

How refreshing such regional fiction is, taking us to other worlds existing not so very faraway from ours, judging by how the crow flies. But further still by other measures, reaching deep into infinite variations of the human soul. I've decided that I must by nature be a dreamer, for I never tire of cracking open a new novel and trying on life as lived by another. Getting right inside another person's mind so that we know what it's like looking out through their eyes; now that's a trick I never tire of. Coal soot and all.....

Friday, September 26, 2008

Galveston, Oh Galveston

I don't think I could have stayed in Houston for very long were it not for Galveston and other coastal areas nearby. I need to know the ocean is near, even if I can't get there regularly. I guess it's due to growing up on Long Island, New York. All through my childhood, other than visits to cousins in Brooklyn, our getaways involved the sand and shore. I went to Blue Bay Girl Scout Camp on Gardiner's Bay in East Hampton. Best of all, I spend many weekends and vacations in Sag Harbor, because I was frequently and generously invited along by my friend Susan and her parents, who had a summer house there. We spent whole days on the beach and I learned how to water ski (successfully getting up on skis the very first time is still an empowering memory). When I was 16 and got my Driver's License, the furthest I was allowed to go in the family car was Jones Beach. Remembering Jones Beach brings back the tang of salt, coconut oil and grilled hot dogs. Now when I visit New York, I love going to Jones Beach even if it's just to walk the boardwalk.

Hurricane Ike took Galveston down, but not out. Galveston is a survivor. It rebuilt after the Great Storm of 1900, after hurricane Carla and many other storms. There was a photo in the Houston Chronicle last week which personified the city's survivor spirit. Gaidos, a historic seafood restaurant on the Seawall, had its roof damaged by Ike. But they set up tables outside the restaurant, dressed them in white tablecloths, and served a shrimp dinner to the first responders. That photo made me proud. We will be going back to Galveston and Gaidos ourselves as soon as the "All clear" is given......

On a personal note, my house is still without electrical power following Ike. Thank goodness for libraries. I've begun to catch back up electronically. I enjoyed some vacation days (what some call a "hurrication") following the storm, and settled into the rhythms of a slower, non-electrified life. We are using a lot of candles and eating simply. I have a new appreciation for daylight. And I got a lot done in my yard. But I have to admit I'm ready to more fully return to the 21st Century. We've been told we should have power by Sunday.

Also I must note I've passed the one year mark as a blogger. 9-22-08 was my first Blogaversary. I am grateful for this opportunity to write as a "Lone Star Librarian". Blogs seem to me to be the ultimate democratic journalistic form. No editor! Free and clear! We can live without such electronic marvels but hey, who wants to? I'm hooked, and hope to continue blogging in one form or another forevermore.

photo: Galveston waters by KAO

Friday, September 19, 2008

Society's Child: My Autobiography by Janis Ian

Janis Ian has written a wonderful autobiography aptly named for her infamous mega-hit song, "Society's Child". She was only 15 when she recorded the song, and it shocked America with its subject matter of inter-racial dating. I was a teenager then myself (this was mid-1960s) and remember playing the plaintive 45 single over and over on my phonograph player. It was very inspiring to see a teenager rise up that way.

Many people may think of Ian as a one hit wonder. I knew there was more to her than that, such as the song "At Seventeen". But after reading this book, I am more fully clued into her extensive output as a songwriter. For example, the song "Jesse", was written by Janis Ian. I've always loved Joan Baez's version of "Jesse". During many of the decades since she burst onto the music scene, Ian was more popular in Europe than America and I feel like I lost track of her. Yet she was one of the first musicians to migrate to the MP3/Itunes format, and is still a very active songwriter and performer.

What I most like about reading biographies of artists of any kind is seeing how their life influences their art, and what kinds of struggles they go through to be true to their creativity. The genesis of the song, "Society's Child", for instance - all it took was the sight of an interracial couple on a bus for her creative powers to go to work and write the song. As Ian's life went on, she experienced many difficult health, familial and personal crises which became touch points for her songs.

P. S. Due to hurricane Ike, I have been out of touch electronically. This post is written in haste. I enjoyed reading Society's Child by candlelight during the storm, but now the power is back at the library and we've got plenty of catching up to do. (We still don't have power at home, and think we may be without it for at least a few more days.) I am grateful the hurricane left my family and friends relatively unscathed. Some of the other branches of HCPL, particularly the one in Seabrook, were damaged enough that they have not reopened. Stay tuned....

For further info about Janis Ian, see

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Joy of Color

"Color is joy. One does not think color. One is carried by it." - Ernst Haas, photographer.

I have always been interested in color. Mother Nature speaks in so many colors. I'm thinking of sunsets, gems, flowers and feathers, tropical fish, seashells and heather. I remember flying in to the Shannon Airport in Ireland. I was so struck by what I saw out the plane window -- on the hills and cliffs below, there were so many shades of green (an oft repeated cliche about Ireland, I know, but so true)! I remember how thrilled I was with a bicycle I owned as a child because no one else had quite the same color, a frosty metallic but muted gold. I remember when purple was a relatively rare color; you really didn't see it much in clothing or furnishings. Purple was for royalty! Now it is a hugely popular color and I am one of its fans.

My husband and I share the same favorite color: blue. We hold that in common with a majority of American people. Blue is the most favorite color of both men and women in a number of studies I've seen. A Crayola Color Census backs me up on this: two shades of blue are its top ranked colors, followed by purple. As we age, we move towards the blue and violet end of the rainbow as far as color preferences. Kids prefer red, orange and yellow.

In pursuit of further enlightenment about color, I gave myself an online tour and found the following sites worth sharing.

For a basic tutorial on color, see the website. It has good graphics displaying color concepts such as saturation, contrast, dominance, shades and tints, etc.

At, if you join you can download all kinds of palettes and patterns created by its some of its 131,632 users.

PrincetonOnline brings together an interesting collection of summaries and links about color symbolism. It led me to some pages of color tests. For a right brain/left brain color exercise, try this quiz. It is also fun to take this color palette test, although I totally disagreed with its analysis of my tastes.

I learned there is a Color Association, a group which forecasts color palettes for fashion and interior design. They also offer a newsletter which I'd like to try.

"I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for." - Georgia O'Keeffe

photo by KAO - Galveston Sunset

Friday, August 29, 2008 is a local website I just became acquainted with. What a jam-packed database of cultural events! It is maintained by the Houston Arts Alliance and is also part of a larger Artopolis network. Now if I only had more time to attend some of the events...

The site has a front page which shows you what's going on today, but what I find most useful is the calendar, which makes it easy to plan ahead. I am looking forward to a staycation in September, and I will be checking out Artshound for some field trips and special events. Among its many browsable categories are: Performing Arts, Visual Arts, Festivals, Kids & Families, Film & Video, Poetry & Literature, World & Traditional, Museums, Public Art, Special Events, Free Events, Outdoors & Nature. Then on a sidebar, we are offered more goodies: Classes & Workshops, News and Reviews, Artist Profiles, etc. Something for everyone (and it makes me glad to be a Houstonian, a city where most cultural events are fairly affordable)!

Friday, August 22, 2008


I took the plunge onto Facebook earlier this week. I seem to have gotten hooked rather quickly. It's nice to have a place to share photos of family and friends. I do have a Flickr account but I tend to park only my favorite artsy photos there. The fun thing about Facebook is collecting friends. The Facebook software helps you do that by checking against your email address book. It finds people you might know already on FaceBook and gives you the option to email other friends.

I used to think I didn't have time for anything beyond my personal email and this blog. But now I see it differently. I have lots of things going on which are not related to reading and the library, beyond this blog. I'm in a special interest group at my church, and if we all get on FaceBook, it will be another way to communicate and share. It's really fun to hop over to a friend's page and see their photos. You pick up on their back story, their connections, see their pets, etc. FaceBook makes it so easy!

Last month, many of us at HCPL attended a Library 2.0 event. Stephen Abram came to speak to us about the future of libraries. Among other things, he talked about how the younger generation stays connected beyond the college years. They don't lose their grade school, high school or college friends, despite the fact that relocation is a fact of life for most young professionals. They stay connected because of social networking tools like FaceBook and MySpace. The Internet has really rocked my life as far as reconnecting with old friends. And getting on FaceBook feels like the next step. I like the fact that I can personalize settings and decide who can see my profile; it is not automatically open to the whole world.

I read the Wikipedia entry on FaceBook to see what I didn't know about my new obsession. Plenty. That it was started at Harvard and grew from there. That it was redesigned only a few weeks ago, and has a new, "cleaner" look (I got there just in time). That there are over 7,000 applications that can be used on FaceBook, such as virtual gifts, events, games, all kinds of image generators. One application I signed up for on my personal FaceBook page is the Friend Wheel. Mine is in its infancy, so there are no links between my various friends yet, but it should be fun to watch the inter-connectivity grow. There is even a Marketplace on FaceBook, similar to Craigslist, except that you are only advertising to the friends who have access to your account.

Some of my footsteps into the Web 2.0 world have been faltering. I did not get into the virtual games. But FaceBook takes me another step further, and I'm grateful. It puts a bounce in my step and a grin on my face everytime I add another friend. I'm a convert and I'm evangelizing. Join up, join up - it's fun!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Potato Peels

If you are like me, your curiosity is piqued by the potato peels in the title of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I am only 70 pages into the book, and already I don't want it to end. I am burrowing in, trying to savor its leisurely progression (I have a tendency to read too fast). It is a charming novel told in letters. So far, I think it is a sure pick for the library's book discussion group.

Back to the potato peels... On the British island of Guernsey during the Nazi Occupation, the local people had little food to live on. The Germans took all their livestock. One clever islander developed a pie filled with mashed potatoes, sweetened with beets and lined with a crust made of potato peels. The Literary Society was at first a ruse some late night revelers made up to cover up their partying past the German-imposed curfew. Then it became a real book group, where islanders who previously read little, began to read a lot. It helped with the boredom of living under occupation.

The main character here is Juliet Ashton, a London writer who is in correspondence with various members of the Guernsey islanders. I felt sorry for Juliet when I read how she lost her book collection in the Blitz. Even though this book is set in the years right after World War II, in the lives of its characters, the war is very much in evidence. Homes are still in rubble, soldiers lost, rationing still in effect, etc. And on the island of Guernsey, everyone is still worried about a missing woman named Elizabeth who arrested by the Germans and taken away. Elizabeth helped start the Literary Society. So that is about as much as I know at this point, but I am raring to read the rest of it soon.

Annie Barrows finished this novel after her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer passed away earlier this year. Shaffer was an editor, librarian and bookseller. Barrows is a children's author. Thank goodness she was ready and able to finish her aunt's book.

For read-alikes, see this list of Epistolary Fiction found on the HCPL website.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Leave Me Alone, I'm Maureen Corrigan

I'm late reading Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, by NPR book critic, Maureen Corrigan. It was published in 2005. But now I'm promoting it to my most bookish friends, especially those that might relate to the author's Irish/Polish Catholic childhood, her New York City roots, her love of detective fiction, or her excruciating journey through a PHD program.

Corrigan weaves together elements of memoir and book commentary with sure handed ease. She uses the metaphor of adventure to compare life and literature. For instance, her maternal grandmother immigrated to New York from Poland. Coming to a new country, not knowing the language, was surely an extreme adventure. Corrigan's own adventures mostly took place between the covers of a book, especially through mystery fiction, where she found herself "raring to become one of the cheeky heroines". Then she and her husband went on a journey to adopt their daughter from a remote region of China, and she realized she was on her very own extreme adventure.

One childhood series that Corrigan analyzes is the Beany Malone series by Leonora Mattingly Weber, published from 1943 - 1969. I'm sure I read most of them published through the mid-60s. But I'd completely forgotten about them, so it was a joy to meet Beany again. Beany comes from a big Irish Catholic family, has freckles and braids, and she's a fresh air fiend and tomboy (rare in fiction then). How strongly this character comes back to me. In a chapter entitled "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: What Catholic Martyr Stories Taught Me About Getting to Heaven - and Getting Even", Corrigan demonstrates how certain Catholic values are exemplified by the fictional Malones, including: self-denial, modesty, generosity and love of our fellow humans. Other books analyzed in this chapter include Karen and With Love From Karen by Marie Killilea and works by Dr. Tom Dooley.

Maureen Corrigan admits that some part of her always prefers to be reading, even when she is with the ones she most loves. Luckily, she married another insatiable reader and has been able to base her life on love of books. Repelled by the tone of most academic literary criticism, she is happy being a generalist, and therefore chooses to be a non-tenured academic. Reader to reader, I relate to the ultra importance of books in her journey through life. My reading fanaticism started around second grade and has never let up.

P.S. I was recently tagged in a meme by Felicia Mitchell, a friend in academia. The meme assignment: to list in a blog which book, DVD and music/audiobook I have most recently purchased. I am swamped with books at the library and mostly buy them to be mailed to my mother. Often I read some of them when I visit her. She really enjoyed the last one I sent her, Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars by Bill Berloni and Jim Hanrahan. DVD: It's been a long time since I bought one, but one for sure was: Wings of Desire, which I'd love to watch again real soon. Music: I have the sound track from the movie Into the Wild on order. I love Eddie Vedder's songs based on journal fragments left behind by Chris McCandless.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Blended Words

Recently I've noticed how many blended words seem to be appearing via the media. Something I read about the Flickr website which referred to the "Flickrverse" got me started. Flickr certainly is its own universe, so the word appealed to me. Next was the word "staycation", seen in the July 20 New York Times. I have enjoyed plenty of staycations myself. There's nothing like a week at home away from the workplace! Staycations have rejuvenated me any number of times.

I don't like blended words if their meaning is not immediately apparent. "Scuppie" for instance - said to mean a socially conscious urban professional (I had to look it up). The word itself sounds like something you'd use to scrape barnacles off a boat.

How about "Christmahanukwanzaa"? It's more of a joke than anything, but it still seems to be going strong. It may have started as a put down on social correctness, but it has become handy in a multicultural way. "McMansion" was coined as far back as 1990, referring to large, opulent cookie cutter houses.

I learned a new bicycle-related blended word: "fixie". I own a fixie but never knew so: it signifies a fixed wheel bicycle with single gear pedals chained to the rear wheel. You can't pop the wheel off. Fixies are popular amongst bicycle messengers in Manhattan, probably due to their sturdiness.

Research on blended words took me to some interesting websites. WordSpy keeps a running list of new words. And I found out that Rice University maintains a Neologisms database. Some of the words collected there are said to be particular only "within the hedges" of Rice University. An example would be the word "dingle", meaning a college dorm room meant to house two students, instead occupied by one.

The word "murketing" seems to be everywhere lately. Read this post from the What Is? website for a discussion of its murky meaning. I noticed a reference to the word in a July 27, 2008 New York Times Book Review article. Murketing can be non-obvious, a kind of sly branding that goes beyond even product placement in movies. Building a buzz is a big part of murketing - getting people talking about your product. Red Bull, for instance, sponsors many dance and kiteboarding competitions. Pabst Beer does not flash its logo at the skateboarding events it pays for, etc. You won't find celebrities in any murketing campaigns. The meaning of "murketing" falls on the negative side of the advertising spectrum, when I'm not sure its practices are really any worse than more obviously commercial efforts.

"Walkshed" is a good blended word, meaning the area that can conveniently be reached from a fixed geographical point, such as your home or office. I've mentioned WalkScore in a previous post, and the idea of living or working in a walkable neighborhood only seems more relevant as the gas price crisis continues.

A few more blended words: "Kindergarchy" meaning being ruled or dominated by your children. "Groceraunt" meaning a grocery store and sit-down restaurant combined, an example being the Whole Foods store in Scottsdale, Arizona. There are plenty of blended words describing the new and trendy dog crossbreeds such as "labradoodle" and "schnoodle". Blended words can be fun.

Many blended words survive the faddish slang/idiomatic stage and pass over into the mainstream language. Case in point: the word "blog". Once "blog" was a new word, contracted from "web" and "log". And now here it is, both a noun and a verb, a word that sounds a perhaps a tad abrupt, but one I'm rather fond of. Also there are many related words, such as "blogosphere", which seems to get across a bit of the bloatedness of the blogging world. On that note, enough said!

graphic by KAO - a Blended Words Wordle Cloud

Friday, July 25, 2008

Getting through the Dog Days of Summer

I don't have a lot to report this week. I've been busy reading books for a future LJ essay, titles I can't blog about since I am saving my comments for the article.

The collage workshop I was taking has wrapped up now. Some of my new collages are too big to fit on my scanner at home, but eventually I will digitize more of them to use here and elsewhere. And I've joined the Art League Houston so I can take advantage of courses and workshops they offer.

Art Knowledge News has become one of my favorite Bloglines accounts. It gives me a quick visual overview of major art shows around the world.

Our library made the front page of the West University Examiner this week! The article, entitled "From Ferrets to Feathers" tells about a few of the programs we've had lately, and is warmly written by our favorite local reporter, Anne Marie Kilday.

For better or worse, the Dog Days of summer are here. And they last a long time in Houston, so the best thing to do is get used to it. I've grown accustomed to the heat. RX: books, art, watermelon, swimming, and all places air conditioned, especially libraries!

Flipped Mountain collage by KAO

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ten Reasons I Like Being a Librarian

1. Access to books, constantly!

2. Helping people find what they need is rewarding.

3. There has been a lot of bending and stretching and moving around, so being a public librarian helps me keep fit.

4. My colleagues are interesting people.

5. Appreciation from customers is wonderful. I especially like helping senior citizens. Our little library sits right next door to a Senior Center, so I've been privileged to enjoy much contact with this most appreciative age group.

6. I get to go to book group on the job! (Yes, I do need to lead it and do research on each title to be discussed, but that's fun, too.)

7. Working for the library system has been a stable work environment, especially as compared to private industry.

8. Working with titles, authors, subjects sharpens the memory.

9. I have learned a lot about so many things, including technology. I even learned to blog on the job!

10. After thirty years with HCPL, I'll be able to retire. That's in about two years or so, knock on wood. Then I'll have more time for art, writing, gardening, etc. And it will become my turn to become an appreciative library customer.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Collage Workshop @ the Glassell School of Art

I spent most of my college years in art classrooms. Deciding to be an art major was risky, but I felt art was the only path I could stay on that would lead me to a degree. The University erected a new art building which opened my sophomore year. The jewelrymaking room had an amazing array of high speed dental tools, oxygen acetylene torches and a centrifugal lost wax casting machine. I made silver rings for friends, and clunky sculpturesque pins dotted with common gemstones. In the ceramics studio, I learned how to fire gas kilns and make clay using a pug mill. Making pots on the potter's wheel was a true revelation -- I loved centering the clay and producing bowls and cups. I also tried photography, drawing, and printmaking. College did not last long enough as far as making art was concerned. I've made art on my own since then, but never took another formal course.

Finally I've returned to the art room setting. I am taking a workshop on collage at the Glassell School of Art. What a deja vu it was to sit down on a stool at a high work table, its surface paint-spattered and scarred by students past. The second time we met, everyone brought in their scraps of paper, cloth, twigs, and other ephemera to start some projects. One person brought mostly things in bright happy colors, another in a mostly natural shades. You could see where they might be headed with their art, yet you'd be hard pressed to see your own modus operandi spelled out in the collection of clippings and flotsam spilled out on the table.

Sasha, the teacher, challenged us to begin 6 collages all at once. It was chaotic but also freeing. If you got stuck on something in one composition, you turned your attention to the next one. We were asked to bring three back for critiquing next week. So I know what I'll be doing every spare moment between now and then.

I remember the first time I ever saw something resembling a collage. In grade school, when we got a new art teacher, one of the first signs of his creativity was a set of signs for the cafeteria. He used different art papers to make a hamburger and fries on a plate, a milk carton, a lunch box, etc. I was intrigued. I also remember a high school art project involving perspective where I pasted up a room with an alcove, furnishings and inhabitants. I was hooked, and I've enjoyed making collages ever since.

Noodling around a little on the web, I've learned there is an International Society of Collage and Assemblage Artists. I am going to subscribe to their blog. See also Perhaps my favorite collage/assemblage artist is Joseph Cornell. Among the collage artists Sasha mentioned with reverence were Robert Rauschenberg, Hannah Hoch and Dario Robleto.

Collage by KAO: Women #14

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

As American as Public Libraries

Mom, baseball, apple pie AND public libraries: to me they belong together. Public libraries are a powerful symbol of American democracy. But then, I am biased. I have been librarycentric and bookcentric since I was a young child, and perhaps inevitably grew up to be a librarian.

Now, for some factoids about public libraries... According to the American Library Association, ALA, there are 16,549 public libraries in our country. As of yesterday when I did my research using the U.S Population Clock, there were 304, 488,000 U.S. residents. That means there is approximately one public library per every 18,399 residents. That's more libraries than McDonald's franchises. And there is, of course, a big difference in library "franchises". They are "owned" by their public, not by a corporation or individual. Today's public libraries strive to be responsive to customer input. Some library systems use the word "member" instead of customer. Perhaps that's a better, more inclusive word for the public library relationship. A member of an organization usually has more input than a customer.

Ben Franklin's Library Company opened in Philadelphia in 1731. There were 50 subscribers, later called members, who donated 40 shillings each and pledged 10 shillings yearly to buy more books. Their motto: "To support the common good is divine." If you weren't an official member, you could put down a small deposit to borrow something. The Library Company was open on Saturdays from 4PM to 8PM. There were nine Library Company members among the fifty-six members of the Continental Congress who signed the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

The oldest library in the United States is actually located at Harvard University. Around 1638, a man named John Harvard donated 40 books and some money to an unnamed university. Subsequently, the university was named for him and their library began. Tax-supported U.S. public libraries did not begin until the 1800s; one of the first was established in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1833.

Andrew Carnegie is the big name in free public libraries. From 1881 - 1919, he funded as many as 2,500 libraries throughout the English-speaking world. And then we have Meville Dewey, instrumental in the founding of ALA and Library Journal magazine. When he was a student library assistant at Amherst college in 1872, he managed to come up with the Dewey classification system we still use today. He also founded the country's first library school at Columbia University. They say he had a lot to do with welcoming women into the primarily male career field.

So that is my quick overview of where American public libraries came from. I'm glad we're here, and contrary to some dire prophecies, I think we are here to stay. May it be so....

photo by KAO: Graffiti Flag, construction site, Manhattan, May 2008

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Sewanee Street Bridge

Many of the streets in the city of West University Place (where the library is) are named after poets or colleges. In fact, the library is at the intersection of two streets named for poets -- Auden and Milton. The city is actually due west of Rice University, thus the name. Its founder was from Tennessee, one Ben W. Hooper, and he wanted the city to be associated with the prestigious (then named) Rice Institute. To learn more about the history of West University, read the book, Stepping Back in Time by June Begeman, available from HCPL.

One of the streets here is named Sewanee, and for some reason, I've often wondered where that word came from. A Google book search brought me to a book called Tennessee Place Names by Larry L. Miller. It could be a Shawnee word meaning "south" or "southern". Or it may be related to the Creek word, sawani, meaning "echo". In any case, Sewanee, the liberal arts college, used to be known as the University of the South, so most people seem to go along with the southern connection as the correct interpretation. Say the word Sewanee with the word Tennessee! Quite an ebullience of eeeeees!

Most of the streets in West U. change names once they cross over into the big city of Houston that surrounds it. But Sewanee Street keeps its name. There is a foot bridge crossing a narrow drainage bayou a few hundred feet south of where Sewanee Street leaves West U. It is such a hidden away little structure, I don't think too many people know about it. Now that I've been riding my bike to work more regularly, I have been crossing it often. It never fails to make me smile.

The Sewanee Street bridge is one you'd expect to see in a Three Billy Goat's Gruff story book. The wooden roadway is wide enough for two people to walk across. The boards rattle underneath my bicycle wheels, feeling a just a little loose, and the sound they make is pleasing. Also pleasing in our very flat city is the slight arch of the bridge -- giving bike riders a minor hill to ascend and descend.

Before writing this entry, I also researched the lore surrounding the word "Swanee", wondering if there was any connection to the word "Sewanee". There wasn't, so I am not going into it here, but I learned a lot about Stephen Foster and why he chose the Swanee River for his song "Old Folks at Home" ,which I used to love to sing in grade school. And so, those are the joys of having a wandering mind on the Internet. Serendipity at every turn... Now everyone gets to be a researcher. Librarians don't have it all to themselves anymore, and I think that's great.

photo: Sewanee Street Bridge by KAO

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Art of Racing in the Rain

There's been a lot of buzz about this novel: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. I loved it. You either buy into it or you don't, because from page one and all the way through, readers enter into the flowing stream of consciousness of a dog named Enzo.

Enzo has watched a lot of public television, and therefore has learned about reincarnation. He is sure that in his next reincarnation he will be human. The man who adopted him, Denny is a wonderfully Zen race car driver and Enzo emulates his beloved owner in many ways, including sharing his love of all things speedy. Denny has a wife and daughter he loves very much, and both are taken from him in different ways. Enzo witnesses all the loss, all the grief. He tells us his family's stories. And he tells us his own. Enzo is nearing his last days as a dog on our planet.

That's all I want to say about the plot of this unusual book. People are comparing it to Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and E. B. White's Charlotte's Web. It also reminds me of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. The tone is philosophical, spiritual, and ultimately redemptive. If you've ever looked into the eyes of a dog and seen an old soul, this book is for you.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Enders Hotel: A Memoir

A friend in Moscow, Idaho sent me a copy of The Enders Hotel: a Memoir by Brandon R. Schrand. He is a lecturer and coordinator of the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Idaho. The book was the 2007 winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, and has also been chosen as a selection in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program.

First of all, I can't remember when I last read anything set in Idaho, and I was immediately taken with the setting: not just the funky family hotel of the title, but its small town of Soda Springs. There are geysers erupting all over the place. The town is named after one particular geyser located on Geyser Hill near the hotel. Capped in the 1930s, it shoots 80 to 150 feet high, every hour on the hour. Or at least it did in the 1980s when the author was growing up, providing a great play attraction. Chucking rocks and bottles at the fuming waters was a frequent pastime.

There is a hardscrabble flavor to the memoir, populated as it is by hard-working folk who don't have much to show for the labors except the most important thing of all, their pride. Anyone who showed up at the hotel was given bed and board. They would be put to work fixing up the place or doing dishes. And so, the Enders Hotel was an incredible place. Brandon grew up taking it for granted that his grandfather welcomed all kinds of homeless characters into the hotel, and we read vignettes recalling their stays, including those of a worn-out old trapper who ultimately vamoosed with Brandon's sled, an itinerant female artist who encouraged Brandon's artistic talents, and many recovering or not so recovering alcoholics.

The hotel had a maze of basement rooms probably once used by bootleggers, including one fascinating room full of suitcases left behind. It was a fine place for Brandon to grow up. He got to eat plenty of cheeseburgers and pieces of pie, spinning on a stool at the counter of the hotel's cafe. Although he did not lack for parental attention, having his grandparents, mother and perfectionist stepfather around most of the time, Brandon longed for knowledge of his true father, who he never met.

Brandon's escapades with friends are classic: building rafts, sneaking cigarettes and getting into all kinds of mischief. It's a wonder he had time for play, he worked so hard alongside his folks. By the time Brandon goes off to college, the hotel is no longer owned by his family. The boy who loved to read will become the college professor who writes this book. His journey to manhood is the deep understrata of this geyser-gurgling, all-Idahoan, all-American memoir. The accomplished style he uses to tell his many stories is deceptively spare and understated.

The book has wide appeal, and should be especially appreciated by even the most reluctant male readers. One read-alike comes to mind: The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer.

P.S. The Enders Hotel in Soda Springs ultimately underwent a million dollar renovation and now bears little resemblance to the place the author grew up in.

The Riding Your Bike to Work Game

One of the joys of my life is riding my bike. Since the gas crunch, I've gotten motivated to use the bike instead of my truck to get to work once or twice a week. I have a new one speed cruiser and it rides smooth as butter. It occurred to me this morning as I pedaled along that riding my bike to work was something of a quest. Strategies are needed for conquering the traffic, finding the shadiest streets, getting around construction zones, etc. When I arrive at the library after 25 minutes of the Houston heat and humidity, I need to drip dry, but I feel great! My quest to commute is complete, and the exercise pheromones coursing through my brain thank me for my efforts.

We are studying games @ HCPL this summer. This past week I struggled to learn Runescape. I have to admit I only got halfway through the tutorial. My character was having a hard time questing as assigned to chop down trees, start a fire, prospect for metals to make into daggers, etc. I got so tired of pointing and clicking and going down false paths. Talk about stuck! Truly it was an exercise in frustration. If I could have sat down with an experienced player, perhaps the learning curve would have improved. I have decided not to complete the Games module for training hours. Therefore I will be skipping Next Generation exercises 36 - 38. If you are following along, I hope you have better luck. My mind is not closed to such games. I plan on reading along and trying new games without have to complete every required task. Riding my bike to work is enough of a game for me!

I saw an article in the Sunday, June 8, 2008 New York Times about a gaming headset being developed by a Emotiv Systems which sounds quite amazing. Wearing it, you are able to manipulate object in games with your brain and facial muscles. It has 16 sensors, and will come bundled with a practice game which helps develop the player's powers of concentration and visualization. The future is NOW (or will be by Christmas 2008 when the headset is due to be available in stores).
photo: My Blue Bike! by KAO

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Reading Rick Bragg

I've been a die-hard Rick Bragg fan since I got my hands on a galley for his first memoir, All Over but the Shoutin' (Pantheon, 1997), set in and around Jacksonville, Alabama. It was a searingly honest book, telling what little he knew of his alcoholic father and the plenty he knew of his mother. She raised three sons mostly on her own, with a little help from her folks. She picked cotton and did laundry to get by. That one of her sons grew up to be a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist made me so very proud for her. Rick Bragg's love for his mama runs so deep it rises up off the page. He's got the kind of colloquial storytelling talent that can't be faked. That man can write the stars down from the sky as far as I'm concerned.

Next Came Ava's Man (Random House, 2001), a memoir looking back at the life of his maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum. It's not Mr. Bundrum's bootlegging or his churchgoing that I remember, more his determination to take care of his own during the worst of the Great Depression. Bragg must have done a heap of research and oral history because he never met his grandfather, yet made him come so alive.

So when The Prince of Frogtown (Knopf, 2008) came along, I was elated. This time around, there is a double focus on fatherhood. Bragg has become a step-dad and writes humbly of his ever-deepening and often mischievous relationship with "the boy" (his name presumably omitted with respect for the kid's confidentiality). Bragg also did plenty of digging around to find more back stories about his alcoholic father. These were harder to read. I talked with one library customer who said she had to skip over some of these because they were too disturbing, and because there have been so many other books about alcoholic parents. Yes, these stories were hard to take, heartbreaking really; but I was in thrall to Bragg and kept reading.

His gift for metaphor is one I admire. Even when the metaphor is simple, it is so fresh; for instance, he refers to a character who is "as bald as a boiled egg". Can't you picture that?

More seriously, he explains why he had to write more about his father: because in the first book "he became nothing more than the sledge I used to pound out her (his mother's) story of unconditional love." Now, having become a father figure himself and although he thought he was done with the subject, it was time to dig deeper into the life of Charles Bragg. The most unusual quality of this book is its contrast between the two types of chapters. The ones about the boy have a searing, heartfelt, dizzy joy about them when again and again, despite doubts and what can only be called class differences, Rick Bragg connects with his stepson and receives his respect. How healing this relationships is, and how full of light these chapters are. Then we slog through the much longer chapters about his father. But all in all, there is much catharsis.

I'll take any chapter on any subject from Bragg. Having traveled the world as a journalist, he is now a professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. Good to think of this 'Bama boy back home!