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.....