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!