Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wondrous

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.