Friday, May 29, 2009

From the Lower East Side, New York, NY

I took a short tour of a tenement apartment at 97 Orchard Street on the lower East side of NYC last week. The Tenement Museum tour guide first took us behind the building to a small courtyard to point out the pipe which was the sole source of water for the building in the 19th century.

Then we walked up 61 steps to the fourth floor to view the three room apartment where the Moores, an Irish-American immigrant family, lived in 1869. We were asked to imagine hauling buckets of water as we climbed the stairs. Almost unthinkable, especially when you realize that many women took in laundry for extra income.

A small kitchen, a tiny bedroom and a medium- sized living room with big front windows made up the living quarters. Clothes were hung on pegs on the wall. There was one big bed where I guess everyone slept. Thie Moore family lost an infant the year they lived in the apartment. There were so many ways to for children get sick back then, including the questionable freshness of milk sold in wagons on the street, not to mention a general lack of hygiene. Bridget Moore"s death certificate shows she died in 1888 at the age of 36, so she would have been a teenager when her third child died in 1869. The Museum provides many interesting primary sources and other educational tools from their website. Their museum store is terrific, stuffed to the gills with all things historically New York.

Just one hour on a humid day in the apartment was enough for me. My relatives came to America from Ireland about the same time period, settling in Brooklyn, so I chose the Irish tour instead of the two others given in the same tenement: German-Jewish and Italian-Catholic. Taking the tour really enhanced my understanding of the living conditions of those times.

Next door to the museum there is a interesting "boutique" hotel, the Blue Moon. A former tenement building, it has been lavishly restored with period-appropriate decor. There is also free wi-fi and many other amenities we 21st century travellers have become accustomed to. The Blue Moon is listed in the 4th edition of New York's Best 100 Little Hotels by Allan Sperry.

I have taken a short break from blogging following my retirement. I hope to be posting about every week in the future. I am still catching up with myself and don't believe I'll feel truly retired until a few more weeks have passed. In the meantime, I am brainstorming a new subtitle for the blog. I have grown tired of the title "Speed of Light", but guess I am stuck with it. Onward through the humid Houston summer which I hope will be filled with lots of swimming, gardening, dog walking, and of course, reading.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Once a Librarian.....Part 2

A short postscript to my post from a couple of weeks ago, in which I wondered what it will be like to be a public librarian without a library.

Texas Library Association (TLA) has already given me an answer, with their timely invitation to join a newly formed task force charged with creating what will be called the "Lariat List", a compilation of the year's best fiction reads for adults. To be involved in this process, it is required that I attend annual conferences and their summer meetings held in Austin known as Annual Assemblies. The suggestion and nomination process has started, with much reading to be done. This will be a two year commitment on my part. I was pleased to accept this invitation and am looking forward to working with librarians around the state to formulate the lists.

I have always wanted to attend the Texas Book Festival, held in Austin every fall. Now I have the perfect excuse to go, plus all the time off in the world. Who could ask for more?

Drawing/Doodle, Weave 02, by Keddy Outlaw

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Fictional Kin to Microhistories

In nonfiction, when a writer focuses on one thing: salt, cod or pencils, etc., we call their books microhistories. What is this called in fiction? I love novels where something is passed along: a doll, a house, a musical instrument, what have you. Sometimes it is as if the "thing" could speak, telling us about the many hands that have held it. A favorite children's novel that does this is Hitty: Her First 100 Years, by Rachel Field, about a peg-jointed antique wooden doll that goes from one owner to the next. Starting in Maine, traveling afar to the South Seas, to India, to New York, Hitty has as many adventures as owners, including time spent with a Quaker family during the Civil War. Hitty tells her story in first person with a tone of warmth and down-to-earth wisdom. First published in 1929, Hitty (a nickname of Mehitabel) is still so popular she has her own website at I would like to read Hitty again real soon; its appeal is ageless.

Accordion Crimes by
Annie Proulx is a dark, masterful novel following the fate of an Italian-made green button accordion come to America with its maker. Be the subsequent owner Cajun, German or Polish, they none of them made their way easily through the nineteenth or twentieth century American landscape, meeting death and catastrophe at every turn. But then there's the music made by the accordion, deteriorating with time, but still up to the challenge of livening the days and nights with polka or zydeco music. The passed-along musical object here plays the perfect accompaniment to the brawling story of immigrant America.

Blackbird House by
Alice Hoffman narrates two hundred years of stories about the families who live in a Cape Cod farmhouse. The house itself is the main character, somewhat haunted since its first family of fishermen encountered trouble at sea. Their blackbird turned white (a family pet) lingers ghostlike through the centuries. Hoffman zeroes in on life-defining moments of love, loss and redemption, and as in any Hoffman book, we feel our senses heightened by her magical mix of sensory and visual details: the salt air, the beach bramble and sweet peas. Again, much as it does in Accordion Crimes, the course of American history comes alive through the layered effect of successive chapters.

Louise Erdrich uses a ceremonial Ojibwe drum as her story vehicle in The Painted Drum: a Novel. The history of the drum is traced backwards to its creation. Faye Travers, the woman who finds the drum while dealing with the estate of an Indian reservation agent, feels compelled to return it to the Ojibwe people. Indeed, the drum was once traded for booze. The painted drum has such powerful resonance, readers will feel the drumbeats and ancient rhythms rise up off the page.

I haven't yet read Keeping the World Away by Margaret Forster, but it is another title that fits in this category. It tells the story of a small painting done by a woman who had an affair with the sculptor Rodin, what the painting means to her, and how that painting affects the lives of its successive owners.

If anyone reading this post knows of other novels using this kind of story structure, I'd love to hear about them. And what should we call them? Lineage lit? Micro Fictional Histories? Please leave a comment or send me an email. One more week to go and I'm retired! Until then, as always, happy reading.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Once a Librarian.....

The countdown continues. My last day at work will be May 15th. This week I went downtown and filed my official retirement papers. A kind man at Human Resources paged through my 6 or 7 forms and photocopies and assured me I had everything filled out and signed correctly (my goodness, there was a lot of paperwork). That was a major hurdle completed. I continue to empty out file cabinets and prepare things for the future unknown librarian who will take my place.

It has been a privilege to stay so long at one small public library. The best thing about small libraries is getting to know the community and being a part of so many lives. All the tiny moments of connection really add up. You are there when a Mom brings in her baby for the first visit, then later on when the child gets their own library card. Probably you will help the child find books for a report, and in the case of some kids, you will hear about their first visit from the tooth fairy, what happened to them on Halloween, or what Grandma gave them for their birthday. One family sticks in my mind because I remember the day the man came in to get a book on buying jewelry. He wanted to propose to his girlfriend, and needed to get a handle on how to buy a diamond ring. This many years later, their family is thriving; one daughter in college, the other finishing high school.

Our library is right next door to a senior center, so we have lots of senior customers. There are so many lively seniors who come to mind; they paint pictures, grow flowers, take trips and bring us treats. They like to stop and chat, and we love passing the time of the day with them. One senior saw me bicycling away from the library in the late afternoon on a hot summer day. My car was in for repairs. She insisted it was too hot for me to do any such thing, so we packed my bike into her car's trunk and she drove me to the gas station. Another senior named Mary always brought us a Whitman's sampler at Christmastime. Mary had a real penchant for Regency romance paperbacks. When she became homebound, occasionally we were able to deliver books to her door. She was developing Alzheimer's and eventually moved to California, where she could live near her daughters in a special facility. Still she wrote me letters and let me know she had not forgotten me. She even offered to get a cot brought into her room should I want to visit....

I also remember a senior we'll call Mr. McPherson. He was retired but often came to the library in a suit and tie to read the newspaper. It was a delight to say hello to him. The typical exchange went something like this: "How are you today, Mr. McPherson?" His answer: "I'm fine. I had breakfast, and my wife tells me we'll be having lunch and dinner, too!" He and other Great Depression era seniors have shared memories of those times with me. Years ago I facilitated two programs on reminiscence writing at Senior Services. One exercise suggested participants write about a favorite toy. More than one person said they did not have any actual toys, just sticks and cans and pebbles that they made into toys. They remembered wearing clothes until they turned to rags, and many other forms of making do.

This past week, when I told one of the customers (a busy Mom) I was retiring, she said "Oh, no, you can't stop being a librarian. Once a librarian, always a librarian. I may not be practicing law, but I'm still a lawyer!" I am curious to find out what being a librarian means when you don't have a public library anymore. I know I'll have time to read and review more books. And more time to blog! I must admit I'm weary of being a manager and carrying the burden of responsibility for most everything that goes on in our building. I will miss the community and staff camaraderie. But I'll gain the chance to see what it looks like from the other side of the service desk. I'll be coming in through the front door as a customer. What a luxury, to be able to come and go freely to a public library, and not have to run the place! Just thirteen days to go.....