Friday, January 30, 2009

China Road by Rob Gifford

From what I observe here at the library, there are times that what we read strongly reflects what's going on in our lives. I've heard it said that being a librarian much resembles being a bartender in that quite often we are taken into confidence. We get an earful, at least from the more chatty customers. "I'm getting this book because...." or "I just found out ...." In tiny bits and pieces, we are privileged to hear about both the most ordinary and extraordinary events in peoples' lives. First pregnancies for example: the mothers-to-be head right to the library for a tall stack of pregnancy books, all smiling and starry-eyed. We librarians, to some extent, also sometimes share life's joys and sorrows with the customers.

Many who spoke with me recently know I am ga-ga over being an auntie again! This year my Christmas was exceptionally fine due to the arrival of a new niece from China. Adopted at age 3 this past summer by my brother and sister-in-law in Tennessee, by the time we met her over the winter holidays, she was doing great: most darling and easy to love. Her command of English was coming alone fine. Though she didn't speak up very often, she clearly understood everything we said to her. Best of all, she is a child who has a happy nature, is easy to engage, playful and curious.

Her father recommended I read China Road: a Journey into the Future of a Rising Power (Random House, 2007) by NPR correspondent Rob Gifford, if I wanted to learn more about China. I decided I was in the mood for a break from all the fiction I'm forever reading, and dove into China Road. Essentially this is a road trip book. Gifford, who had been reporting from China for many years, was moving on to another position within NPR in London. He allowed himself a two month farewell journalistic journey east to west, three thousand miles across China on Route 312, a highway said to be comparable to Route 66 in the USA.

Gifford's favorite thing is talking to the man or woman in the street, and that's what kept me reading more than the patches of history he also skillfully weaves into the narrative. That China is on fast forward was made clear. Factories, construction and high rises are everywhere. There is much pollution. Workers in the cities are prospering as never before. Yet in the small villages and on the farms, existence continues at an ancient level of gritty survival. Most families have been affected by the great eastward migration to the cities.

Gifford, who speaks Mandarin, talks with monks, college students, prostitutes, karaoke girls, cell phone salesmen, taxi drivers, talk show hosts, an AIDS rights activist, AIDS sufferers, migrant workers, factory workers, cooks and bottle-washers. I'm not even going to try to sum up any of their often dichotomous conversations about communism, Hong Kong, Tibet, foreign affairs, the space program, cultural gains and losses, morality, ethnic differences, and the sinking water tables of their continent. Gifford ends with a message of fear and concern for a country where the state "has always been more important than the individual."

China is more fascinating to me now that I have a family connection to the country, and vastly more real after reading Gifford's book.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Blog Sampler

Something new in the sidebar area: the links and feeds from "My Blog List". I only listed a few of the many I subscribe to in Bloglines, both at home and work.

The Art Knowledge News blog helps me keep up with art news and shows at museums around the world. I love browsing through its posts because they are so visual. Surely my art literacy is nurtured by this blog. I chose the Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina's World, above, from their post about the recent death of Andrew Wyeth. The Floral Park Public Library, my childhood library in Long Island, New York had a reproduction of this painting on the wall in the children's room. I often wondered what Christina's story was because I felt the painting was both melancholy and beautiful (sometimes it seemed out of place to me there in that room with Curious George and Cinderella). To read more about the genesis of this painting, read this Wikipedia entry. Christina's World is one of the most widely recognized 20th century American paintings.

Early Word; the Publisher/Librarian Connection is a truly unique blog. Nora Rawlinson, co-founder and editor, does an awesome job of keeping up with trends in popular culture and how they manifest in the form of book titles. She reflects these back to librarians, thereby helping us keep up with customer demand. She seems to be all-knowing, all-seeing, and I imagine her having a great time every day trolling through websites, blogs, magazines, newspapers, etc. She is truly Nora on the spot, quicker than quick.

Issa's Untidy Hut is the quirky name of the blog for Lilliput Review, a very fine small press print magazine specializing in short poetry ten lines or less (a place a few of my scribbles and doodles have appeared). But really it is much more than that under the tutelage of Don Wentworth, editor and chief bottle washer. He is a one man poetry band, highlighting different poets and their poems daily, with lots of embedded content. Don is a librarian at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where he facilitates a "3 Poems by" poetry discussion program for his lucky patrons.

One postscript for the week: a bibliographic essay I wrote on "Radio Reads" was published in the January 15, 2009 issue of Library Journal. Writing for "The Reader's Shelf" column of LJ has been a privilege, especially working with great editors like Nancy Pearl and Neal Wyatt.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

On Sarpy Creek


I stumbled upon a copy of On Sarpy Creek, by Ira Stephens Nelson, at the library's used book sale. It was in my pile of paperbacks saved for travel. And I was so glad to have it on hand last week when I flew to NY. Originally published by Little, Brown and Co. in 1938, it was republished by Riverbend Publishing and Book Editions in 2003. This is a true gem, similar in appeal to the literary offerings of Willa Cather, Conrad Richter and O. E. Rolvaag. Frontier land, pioneers, hardships, farming: I'm in.

Meeting Case and Sareeny Gyler camped out under a cluster of cottonwoods, forty miles up Sarpy Creek in south-central Montana, I (like the character of Case) was "powerful worried." His wife Sareeny was just about to give birth. At first I thought the time frame was in the 1800s but as I read on, it became clear the time was post-World War I. The couple had tried farming some hundred miles from their birthplace near Sarpy Creek, but had watched their crops "wither back to upturned soil." In despair, they are moving back home. Their baby, a girl, lives, delivered by her daddy. Sareeny is glad to get back home to her mother, for they have a "silent bond of sympathy and understanding". The drought the Gylers are fleeing from follows them home. The Great Depression settles in. We step into the lives of a small band of neighbors and kinfolk along Sarpy Creek, a tributary of Yellowstone River. Families are large, and troubles plenty. In plainspoken prose, their hard times are authentically told.

There are some missing pieces as far as the life of the author goes. Ira Stephens Nelson may have slipped away into obscurity but for the efforts of publishers Scott Mainwaring and Bill Borneman at Riverbend. They found references to the novel in an old teacher's journal, located a copy at the Montana Historical Society, read it, loved it, and reprinted it. In an afterword to their reprint, they offer the few facts known about the author. Nelson was born in Hominy, Oklahoma in 1909, educated in the country schools of Montana and at the Polytechnic Institute in Billings. He was a wanderer and had many different jobs: night nurse an insane asylum, typist, truck driver, living all over the West, Canada and Mexico. On Sarpy Creek is his only novel, published when he was 29 or so. To me it reads like the novel of an older, more experienced writer. Said to have been working on an autobiography when he died in 1994 at a veteran's hospital in Georgia, no literary works of any kind were found in his wake. So for the time being and perhaps forevermore, Ira Stephens Nelson was a one book wonder. How I wish there were more titles. I will be guarding my copy whole-heartedly, lending it only to those who have proved trustworthy in the past.

If there be a book of life it is the human soul, and every long day of living is recorded there, building up and tearing down, putting and taking away, silently and ever so softly forming toward a final reckoning. - Chapter 11, p. 100, Ira Stephens Nelson, On Sarpy Creek.