Thursday, March 31, 2005 Review-A-Day

Some readers seem to enjoy good book reviews almost as much as the books. At my library, we often have someone in our reading room looking at the New York Times Book Review or the Sunday book section from the Chicago Tribune. We have discovered another review source to recommend. Every Monday posts an article length review from The Christian Science Monitor on its Review-A-Day page. On Tuesdays, readers will find a review from the Times Literary Supplement. Powell’s staff posts their own reviews on Wednesdays, sometimes featuring Northwest regional books. Reviews from Salon, The New Republic, Esquire, and Atlantic Monthly complete the week and the rotation starts all over again. Reviews of both fiction and nonfiction titles are included. For readers wanting to learn about good books without being overwhelmed, this review a day is a good reading choice.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores, and Primates by Richard D. Estes

Most of our books on animal behavior generalize. Readers will find descriptions of the behaviors of antelopes or felines and will have to apply the information to the species that they are studying. In Safari Companion, Richard D. Estes gets very specific. He tells you why the reedbuck is prancing with its nose in the air and how to identify the lion's head-low threat. This book devotes several pages to every mammal species of eastern and southern Africa and includes many details on habitat, activity, social systems, foraging, predation, reproduction, and maternal care. Scent marking, pawing, territorial displays, and many other behaviors are identified. Small but very effective drawings by Daniel Otte supplement the text. His tiny silhouettes help readers quickly identify postures related to behaviors and make this a great book to have in the field.

Safari Companion will not replace Omari, Suleiman, or Patrick, who will help you find and view African wildlife. These professionals are essential on a camera safari. Still anyone traveling to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, or South Africa to visit the national game parks will want this book. Students doing animal research at the library will also benefit. I recommend this guidebook to every library.

Estes, Richard D. Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores, and Primates. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub. Co., 1999. ISBN 1890132446

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A Foundation for Telling Life Stories by Alan Cheuse

I often read about people who spend their Sundays on their overstuffed couches or in bed with many thick pillows reading fat newspapers, like the New York Times or the Washington Post. They read news, opinion, and features, and always mention the book reviews. Their knowledge of books and literature is dazzling.

Here it is Tuesday and I am just now finding time to look at the Sunday March 27 issue of Chicago Tribune Books. On page 3, I have found “A Foundation for Telling Life Stories,” an interesting essay about the recent history of the memoir by Alan Cheuse, who comments on books for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

Cheuse describes his own path to writing Fall Out of Heaven, “a mutt of a book – part memoir, part history, part travel book.” In this book he mixed a draft of a memoir from his father who was a pilot in the early days of the Russian Air Force with a trip he and his son took across the Soviet Union to discover his father’s past. It was a book that he wrote for love that he never expressed while his father lived.

In his essay, Cheuse briefly chronicles the history of the memoir from 1967 to the present. The best memoirs of the period were written by novelists, including Frank Conroy, Frederick Exley, Eudora Welty, and Tobias Wolf. Cheuse contends they all wrote to express their love of the people they knew and appreciation of the hard times they experienced. These authors could “imbue the life with the shape and portentousness of fiction without ever giving over to the lie by which fiction lives.”

Recently, some time soon after the success of Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, young writers decided to try writing memoirs before attempting fiction. While a few have succeeded in writing good books, Cheuse contends that many have suffered from having not first tested their imaginations through fiction writing. The majority rely on the misery of their lives to carry their stories. He equates their books with reality TV. He implies that both these memoirs and the bad TV will eventually pass.

The bottom half of page 3 of the Chicago Tribune Books are reviews by Kera Bolonik of four recent memoirs, only one of which sounds to me to be worth reading, supporting Cheuse’s thoughts. He may be right overall, but I believe there are good memoirs available. I have read numerous memoirs in the past year that I enjoyed, some of which I have reviewed. Check my archives.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner by M. J. Andersen

In Portable Prairie, M. J. Andersen seeks to find a home as homelike as the one she left to attend Princeton University. Having grown up in South Dakota, her vision of home is a small community surrounded by prairie turned to farmland where people know their neighbors. Her trouble is that she desires that sense of home without resettling in a small Midwestern town. Instead she seeks to recapture the feeling of home by decorating an old house in New England, through travel, by seeking old friends, and through the study of literature, especially the writings of Tolstoy.

Because my library’s copy of Portable Prairie was in another reader’s hands, I borrowed a copy from another library in our consortium. The cataloguer at that library assigned to the book the Dewey call number 917.7 for description of the Middle West of the United States. Most of the libraries in our shared catalogue agree, but I think this call number totally misrepresents the book. Andersen does describe her home town early in the book, but she then tells about her student life at Princeton, her jobs and apartments in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island, her visits to Washington, D. C., and her travels to Denmark and Israel.

In her preface, the author says she has changed the names of most people other than her family and altered some of the stories to protect the privacy of others. She has even changed the name of her home town. One library assigned Portable Prairie to its fiction collection. Where is the line between fiction and nonfiction in this case? How much have the stories been changed?

Andersen returns often to the concept of home in her text. An argument could be made to assign a Dewey 306 number to the book, but I think this would be a stretch. She also discusses Tolstoy and other writers at many points in her book, so a Dewey 800s number could be considered. I do not envy the work of cataloguing librarians.

After consulting with me, Kris at my library put Portable Prairie in our biography section. Another library in our database assigned the Dewey biography number 921. I think this is the best compromise. At all points in the book Andersen is writing about herself.

There is no real end to the story, for Andersen is still living, still trying to make her Victorian house into a home, still studying Tolstoy’s unsettled life. She does, however, come to a well-written conclusion that ties together all the elements of story that she introduces. Many readers will enjoy this thoughtful book, no matter what the call number.

Andersen, M. J. Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005. ISBN 0312326890

Friday, March 25, 2005

City on Fire: the Forgotten Disaster that Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle by Bill Minutaglio

Texas City has suffered many tragedies similar to Wednesday’s accidents at the BP Refinery. One in particular was much worse than the others. In 1947, a freighter in the port loaded with ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded, killing over 700 people and destroying much of the central city. Pictures of the ruins resemble those of the 1871 Chicago fire. In City on Fire, Minutaglio tells how lax safety concerns and mistakes lead to the accident and about the lawsuits that followed. Libraries with this book should put it on display.

Minutaglio, Bill. City on Fire: the Forgotten Disaster that Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle. New York, N.Y. : HarperCollins, c2003. ISBN 0060185414

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Teens Unclear, Uncommitted to First Amendment Rights

Results from the Knight Foundation’s High School Initiative poll were broadcast widely last week. Many citizens were shocked to read that only 51 percent of the high school students polled thought “newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.” 75 percent thought there were current laws against flag burning as a political expression, which there are not. 49 percent thought that the federal government can legally restrict indecent material on the Internet. 73 percent take for granted or do not know “First Amendment Rights.” More than a third of the students thought the First Amendment goes too far in protecting rights.

The first three pages of the Perspective Section of the Sunday, March 20, 2005 issue of the Chicago Tribune focus on these surveys results. The implications for our future are serious, for it is harder to protect rights when people do not even understand that they have these rights. Charles M. Madigan implicates low school funding for civics education as one factor responsible for the poor understanding of the First Amendment by youth.

I am not totally surprised by the findings. We are constantly being told that high school students do not know where to find Canada on a map or that they can not name the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In a slight defense of the students, I want to say that I meet adults coming into the library who are as ill informed.

Madigan seems to ignore two survey questions to which teens gave more positive responses than the teachers, principals, and adults polled. Teens were more likely to agree “musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics others may find offensive” and “high school students should be allowed to report controversial issues in their student newspapers without approval of school authorities.” Challenge rights that teens understand and they suddenly rise up. Maybe there is hope for the First Amendment after all.

The Knight Foundation press release and the High School Journalism Project websites give more details. The later has the full 92 page report as a PDF file.

The Chicago Tribune Perspective included several great quotations. My favorite came from Jimmy Carter. “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense…human rights invented America.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Architecture and Design of Man and Woman: The Marvel of the Human Body, Revealed

Architecture and Design of Man and Woman: The Marvel of the Human Body, Revealed uses the principles of structural engineering to explain the development of the human body, suggesting that physical forces are more important than genetic code in designing tissues, organs, and the human structure as a whole. Like bridges, buildings, and motor vehicles, the body is an engine that has its own pulleys, belts, axles, flywheels, and shock absorbers. Bones, which are stronger than steel by weight, provide the framework. Ironically, what we see, skin, hair, and nails, are dead cells. The living cells are hidden.

In Architecture and Design of Man and Woman: The Marvel of the Human Body, Revealed, illustration is primary and text secondary. I hesitate to call the illustrations beautiful, for they show intestines and muscles and inner organs, but I am in awe of the art. How did Tsiaras manage to create images in which viewer see the outside surfaces and the organs underneath? He seems to have mixed photography and air brush painting. His photos comparing human tissues and organs with other forms in nature are striking.

There is much for readers to learn. Did you know that at one point in the early development of the human embryo, growth is 250,000 cells per minute? Tsiaras also created From Conception to Birth: A Life Unfolds. Public libraries should have both.

Tsiaras, Alexander. Architecture and Design of Man and Woman: The Marvel of the Human Body, Revealed. New York : Doubleday : 2004. ISBN 0385509294

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting III

Being a book in the American Presidents series from Times Books, this work describes Ulysses S. Grant as a president, more than as a general. In his time, he was revered almost as much as George Washington. Historians now often focus on the failings and scandals of his presidential administrations, but the author thinks this is shortsighted and argues that Grant faced challenges greater than any presidents other than Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt and held the country together. As the central hero of the Civil War, Grant was trusted and admired in both the North and South after the war and remained very popular throughout his presidency. Without his calm presence, the author believes, Reconstruction might have been more severe and the rights of newly enfranchised blacks might have been lost. Look for this recent book, which argues for the rehabilitation of Grant’s reputation, in your library's biography section.

by Josiah Bunting III. Ulysses S. Grant. New York : Times Books, 2004. ISBN 0805069496

Monday, March 21, 2005


After I took a photo hike through the Morton Arboretum yesterday to see what I could see on the first day of spring, I loaded photos from my digital camera onto our home computer and then uploaded a sample of the more successful images onto the Internet at the website Flickr. Then I used Flickr to post one of the photos onto this ricklibrarian blog. To my surprise, within 40 minutes, I had a comment. People enjoy photos. I will have to incorporate more images into my reviews and commentaries.

It is easy to join Flickr. A free account will allow you to post a limited number of pictures. I hit the wall when I tried to post number 13 and saw I needed to be a paying member. I loaded a 31 image sample of my family’s African safari, which can be viewed as a slide show. Go to to view all my photos. Look on the left side of the page for links to safari photos, the photos from my hike, and a sampling of images from a trip I took to St. Louis to attend the Library Information and Technology Association Forum last October.

Flickr is fairly new and in the weeks that I have been a member, the design has started to change for the better. The protocol for indexing is a bit quirky for a librarian used to separating words with spaces, but it works. Many photographers are sharing incredible images. I could spend hours just browsing.

I learned about Flickr from Aaron Schmidt who learned about it from Jenny Levine’s workshop at the Metropolitan Library System headquarters. Thank you both.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Big Read: The Devil in the White City

The Big Read is a big hit. People in the western suburbs of Chicago have really responded positively to this reading program focusing on The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. When the shared eight-library effort was proposed last summer, I thought it was an idea worth trying, but I never expected the amount of interest it has generated. I am amazed.

I had thought 10 copies of The Devil in the White City would be enough for our small library, but as soon as we started promoting the program, it became obvious that we needed more. We added 10 copies more, but we were still short. There were never any copies on display. A third order was made. We now have 39 copies, and 2 books are actually available at this moment. When the Thomas Ford Memorial Library opens today, they will disappear.

You should have seen our crowd yesterday. 135 people came to hear Jane Clarke, an architectural historian formerly from the Art Institute of Chicago, present her slide lecture The White City: From Swamp to the City Beautiful. We knew we needed to move our program out of the library when we had more people on the waiting list than the registered list. The Village Club, a private club in Western Springs next door to our library, generously offered their hall. Thanks to the club we made twice as many people happy.

Registration for all but one of the originally listed programs at the eight libraries is closed, so libraries are adding more programs. You can see what programs are open by going to the program's web site

Saturday, March 19, 2005

An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer

I am impressed by what libraries keep in their collections. I have always been an advocate for weeding out what is no longer useful or of interest, but defining what is useless is difficult. Some librarians come to conclusions which differ from mine. This is good.

I looked at the SWAN Catalog of the Metropolitan Library System to see what I could find by Tom Lehrer. Lehrer was a popular comic musician of the 1950s and 1960s, who entertained many college campuses with songs that ridiculed academics and politics. Who would remember him now? Would any library have any of his recordings? To my surprise, they did. Five different CDs were in the catalog. Seven libraries had copies of An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer! Two libraries still had copies of Tom Lehrer Revisited in cassette. One library had the libretto to Tom Follery, a musical review based on Lehrer’s works, and seven libraries had Lehrer songbooks for voice and piano. Can you imagine people getting together with friends, a piano, and the songbook and singing “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park?” It would be fun.

I have my own copies of An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer and That Was the Year That Was in vinyl, which I picked up at a Western Springs Library Friends’ sale last year. They are both in excellent condition. The first of these titles is a recording of a live performance in Cambridge, Massachusetts in March 1959. All the Greek scholars at the concert enjoyed the song “Oedipus Rex” (“Boy, did he LOVE his mother”), while the chemists enjoyed Lehrer’s singing the periodic table of elements to a tune by Gilbert and Sullivan. Anyone who enjoys P. D. Q. Bach will enjoy the song “Clementine.” Being a time of Cold War tension, he finished the concert with “We Will All Go Together When We Go.” It was a very funny concert.

What worries me is that almost every item in the SWAN Catalog is currently on shelf. This situation may reflect library catalogs everywhere. Music lovers, it is time to act and check out some Lehrer CDs. Baby boomers, revisit your youth. Generation Xers, learn what made your folks laugh. Act now!

Thursday, March 17, 2005

How I Find Books to Read, Part 4: The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction by Joyce G. Saricks

Bonnie brings books home for me. Is it mysterious if I do not identify Bonnie? Bonnie loves mysteries and has introduced me to many of the genre’s authors, including Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, P. D. James, Colin Dexter, Charlotte Macleod, and Ellis Peters. She lugs home art and art history books, too, especially books about Giotto and Florence and J. M. W. Turner. She checks out new titles by our favorite children’s authors. We follow the adventures of Carl the dog by Alexandra Day and mischievous Max and Ruby by Rosemary Wells religiously. She recently brought home Portuguese Irregular Verbs and The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs by Alexander McCall Smith. We laughed out loud. Thank you, Bonnie.

If my memory is correct, my daughter Laura was the first person in the house to utter the words “Harry Potter.” One of her teachers or a volunteer parent read Harry Potter and the Socerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling aloud to her class at her elementary school. Laura has identified other books for me, including Tangerine by Edward Bloor, The Giver by Lois Lowry, and her favorite titles in the Dear America Series. We once had an agreement to trade book recommendations. To test whether I would live up to my end of the bargain, she pulled a random book off the paperback rack at our public library, and as a result, I read The Beast by Peter Benchley. Now in high school, Laura complained last year about how difficult to read she found A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. I started it with the intention of showing her how easy it was, but I quickly found that I agreed with her complaint. Twain often used ten words when two would do. Thank you, Laura.

Until recently Joyce worked with Bonnie at the Downers Grove Public Library. Knowing my eclectic tastes, she sent numerous books to me through Bonnie. Thanks to Joyce I read Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. In book discussions that she organized we read Middlemarch by George Eliot and John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet. She always has new reading ideas.

I am not the only person to be enriched by Joyce’s reading recommendations. She writes the reference books on readers’ advisory. One of her books is The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, in which she includes chapters for fifteen different genres. Each chapter gives the history of a genre and identifies movements within the field, as well as major authors. Joyce also points out that books do not fit snugly into categories. Each chapter has a table that helps readers find books that cross over, such as science fiction titles that are also literary, or westerns that include romance. Her book can also be used for library collection development. Authors, titles, and subjects are indexed in the back. For librarians who do not know all the genres, many of us, this book is essential. Thank you, Joyce.

Saricks, Joyce. The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction. Chicago: American Library Association, 2001. ISBN 0838908039

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

I have often heard and read that Walt Whitman was the central figure in the development of American poetry, yet I had never read much of his work until last year. I tend to read small poetry books, but there are no small volumes of Whitman. Unlike many poets who publish new collections every few years, Whitman kept revising and enlarging the same title, Leaves of Grass. Over the course of several months, day by day, I read this classic work and I think I now see why Whitman is so well regarded. He was encyclopedic and comprehensive, writing about everything that he saw. I think a course on nineteenth century America could be based on this work. In his poems about American laborers, you believe that he worked beside farmers, steelworkers, sailors, and teamsters. He wrote with great regret and tenderness about the Civil War and the many men to which he attended in military hospitals. He described the hardships in women’s lives when men were not writing about such topics. Some of his works were sensual and, of course, controversial when published. He spoke directly to readers of his time and those in following centuries, stating that all time is current. Unlike European poets and the American poets of his time who modeled themselves on Europeans, he used no mythological references in his work. His heroes were common Americans. The work is more accessible than you might think. He rarely bothered with rhyming but his lines are often musical. Readers will need many weeks to read Leaves of Grass. Libraries should be generous with renewals. Every library should have several copies.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: the "Death-Bed" Edition. New York: Modern Library, 2000. ISBN 0679783423

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home by Matthew Pinsker

Why would you read another book on Lincoln’s daily life? There have been so many. Why? Because the topic is really interesting and Matthew Pinsker has uncovered a story that has been mostly overlooked by other scholars. In Lincoln's Sanctuary, he tells how Abraham Lincoln and his family lived for three of their four summers in Washington away from the White House in a cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, a hospital for disabled military veterans far north of the city center. The President commuted to the White House on horseback alone much of the first summer before his advisors began to worry about his safety. During the one hour ride, he often stopped to talk with people along the road. At the cottage he spoke with whoever dropped by, even late at night. Anyone could knock at his door. The author contends that many of Lincoln’s major decisions were made while residing at Soldiers’ Home. Throughout the book, Pinsker discusses Lincoln’s friendships and which cabinet members had the most influence. He comes to different conclusions than some other Lincoln scholars. Surprisingly few public libraries bought this title in its hardcover edition. Now that it is available in paperback others should consider it for their Lincoln collections.

Pinsker, Matthew. Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0195162064, Paper 0195179854

Monday, March 14, 2005

Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence by Carol Berkin

Most books on the American Revolution tell very little about the war’s impact on and contributions by women. Carol Berkin wrote Revolutionary Mothers to address this oversight, which she says is a recent phenomenon. During and right after the war there was much praise of women recorded in broadsides and proclaimed at Independence Day speeches. Some communities even commissioned statues of women who fought or tended the wounded or raised funds to support the troops. As the nineteenth century passed the histories of the war became more focused on just the men who led, leaving only local histories with the stories of women. During the Women’s Movement of the 1960s, historians (often women) began to recollect these stories and republish them.

Berkin says that the real war does not resemble the sanitized story often presented in books, films, and art. With men off fighting, women were left to maintain farms or small businesses, raise the families, and cope with many shortages of food and other goods. Conditions were worse for the women in battle zones. Many lost their homes, goods, crops, and livestock to requisitioning British troops, bands of loyalists, or American patriot volunteers. Because the conflict was a civil war with neighbors fighting neighbors, there were no safe places and many women and children died. Separate chapters focus on African-American and Native American women who suffered greatly during the war. Berkin also tells about the women who followed the patriot and British troops as nurses, cooks, washerwomen, seamstresses, and “camp wives.” Military operations depended on these women and literally thousands of them moved with the armies.

Revolutionary Mothers finishes with a chapter on the rights of women, which were expanded temporarily. Women of property in New Jersey were even allowed to vote from 1776 to 1807, when the right was rescinded. The only improvement that lasted was the right of women in upper and middle classes to be educated.

Revolutionary Mothers is a moderately short book, 161 pages of text followed by 22 pages of bibliographic citations and an index. Readers will enjoy the many stories of Martha Washington, the Baroness Frederika von Riedesel, Abigail Adams, and many less famous women. All public libraries should add this book.

Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence. New York: Knopf, 2005. ISBN 1400041635

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Muppet Treasure Island

BobbyG asked me to review movies, a request that I will honor. I posted my review of Russian Ark before I found his request in a comments box.

2004 was good year and I saw many films that I liked, including A Very Long Engagement, Being Julia, Good Bye Lenin!, Finding Neverland, and The Aviator. Every library with a DVD collection should consider adding these movies. I’m not going to review them, for there are plenty of other reviews available. I have an old movie that many have forgotten to recommend. Most of the public libraries in the SWAN network of the Metropolitan Library System do still have videocassettes of this title, but very few have the DVD.

Muppet Treasure Island is a movie that the critics slighted in 1996. The children’s film market was not getting the attention it is today. Siskel and Ebert just thought it was silly. It is wonderfully so! There are jokes and puns that will make you moan and laugh simultaneously. There is a moment when Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy are being hung by their legs from a dead tree – yes, you get to see their legs – and Kermit says to Miss Piggy - Stop! I will not spoil the great one-liner. Trust me. It’s funny.

Tim Curry is a natural as Long John Silver. He oozes charm while he plots the mutiny aboard the Hispaniola and the theft of the treasure map from the Jim Hawkins, nicely played by Kevin Bishop. He sings well with Muppets. I particularly like the song “A Professional Pirate,” which tells how buccaneers are victims of bad press and really “the nicest guys you ever want to meet.”

The music is really great. Early in the film Bishop is joined by Rizzo the Rat and the Great Gonzo in singing “Something Better,” which is an inspiringly hopeful tune, which reminds me of “Tomorrow” in the musical Annie. (Tim Curry was in that movie, too!) When the Hispaniola is caught in the doldrums, everyone joins in the bright and funny “Cabin Fever.” Between songs are many inspiring symphonic themes worthy of an epic sea adventure film. We listen to the soundtrack CD at home.

Like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there are bits of the movie that remain with you in real life. When I got printer toner on my shirt at the library, I thought of “the Black Spot.” Like Mr. Eagle, the second mate and safety expert, Bonnie and I often say “Unsafe! Not safe!” when we see something foolishly precarious. It is a good film to share with family and friends. Walk the plank to your library to find this film treasure.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Trivial Pursuit Book Lovers Edition

Readers, beware! There is a new game to test your knowledge, Trivial Pursuit Book Lovers Edition. The rules are the same as previous Trivial Pursuit editions, only the color-coded categories are new, all of which are book topics.

Children’s Books
Book Club
Book Bag

In our experience, the toughest categories are Children’s Books and Book Bag. My dream team would include a seasoned, still practicing children’s librarian with knowledge of books both old and new. I was proud that I knew the name of Max the rabbit’s sister, but the other team had the question. I did not know the names of authors writing alternative comics or the names of some Roald Dahl book characters. Book Bag is a miscellaneous category that includes some obscure questions. Stay off orange!

We played with friends from our book club last night. We divided into two teams of five each. The people on the couch and the love seat were the Couch Tomatoes and those of us in chairs were the Riff-Raff. The Riff-Raff had a brilliant run earning five wedges but was foiled by questions for the orange wedge numerous times. The Couch Tomatoes nearly caught up. There was much laughter and moaning, and we had a wonderful time, but the game ended in a draw.

Trivial Pursuit Book Lovers Edition is not a game for everyone. A couple of people from our previous contest expressed the sentiment that once was enough. Some of the questions are difficult and your opponent will get all the easy ones. Still, if you like games and you know the name of the author whose posthumous collection of stories has an introduction written by Thomas Pynchon, you should try Book Lovers Edition.

Friday, March 11, 2005

How I Find Books to Read, Part 3: Slave: My True Story by Mende Nazer

Being both a librarian and a reader is a great combination. Like many good librarians, I select books and then read some of them after they are processed and added to my library's collection. After ordering from reviews in Booklist or Library Journal, I often place a hold or two. Wondering how many of the books I read are books I order for the library, I analyzed my 2004 reading. 57 percent of my reading choices were books that I had ordered for the library. Reviews influenced 32 percent of my choices for the year. (25 percent were novels I ordered for the sophomore honors English reading list.) I had expected the percentage to be higher. It is still a big chunk of my reading.

Memoirs jump out at me when I am reading reviews. Stories about interesting lives are very appealing. Slave: My True Story by Mende Nazer was one of my best discoveries of the year.

Slavery still exists! In our world today where there are many declarations against slavery and virtually every nation denounces it, there are still many slaves. They are not all in the third world either. In this book, Mende Nazer tells how Arab raiders attacked her village in southern Sudan and captured many of the children to be sold into slavery. The adults were murdered. She was transported nearly one thousand miles across the desert, kept at a Sudanese army base, transported to a slave trader in Khartoum, and sold to a young Arab mother to do all the housework and cooking. After several years of physical abuse, verbal humiliation, and virtual imprisonment, she was sent to London to serve as a slave in the home of a Sudanese diplomat. She escaped in September 2000. How Nazer survived is an inspiring story. Critical reviews were very favorable, but this book got little attention in the U.S. It was a best seller in England and Germany. With Sudan so much in the news, this book should be read and discussed by many.

Nazer, Mende. Slave: My True Story. New York: Public Affairs, 2003. ISBN 1586482122

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Curriculum Vitae by Muriel Spark

Two weeks ago I mentioned that Muriel Spark was one of eighteen nominees for the new Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in literature and that I was checking out her autobiography Curriculum Vitae to learn more about her. I have now finished the book, which she wrote at age 75, which deals with her first 39 years, ending when she published her first novel The Comforters. Like her novels there are aspects of her story that you expect followed by surprises. She attended a girls’ school in Edinburgh, Scotland, just like the youths in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She went to Africa to marry an older man she barely knew, spent much of World War II there glad he was away in the service, and left Southern Rhodesia under false pretenses, so she could catch a troop ship from Cape Town back to London. She got a job with British Intelligence in 1944. Like the characters in The Girls of Slender Means, she lived in a cheap boarding house in London during the time of rationing. She took a series of low paying publishing jobs like the heroine of Loitering with Intent. Until she published her first novel, she was poor and malnorished.

Unlike many successful novelists, she never intended to write prose. She wrote poetry, not stories, in her youth. In her late thirties, she wrote the story “The Seraph and the Zambesi” and submitted it to a contest hoping to get prize money, and she won. Several publishers saw the story and were impressed and asked her to try writing novels. Many aspiring novelists must find her story unfair. They continuously submit manuscripts that are rejected. In fairness, Spark had had many poems rejected by literary journals before her success.

The new Booker award nominations were announced on February 18. The cast is very international, including Margaret Atwood from Canada, Kenzaburo Oe of Japan, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, and numerous Americans and Europeans. I do not know all these authors. There is plenty of time for speculation, as the winner will be announced in June. Go to to learn more.

Spark, Muriel. Curriculum Vitae: Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. ISBN 039565372X

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

How I Find Books to Read, Part 2: Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age by David Levy

David Levy is an interesting person. He got an advanced degree in computer science a couple of decades ago and then left the binary world to devote several years to calligraphy and illustrated manuscripts. After perfecting ancient arts, he joined Xerox as a documents guru. Now he is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. His study is the changing meaning of documents.

At the Public Library Association Conference in Seattle in 2004, I attended his presentation, “Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age.” He began by showing photos from the aftermath of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Each emotionally charged photo included the image of a document. The first was a scorched book in rubble. The next was a man staring at a stray sheet of paper that he had picked up from a littered street. A third was a wall of photos of missing friends and relatives. Another was an anthrax-laced envelope addressed to the U.S. Senate. Levy said that these photos were so powerful because we recognize these documents as symbols of human loss. When the documents survive the death of the people who created or used them, they become memorials. We think of these documents as stable.

Levy went on to discuss how through creating documents people have learned to make inanimate things speak. The first time our child leaves a written message to another person we should be quite proud, for he or she has grasped an advanced concept that is uniquely human.

We use documents to further human relations (letters, postcards), to control people (passports, licenses, work orders, grocery lists), or to further knowledge (books, newspapers). Digital documents serve the same purposes, but may or may not be as stable. When we look to the future, we should be asking not what kinds of technologies that we want, but what kinds of documents do we need to preserve.

When I came home from the conference I read his book Scrolling Forward. Levy writes as well as he speaks. I recognized some of the stories from the presentation in the book, which I thought about and enjoyed for days. Because the book was published in 2001 prior to the attack there was no discussion of the tragedy, but there were many other examples of how documents evolve and change. Each chapter is an essay. It is a thought provoking work for anyone in libraries, archives, museums, or any other record keeping field.

I also read books by two other speakers from the conference, novelist Anna Quindlen and poet Linda Bierds.

Levy, David. Scrolling Forward : Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age. New York : Arcade Pub. : Distributed by Time Warner Trade Pub., c2001. ISBN 1559705531

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

It's Where You Hang Your Hat by Curtis and Loretta

Curtis and Loretta
Originally uploaded by ricklibrarian.
When Curtis and Loretta played our Friday at the Ford concert at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library in spring 2003, the crowd was very entertained by their mixture of songs and humor. Before some songs they told stories about the songs or themselves. I saw them again at another location later that year and the show was completely fresh. They repeated some songs but the telling of their stories was all new. They are no canned act. They are really friendly people who happen to have a lot of musical talent.

I have been listening to their 1994 CD It's Where You Hang Your Hat. On this CD they play a mix of American folk songs and original compositions. Highlights include the title song, their rendition of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee: Plane Wreck at Los Gatos," and Leonard Cohen's "Bird on the Wire." Loretta's "Dance in the Hallways" tells her story of working at candy counter, where she was charged by the boss to keep children from smudging the glass; of course, she sided with the children. Curtis' "What is the Name of This Town?" is a tuneful drifter-wants-to-find-a-home song. I have been humming these songs for days.

Their 2001 CD Sit Down Beside Me focused strictly on traditional songs from the British Isles. I particularly like their haunting "Maid in Bedlam" and the lively sea song "Greenland Whale Fisheries." On this CD they include some instrumentals that feature their guitars, mandolin, and Irish harp.

The duo returns to Thomas Ford on Friday, March 18 at 8:00 p.m. The next chance to see them in a library setting is November 19 when they play at the Virginia Beach Central Library. To see their schedule, find lyrics, hear sample songs, and read their biographies, go to their website

Monday, March 07, 2005

Russian Ark, A Film By Alexander Sokurov

Last night I saw Russian Ark, a most amazing film, which was shot in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. It begins with darkness and voices, a technique that I have seen in many French films, and then the camera reveals gorgeously dressed partygoers descending from a coach into the snow in front of the museum. The women wear beautiful gowns with white furs and the men are in deep red uniforms of Russian officers. The camera follows them into the museum, through an entry way filled with more revelers, down a set of stairs, into what appears to be a stage set, and from there into galleries of the museum. At this point I realized that only a single camera was being used. The camera continues to follow several characters through the huge museum, showing off many masterpieces of painting and sculpture and the richly decoration of the galleries. Catherine the Great and numerous czars and their families and other people from Russian history appear. Finally, we arrive in the Great Hall, the largest room I’ve ever seen, to see a crowd at a ball. The camera shows the dancing and the orchestra and follows the crowd down the main staircase of the Winter Palace.

According to the DVD cover, Russian Ark is the only feature film ever made in a single take. It is one 96 minute uninterrupted camera shot. Can you imagine how the director moved several thousand people through the building and into the camera’s view without a break? I wonder how much was spent on costumes. I have never seen anything like Russian Ark. Every library with foreign films should have this DVD.

I want to go to St. Petersburg.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

How I Find Books To Read, Part 1: The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe

You may be surprised to learn that I discover some of the books I read while weeding the library’s collection. I like to clear our shelves of old out-of-date materials, for we need the space for newer items that will appeal to our readers. While loading a cart with lifeless books, I almost always find some forgotten title that still has a pulse. It may not have been borrowed in two or three years, but I suspect it still has merit. I carry it to the circulation desk and check it out. If I enjoy reading it, I may write a review or put it on book display. If I don’t, it goes onto the next cart headed for the Friends book sale.

That’s how I found The Painted Word, a book about twentieth century art by the prolific critic Tom Wolfe. His thesis in this small, entertaining book is that the theory behind many of the abstract paintings became more interesting than the works themselves. Modern art, which was supposed to rebel against academic painting, became very theoretical and perversely academic. People spent more time reading about the works than actually looking at them. Sometimes, there was not really much to see. Thirty years after its writing, this book is still worth reading.

So, as you read my reviews, you may notice older books occasionally. Perhaps as I age I have more sympathy for older things. The wonderful thing is the older books often tell me something new. Libraries make this possible.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past by Ray Raphael

An incredible thing happened in 1774. The people of rural Massachusetts massed together in several towns and overthrew British colonial authority without any violence. Many common people stood in the streets and demanded the British leave, and they did. None of the “Founding Fathers” as defined by popular authors or state educational authorities were involved. It was a true people’s revolution. No recent school textbook includes this story, according to the author. He contends that there are many other good stories that are excluded from current texts. Over 100 declarations of independence were written, mostly before Thomas Jefferson wrote the one that gets all the attention; no school text tells this story. Most of the books say the war ended with the battle at Yorktown, ignoring another fifteen months of conflict. More Native Americans died during the Revolution than in the 19th century Indian Wars; numerous tribes that had aligned with the British were completely displaced. The author explains why the textbooks feature simple stories about easily identified heroes, some fictional like Molly Pitcher, and ignore these stories. This is a good book for discussion groups.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Instant Message Reference

Aaron Schmidt got us started and I have joined him in using instant messaging to answer reference questions at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library. It was easier than I thought it would be. Practically anyone can do it, if they are willing to relax and be natural and follow normal reference interview techniques. Aaron has said quite a lot on his blog Walking Paper, but I would like to add a few thoughts.

1. No one has to be available all time. You do not even have to have posted hours. We just do it when we can, often late afternoon or the evening. Whenever we connect, our clients who have added us to their buddy list are notified that we are available. Sometimes, we get a question right away. With sporadic hours, we answered 38 questions in January and another 38 in February. I had 4 more Wednesday evening.

2. Do not expect a well-stated question right away. The client may just say “hi” to start and you should just say “hi” in reply. The folks who walk up to the reference desk are not always direct in asking a question. They sometimes want to ask you how you are first or comment on the weather. It is the same with instant messaging. The clients (often teens) need to chat a moment before entrusting you with a question.

3. Introduce yourself and say that you are from your library and are available to answer questions. The person who contacted you may have mistaken you for someone else. They might say “goodbye” right away if they were mistaken, or they may come up with a question. Even if you feel they just asking a question to test you, answer it. Even if it seems an unusual question, like “do you know any good jokes,” find an answer. Your respecting their question might impress them. You might turn a skeptic into a library user.

4. If you walk away from the computer and come back to find someone sent a message and closed when you did not respond, contact her/him with a new message. Her/his screen name is still in the IM window. You may still have a chance to reach them.

5. IMing clients are often multitasking. As long as you let them know you are working on their request, they will give you time. Send another “still working” message if you take more than two minutes.

6. You can paste answers or web addresses into the chat box. It is amazing how much you can pass along without typing much.

7. Do not be surprised if you get a gush of thank yous when you supply the great answer to your question. Also do not be too surprised if the client disappears as soon as she/he gets that answer. People who come to the desk display a wide range of behaviors, too.

I am passing these thoughts along because I only learned from my experience. I had been worried about a schedule and with being fast and efficient in replying to clients. It is working here at Thomas Ford. By the way, our screen name is thommyford. Message us.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, The French Dynasty That Ruled The American Frontier by Shirley Christian

When Bonnie and I visited St. Louis in the summer of 2003, we toured the Chatillon-DeMenil House, just one of several historical houses open to the public in the city. Construction of the house began in 1848 on property that had been the communitiy's original common ground and in 1861 Emilie Sophie Chouteau, the great-granddaughter of one of the city's founders moved in with her husband Nicolas DeMenil. To begin our tour our guide told us the story of the Chouteau family and their role in settling the city and the region. It was a great story worthy being preserved in a good book. Before Lewis and Clark is the book.

Most American history is written as though there was nothing of significance before the English colonists or the early American frontiersmen arrived in a territory. The plots of these books center on explorers and settlers headed west. This book is different. It focuses on the Chouteau family of St. Louis, who saw the Americans headed their way. The Chouteaus settled St. Louis for the French in the 1760s and stayed through the Spanish ownership of the Louisiana territory. They moved up the Missouri River as far as Montana decades before Lewis and Clark came. Lewis and Clark had to get their supplies and directions from the Chouteaus. The title is deceptive in that the story does not end with the American explorers passing through the Missouri region. Some of the Chouteaus head east and become rich and powerful, dealing in furs, real estate, steamboats, and railroads. Others remain on the Missouri River as important citizens of St. Louis, Kansas City, St. Paul, and Pierre. Subplots in this family epic include the introduction of slavery into Missouri, the rise and fall of the fur trade, and the unreliability of the American government to meet obligations to traders, French settlers, and the native tribes. The reader even learns about the introduction of luxury goods into the Midwest. I recommend this book to history readers and anyone who likes epic family stories.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure by Alastair Gordon

Incredible as it may seem now, there was a time when leading architects, urban planners, and civil engineers proposed that the city of the future should have the airport at its center, surrounded by tall buildings. The airport of the time was seen as a source of entertainment and a gathering point. Restaurants and shopping overlooked the tarmacs. People were encouraged to stay, watch the planes land, and get autographs from the movie stars as they debarked. This was before jets were introduced into commercial airline service. It was also before the hijackings of the 1960s. I enjoyed reading the stories about the big airports – La Guardia, Kennedy, O’Hare, and Heathrow. This well-written book should appeal to many history readers.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Steeleye Span Story: Original Masters

I still listen to vinyl record albums, though not as much as I would like. We bought a new turntable about five years ago, so the old records sound really sharp and clear. My problem is that I find it difficult at times to sit in the living room without popping up to do a chore or answer the phone or play with the cat, usually chasing her all around the house. I am sometimes able to sit through the side of one album – about twenty minutes worth of sitting.

Few libraries stock any vinyl record albums anymore, so listeners must have their own collections. Only the big libraries had very good collections in the old days, as the records were big and bulky, especially in the plastic cases that many libraries used to circulate them, and they were easily scratched. When I was working for the Daniel Boone Regional Library in Columbia, Missouri, many of the albums were missing, until several hundred were found by police in the home of a thief.

For years my record collection shrank, as I discarded albums that were scratched or no longer appealed to me. Now, however, I am again acquiring albums, as others donate their collections to the Western Springs Library Friends fundraising sales. At each sale I find something wonderful, like Leo Kottke’s Greenhouse, the comic An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, or a pristine copy of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. To my surprise my daughter has repeatedly listened to a four album set of Billie Holiday recordings that I got from the Friends. I am going to need to find more shelving soon.

Lately, I have been listening to The Steeleye Span Story: Original Masters. Steeleye Span was a 1970s folk/rock group from England that took traditional British, Scottish, and Irish folksongs and electrified them. Some critics denounced them for modernizing the old songs, but many younger listeners enjoyed the change. I was happy to find the album to hear again “One Misty Moisty Morning,” which is a bouncy, cheerful song good for a cloudy day. I also remembered the great ringing guitar parts in “Alison Gross,” a song about a witch; Maddy Prior’s voice reminds me of Grace Slick’s work on the early Jefferson Airplane albums. The most haunting piece in the collection is “Gaudete,” a Latin hymn, which the group sang without instruments. I also like the album jacket, which has small art reproductions inside the fold.

Library friends fundraising sales season is again approaching. All over the Chicago suburbs there will be sales in March, April, and May. I recommend them.