Monday, December 31, 2007

Mozart by Peter Gay

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died too soon. He was still young, at the height of his artistic achievement, and had a commission to finish, a requiem mass. Novelists, dramatists, and filmmakers have made much of this tragedy. In Mozart, his short collection of biographical essays about the composer, his family, and his music, biographer Peter Gay admits the story is sad but insists that the musical genius had enjoyed much of his life, despite his overbearing father, poverty, and failure to gain high appointments. His peers admired him, and his poverty was mostly self-induced (from enjoying himself too much). Gay's Mozart is a man who lived mostly as he pleased and would have done well with just a little more luck.

Gay emphasizes the brilliance of the music. His chapter that tells about Mozart's transformation from a prodigy to a mature composer is enthusiastic. I now want to devote some time listening to symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and operas. He also suggests that Mozart had a genius for characterization and story and could have written plays.

I listened to this early volume from the Penguin Lives Series read by Alexander Adams. I enjoy listening to Adams, who has many audiobooks to his credit. I always feel that he is just telling me a story that interests him very much.

People who enjoyed the movie Amadeus or who are interested in music history will enjoy this book. Many library own it.

Gay, Peter. Mozart. Viking, 1999. ISBN 0670882380.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

AIA Guide to the Twin Cities by Larry Millett

In late March 2008, many public librarians will be in Minneapolis at the Public Library Association National Conference. Because I am attending the conference, I am reading parts of AIA Guide to the Twin Cities by Larry Millett.

In this architectural guide, Minneapolis precedes St. Paul. In the Central Core section, downtown Minneapolis just north of the convention center is in the first section, sixty buildings and two special features of the area are described and reviewed. The special features are the Nicollet Mall and the Minneapolis Skyway System.

The Nicollet Mall is one of the few pedestrian malls that were designed in cities in the late 1950s and 1960s to have survived. It is a twelve-block-long shopping district with restricted traffic (only buses and cabs). Somewhere along this way, Mary Tyler Moore threw her hat in the air. (I wonder if there is a plaque.)

The skyway system is a network of bridges and walkways that lets people walk between buildings without going outdoors. Here is a map showing skyway with the hotels. It looks like there is a possibility of taking wrong turns and getting lost. If the weather is good, it would be faster to hit the streets instead. The author says that the skyway is popular because of the severe winters in the city, but he regrets that it reduces street traffic vital to retail businesses.

So, it seems that the city pulls you outside with the pedestrian mall and pulls you inside with the skyway. Perhaps it is nice to have the choice.

Back to the architecture. I want to see the Minneapolis Public Library. Millett says that the interior is "suave and gracious, the library delivers that most precious of architectural gifts - the natural daylight." He then compares the exterior to a stack of glass trays, four on one side and five on the other, with an awkward wing that swings up. I need to see it for myself.

There are also AIA Guides for Boston, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.

Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to the Twin Cities. Minnesota Historical Society, 2007. ISBN 9780873515405

Friday, December 28, 2007

28 Stories of AIDS in Africa by Stephanie Nolen

Who has AIDS in Africa? Between twenty-five and thirty million people do. Because it is so difficult to understand and care for so many unfortunate people, journalist Stephanie Nolen chose to write about a limited number of individuals with the disease, who have lost family, and/or who treat the victims of the disease. 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa works out to about one story for every one million victims.

Nolen spent six years following the AIDS crisis around Africa. In that time she met people in many countries, revisiting them as their disease progressed or regressed. Her contacts included miners and their wives, truck drivers, soldiers, subsistence farmers, teachers, clergy, shop owners, and sex workers. She visited with grandmothers who cared for all their grandchildren because an entire generation of parents was missing. She also visited children who were on their own, trying to live inconspicuously in dangerous neighborhoods. Many of the stories make you want to cry. Others surprise you with how long the victims have survived.

A theme that runs through the book is that the West does not really understand the epidemic and often acts in ways that worsen the situation. Western governments pledge funds that are never actually delivered, or, when they are, come with conditions that lessen the aid. The donors often require the African governments to use funds to buy more expensive medicines from their own countries, limiting the number of doses that can be purchased. They also like to demand reductions in government bureaucracies so debts can be paid, which, of course, results in reductions in health personnel in hospitals and clinics, making distribution of medicines more difficult.

Many think that the situation is hopeless and write the continent off. Nolen's message is that there is hope. She discusses how some prevention and treatment programs have made progress and could make more if the wealthy nations would offer more helpful help.

Nolen also shows how African governments and cultures have often made the situation worse, too. Here again, she offers evidence that some governments are being to understand their problems. Some of the individuals profiled were the first people to admit having AIDS in their communities. Initially, many were shunned but tolerance is growing as more people suffer deaths in their families.

Nolen provides a list of organizations providing help to African AIDS victims in the back of this important work.

All public libraries should get this book into the hands of their readers.

Nolen, Stephanie. 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa. Walker and Company, 2007. ISBN 9780802715982

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Best Book Lists Abound

I enjoy the end of the year when best book lists are everywhere - in newspapers, magazines, websites, and blogs. There are always items that catch my eye that I passed over first time around. Here are a few lists that look particularly interesting to me.

Best Books of 2007 from Reader’s Advisor OnlineReader

Book Sense Picks

Economist Books of the Year

Ten Best Historical Novels by Sarah Johnson of Reading the Past

Best of 2007 from the Village Voice

800-CEO-READ Best Business Books

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

ricklibrarian's Books That Matter 2007 and Other Awards

It's that time again, Many newspapers, magazines, journals, and other media are publishing their best books lists. One that I found particularly useful was "Books That Shine," a list of cookbooks from 2007 in the Good Eating section of the Chicago Tribune, December 12, 2007, page 1. I ordered six or eight books for the library from this list. I enjoy and benefit much from the end-of-the-year lists.

For the second year, I am now presenting my own best of the year list. Some, but not all, do tend toward the serious side. I am also adding some music, film, and library awards, all chosen through personal deliberation. I hope that you find something of interest to you in the list.

Not every item chosen is actually from 2007. My encounter with each was in 2007.

Recent Nonfiction

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN 0060852550

Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenheim. Scholastic Nonfiction, 2006. ISBN 0439569923

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007. ISBN 9780743264730

Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007. ISBN 1565124383

Johnny Cash: The Biography by Michael Streissguth. Da Capo Press, 2006. ISBN 0306813688

Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression. Norton, 2007. ISBN 9780393329247

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. ISBN 0374105235

Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route by Saidiya Hartman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. ISBN 0374270821

The New York Botanical Garden. Abrams, 2006. ISBN 0810957442

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin. Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 0385516401

Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries, from World War I to Iraq. Penguin Books, 2006. ISBN 9780143038719

A Stronger Kinship: One Town's Extraordinary Story of Hope and Faith by Anna-Lisa Cox. Little, Brown and Company, 2006. ISBN 0316110183

Best Old Book Newly Discovered

Adventures of a Biographer by Catherine Drinker Bowen. Little, Brown, 1959


Domestic Violence: Poems by Eavan Boland. Norton, 2007. ISBN 0393062414

Library Science

Technology Competencies and Training for Libraries by Sarah Houghton-Jan. ALA Techsource, March/April 2007. ISSN 0024-2586.


Away from Her

The Lives of Others (I never wrote the review)


The U.S. vs. John Lennon


Simon Schama's The Power of Art


Love by the Beatles

Living with War by Neil Young

Book Review Blogs

Librarian's Blog

Pop Goes Fiction

Library's Blog

Newton Reads

Best Presentation at a Library Conference

He Reads ... She Reads ... with David Wright of Seattle Public Library and Katie Mediatore of Kansas City Public Library, Missouri.

I now look forward to another year of reading good books. Have any suggestions?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rumpole Misbehaves by John Mortimer

Rumpole is back with more cases at the Old Bailey. This time he is himself a defendant as his own chambers tries to have him served with an ASBO (Anti-Social Behavior Order) because he is eating, drinking, and smoking in his office. At the same time he is trying to gain a QC (Queen's Council) appointment so he can "wear silk."

From Rumpole Misbehaves by John Mortimer, American readers can learn a lot about British law while laughing at silly characters like Samuel "Soapy" Ballard and Claude Erskine-Brown. Mortimer really is a lawyer, and in this new book he criticizes the ASBO for its excessive regulating of behavior. He is not alone, as the Guardian also reports on its misuse.

Of course, learning about British law is not the real reason to read Rumpole books, which have been coming out since the 1970s. Having read bunches of them, I simple enjoy the continuing story of the aging junior member suffering through the schemes of his wife Hilda (She Who Must Be Obeyed), defending the Timson family in court, and solving a murder case.

Libraries should add this new title to their collection of Rumpole books and DVDs.

Mortimer, John. Rumpole Misbehaves. Viking, 2007. ISBN 9780670018307

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas Gifts That Really Matter

For Christmas, my aunt Marian Sue sent me a CD loaded with old photos. Most are of ancestors, but I appeared in this one, in which I seem to be eating pancakes with my hands while my grandmother pours more syrup. I still like pancakes.

I hope your Christmas, Hanukkah, or other holiday presents are just as wonderful.

Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography by Andrew Helfer with Art by Steve Buccellato and Joe Staton

Ronald Reagan seems to be a perfect subject for a graphic novel biography, especially one in black-and-white. As an actor, he often played rather comic book figures, and his world view was rather uncomplicated. There were good guys and bad guys. Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography by Andrew Helfer with art by Steve Buccellato and Joe Staton reflects these ideas and presents the former president as simply a man who sought fame.

The statement on the back cover claims that Reagan would have enjoyed this telling of his life. He might have, as he seemed to be a person with a sense of humor. He was rarely upset. Besides, for an actor there is no such thing as bad publicity. His fans and the people who worship his legacy may not be so please. I notice that the book is not for sale at the website for the shop at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation.

The book starts in a reverential tone as it tells about Reagan's death and funeral. Then it shows his birth and childhood, college days, early days in radio, and arrival in Hollywood in a mostly positive tone. Only when the story reaches his involvement in the actors union and politics does he become flawed. As depicted by Helfer, Buccellato, and Staton, Reagan seems to have no qualms about the political positions he takes. In his mind he is always right and there is no doubt about it. Winning elections and pushing his agenda become more important than truth and fairness. When Reagan refuses to let his speech writer correct an easily-verifiable factual error in a State of the Union speech because he insists it makes a better story than the truth, the reader knows that Reagan's act has become more important than actual service to the nation.

The final pages seem reverential again. The effect is like tacking a happy ending to a tragic movie.

With so many of the recent books portraying him positively, Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Novel can be seen as a needed balancing viewpoint. Being somewhat sketchy, it can only serve as an introduction, but it does suggest further reading in the back pages. It can go either in the graphic novel section or biography section in public libraries.

Helfer, Andrew. Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography. Hill and Wang, 2007. ISBN 9780809095070

Monday, December 17, 2007

Between Barack and a Hard Place: Second City of Chicago's 94th Revue

Last night Bonnie and I attended Between Barack and a Hard Place, a hilarious revue at Second City in Chicago. Without prior knowledge, we were there on the 48th anniversary of the comedy club's founding in an old Chinese laundry in 1959. We got to sing "Happy Birthday" to the club at the beginning of the third set of the evening.

As you can guess from the title, the revue had a good bit of political humor. The members of the troupe began by all declaring that they were Barack Obama, representing every ethnic group and special interest in the country. This theme is repeated throughout the revue with variations. Other sketches deal with terrorism, minor countries that support U. S. occupation of Iraq, tax preparations, smoking in the workplace, and the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Two musical pieces that I particularly liked featured Meagan Flanigan singing a love song to Al Gore and Amber Ruffin singing about why it is a good time to be black.

Other than Obama and Clinton, no other presidential candidates were mentioned in the show. Public libraries were mentioned in the bungling terrorists sketch.

Not all the humor was political. Many of the skits revolved around the problems of being socially awkward. The comedians parodied couples entertaining other couples, students on dates, and workers discussing their sexual orientations. There was not time for applauding because you kept laughing.

One of the pleasures of attending Second City performances is wondering whether you will see any of the players later on television and in movies. So many alums have gone on to great careers in comedy and acting. We may have some trouble being certain of who we saw last night. The photos on the playbill insert are a bit grainy. We are sure that Flanigan and Ruffin were there. Dave Colan was also obviously Dave Colan. Was the guy in the glasses Joe Canale? Was the guy who played Lincoln Tim Sniffen? Who was the other guy? He most definitely did not look like Ithamar Enriquez.

The third and final set for the night was impromptu skits. The players asked the audience for ideas and did "something wonderful right away." Some of the biggest laughs of the night came in these skits.

Here is a bit of advise for attending The Second City, which I recommend:
  • Wear warm clothes if you are going in winter. We are not sure whether there was any heat. The crowd did not warm the club.
  • Park in the garage just west the club. Unless you park at roof level, you can get in and out without being in the rain or snow. Like the club, it is still cold and there may be ice to avoid while walking into the building. While there is snow, the side streets are a poor choice, as the plowed snow traps lots of cars.
  • The waiters and waitresses will keep a running tab for you into the second set of the revue. There are nonalcoholic drinks, food, and desserts available in the club.
  • There are numerous restaurants in the immediate area. Even suburbanites will recognize the chains.
Libraries with comedy collections should consider the books and DVDs for sale by Second City.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

51 Birch Street: A Film Discussion Guide

Last night at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library, we had one of the best film discussions that I have ever witnessed. Fourteen people came to see the documentary 51 Birch Street by filmmaker Doug Block. In this film, which begins when his mother dies, he seeks to learn why his father would remarry within three months of her death. Was his parents' 54-year marriage a happy one? When his father decides to sell the family home, he and his sisters come to sort through all the possessions. They discover 30 years worth of journals written by the late mother.

After the film ended, the discussion began and lasted for half a hour. I did not need a list of questions or to even direct the conversation. Here are questions that the viewers asked and discussed.

  1. Is it right to read a deceased person's journals? How would you know whether they intended them to be read? Would you want to know what is in your parent's journals?
  2. Would you trust what was written in a journal?
  3. Why do children dislike the idea of a surviving parent remarrying? Should there be a period of grief observed before remarrying? When life expectancy is already short, is there a reason to wait?
  4. Was Block's mother depressed? Did the traditional housewife role doom her? Would she have enjoyed life more if she had a job? Did psychotherapy help her?
  5. Was Block's parents' marriage a mistake? Were they just not compatible? Was she incapable of love or was he incapable? Was making do for so many years acceptable?
  6. Did Block's father have an affair? What constitutes "an affair"? How did he reconnect with his new wife so quickly after more than thirty years?
  7. Why do Block's sisters disappear in the latter part of the movie?
  8. Is Block honest about his own feelings about marriage?
  9. How do fathers and sons learn to accept each other? What right does Block have to ask his father such personal questions?
I was struck by the sheer amount of stuff that in the Block house after 50 years. It is so funny and sad how the father keeps trying to get the son take some of the things that he has saved for so many years.

I had thought that the film might be terribly sad, but it was not. Block takes the film in directions that the audience does not expect, probably because he was very surprised by the developments. I recommend it to public library discussion groups.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism by Tina Rosenberg

Four out of six said they disliked the book. It was "dry," "long," "boring," etc. Three of them did not finish reading it. Still, they joined in a very lively discussion of The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism by Tina Rosenberg at our monthly church book group.

Of course, I found the book fascinating and compelling. Having recently seen the movie Das Leden der Anderen (The Lives of Others), I wanted to learn more about the culture of distrust and betrayal prevalent in Soviet-block countries and how the end of communism had affected many lives. I was not disappointed, as The Haunted Land was filled with interesting stories about Czechoslovakia (before the split), Poland, and East Germany. I do admit, however, that the section on Poland focused too much on Wojciech Jaruzelski, the prime minister who declared martial law in 1981. It would have been more interesting to have read about Polish soldiers and intelligence agents under orders to suppress Solidarity. Like communist agents in the other countries, they must have had mixed feelings.

The section on Czechoslovakia discusses the lustrace laws, which were designed to keep communist collaborators out of public service in the post-communist government. The difficulty was that almost everyone other than youth had talked with intelligence officers at some point in their life. Many had provided sensitive information unwittingly. Because their names were on lists of informers, many talented people found themselves left out of the new government unfairly. Some lost their jobs, and there was no method to challenge the rulings.

My favorite section of the book deals with East Germany. According to Rosenberg's account, the Stasi records on individuals were opened to the public after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many people who went to read their own files discovered that their friends and family had informed on them. Others found that sympathetic Stasi had actually shielded them by writing false reports. Viewers of The Lives of Others will conclude that the actions of agent Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler were not unbelievable.

The Haunted Land is now a historical work, as much has changed in twelve years in the formerly communist countries. Though it will never be a popular book, this National Book Award winner is still worth reading for it captures a moment in time when it was difficult to judge guilt and innocence and to know when forgiveness should be offered. Retain your copy if you have one.

Rosenberg, Tina. The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism. Random House, 1995. ISBN 0679422153

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Moooving Art

Moooving Art
Originally uploaded by ricklibrarian.
From Sarah at LibrarianInBlack I learned about the museum photo toys at Dumpr. You can put your favorite photos into art gallery scenes. You can insert photos directly from your computer or from Flickr. Then you can send it to Flickr, send in an email, or save to your computer. It is very easy, fun, and free.

Here is one of my favorites from my November trip to West Texas. I also have an entire folder of cattle photos from the family ranch, if you like to look at cattle. The calves are sort of cute. They don't really stay that way very long, except in nice photos.


The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History by David Freedberg

In writing my reference book on biography, I have been seeking out group biographies, books in which the several individuals are profiled (perhaps with chapters) and their relationships described. I think it was in the bookshop at the Morton Arboretum that I first saw The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History by David Freedberg. I may have seen it in a catalog from the University of Chicago Press. Perhaps I read a review. I am uncertain, but I did see it somewhere and placed a request for the book. It landed on my desk late last week.

Now I have the book in my hands, and it weighs a ton. The high quality paper and the binding are appropriate for an art book, which it is. It is also a history of science text, which includes beautiful reproductions of scientific illustrations from various members of the Academy of Linceans, a seventeenth century Italian organization founded by Prince Federico Cesi in 1603. Though Galileo was a member, most of the illustration (some in color) are from other members. Because they were a diverse lot, there are drawing of the planets, plants, insects, mammals, birds, and fossils.

What is important about this group is that they pioneered methods of dissecting specimens and drew structures not apparent from a glance at the exterior surfaces. There was some drama in their lives, for in the wake of Galileo's trial for heresy, their revolutionary drawings were dangerous. Because church authorities discouraged studies that contradicted accepted explanations of nature, they only shared their work among trusted friends.

The story of how Freedberg came to write this book is included. He found a cupboard full of old drawings in Windsor Castle about which there was little information. He began an investigation, which took him across Europe in search of more drawings and the identities of the Linceans.

The reader of The Eye of the Lynx learns much about the study of natural history and how the art of drawing advanced the sciences, but personal details about the men involved are pretty buried in this text. So, I am not adding it to my biography book, but I want to recommend it to someone who enjoys botanic and zoological drawings. You may have to request it from a special or academic library.

Freedberg, David. The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History. University of Chicago Press, 2002. ISBN 0226261476.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

In Hiring, Is Your Library the New York Yankees or the Minnesota Twins?

My way of thinking about hiring reference librarians has been challenged. I had not even realized that I had an assumption about practices regarding large and small libraries and the individuals that they add to their teams. Now I see there is another viewpoint, which has some merit. Of course, reality falls between the philosophies.

It has been said that to understand America, you must understand baseball. I think baseball modeling can apply to libraries, too. So, I ask this question:

Is your library the New York Yankees or the Minnesota Twins?

I have always thought that smaller public libraries take a more Minnesota Twins approach to hiring librarians. Not able to offer the highest salaries, smaller libraries tend to choose recent library school graduates (fresh from their farm teams) and put them in the lineup. They then field questions at the reference desk and go to bat for the libraries to order books, plan events, and design websites. These rookies bring a lot of excitement into the smaller libraries and develop a strong fan following.

After a few years, these librarians elect to become free agents and hire themselves to new teams at higher salaries. Larger libraries, like the New York Yankees, are always looking for veteran players who excel in the game. These institutions accumulate the stars, the heavy hitters, the gold glove librarians who will make few errors.

It was suggested to me recently that this thinking is all wrong and that new librarians should start with the big libraries and that the smaller libraries need the veterans. New librarians need the mentors and the greater resources available in the big libraries. In small libraries, where a librarian may often be alone without another professional on deck, a veteran will know what to do in difficult situations and need few reference tools because she will know how to get the answers from what she has on hand.

This challenge has made me look around, and I see that both philosophies are in practice. Recent graduates go to both small and large libraries. They learn a lot when they are the only players on the field, or they benefit from being with vets in a full lineup. Veteran librarians are sometimes moving to smaller libraries where they may be more comfortable than in large organizations. Sadly, no one is throwing money around like the Yankees.

Ironically, when I think about my career, I realize that I actually started at a fairly large library and then moved to a small library. Subsequently I worked for a big organization and then a small one again. I will take my bat and glove wherever I am needed.

Few of us are like Craig Biggio, Kirby Puckett, or Robin Yount, staying with one team. Most of us aspire to be Don Baylor or Nolan Ryan, starring for several libraries.

Put me in coach! Let's play two!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin

Sometimes titles deceive. In choosing From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad as her title, Jacqueline L. Tobin has shortchanged her book, which is about much more than the transport of escaped American slaves before the Civil War. Instead, she depicts racial conditions in various regions before the war and explains how regional differences destabilized the continent. She tells about the abolitionist movement and the press it spawned, the passing of the Fugitive Slave bill and its application (or lack of) in various states, organizations to aid fugitives once they reach free lands, and the development of black communities in Canada. Her book is more about the context in which the Underground Railroad ran than about the running of the Railroad.

What does it matter? Well, student looking for escape stories or descriptions of the routes taken by fugitives will be disappointed by Tobin's book. There are, however, many other books with these stories. What the author contributes to the literature are stories of the black communities in Canada, like Buxton, Sandwich, Wilberforce, and Dawn. Getting to Canada was not the end of the story. The fugitives did not all live happily ever after. There were hard winters, lands to plow, good and bad neighbors, bills to pay, rights to be earned. Abolitionists in the U.S. spent much time reporting on and debating the merits of these communities. Should they send aid or would blacks better learn self-reliance if they got no aid? Should free blacks receive the same help as fugitives? What agreements went with the aid, such as temperance or church attendance? Could the communities serve as models for forming black communities in the South after Emancipation?

Readers of From Midnight to Dawn learn much about the abolitionist press, which was far from united in mission. Some writers really wanted all the blacks sent back to Africa. Opinions about Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and about John Brown's attack on Harper's Ferry varied. The role of women in abolition was also debated. Ironically, not much was said by abolitionists about the Underground Railroad, which needed secrecy to survive the Fugitive Slave Law.

Readers who think the 21st Century is remarkable for its communities divided by controversies need only read this book to see that nothing is new. Look for it in public libraries.

Tobin, Jacqueline L. From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2006. ISBN 038551431X

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Bronte by Maureen Adams

Dog stories are pretty hot in the publishing world right now. It was only a matter of time before the trend would cross from the memoir camp to literary biography. Maureen Adams accomplished this feat with her new book Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Bronte.

Dogs are known for their loyalty and freely-given companionship, which was something all of the women in this book needed. All of the dogs sat with their mistresses as they wrote their stories, poems, and essays. They also became subjects in some of their greatest works.

The best story in this book may be the first, that of Browning and her dog Flush. Caring for her dog got the young invalid out of bed and eventually led her to stand up against the wishes of her father, who refused to ransom the kidnapped dog. Browning defied him and arranged for the ransom to be paid to get her beloved dog back. She might never have eloped with Robert Browning had she not learned she could trump her father. Flush went with the couple to Italy, where he lived out his days happily.

After the story of Flush, Shaggy Muses is not a warm and fuzzy read. The remaining women had many problems, and their dogs sometimes played roles in disturbing episodes. In great anger over his getting on the furniture, Emily Bronte beat her dog Keeper savagely; she immediately regretted her outburst and nursed his injuries. This uncontrollable violence is reflected in incidents in Wuthering Heights.

Virginia Woolf wrote about her dog Pinka's feelings of loneliness instead of her own in letters to her lover Vita Sackville-West. Her husband Leonard also deflected some of his thoughts through the dogs in his messages to Virginia. No one seemed willing to admit their own feelings.

Late in life Woolf wrote Flush, a book about Browning's dog. Though it was supposed to be a quick, easy project, she spent over two years researching and writing what is now a mostly forgotten book. She realized what an important character Flush was and gave him full biographical treatment.

I enjoyed Shaggy Muses as both a dog book and as an easy introduction to the lives five literary women. The book deserves to be in more public libraries.

Adams, Maureen. Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Bronte. Ballantine Books, 2007. ISBN 9780345484062

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Canning Season by Polly Horvath

Needing an audiobook for a long, lonely drive from Iowa, wanting something to keep me awake, I looked at the teen collection in my library where I have found good books in the past. I choose The Canning Season by Polly Horvath based on the Chas Adams-like art work on the box. I think that I may have seen the title on recommended lists, but I knew nothing about it. Embracing the attitude of blind discovery, I checked it out.

I like some teen audiobooks because they have engaging characters and their stories move along at a quick pace. They often have irreverent viewpoints, satirizing adults who are bound by the conventions of the adult world. They also remind me how horrible and wonderful that it is to be young. For all these reasons, The Canning Season was a good choice.

The story starts in Pensacola, Florida. The central character is a girl named Ratchet, who has a "thing" on her left shoulder that she hides as commanded by her mother. Her single mother, who struggles to pay for their basement apartment and a few groceries, is really more grossed out by the "thing" than Ratchet herself, perhaps feeling guilt for the birth defect. In desperation, she sends her daughter up to Maine to spend a summer with her aged aunts Tilly and Penpen, who run a blueberry canning business on a remote estate. One aunt holds the shotgun and watches for bears while the other picks the wild blueberries in the woods.

The great aunts are twins who have spent years out in the woods in an old mansion with a telephone that accepts but does not make calls. The place is surrounded by bears, who may have eaten the servants years ago. Neither aunt has gotten a driver's license, but that does not stop "those queer Menuto women," who have a very old car that they take into town to get their mail once a week. They also have a pact to die together.

During the course of a long summer, they are joined by Harper, another abandoned teen, who longs for a good meal, an Internet connection, and a new swimsuit. Getting food onto the table and being civil to others are just two of the challenges the strange quartet face. As wickedly funny as The Canning Season is, it also becomes sweet near the end, as the four deal with aging, death, and commitment.

Read by actress Julie Dretzin, The Canning Season is a good audiobook for long, lonely drive.

Horvath, Polly. The Canning Season. Recorded Books, 2003. 5 CDs. ISBN 1402566069.