Friday, February 29, 2008

Wrigley Field's Last World Series: The Wartime Chicago Cubs and the Pennant of 1945 by Charles N. Billington

The Chicago Cubs played their first Cactus League game yesterday against the San Francisco Giants and won. Could it be a pennant season? A world championship season? It has been 100 years since the Cubbies won the World Series and 63 years since the team was even in the Series. It seems a good time, while hopes are high, to suggest Wrigley Field's Last World Series: The Wartime Chicago Cubs and the Pennant of 1945 by Charles N. Billington, a close look at the last season that resulted in a National League Championship for Chicago.

The author first sets the scene with an account of all the National League teams during the World War II years. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted baseball to continue through the national struggle, so people on the home front, including families of soldiers and defense industry workers, would have something other than just war on the radio and in the daily papers. What the president did not offer to teams were deferments, and many of the sport's top players ended up in military service. This left major league rosters loaded with older and younger players, a few with strange injuries, and some who had war effort jobs in the off season, including farmers.

Because federal transportation regulators imposed travel limits, the Cubs held 1945 spring training in French Lick, Indiana. Few player appeared at the camp in the initial week, which was just as well, as the fields were flooded from heavy rains. Team management was uncertain who from the previous year was available, as draft boards were reassessing their previous 4-F decisions and several players were holding out for better salaries. The situation was so bad that the Cubs actually allowed walk-ons to take part in intra-squad games.

The bulk of the book is a daily account of the season with profiles of many of the players, like Andy Pafko, Phil Cavvaretta, Stan Hack, Claude Passeau, and Hank Borowy. Billington describes key games and tells how the results of each series with the other National League teams. The team won a lot of games in the summer and won just enough in September to edge out the St. Louis Cardinals for the pennant.

The story of the 1945 World Series against the Detroit Tigers will remind Cub fans of every other time their hopes have been dashed against the brick wall behind outfield ivy.

Wrigley Field's Last World Series is a bit too detailed for someone with only a passing interest in the game, but true fans will find it a very interesting read. All Chicago area public libraries should have this book. Other libraries with large baseball collections should consider it.

Billington, Charles N. Wrigley Field's Last World Series: The Wartime Cubs and the Pennant of 1945. Lake Claremont Press, 2005. ISBN 1893121453

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Born in 1954, I am 54 today. It was not a Leap Year. I was told many times as a child that I was almost a Leap Baby, but I grew up to be a reference librarian. I look these things up.

When I was 42, I remember thinking about how my dad died at 63 and my grandfather at 84. I wondered whether I had reached the midpoint of my life or whether I was two-thirds done. Now, that I'm 54, I again hope I'm only at the half-way mark.

I was born at 6:00 a.m. and have been an early riser ever since. I was up before my birthday moment this morning as usual. Four years ago, I attended the Public Library Association Conference in Seattle. Even then I was up before 4:00 a.m. to greet the moment. I did not go back to sleep. It was exciting becoming 50.

I can say with authority that I am not obsolete. I can not even imagine retiring, as I am still trying new things:
  • I am writing a readers' advisory book, my first book.
  • I have recently learned a lot about coding webpages.
  • I will be blogging at PLA.
  • I want to learn to make various types of visual presentations to attach to websites.
In my family, you die with your boots on. Retiring is a silly idea.

Bonnie gave me my gifts this morning, including a box of Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans. The first bean out of the box was soap, which was not bad. I then visually identified vomit, dirt, and earthworm, but did not actually eat them. Then I found buttered popcorn, a good flavor to start my day.

Bonnie also made a carrot cake, my favorite, which I am taking to work. If you drop by early enough, you might get a piece. It'll be going fast.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Teen Services in the Latest Issue of Public Libraries

On Monday afternoon, I received the January/February 2008 issue of Public Libraries from the Public Library Association. The entire issue deals with services, programs, and materials for young adults in public libraries. Here are a few quick thoughts:

Page 17: In the article "Get Ready for Teen Tech Week 2008," an online music-making program called Splice Music is described. No downloads are required. It sounds incredible and fun. You can load your sounds and mix them and create mp3s to share. You can listen to the work of others and even make new friends.

Page 39: Laura Crossett of the Meeteetse Branch of the Park County (Wyoming) Library tells about teens in her library. As always, she gets right to the heart of the matter.

Page 61: There appear to be only two boys among around twenty girls in the Teen Tech Week Webinar add. There also seems to be an adult male in the back. You'd get the idea that only girls use the library. That is not true here at Thomas Ford.

Page 56: "Bringing Books to Life for Teens by Having Teens Give Life to Books" tells how the Lexington Public Library in Kentucky connected teens with the local actors guild to make a play out of The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher.

Make sure your teen librarians know about this special issue. Give then some time to read it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau by Susan Cheever

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the essential person in the creation of a remarkable community of authors in Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century, according Susan Cheever in American Bloomsbury. Many of the other authors who settled in the village (or in the cases of the Alcotts and Hawthorne who came and left repeatedly) came at Emerson's invitation, which was often supplemented with an offer to pay their rent. This might not have happened if Emerson's first wife had not died and left him a fortune. But it did and this collective issued The Scarlet Letter, Walden, Little Women, and Moby Dick, the core titles of American literature.

You may notice that Melville is not listed in the subtitle. He was more of a visitor than a resident, but his stay with Hawthorne transformed his writing from good old fashioned sea stories to something much deeper and more disturbing. In his case, the price of success was personal dissatisfaction.

Margaret Fuller was also a visitor, never having her own place in Concord. Her appearance always stirred the affections of Emerson and Hawthorne, both married men. She is now the least recognized of the group, but she may in a sense be the most known, as she was Hawthorne's inspiration for The Scarlet Letter and for Henry James for Portrait of a Lady. As a journalist, editor, and irrepressible character, she was an inspiration for the early feminist movement, and her tragic death unsettled the community.

Emerson, Alcott, and Hawthorne lived for years within rock-throwing distance of each other. They were in and out of each other's houses. Thoreau lived with Emerson for several years, even though his family lived nearby. He also built a little shed and lived by the pond until the new railroad made it less comfortable.

The title of the book is meant as a compliment, but it seems a little odd to me. The Concord community predates the London set. Perhaps there should be a book Concord in London. Still, American Bloomsbury is a quick read introduction to a fascinating group of people who transformed American literature. Any library that missed getting it in 2006 should make amends.

Cheever, Susan. American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN 9780743264617

Monday, February 25, 2008

PLA Virtual Conference

It is just about a month until the Public Library Association Conference in Minneapolis. If you are unable to attend, there will be a first ever PLA Virtual Conference, with panel discussions, interactive workshops, and virtual poster sessions. Andrea Mercado reports on the upcoming virtual aspect of the conference on PLA Blog. She also provides a link to register.

Even though you are at home, you can be more than just a virtual attendee. You may also submit a specially created website, powerpoint, or other electronic formats to the virtual poster session. Kathleen Hughes gives more details with instructions for application. This is a good opportunity for you to share anything special that you have done at your public library.

There should also be a lot of blogging from the conference, which begins with preconferences on March 25. PLA Blog will be one obvious source. You can also watch ricklibrarian, as I plan to be there.

Friday, February 22, 2008

At Large and At Small by Anne Fadiman

I was excited when I saw that Anne Fadiman had a new book, At Large and At Small. Several years ago I enjoyed Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader immensely. I thought that I had reviewed that book here on my blog, but I can not find it. Perhaps I reviewed it at the library instead. Whatever, it was a great read.

I was pleased when I finally got the new book to see how it physically resembled the older title. Both are undersized and have attractive woodcut illustrations on the cover. They look nice shelved together, which I am sure pleases the book-loving author. They are easy to carry around and read at lunch or in bed at night.

As I said in my little piece yesterday, Fadiman's new book is a collection of familiar essays, a literary form that she says is endangered. This type of essay blends qualities of the critical essay with the personal essay. Most readers will not bother thinking about such distinctions, but will instead just enjoy her reflective writing. I most enjoyed her essay "Ice Cream" in which she mixes the history of the dessert with her personal experiences and thoughts. I laughed when she suggested that eighteenth century physician Filippo Baldini, who wrote about the benefits of eating Italian ices, might write her a prescription for Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk. (I might need a prescription for B&J Cherry Garcia.)

As in Ex Libris, loving books comes up again, as does living in New York. Fadiman also reveals her outdoor experiences, first as a child who collected insects and later as a guide for the rugged National Outdoor Leadership School, which she says was much tougher than Outward Bound. Every essay pleased me, except "Coffee," but my dislike of the drink is more at fault than her writing.

Not many libraries in my area have added the title yet. Perhaps my writing about it two days in a row will help. It is a charming, lively, entertaining book.

Fadiman, Anne. At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. ISBN 9780374106622.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

On the Joy of Reading Mail and Email, with Notes on Elephants

This morning, as I rode our stationary bike, I read an essay "Mail" by Anne Fadiman from her collection of familiar essays called At Large and At Small. According to Fadiman, familiar essays stake a position midway between critical essays and personal essays, taking elements of both and mixing them. Through history such essays have often had titles starting with the word "On." They might be serious, as "On Going to War with Thoughts of Peace" or "On the Passing of an Old Friend." They might be light, as "On Shopping for Silk Ties" or "On the Sinking of a Toy Boat." (Those were not real titles, so do not expect them in Fadiman's book.)

In the essay "Mail" Fadiman tells us about her father who eagerly anticipated receiving an extra large delivery of mail everyday by watching for the mail carrier to lift the flag on his jumbo mailbox. He had a large desk heavier than a refrigerator on which he would sort and answer the letters that brought surprises to his routine of reading and writing. From there Fadiman tells about the history of the British postal service. Before the reform of 1939, the recipient (not the sender) paid for the mail. Her hero Charles Lamb (who wrote familiar essays) was fortunate to work at a firm that would pay his postal fees, for it could drive you toward bankruptcy to receive lots of mail. The reform with its simplifying of fees was an important move for the development of the economy and culture of Great Britain. Fadimon turns then to her own joyous story of mail and email to complete the essay. Being sentimental, she has the stamp dispenser and the copper waste basket that her father used at his desk.

After reading the essay, still riding the bike, I picked up the newsletter from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which Bonnie receives via email as a foster parent of an orphan elephant in Kenya. I immediately realized that I was experiencing a joy of correspondence much like Fadiman. Bonnie and I look forward to the elephant news every month. The January newsletter is particularly interesting. Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick assures us that the political troubles in Kenya have not reached the elephant sanctuaries. Fewer visitors have come, but those who do have ready access to the orphans. Sheldrick tells us that an eye specialist came to examine the blind orphan rhino Maxwell and diagnosed that an operation would not restore his sight. The keepers are making a special enclosure for Maxwell for his health and safety. To help him still feel part of the community, they are bringing in dung from other rhinos. Isn’t that sweet! The newsletter also tells about a walk in the bush with young elephants and their guardians. When a leg from a warthog fell from a tree, they realized that they were right under a leopard and his dinner. They beat a hasty retreat. We never have stories like that in our library newsletter!

With her newsletter, Bonnie also gets excerpts from a keeper's diary to let her know how her orphan Zurura is doing. Lately he seems to be a regular cut-up, a bit of a show-off. He has also been taking lots of mud and dust baths. There were lots of great photos with the report but none of Zurura this time. She is hoping to see him in action if Animal Planet will ever show the second season of Elephant Diaries.

You may also get this entertaining email by adopting an elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust website. It will add nicely to your letters from family, friends, and lovers.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

I kept wanting to write about The Geography of Bliss by NPR correspondent Eric Weiner as I read, but I resisted. I thought it was better to think about it as a whole at the end. I may have taken the wrong tactic, as I now find it hard to decide what to write. Weiner's text is so full of interesting data and ideas, it is difficult to know what to bring up, especially since the book comes to no grand conclusion. He never really finds happiness in a place.

The quest was grand. He was both courageous and a bit silly to go all the places that he went, asking people whether they and their neighbors were happy and why. Of course, many people thought he was a bit strange. His accounts are delightfully comic and insightful. I marked lots of pages with little orange tabs.

On page 45, Weiner tells us that Americans are alone in preferring that our ice cream shops have over fifty flavors. Most of the world is happy with about ten varieties.

On page 54, he tells us how his daughter really wants his undivided attention, which really makes her happy. Perhaps a key to being truly happy is being able to pay attention or receive attention. We are often multitasking and not feeling one bit happier for all our accomplishment.

On page 87, he comments on Americans having to have dual climate controls in cars and different comfort setting for the sides of mattresses. Through a lack of practice, we have lost our ability to compromise. This has frightening ramifications.

On page 128, the author reveals that he hoards camera bags, tote bags, and briefcases. He has a closet full of them, some unused. In view of what he says in the rest of the book, he might find happiness by donating them to a good cause. Possessions rarely make us happy unless they connect us mentally to people or places.

On page 130, he tells how studies show that out of work people are not satisfied with welfare, even when it is generous. They would rather work. The good life is not languid.

On page 211, he reports that people in helping professions, like clergy, nurses, and firefighters are happier than lawyers, bankers, and doctors. Of course, some people could argue that lawyers, bankers, and doctors are helping professions with more pay.

Funny, I seem to have marked thoughts that reflect back on Americans and not the stories about other cultures. It is the diving-into-another-culture stories that make the book worth reading.

Weiner gives us much to think about and deserves its popularity. It is in libraries everywhere.

Weiner, Eric. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World. Twelve, 2008. ISBN 9780446580267

Monday, February 18, 2008

Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

It sounded like a strange idea when I first heard about it: Raising Sand, an album combining bluegrass artist Alison Krauss with Led Zepplin's Robert Plant. Krauss is a very versatile singer and fiddle player unbound by categories and Plant has always stretched the limits of rock, still it sounded unlikely. Of course, I remember that Zepplin used to do some electrified folk songs, like "Gallows Pole." The project was brought together by T Bone Burnett. Mike Seeger is brought in on auto harp for the final song "Your Long Journey." It sounded more interesting the more that I thought. So, I placed a hold at the library.

Well, I have been listening and want to report that it works very well. I do not know how to classify what Krauss and Plant do, but it is good. I hear rockabilly, folk, blues, country, metal, and even French art songs mixed together. Many of the songs are from the 1950s or 1960s, penned by the Everly Brothers, Gene Clark, Tom Waits, Naomi Neville, and Mel Tillis. The Hinsdale Public Library has its copy in the folk display. iTunes has it as country. It does not matter so long as you can find it.

I was not really sure it was Robert Plant singing when I started listening, as he is fairly mellow in the first couple of songs, but as I kept listening, I started to hear familiar patterns to remind me of his Led Zepplin days. When other older rock stars are singing American standards, trying to sound like Sinatra, I like it it that Plant is taking on roots music instead. I particularly like "Polly Come Home," "Gone Gone Gone," and "Please Read the Letter." "Fortune Teller" reminds me a little of "Love Potion No. 9." Krauss and Plant do everything but opera on this album.

I know what I'm going to put on my birthday list - Raising Sand.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

My Face is Black is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations by Mary Frances Berry

Here is another book to recommend during Black History Month.

Callie House was washer woman in Nashville, Tennessee with five children when she was elected as assistant secretary of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1898. She and many ex-slaves were financially stricken and disenfranchised by recently enacted Jim Crow laws and violence led by the Ku Klux Klan. In the face of overwhelming odds, she led a call for the federal government to repay slaves for their unpaid labor.

According to Mary Frances Berry in her book My Face is Black is True, the campaign was at first ignored by federal authorities and discouraged actively by Booker T. Washington. Eventually fearing that her call could gain widespread support, the Justice Department declared that her organizing activities were fraud and persuaded the postmaster to ban her literature, with the result that she was arrested and imprisoned for one year for using the postal service.

After her release from prison in 1918, House again spent ten years as a poor washer woman in Nashville, which was then a magnet for black migration. Her movement was broken, but she was later an inspiration for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Berry, Mary Frances. My Face is Black is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 1400040035.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Special Orders Don't Upset Us at Thomas Ford

Lately, I have been making numerous special orders to get books not available through Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. I'm finding most of these items through news stories or features in the Chicago Tribune. Today the item is My Fall From Grace by James J. Laski, which is touted in a column by John Kass. The columnist says that in the book "Laski discusses crooked Chicago politics, Mayor Richard M. Daley's selective memory, and the mayor's private advice to Laski on the use of 'buffers' just like in 'The Godfather' movies." The place to order this self-published book is a website called Author House.

Stop the presses: Now the book is on Amazon. I'm sure it was not there earlier. Well, pretty sure.

Earlier in the week, the book was A Mile Square of Chicago by Marjorie Warville Bear. According to columnist Eric Zorn, it is
"a sprawling and meticulously detailed remembrance of the neighborhood of Bear's youth -- the area on the West Side between Ashland and Western Avenues, from Lake Street on the north to Harrison Street on the south, just after the turn of the 20th Century." In his Sunday column, Zorn reported that Bear finished the book 38 years ago and died 26 years ago. The only way to get this posthumous publication is through Google Base. I ordered the book Monday, and it was here on Wednesday.

A month ago, the book was Life is Delicious: A Collection of Recipes from the Hinsdale Junior Women's Club, which was reviewed in the "Good Eating Section" of the Tribune on January 9. Hinsdale is a neighboring suburb of Western Springs, so we wanted the book. The book is available via the organization's website. I called the toll free number and a member hand delivered the book a couple of days later.

All of these books are of local interest. We want to have as much as we can about the Chicago are for students and general readers who grew up in the area. With the library credit card and our Internet access, we continue to watch for items like these.

"Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don't upset us."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Stories from Haiti seem to always involve tragedy, and Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat is no exception. The final quarter of the book will break your heart. It may also anger you, for much of what happened to Danticat's very elderly and harmless Uncle Joseph was the result of what appears to be totally unjust U.S. immigration policy toward Haitian refugees. The author suggests that if her uncle had been Cuban, he would have been welcomed into the country. Instead, unbending INS officials finished the work of the Haitian gangs.

Danticat is never sentimental but there is much charm in her storytelling. Readers come to admire both her father who immigrated to New York when she was small and admire her uncle who raised her in Port-au-Prince until she was twelve, at which time she joined her parents in New York. When she arrived, the American city seemed just as dangerous as the capital of Haiti, as her cab-driving father was attacked and threatened on several occasions. His calm, peaceful nature always saved him.

I listened to the audiobook on compact discs read by actress Robin Miles, who does an excellent job with voices and frequent Creole phrases. It is an excellent addition to any library's audio collection and should get many checkouts.

Danticat, Edwidge. Brother, I'm Dying. Knopf, 2007. ISBN 9781400041152

Audiobook on 7 CDs. Recorded Books, 2007. ISBN 9781428166318

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl

Thanks to Nonanon, who recommend this wonderful book about a month ago.

Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl is like a case full of boxes of Cracker Jacks. There are lots of surprises inside - at least one in every story. As a reader, I never knew what was going to happen next, nor how the story would end. As a reviewer, I don't want to give those surprises away. I'll just say that they are sometimes darkly amusing, sometimes horrible or even shocking. If you're the kind of reader who likes Edgar Allan Poe or watching Arsenic and Old Lace, you'll definitely want to finish every one of these stories.

As readers of his memoirs or his children's books knows, Dahl wastes no words. There is an economy to his storytelling, and he chooses his words well. Within a page, the reader will be in another time and place following the misadventures of marginal members of society. His victims are usually newcomers, petty crooks, lonely housewives, and other sad people. Babies suffer in these stories.

What is my favorite story? That is hard to say, but perhaps I'll say "William and Mary,"in which a husband wills his brain to science so that he can continue conscienceness in a bowl. "Royal Jelly," with the beekeeper reversing the decline of his infant daughter is a very close second. It is definitely not "Pig," which is too horrible to contemplate. Do not read "Pig" right before going to bed!

Kiss Kiss appears to be out of print. Over 800 libraries still have it, according to Worldcat. Libraries should not withdraw it from their collections, as it is every bit as powerful now as it was nearly fifty years ago. Some of the stories are in The Best of Roald Dahl, but you want to read them all.

Dahl, Roald. Kiss Kiss. Knopf, 1960.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles

It may seem hard to believe now, but novelists Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos were once friends. They met in Schio, Italy during World War I, where they both were ambulance drivers evacuating a field hospital. Two years later they were together in Paris, living cheaply, meeting Joyce and Stein, and reading each other's work daily. Later, back in the U.S., Hemingway introduced Dos Passos to the woman that he would marry, and the new couple would visit the Hemingways in Key West and Havana annually. So long as both were promising authors, their friendship seemed strong. Success, however, sowed seeds of jealousy.

In The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles, Stephen Koch tells a sad story about how the two novelists went to Spain supposedly to work on a film in support of the Spanish Republican cause. What neither knew was that they were dupes of the Communist Party, who had already made the film. Hemingway did not really care. He was in Spain to find inspiration and to conduct a love affair with Martha Gellhorn. He spent most of his time drinking and unknowingly hanging out with Soviet agents.

When Dos Passos arrived several weeks later, he found that his good friend Jose Robles was missing. Robles's wife told him that her husband had been taken in the night by Spanish soldiers months before and no one in the government would acknowledge whether he was in custody or dead. Dos Passos began questioning every official he could meet, which annoyed the Soviet puppet forces, who were preparing to assassinate most of the true Spanish Republicans. Hemingway had no sympathy. He told Dos Passos "people die - get over it - quit embarrassing us with your questions." The two old friends had a very public argument over whether Robles was a Fascist, a suggestion Hemingway accepted because his Soviet friends told him so.

According to Stephen Koch, Dos Passos met George Orwell in Barcelona and helped repentant American Communist Liston Oak escape the Soviets. He generally acted bravely and responsibly, but lost much of his faith in socialism in Spain. Hemingway, on the other hand, betrayed his wife, his friend, and every principle he ever espoused, but he found inspiration for For Whom the Bell Tolls. His success was hollow, however, and Koch suggests that he never forgave himself for all his sins.

The Breaking Point is for anyone interested in Hemingway, Dos Passos, the Spanish Civil War, or Soviet agents in the West before World War II.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander's collection of short stories For the Relief of Unbearable Urges was published in 1999, but it was released as an audiobook in 2007. I do not know why it took so long, but it was worth the wait. As read by Susan Denaker, Paul Michael, and Arthur Morey, the nine stories about Jewish experience are riveting.

Among my favorite stories are the first two, both of which are historical. "The Twenty-Seventh Man" takes readers back to the Soviet Union of the 1930s, when Stalin was purging the country of dissidents, including Jewish radicals. Twenty-six famous Jewish writers are brought to a camp for execution. With them is one unknown writer. They all know they are going to die, but they continue to compose stories to tell up to the end.

In the second story, "The Tumblers," Nazi soldiers bring hundreds of Jews to a train station to ship them to death camps. A circus train pulls into the confusion and a group of Jews from a ghetto accidentally get on board. They soon discover their good fortune will end if they can not come up with an acrobatic act.

The rest of the stories are contemporary, set in either New York City or Jerusalem. My favorite New York story is "Reb Kringle," which tells about a Jewish Santa who has serious problems with his seasonal department store job. The book ends with "In This Way We Are Wise," which intimately recreates the experience of witnessing a suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

What sets these stories apart from lesser stories is Englander's elegant descriptions of desperate situations. At times, the stories are somewhat humorous but there is always a soul or many souls at stake. In most of the stories the need to follow Jewish law is also a complicating factor in the plot. This New York Times Notable Book is a good item to recommend to readers who like literary fiction.

Englander, Nathan. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. ISBN 0375404929.

6 CD. Books on Tape, 2007. ISBN 9781415938096.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored by Clifton L. Taulbert

Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored by Clifton L. Taulbert is an uncommonly sweet book about a bad time when the Jim Crow laws were in full force in rural Mississippi. In his book, Taulbert describes the hardships of growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the blacks had pick cotton at low wages, use different water fountains, attend different schools, and step aside for whites on sidewalks. Ironically, the oppression bound the blacks together, and it is the closeness of the black community of Glen Allan that he celebrates with this memoir.

One of the topics that Taulbert handles particularly well is the importance of church to the blacks of the South. Many of his stories involve the Allan Chapel AME Church where an ordained circuit preacher came once a month. On other Sundays, members of the congregation lead the service, preached the sermon, and fixed community suppers. When they entered the church, the sharecroppers and maids became important deacons and ladies, admired for their faith and good work. The church was also a sanctuary. In one story, the author tells how the blacks masked a community meeting as a worship service so the local whites would not know that they were sending a delegate to an NAACP meeting in Washington, D.C.

The importance of warm family life also comes through in Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, as the author tells of growing up with his grandparents. While fishing with his grandmother and her friends was terribly boring, and while his grandfather drove very slowly, they were affectionate and saw that he valued education. Taulbert graduated as valedictorian but then had to go wash dishes in St. Louis because there were no scholarships for blacks in Mississippi at the time. Eventually, he earned several advanced degrees.

Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored is a quick read that many readers will enjoy. Pu it in your Black History Month display.

Taulbert, Clifton L. Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. Council Oaks Books, 1989. ISBN 093303119X

Friday, February 01, 2008

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, directed by Yimou Zhang

Bonnie has done it again - brought home another great foreign language DVD. Tonight we saw a film in Mandarin and Japanese, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, written and directed by Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang. Most of his other films, like Hero, are filled with action, but this new film is a quiet, gentle drama about fathers estranged from their sons.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles stars veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura and has a small role for Japanese actress Shinobu Terajima. The rest of the cast are Chinese people the director enlisted from the Yunnan province. Most play characters much like themselves. I especially liked Jiang Wen as Jasmine, a translator, and Lin Qui as Lingo, a tour operator, who both show great patience dealing with their unusual Japanese tourist. Young Zhenbo Yang is great as Yang Yang, the prisoner's son.

The setting of the film is spectacular, as the characters venture into remote areas of the Yunnan province, which is at points barren and mountainous. I was reminded of the Badlands of South Dakota in some scenes. The roads seemed to run along steep cliffs without any railings. There are also shots on the coast of Japan and in Tokyo.

I do not want to give away the story, but I do want to recommend seeing the film and the special feature on the making of the film, which comes on the DVD. The title should be added to library foreign film collections.

The Light in the Cellar by Sarah Master Buckey

"All right," said Molly. "And I don't mind spiders that much. So, if it's spiders, I'll go in first, and if it's mice, you can go in first."

Molly McIntire speaks to her new friend Emily, an English girl sent from London to the United States for safety during World War II. While her Aunt Prim is in the hospital, Emily is staying with the McIntire family. The girls pause before they enter an old, dusty garage in search of a key that will let them into Greystone Manor, a frightening old mansion up on the highest hill in Jefferson. You'd pause, too, if you had heard all the rumors of ghosts in the old house.

The book I just finished is The Light in the Cellar by Sarah Master Buckey. While this title in the American Girl Molly Mystery series is aimed at the nine year old reader, I enjoyed it, as it reminded me of the years that I spent reading to my daughter Laura before and after she learned to read. We went through our box set of six Molly books by Valerie Tripp several times, revisiting the spunky girl's adventures with her friends and her exasperation with her brother Ricky.

This recent book has just about everything a classic Nancy Drew book had, without the old racial stereotypes that used to pop up. Molly notices her mother's upset when sugar is missing from the Red Cross center and starts her own investigation. Her friends are reluctantly brought into the effort. She sees mysterious lights, gets locked in a pantry, and wanders through an dark, old mansion. It is pretty classic girl series book fun.

I like how the American Girl books always have a little history mixed in. In The Light in the Cellar, the community is sponsoring a canteen at a local train station where service stop before being shipped to the war. With rationing, it is pretty serious when most of the sugar is missing.

This book has a recipe for wacky cake inside the back cover. If no one has stolen your sugar, you can bake one yourself. It would be nice to have after reading a good book.

Buckey, Sarah Master. The Light in the Cellar. American Girl, 2007. ISBN 9781593691585