Monday, March 31, 2008

Celebrating the Literature of the 1930s

Last week at the library we celebrated some of the exceptional literary works written about and during the 1930s, the era of America’s Great Depression. Our “Depression Era” theme day provided a great opportunity to promote the library and to talk about some of the books we love. Don’t believe me? While I was waiting for the bus, I struck up a lively conversation with two transit regulars who commented on my “migrant worker” overalls. They were enthralled with our theme: “You look just like the train boss in Of Mice and Men,” one commented, “You know, the one who kicks George and Lenny off the train.”

Of course, that brings up the point: you really can’t talk about the 1930's Depression without mentioning John Steinbeck. For many American readers, Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath—simply put—defines the era. To learn more about the history that shaped this moving novel and the research that went into it, read Steinbeck’s The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath, comprised of seven newspaper articles Steinbeck published after touring migrant workers camps in 1936 and featuring Dorothea Lange’s stunning photographs of the era. For additional images, check out Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange. This beautifully-produced photo-biography presents a compilation of many of Lange’s most famous documentary-style portraits of America’s down-and-outs in the 1930s and 1940s, including her famous "Migrant Mother" that has since come to represent the face of 1930's dust-bowl poverty.

For the more light-hearted: take a peek at '30s fashions in Fashion Sourcebooks: The 1930s, by John Peacock with 281 fashion illustrations from 27 designers set out in a clear year-by-year progression with detailed descriptions of each design at the back of the book. For an overall feel of the times, The 1930s: from the Great Depression to the Wizard of Oz, by Stephen Feinstein, provides fine Eyewitness-style visuals and a general overview of the events of the decade, with chapters devoted to fashion, entertainments, sports, politics, and scientific advances of the era.

Finally, let's not forget some that the hardships of the '30s brought us some of the world's most unforgettable literature. Here are just a few of our favorites:

Currently out-of-print, Nelson Algren’s 1935 novel Somebody in Boots tells the story of Cass McKay, a gentle but illiterate, depression-era drifter who escapes the poverty, desperation, and violence of his Texas home, only to find more of the same riding the rails through the South and Midwest. The novel depicts a world of relentless starvation and brutality, culminating in a robbery that lands Cass in jail with a cast of other “undesirables.” The boots of the title are both symbols of authority and weapons wielded against the poor and the dispossessed in their struggle for survival. Reviewed by Lisa Tyler.

Harlem renaissance great Zora Neale Hurston's most controversial novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) details the life of one Janie Crawford, a fiercely independent young woman growing up in southern Florida in the '30s. Through three stormy marriages, a hurricane, and a terrifying brush with death when her husband contracts rabies, Janie finds strength in the face of poverty, illness, and tragedy. It may sound like a downer, but it's not: An intensely memorable coming-of-age story, a paean to independence, and a testament to strength in adversity, Their Eyes Were Watching God was criticized in Hurston's lifetime for its honest depiction of life in an all-black community. In the 1970s, Alice Walker revived interest in Hurston's nearly forgotten masterpiece, and now it's considered a classic. It's also one of my personal favorites. Reviewed by Constance O'Shea.

Secretrary of State Sam Reed celebrates the literature of The Great Depression with Collection Management Staff , Kelli Becker, Constance O'Shea, and Lisa Tyler. Photo by Lael Voeller, taken at the Sylvan Way Branch of Kitsap Regional Library.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Oh, Why Not? Books about Blogs

For those interested in the continuing pursuit of 2.0 knowledge, here are a few new and intriguing books on all things blog and wiki.

Interested in making (or reading) a better book blog? The Bookaholics’ Guide to Book Blogs, by Rebecca Gillieron & Catheryn Kilgarriff, offers a strong bibliography of great blog reading and an abundance of advice on book industry blogs. The general reader will find an ample array of publisher and reviewer sites to choose from, while genre fans will be thrilled by the wide spectrum of specialized sites, catering to everything from horror to Harry Potter. Finally, anyone who has worked in a book store (or with the public for that matter) will enjoy the chapter on Bookshop and Booksellers’ Blogs.

Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web, edited by Sarah Boxer, serves up a sampling of 27 of the Web’s most erudite offerings, with everything from political ponderings to ruminations on linguistics to a witty retelling of the Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseus’ sidekick. Skeptical about whether there’s really anything good out there in the blogosphere? This might be the book for you. If not, it’s still great bathroom reading.

Still wondering why Wikis might be important? Wikipatterns: A Practical Guide to Improving Productivity and Collaboration in Your Organization, by noted software researcher and author Stewart Mader, supplies strategies for starting a wiki, making it pertinent for everyone in your organization, and finally for inviting participants. Designed for Wiki novices and possibly even Wiki skeptics, Wikipatterns provides case studies and suggests a variety of Wiki uses, with a wealth of start-up tips, tools, checklists, and a clear structure that makes it accessible and relevant for anyone interested in exploring new ways to collaborate in the workplace.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

What is Goth? Just ask at the library...

Ask not what you can't learn at the library... That would be a really short conversation. Ask what you CAN learn. The list will be endless.

Just to dispel any question: the above slide show does feature a photo of one of those rare but wonderful Suburban Goth Librarians, the kind usually found perusing the industry reviews to make sure the library holds a rich, varied, up-to-the-moment book collection. (Hint: The Librarian is the one in black.) The rest of this scurvey lot of Medieval, Perky, Punkesque, and Wizardly Goths are not librarians but do in fact work in a library—ironically, a bright sunny library with comfy chairs, cheerful decor, a friendly engaging staff, and lots of wonderful, exciting programs and events for the whole community.

One day this cast of misfits decided to illustrate—by moping, dressing in black, painting weird curlicues around their eyes, and changing their names to things like Funeralisa, Tishella, Kali-Ma and Constantina the Dark—just how many things can be learned in a library. Yes, that's right. We—for I am one of them—became Goth for a day. (OK, for some of us, it's not that much of a stretch.) Want to learn more about the whole Goth thing? Check out our reading list:

Paint It Black: A Guide to Gothic Homemaking, by Voltaire (yes, crafts ARE involved)
The Goth Bible, by Nancy Kilpatrick
Goth Chic: A Connoisseur's Guide to Dark Culture, by Gavin Baddeley
Everything You Need to Know About the Goth Scene, by Kerry Acker
Goth craft : the magickal side of dark culture, by Raven Digitalis

On a related note: For a peek at the fusion of Goth culture and "Lolita" fashion in Japan, check out the startling photographs and funky design of Gothic and Lolita, by Masayuki Yoshinaga and Katsuhiko Ishikawa. Similarly, Gothic & Lolita Bible, Vol. 1, combines for the first time in the US four volumes of the Japanese mook (part fashion magazine/part book), Gothic & Lolita Bible. I haven't seen it yet, but I can't wait.

You might also want to read one of the earliest Gothic novels (Gothic novels are a must for all serious Goths), currently available in the KRL collection, The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole. (Yes, dedicated Jane Austen fans, this is one of the works that Jane flogs so mercilessly in Northanger Abbey.) Other must-read fiction for Goths:

Oh My Goth! Version 2.0, by Voltaire
Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Tales of H.P. Lovecraft
Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier
Pretty much anything by Anne Rice

Not enough for you? Feel free to sulk about it.

Either that, or send me your Goth favorites. Meanwhile, prepare for your own Goth day by learning How to be Goth in seven easy steps. Until then, have a dark and miserable day.

Sincerely, Constantina Countess of the Dark

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Little House on the Wide Sargasso Prairie

A Return to Books about Books: Eileen Favorite Unleashes The Heroines on the American Landscape

Thirteen-year-old Penny Entwhistle, in Eileen Favorite’s new novel The Heroines, is growing up in the 1970s American Midwest on a steady diet of Watergate coverage and over-the-top dramatic heroines, from Scarlett O’Hara to Blanche du Bois. For those of us who grew up in similar places and times with similar reading lists, Penny is a familiar figure. One difference: for Penny, the fictional heroines come to weepy, irreverent life and set up residence at her family’s Iowa bed and breakfast, where they proceed to fret and moan and generally make themselves the disconsolate center of attention. In short, they behave like 13-year-olds. Anyone see a parallel here?

Please tell me Rosencrantz and Guildenstern really ARE dead this time.

For those weary of a current influx of literary endeavors where secondary characters take center stage, The Heroines provides a welcome departure. In Favorite’s rendering, the titular heroines, while central to their own stories, take a bucolic backseat to Favorite’s own heroine—especially after a midnight meeting in the woods with a dark stranger and an imprudent mention of the heroines lands Penny in The Unit, a dismal Bell Jar-esque hospital where rebellious and “hysterical” teenage girls are alternately bullied and bribed, albeit with little real success, into conventionally discreet behavior. Fascinating, funny, familiar, and informative—particularly for those being introduced to these literary ladies for the first time—The Heroines is an irreverent and entertaining coming-of-age story and a wonderful paean to the joys and, yes, the foibles of embracing literature and some of its more excessive dramatis personae in our lives. Heroines who make an appearance include: J.D. Salinger’s Franny Glass (of Franny and Zooey), Blanche Du Bois, Scarlett O'Hara, Madame Bovary, Wuthering Heights’ Catherine Earnshaw, and Hester (and Pearl) Prynne, among others. Light-hearted yet thoughtful, The Heroines also makes a great book group choice.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Lucky 13: Libraries and Social Networking Sites

I recently attended the 2008 OCLC Western Conference in Seattle. OCLC is the Online Computer Library Center—the folks who bring us WorldCat—and this year's conference theme, in keeping with their new logo, was "The World's Libraries. Connected." The all-day event had a huge focus on how libraries can "build a bigger sign" in the community and on the world's information highway. Among many interesting facts, I learned the following: fully 13 percent of library users and potential library users surveyed in the Pew Internet & American Life Project expect - EXPECT - libraries to have a presence on social networking sites like Facebook. Seems like a phenomenal number to me.

Who uses the library?
What do library users want and expect?
What attracts people to libraries?
What makes them come back?

The OCLC conference addressed these questions and provided some interesting resources for answers. I hope to find time to share some of these next week. But for now, the sun is shining, and 8-Ball wants attention. Outside. Now. No crows invited. Crows like to gang up, corner 8-Ball under bushes, and taunt him. But that's another story for another day. Have a beautiful Sunday.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Facebook rocks with Books iRead

Are you a fan of LibraryThing? Are you tired of keeping track of half a dozen little slips of paper with books you want to read?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, you might want to check out Facebook's Books iRead application. With Books iRead, not only can you build your library online, you can EASILY sort and organize your library around books you want to read, books you're currently reading, books you've read, books you own, and personal favorites. You can also recommend books to other friends on Facebook with one click, write online reviews, review lists of customized recommendations based on your favorites, and check out all your friends' favorites and reviews. Just brainstorming... you can even use iRead for finding read-alikes. For example, I put in M. John Harrison, and it recommended a similar writer of post-cyberpunk speculative fiction, China Mieville (both, as it happens, purveyors of what Martha Bayley at her recent Science Fiction Readers Advisory called The New Weird). How cool is that?

For those of you still hesitating to join Facebook, hesitate no more. The Books iRead application alone is worth the price of admission, a real must for bookophiles. Oh, and yeah, there IS no price of admission. Facebook is free.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Heinlein: My Struggles with the (quote/unquote) Master

Or a thousand and one ways to offend....

Those blog-readers who occasionally glance at my side bar may notice that I appear to have been reading science fiction luminary Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress for about two months. I have to admit I’ve been struggling with this book for a long time now, and not to be disrespectful to an acknowledged master in the SF genre or to his many devoted fans, I am inclined to bestow on it what noted SF writer and critic Thomas M. Disch might call a St. Bradbury.

The feast of St. Bradbury, Disch says, is when critics, readers, and reviewers gather up all the books they’ve been “unable, despite their best intentions and firmest resolves, to read all the way to the end,” and ceremoniously dispose of them. Disch puts it a bit more caustically, but like I said I don’t want to be disrespectful, since, despite what for me is a difficult roadblock on the Heinlein highway, I acknowledge there must be something good to account for Heinlein’s amassed critical and popular following.

So what’s my problem? Let’s just say that with The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, considered by most critics and many readers to be Heinlein’s finest, the gender issue once again raises its ugly head. Not half a dozen pages can pass in this avowedly political novel, without the male characters’ lengthy verbal and visual ogling of the female characters, and the female characters then simpering, giggling, and cooing their appreciation of the men’s appreciation. And this is generally DURING any of said political and philosophical conversations, although fortunately not so much during the action sequences, comprised so far in my reading of political rallies meeting with government reprisal, strongly flavored by the novel’s 1960’s origins.

All of this “he looked her up and down, and whistled”—followed by four or five paragraphs of extraneous flirtation—wouldn’t be so bad if Heinlein didn’t seem so bent on generalizing about what women think (and, believe me, Heinlein has NO problem writing with paranormal authority on what women think) and how women are different–which so far in my reading mostly seems to involve a propensity for intuition and girlish gossip, occasional short-lived and inexplicable (yet adorable) flirtatious huffs, and an abiding love of compliments.

Now, don’t mistake me, Heinlein may be a product of his times, but he is no misogynist. To quote Disch once again, Heinlein is more than eager to grant women “equal wages and equal fun” and a certain na├»ve amount of mental acuity. To cite another of Heinlein’s well-loved novels, Stranger in a Strange Land presents a passel of female character, all of them nurses and secretaries, but at least he gives a few of them eidetic memories, plenty of smarts, and great job skills. Conveniently, as we are at length informed, they are also extremely attractive. But then, as Heinlein says in Moon, there are no ugly women.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is the story of political dissent and government rebellion at a former penal colony on the moon; it is also the story of a computer achieving consciousness. Is the computer “Mike” really a Michelle? Heinlein’s characters must, of course, dicker about this, since they have crystal clear ideas about gender differences, even when talking about banks of electronic controls. For myself, I will continue to struggle with both the book and its ideas, at least until the traditional date set for the feast of St. Bradbury, August 22 (“the great man’s birthday,” as Disch reminds us), or until someone or something pushes me to read past my roadblocks. I am hoping with an idealistic postmodern gusto that our hero and heroine will finally realize that Mike/Michelle’s identity changes depending on his/her audience and that that in itself is an indication of the social constructs of gender reflected in the novel and its characters. Then, at last, I will be able to pitch my tent in Heinlein’s camp.

I am not holding out strong hopes for this eventuality. Still, if there are any readers out there who have read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and are up for debate, I am honestly open for discussion and ready to hear about the novel’s finer points, which I will then respectfully blog about to set the record straight. Push me to read a little faster. I am ready.

All quotes from Disch are from On SF (University of Michigan Press, 2005). Quote from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is from the Orb Edition (Tom Doherty Associates, 1997, copyright 1966), and appears on p. 71, among other pages.

Read more about Heinlein in the December 2007 Kitsap Sun: Heinlein: The Descent of a Sci-Fi Guru

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Forget the chainsaw… more great tools for librarians (and the rest of us) to love

Or at least like...

Once upon a time William Gibson posited the then-novel idea that human beings would spend most of their time jacked into computers. And guess what? In today’s post-post-cyberpunk world, we kind of do. More and more far-flung work teams work on complex projects with team members in outlying areas never meeting face-to-face. A growing educational trend reflects this shift with online classes and collaborative learning teams designed for working adults who never meet in the classroom, yet complete group assignments in entirely virtual environments. But whether you’re completing a project with someone in the next cubicle or with someone in China or with someone 20 miles away at another branch of the same organization, Writeboard is a great tool to know about.

Writeboard is a Web-based writing tool that allows teams (or individuals) to create and save multiple drafts of documents. Just from a teaching perspective, Writeboard looks like a good thing. It allows team members to write, revise, and share documents in real time, and it allows writers and contributors to compare different versions of a document and (presumably) agree on a final draft. For anyone who has ever had the frustrating experience of trying to read a Word document with revisions, or for anyone who has had his or her work edited with no “history” of the changes made, or even for employers or teachers wanting to evaluate multiple drafts and team input, Writepoint may be worth checking out.

On another note, Stikkit is a Web-based tool that gathers address books, tasks, memorandums, calendars, email, and more into one place. It does many of the things I currently do with Outlook (at work) and MSN (at home), but, since it’s Web-based like, it offers more convenient opportunities for using it from any location, rather than from just a work or personal computer. It also appears to have greater capabilities for tagging and organizing one’s life. Feeling disorganized? Then Stikkit may be worth a look.