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Reviews

Nov 19 2010

Tales of a prison librarian

by Jesse M

Harvard University is a venerable and storied institution whose alumni have gone on to achieve a variety of notable positions and accomplishments. Eight U.S. presidents have graduated from Harvard, and some fifty Nobel prize winners have been associated with the university. Not all graduates move on to such prominent appointments however. After Avi Steinberg graduated from Harvard, he took a job as a prison librarian.

Not the most glorious occupation, perhaps, but certainly an interesting one. Steinberg chronicled his time at the Suffolk County House of Correction near Boston in a recently published memoir entitled Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. In it he describes encounters with a variety of inmates, including a Shakespeare-quoting pimp; details sometimes poignant interactions with students in his creative writing class, and gets a nickname bestowed upon him: Bookie. He also shares tidbits about prison life as it relates to the library, including the prisoners’ attempts to communicate with members of the opposite sex by leaving notes called “kites” hidden in books (males and females are segregated, but both populations have access to the library) and relates some of the more popular titles requested by inmates (including The Diary of Anne Frank, The 48 Laws of Power, and anything by Sylvia Plath or James Patterson). Steinberg’s memoir has been favorably reviewed by a number of different publications, including the New York Times and National Public Radio, where you can also read an excerpt from the book.

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We’re reading Charlotte’s Web at my house.  It’s the first “chapter book” that we’ve done together and it’s an extraordinary way to end a busy day.  The plus is that we currently have a good sized yellow and black spider in residence right against the kitchen window so we spend a few minutes each day checking into her day’s activities.  Imagine our crazed delight to find her egg sac up under the eaves and our worry now that the nights are getting cold.    All is greatness.  For me, however, this experience has been profound.

There are a great many writers out there who can tell a good story (and make a good living at it) but have never once come up with a line are so perfect I am left breathless.  There are authors who write that kind of line all the time but create works that are so dense and complicated I have no idea what they are trying to say.  I have a certain appreciation for each, but my awe is reserved for writers like E.B. White, contributor to the New Yorker magazine and the White of Strunk & White’s Element’s of Style.  With casual grace White tells a wonderful story larded with lines that have stopped me in my tracks over the past few nights.

Different things will resonate for a reader at different ages.  I learned this truth when I read Winnie-the-Pooh in college.  What had been a precious, silly story was suddenly hilarious, particularly the words Milne chose to capitalize.  Charlott’e Web struck different chords.  Never mind that White is such a master he puts the reader so vividly in the scene one can smell the hayloft, taste the blackberries and get worn down from the heat at the county fair.  No.  The amazing thing about this  “simple” story about a working farm is that nothing about it is simple.  It isn’t just a story of  a literate spider and a Spring pig.  It’s the story of parent and child, it’s a matter-of-fact discussion of food production and it’s a non-stop natural history lesson.    Chapter 15, The Crickets, was nearly the end of me with it’s gentle admonition that we must all accept the inexorable turns of the wheel of time.  Above all,  this story is a pitch perfect reminder to the adult reader, beset with daily worries and traumas, that spider’s webs are miracles and we should always “be on the watch for the coming of wonders.”

So, gentle reader, what delights have you rediscovered in the books of your childhood?

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Oct 8 2010

Turn to page 99

by Jesse M

If you are tired of being forced to make decisions on whether or not to read a book based solely on the summary and author blurbs contained on the inside flap or printed on back, then you may be interested to hear of another method by which the quality of a piece of writing may be ascertained quickly, the page 99 test. How it works is simple: just open a book, flip to page 99, and read the content there. If you find it intriguing enough that you want to read more, then you’ll probably end up enjoying the book. However, if page 99 doesn’t catch your interest, it’s unlikely the rest of the book will either.

The theory, as expressed in this article, is that by page 99 (which in most books is about 1/4 to 1/3 of the total length) “the characters should be established, the author should have hit his or her stride…and it is far enough in to allow glimpses of an unfolding plot but too early to give away any vital clues or twists”.

The site, which launches sometime this month, will offer authors the opportunity to publish the 99th page of their works and receive feedback from readers on whether they would be interested in reading more or possibly even purchasing a copy. There’s no need to wait until the site goes live however, as you can conduct the page 99 test yourself with already published books, either by browsing in your local library branch or utilizing Google Books, which allows you to page through a digital copy of the text (not all books are available for preview in this fashion, but many are).

The question is, how well does it work? To answer that I decided to test it out on two books I recently checked out from the library but haven’t yet begun reading, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Corey Doctorow and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (if you want to sneak a peak at page 99 of either book you can view them on google books here and here, respectively). The results were mixed. I can’t say that page 99 of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom did much other than confuse me, but page 99 of Catch-22 did spark my interest (though admittedly it was also a bit confusing). I plan to read both books and once I’ve completed them I’ll report back here on the efficacy of the page 99 test. Try it out yourself and tell us how it works out!

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Mar 31 2010

Rapunzel’s Revenge & Calamity Jack

by Nancy M

Rapunzel’s Revenge takes the well-known Brothers Grimm tale and re-imagines it into an exciting western whose main damsel is anything but distressed. Yes, this redheaded Rapunzel too gets locked away, but instead of waiting around for prince charming to save her, she passes the time training herself to use her excessively long locks as weapons. Her first order of business? Using her braids to repel herself to freedom. Once free, she pairs up with outlaw Jack and his Golden Goose, who help her battle it out with villains and ferocious creatures all while seeking revenge on Mother Gothel, the evil woman who stole Rapunzel from her mother, locked her up and is now wreaking magical havoc in the land.  This completely engrossing and exciting graphic novel brought to you by Shannon Hale and her husband Dean, is complete with bright illustrations and a fantastic cast of characters.

Recently published and available at the Library is Calamity Jack, another graphic novel adventure brought to you by the Hales. This second book again pairs Rapunzel and Jack, this time with the focus on the scheming Jack and just how he got mixed up with that beanstalk and Giant in the first place.

These wonderfully imaginative books are perfect for middle readers who like adventure, fantasy and fairytales and they would also be great for reluctant readers.

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Mar 12 2010

They still reign…

by Amanda L

I recently checked out Michael W. Smith‘s latest album, A new hallelujah, or musical compilation as some would say.  For those of you who are not familiar with Michael W. Smith, he is considered one of the most influential artists of contemporary Christian music. I have been following and appreciating his music and writing abilities since the beginning of his career in the early eighties.

I have switched, like so many of us, to downloading my music online and loading it on to either my computer, MP3 or iPod player. The library is a great way to preview many of the albums that you might want to buy. That is what I was doing with Michael W. Smith’s latest. This album however, reminded me of why I believe compact discs still have a place  in today’s market place.

A new hallelujah although not hailed as a live album, is performed before a live audience in Houston, Texas. The flow of the songs because they are performed live, in my opinion, need to be played in order. While listening to the CD, I began appreciating the CD format. I was able to feel like I was right there with Michael W. Smith. Many of the  songs on the album have been performed by other artists such as Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United. They have been rearranged as only Smitty (as he affectionately is called) can do. The album highlights Smitty’s piano talent and ability to elicit audience participation.

The library has a large collection of music available for you to explore a variety of musical genres. If you haven’t explored the Christian music genre, I highly recommend checking out the Michael W. Smith collection that we have.  If you want a quick listen to what I think is one of the best songs on this album, check out this video of the song, Deep in Love withYou.


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Jan 8 2010

Read, Record, Remember

by Jesse M

Happy new year, and welcome to 2010!  In addition to making resolutions that I’m unlikely to keep, there is another new year’s tradition I’ve been observing the past few years; creating and updating a reading list.

Working in libraries, something I hear regularly from patrons is that they have trouble recalling whether or not they have read a certain title.  This problem is particularly common with patrons who enjoy reading the output of prolific authors such as James Patterson or Nora Roberts (for instance, Nora Roberts has just short of 200 published full-length works under her belt). I advise these patrons to do what I do, and start a list of works read, perhaps with a brief summary and review of the book so that they can recall not only having read the book, but whether they enjoyed it or not (if you are really motivated, you might even include information such as genre, author’s gender, and any other variables you might like to keep track of and compare later). This process is rewarding not only in the sense that it acts to bolster your memory of books completed, but also in the way it gives you a tangible view of the amount of reading you have accomplished throughout the year. I typically set a goal for myself of 52 books per year (that is, one book completed per week, on average), an objective I have yet to achieve but enjoy striving for. Once you have collected more than one year’s worth of data, you can begin manipulating the numbers to get a very detailed picture of your reading habits and proclivities.

For an example of the sort of information that can be generated from such a list, take a gander at the breakdown from the reading list of Jessamyn West of Librarian.net. Just at a glance, we can see that she read more at the beginning of the year than at the end, that she read slightly more fiction than non-fiction, that the majority of books she read were produced by male authors, and that, for the most part, she enjoys the books she picks (if you are interested in following Jessamyn as she logs and reviews her book conquests, visit her booklist here). The more information you include when recording the completed book in your log, the more data you will have to work with when doing future analysis of your reading patterns.

[read the rest of this post…]

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Oct 14 2009

Winnie-the-Pooh

by Nancy M

pooh1_1489609c83 years ago today the world was introduced to the whimsical world of author A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne only created two books centered around the Bear of Very Little Brain, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner, but Pooh and friends continue to have many an adventure as Disney has owned the rights to Winnie the Pooh, sans hyphens, since 1961. While Pooh, Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit and the rest have since become a sad travesty (in my opinion) of what Milne and illustrator Ernest H. Shepard had created, one just has to open a book to be reminded of how enchanting the original characters of the Hundred Acre Wood were.

Now, for the first time ever, the estate of Milne and Shepard has authorized a sequel to The House At Pooh Corner titled Return to the Hundred Acre Wood. The book has been met with mixed reviews, both good and bad, but it is clear that author David Benedictus and illustrator Mark Burgess are talented and worked hard to keep with the Milne/Shepard style. Unfortunately, since the book was only published last week, the Library does not yet own any copies, but you can read an extract here. I picked up a copy at the bookstore and while I appreciate the negative reviews, I couldn’t help but be pleased with this imaginative addition to the Winnie-the-Pooh collection. But I hate to see what Disney will do with it.

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Have you ever wondered how modern society has become so mean-spirited, jaded and hurtful? Have you ever been trolling an Internet message board and felt a twinge of sympathy for, say, Jennifer Love Hewitt or any other celebrity who’d been excoriated on the Web for having cellulite or a muffin-top?

I’ve just finished reading the book Snark by David Denby and I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I love the way that it examines the culture of snark from its classical Greek roots with Juvenal and Hipponax to its more modern incarnation with the advent of the Internet and snarky gossip mavens like Perez Hilton.

One of the aims of this book is to explore the nature, the functions and the hazards of snark. The seven chapters of this snappy yet insightful read are called “fits”–the inspiration for which is drawn from Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of The Snark” a poem in eight cantos or “fits”–and the Fifth Fit intrigues me the most. In this chapter Denby distinguishes between the art of ribald and witty verbal sparring versus the low-art of snark. There are many names for a hearty bout of verbal fisticuffs: “flyting” when practiced by 16th century Scottish poets, “trash talking” when it takes place on any sporting field, “battling” when opposing hip-hop artists duke it out on a stage, “joning” when you’re a grade school kid in the late 80s who has to defend against a “Yo Mama” diss. The art of the face-to-face battle of wits is as old as written history (if not older).

Snark, unlike any of the aforementioned, relies on anonymity and shuns hand-to-hand or wit-to-wit combat. According to Denby, snark seeks to “get into [its victim’s] face without presenting a face of its own”. It’s like posting an ugly message board comment about your least favorite reality show star anonymously. It’s easy and sometimes irresistible but, as the cover of this book exclaims, it’s also “mean, it’s personal and it’s ruining our conversation”.

This book struck a chord with me because lately I’ve been growing deeply concerned with US Weekly’s obsession with The Gosselin Family, the unfettered nastiness of your average Internet message board and other instances of snarkiness in today’s society. Is there a cure? I’m not so hopeful but at the very least Snark is a relief and, for me, kind of a revelation to read.

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Apr 16 2009

What’s Podcasting?

by Jimmy L

podcastingIf you haven’t noticed yet, the library now has a podcasting page, where you can listen, download, and subscribe to our Musical Bookings podcasts and our Author Talk podcasts.  Podcasts, as you may or may not know, are basically audio (sometimes video) “shows” that are available on the internet.  Think of it like a radio show, except you listen to it on either your computer or portable MP3 device.  In fact, many radio shows are available as podcasts, including NPR’s This American Life, Car Talk, and Fresh Air.

But because anybody with a mic and a computer can make a podcast, you don’t have to be Terry Gross to have a  show on the internet.  This has resulted in podcasts that focus in on many special niche interests that would never survive on normal radio, shows like Imprint (a show dedicated to the Twilight series), GolfBetter (dedicated to golf), and Manic Mommies (about motherhood).

I’m ashamed to admit that before last week, I had barely listened to any podcasts.  I imagined badly produced shows featuring 14 year old hosts talking about World of Warcraft (no offense).  But because I was in charge of helping coordinate the library’s podcasts, I decided to look around and see what was out there already.  Now I’m totally hooked!  There are many good podcasts.  After the jump, I’ll highlight three that I absolutely love.  Then I’ll give you a few technical tips on how to get started.

[read the rest of this post…]

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Feb 26 2009

John Adams: A Review

by Jimmy L

I’m no history buff, but recently I thought it would be interesting to read something about one of our overlooked founding fathers, John Adams. Unfortunately, the book (John Adams by David McCullough) is 752 pages long—too long for a passing interest, especially with 5 other books on my bedside table. So, with J’nai’s post about how to talk about books you haven’t read in mind, I will now talk about how much I loved this book. How do I know?  Simple: the book has been made into an HBO miniseries.

I half-expected it to be boring, as historical recreations often are. But I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was! So far, I’ve finished the first disc and I can’t wait for discs two and three (I’m #22 and #17 in the respective queues (and yes, library staff have to wait for holds just like everybody else!)).

The series covers Adams’s life from his days as a lawyer in Boston after the Boston Massacre up to the years after his presidency, including his death. Paul Giamatti gives a great performance as John Adams, but what really makes it work is the whole cast. The founding fathers come to life with David Morse as George Washington, Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson, and Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin. You can really taste the dynamic in congress as these men and their radically different personalities clash and come together towards a common goal.

I’ve not mentioned Abigail Adams (played by Laura Linney) yet. Though she was not an official politician, the series gives us a glimpse into how influential she was for John. I got the sense that she grounded him, and kept him honest. Her intellect and wisdom was a good complement for John’s passion and integrity.

You should really check out this series. I found it highly entertaining and educational as well. History doesn’t have to be boring!

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