It’s a Mystery!

Mystery readers love books in series. For proof of this statement, talk to a person who is obsessed with reading mysteries, and I contend you will quickly find that their love of the genre is often character-driven. By this, I mean that the main character—the detective in many cases—is the reason they read the books, and that character reappears throughout the books.
I am hooked on three writers of mysteries. When I say hooked, that’s just what I mean—I love their work so much that it sends me into withdrawal to have a book end and know that I probably have to wait a year before the next one comes out. These three writers who captivate me so are Margaret Maron, Julia Spencer-Fleming, and Louise Penny.
Margaret Maron is a North Carolinian who has written two series. The first features Sigrid Harald, and those books are set in New York. After a few Harald mysteries, Maron moved to the character of Judge Deborah Knott, a lawyer, daughter of a prominent moonshiner, and district court judge. In Maron’s most recent outing, Sigrid Harald meets Deborah Knott while Knott is in New York with her husband. [This cute full-circle thing can be observed in the late, great Robert B. Parker’s work when the inimitable Spenser meets Jesse Stone, and again when Jesse Stone dates Sunny Randall]. Maron’s work grabs me in part because the settings are often familiar and favorite places in North Carolina—the Seagrove pottery area, the High Point Furniture market, the mountains above Asheville. But beyond that, the character of Deborah Knott is so well-drawn, so multidimensional, that I am pulled into the narratives quickly. Maron is a gifted writer who is deserving of wider recognition.
Julia Spencer-Fleming crossed my reading radar several years ago. Her main character is a female Episcopalian priest whose closest friend in town is the married chief of police. My daughter says that the early books have lots of UST—unresolved sexual tension. Spencer-Fleming had one less-than-satisfactory [to me] book where she tidied that relationship up, and then hit a home run with her most recent One Was a Soldier. The main character, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, is like Deborah Knott—full of conflicts and interests that keep the plots moving quickly. My only complain about Ms. Spencer-Fleming is that she writes too slowly—the next book won’t be out until summer of 2013.
My newest fictional friend is Armand Gamache, the Chief Inspector from Quebec created by Canadian author Louise Penny. I have to say that I did not at first think these books were wonderful. In fact, I asked my daughter if they were, perhaps, translated from the French because I thought some of the writing was awkward. Initially, they were nearly all set in the same little town of Three Pines, and it seemed that it had an unlikely amount of crime for such a tiny place. However, I was finally convinced by The Cruelest Month and specifically Chief Inspector Gamache, who seems almost saintly. That made the brand new The Beautiful Mystery, just released in August, 2012, one of my most anticipated reads of recent months. It did not disappoint. For one thing, Penny moved the setting to a monastery deep in Quebec, giving those dear inhabitants of Three Pines a rest from murders and betrayal. The battle Gamache has on his hands with real evil is clearly written. The stakes for him have not been higher and the conclusion leaves the reader breathlessly waiting for the next in this special series.
So, if you like strongly written, multidimensional characters and plots and settings that support them, I recommend you pick up one of these authors soon—at your local library, of course!

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Who do you think you are?

I have gotten hooked on genealogy.
I haven’t been doing my own charts or finding out what limb of the tree that third cousin who went around the corner to buy a cantaloupe and never came back fell from–nothing as useful as that, mind you.
No heavy lifting involved. It’s just that I have started watching Who Do You Think You Are? On television and I can’t stop.

I blame it on my brother. fittingly enough, since he’s part of the family tree. He’s the one that told me about the show. We now own seasons one and two at the library.
Here’s the basic outline of this show: each episode focuses on a well-known celebrity and their search for their ancestors. In most cases, the search takes them to different countries. Sometimes they discover they come from royalty; in other cases, their ancestors were brought here against their will as slaves. In all cases, however, the story is interesting and it also highlights the way people use online resources such as Ancestry. com [which we have available in all our libraries--shameless plug!] to find information.
The other show I have become intrigued by is Finding Your Roots by Henry Louis Gates. This is a PBS production and, just as Who Do You Think You Are? It focuses mostly on well-known. It’s hosted by Henry Louis Gates, a professor at Harvard. It’s a little less commercial in its approach, and is also fascinating.
The library has many resources regarding local history and genealogy, so once you’ve seen what can be learned, we’ll be here to help you find out who you are.

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Places in the Heart

In May, I noted that the Chatham library sponsors and hosts a book discussion group on the second Thursday of the month at 4 pm. Currently, the group is doing a series around the theme Places in the Heart—how place shapes us as people.
The first book in the series was Empire Falls, set in New England in a town that is dying after the loss of its major textile industries. Does that sound familiar? The second was A River Runs through It, surely one of the most lyrically written pieces of fiction of the twentieth century. It is set in the West, the place most associated with the ethic of rugged individualism in our country’s narrative of self.
This week’s book is Brothers and Keepers. This work of nonfiction is by John Edgar Wideman and centers on the life of his brother Robert, a drug dealer who is jailed for murder. Much of the book is written in Robby’s voice as he tells the story of how he ended up in his predicament.
Wideman was born in Pittsburgh and most of his work centers in the neighborhood of Homewood, where he was raised. He went from there to the University of Pennsylvania, was an all-Ivy League basketball player there, and a Rhodes Scholar. Currently a professor at Brown University, he has won many literary awards.
The work sets before us the question of how it is that people raised in the same home and the same place can vary so widely in the paths their lives take. Though the setting of the work may be unfamiliar to many of us, the issues it raises have resonance for all.
The final two books in the series are Plainsong by Kent Haruf, and Gilead by Marilynn Robinson. Both are readily available in the library and at bookstores. You will be warmly welcomed if you decide to come and join the conversation.

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Every picture tells a story

Librarians believe in the power of stories.  Many of us tend to think of life as a series of interwoven narratives, and in fact when someone in my family is working through a problem, I often wonder with some anticipation, “How is this story going to end?”

Even so, I was struck by the power of story in a new way while listening to a report on the radio this week about a new project to engage senior adults with dementia.

Full disclosure:  my husband and I take care of my father, who is 91 and who has dementia.  He is very high functioning, and can negotiate most of the activities of daily living just fine.  However, one thing I have learned in the three years he has lived with us is that he does not like for me to ask him things.  His stock response is, “I can’t answer that question.”  My queries can range from who the Detroit Tigers are playing that night to what he had for lunch.  To me, they are just innocent conversation-starters; to him, they are a Mt. Everest he is not able to climb.  So I have learned to talk about how well the Tigers are doing, or how good the Russet potatoes I bought are, and then he seems to be able to fill in the blanks in a way that works for both of us.

The story on NPR is about a program in Seattle called TimeSlips.  “The idea is to show photos to people with memory loss, and get them to imagine what’s going on — not to try to remember anything, but to make up a story,”[1] according to NPR.  Apparently, it works much better to show a person with dementia a photo that is NOT of a loved one, but of a stranger engaging in a recognizable activity, and then allow the person to create a story about what is going on in the picture.

“Storytelling is one of the most ancient forms of communication — it’s how we learn about the world. It turns out that for people with dementia, storytelling can be therapeutic. It gives people who don’t communicate well a chance to communicate.”[2] The genius is that this is low-stress.  The person with dementia is not called upon to remember something, which is precisely what they might fail at doing.  It replaces “the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine.”[3]

Our grandson loves for us to tell him stories of when we were young; one of the things he always asks is “Is this a real story?”  He means, did this really happen?  The stories that my dad and I will tell each other as a result of using photos as props may not be factual in that sense, but I think they will, nonetheless, be true.  It’s just another way of saying that telling stories is what saves us.


[1] http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/05/14/152442084/alzheimers-patients-turn-to-stories-instead-of-memories

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.timeslips.org/pages/about

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Circulating Nooks press release

The four public libraries of Pittsylvania County, as well as the bookmobile, have begun to circulate Barnes and Noble Nook e-readers to area library patrons.  The electronic devices are pre-loaded with a variety of books; books will be added to each device on a regular schedule.  In order to borrow a device, library card holders will sign a borrowing agreement and receive simple instructions on how to use the unit. This pilot project is made possible thanks to a grant from the library’s PPL Foundation.  Each library will have two Nooks available for circulation.

Public libraries have been providing reading, audio, visual, and electronic materials for a long time, often educating the public about new media.  E-readers are growing more popular as usability of the devices has improved.

The Nook Simple Touch devices are easy to use and are a good way for people to determine whether or not they like the e-reading experience before they invest in a device of their own.

The circulating collection of devices adds to the library’s adoption of digital technologies.  For over a year, the library has been a member of the Virginia Piedmont Library Consortium which allows patrons to check out e-books and view them on their own computers or devices.  The consortium’s collection has been very popular, which results in long waiting lists for some new releases.  Adding the circulating Nooks to the library’s collection allows for another way to fill patron demand for new items.  It also allows the library to add back titles and classics to its collection immediately to meet patron requests.

“For me, the introduction of ways of reading digitally to the library is important and necessary, but it certainly does not eliminate the traditional book-reading experience,” said Diane Adkins, director of library services for the county.  “I look at it personally as not either/or, but both/and.  I read books on a digital device, and I also read paper books and listen to books on CD.  True book lovers in this transitional time seem to be finding their own comfort level with the array of choices available,” she added.

For more information, or to check out an e-reader, stop by any of the libraries–in Brosville, Chatham, Gretna, or Mt. Hermon.  Locations and services times are available on the library’s website, www.pcplib.org.

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The Tax Man Cometh

Happy Tax Day, everybody.

Library workers, as guardians of the forms, are always happy to see this day arrive.  It means that we can put the forms away for another year.  We regain some of the flat space in our library, always at a premium.  We can stop telling people that we are not allowed to determine which form they need, that it’s a question they have to resolve themselves [we hate not to answer questions!]

How we ever became the repository for tax forms is a question best left to library historians.  I suspect it’s a case of not knowing how to say no.  We are very good at saying yes, not so great at saying no.

“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice

According to the Library of Congress, the origin of the individual income tax is usually traced back to the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1909.  However, its history goes back at least to the Civil War when Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1861.  That act included a tax on income to help pay for war expenses.   It was later repealed.  Then in 1894 Congress enacted a flat rate income tax, which was ruled unconsititional the following year by the Supreme Court “because it was a direct tax not apportioned according to the population of each state.  The 16th amendment, ratified in 1913, removed this objection by allowing the Federal government to tax the income of individuals without regard to the population of each State.” [1]

“People who complain about taxes can be divided into two classes: men and women.” — Unknown

When you are tempted to complain about taxes, think about this for a minute:

In 1918, during World War I, the top rate of the income tax rose to 77 percent to help finance the war effort. It dropped sharply in the post-war years, down to 24 percent in 1929, and rose again during the Depression. [2]

We are happy to have the forms put away once again, but libraries are part of the “civilized society” that Justice Holmes rightly noted taxes support.  Libraries are paid for by tax dollars, and studies have shown that for every dollar, libraries deliver over $5 of value to the community.[3]

“The power of taxing people and their property is essential to the very existence of government.” — James Madison, U.S. President

So as you run to the post office to file your form, or click that last button on your computer, remember that, as things are currently structured, taxes make libraries possible.  I hope that will make the medicine go down a bit better.


[1] http://www.loc.gov/rr/business/hottopic/irs_history.html

[2] http://www.irs.gov/irs/article/0,,id=149200,00.html

[3]http://www.lrs.org/documents/closer_look/roi.pdf; http://www.ala.org/research/librarystats/roi

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Counting

The 1940 census data was released this week.  In one of their stories, NPR noted that this is as exciting to genealogists and historians as the Super Bowl is to football fans.   You might discover, as I did, that it’s exciting to you, too.

First, a bit of background.  Why did it take so long to release this data?  Contrary to some sources, there’s no law stating that personally identifiable census data has to be kept under wraps for seventy-two years.  However, there is a rule, first posed by Census Director Roy V. Peel in 1952.   The idea was that in seventy-two years, people whose data was in the census would be dead.  They wouldn’t care if we knew how much money they made back then; they would be gone.

Turns out, that thinking was a bit flawed.   It is estimated that 21 million Americans who were enumerated in the 1940 census are, in fact, still with us.  People whose names we recognize—for example, Morgan Freeman and Chuck Norris–are in there.  Maybe some of your people, too.

You do need to know this:   the census is not searchable—yet—by an individual’s name.  To find anyone, you need to know what enumeration district they were in.   [Quick: which one are you in?]  Luckily for us, a guy named Steve Morse has created a search tool.  It’s is available here:

http://www.stevemorse.org/census/unified.html

I played around with this for about twenty minutes and was startled that I was able to find my grandparents, my mom and her siblings.  Knowing the census was not searchable by name had convinced me that I would not be able to do that.  However, the search tool and the fact that my grandparents lived in a very small enumeration district kept the job from being onerous.  And I have to tell you, there’s just something magical about seeing your mom’s name and her age—in this case, 16—listed on a very old census document.  I wasn’t prepared for how this affected me.  I wanted to call her sister and brother and tell them all about it.  Maybe I still will.

The 1940 census, as others have noted, gives us a snapshot of our country as it pulled out of the Great Depression and before it entered World War II.  It’s a fascinating era, and people will be teasing out information from this for some time to come.

So, let me suggest that you do some digging.  You can start by going to this site:  http://1940census.archives.gov/ Read up on what the census covers.  Find out the enumerators’  methods.  You’ll discover, for example, that in processing the 1940 Census, operators transferred information appearing on the schedules filled out by enumerators to punch cards. This permitted processing of census returns by sorting machines for the first time.[1]

Take some time with it and look up someone you know.  It’s better than the Super Bowl.


[1] http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb12-ffse01.html

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What I’m Reading Now

I finished an astonishing book this weekend.

I had not really planned to read The Sense of an Ending.  I knew of its author, Julian Barnes, and knew he had become well-respected in literary circles.  However, I just was browsing our new book section one afternoon and saw the book, noted it was quite slender, and decided to try it.

The Sense of an Ending is beautifully written and hauntingly difficult to put out of your mind.  It highlights for the reader what repercussions can echo through decades of time and relationships from one simple, angry action.  It is a meditation on memory and on how we manipulate our recall of the past to paint ourselves in the best possible light.  Its ending is nothing short of shocking.  I found myself compelled to re-read whole sections of the book after I completed it the first time, in part just to see if I could have foreseen the end. It reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan.

This is not easy reading, but it is a book that will bear fruit for you long after you finish it.  I recommend it.

I also want to announce that we are beginning a series of book discussions around the theme Places in the Heart.  These will take place on the second Thursday of each month in the meeting room of the Chatham library.  The books to be discussed are Empire Falls by Richard Russo; A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean; Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman; Plainsong by Kent Haruf; and Gilead by Marilynn Robinson.  Empire Falls will be discussed on April 12.  All these books are readily available through both online booksellers and bricks-and-mortar stores.  If you want to participate, but need help getting a copy of the book, please let us know at info@pcplib.org.

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Whose cuisine reigns supreme?

Until Food Network decided to make nearly every show a competition, until they chose to embarrass people on camera the way other networks do, I liked to tune in.  In fact, I still watch Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and I love Alton Brown’s shows.  We like to eat at our house, and we really cook.  Not much that is prepackaged shows up on our table.  We gather recipes and cookbooks as others might collect stamps.

So I thought I might share with you two cookbooks that I have enjoyed using in the past couple of months.  The first is The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook.[1] America’s Test Kitchen [ATK] is a show on PBS starring Christopher Kimball, the most unlikely of TV hosts.  He reminds me of Mr. Rogers in a chef’s apron–he’s calm, he’s knowledgeable, and he is confident that you have great abilities that just need to be affirmed.  ATK tries recipes and tweaks them to make them work extremely well in your home kitchen.  This book captures every recipe of the first eleven seasons of ATK–675 of them.   The paper is high-quality and therefore the book weighs a ton–that’s my only quibble with this wonderful volume.    One of my favorite parts of ATK is the equipment reviews.  This book has a section near the back that compiles those.  I have bought many of their recommended items and they have never led me astray–and I love the fact that some of their recommended buys are vastly less expensive than others touted because of their “big name.”  In short, this is a cookbook that you can live with for many years.  It will help you stock your kitchen and hone your skills.  Oh, and by the way–we have DVDs of many of the ATK shows at the library, too.

The other volume that has captured my imagination and which has been a workhorse for me since Christmas is Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

Yum!

[2] Friends had introduced me to an article by the same authors in Mother Earth News a couple of years ago.[3] The article outlines a way to make bread dough that does not use a starter, that does not have you proof the yeast, and does not use a machine for mixing or baking.  It uses high-moisture dough that can be cut into pieces the size of a grapefruit and baked as a free-form loaf. My go-to recipe involves four ingredients–King Arthur unbleached flour, kosher salt, yeast, and water.  I mix a batch every Sunday afternoon and then bake every day until we run out–usually Friday or Saturday.  Rinse and repeat, as they say.  The book takes the basics and expands those fundamentals into other interesting recipes.  Since this book was released, they have added others to the series–Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day and Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day.  Yes, we’ve got those, too.

In fact, the library has many cookbooks besides these two.  I encourage you to come and browse, but please be aware–we only check cookbooks out to people who eat.


[1] http://catalog.pcplib.org:8080/?config=ysm#section=resource&resourceid=949171&currentIndex=6

[2] http://catalog.pcplib.org:8080/?config=ysm#section=resource&resourceid=1391012&currentIndex=0

[3] http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/Artisan-Bread-In-Five-Minutes-A-Day.aspx

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Moneyball and Linsanity

Linsanity passed me by for about a week.  In case that describes you, too, here’s a quick update.  Jeremy Lin was a very good high school basketball player in California.  He wanted to play for Stanford University, but they did not offer him a scholarship.  He ended up at Harvard, where he was a standout for four years.  However, when big-time NBA scouts look for players, they do not tend to look in the Ivy League, but he did end up playing summer ball and signed with the Golden State Warriors.  Eventually they put him on waivers and he was picked up by the Houston Rockets.  He played seven minutes in two preseason games, after which he was again put on waivers and picked up by the New York Knicks on December 27, 2011.  Because the Knicks were playing so poorly, their coach put him in a game on February 4.  That’s when a streak of seven wins began for the Kicks.  Lin became the first NBA player to score at least 20 points and have seven assists in each of his first five starts.[1]

Here’s the funny thing.  Most people saw nothing exceptional in Jeremy Lin.  Remember, no college wanted him badly enough to offer him a scholarship.  However, there was one guy.  He’s a delivery man for FedEx, and his hobby is numbers analysis.  He wrote an article for Hoops Analyst on the potential he saw in Jeremy Lin–back in 2010.  Ed Weiland noted Lin’s performance in two-point field goal percentage and rebounds, steals and blocks per forty minutes.  Those numbers compared favorably with point guards in the NBA who were stars.  Weiland concluded that Lin could someday be a star, too.[2]

I know you think this is a sports report, not a library blog, but the reason the whole thing has intrigued me so has to do with the fact that I just watched the movie Moneyball[3],

based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis.[4] The plot of Moneyball is not unlike this story of Jeremy Lin and Ed Weiland.  Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, has to field a contender with far less money to spend on players than other teams have.  He listens to an analyst named Paul DePodesta [Peter Brand in the movie] who shows him how to use sabermetrics [an attempt to be objective about baseball]  to decide what undervalued players will actually make big contributions to the success of the team.  Sabermetricians often use different measures to determine true baseball skill, and that is at the heart of the movie.

Moneyball is essentially a business book, not a baseball book.  It makes you think about what qualities are undervalued in other areas of life, not just sports.  I have expressed my admiration for Michael Lewis’s writing about financial matters in earlier posts.  A rational approach to markets may be the best way to manage an investment portfolio; however, it’s hard, as Billy Beane notes, to remove the romance from sport.

That’s what gives the Jeremy Lin story its staying power.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremy_Lin

[2] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204880404577225562995441868.html

[3] There’s a copy at each of our branches; DVD 5620.

[4] There’s a copy at the Chatham library; Dewey number is 796.357L.

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