Friday, January 27, 2012

Library: Guilford Free Library, CT

I visited the Guilford Free Library in early December 2011.  It was a weekday afternoon and the librarians were all busy with patrons, so I didn't talk with anyone, but the place has a very friendly and open vibe.

Guilford Free Library
67 Park Street
Guilford, CT 06437

Opened: January 23, 1934
Initial holdings: 5,414 volumes
Square feet: 4,500
Current holdings: 120,000 items
Current square feet: 34,000

According to the library website, the town of Guilford has had some form of a library since 1737. Apparently those earlier libraries were mainly religious in nature and weren't free and open to all. In 1926 the Guilford Library Association "began the long process of establishing a free public library, professionally staffed and available to all." The result was the building pictured above, which was completed in 1933. Since then there have been two major structural additions: one completed in 1977 and the most recent in 2008.

The original building is still in use as the Edith B. Nettleton Historical Room. Edith Nettleton was the library's first librarian. She served the library for 44 years until her retirement in 1978. During her retirement she continues to volunteer in the historical room. Click here for an article about the celebration of her 100th birthday in 2008. I came across a notice in her church's bulletin from July 2011 celebrating her 103rd birthday!

The interior of the historical room is what I imagined the inside of a historic New England library 'should' look like--clean lines, colonial furniture, hardwood floors, and white walls. Of course a card catalog is a must.
Notice the fire place. There's another one on the other side of the room behind the librarian's desk in the prior photo.
A view onto the village green.
Looking from the historical room into the periodicals room.
Looking from the periodicals room into the historical room.
I've never seen a newspaper "rack" like this and really like it for it's user friendliness.
Reading area in the periodicals room.
In the teen section. I've seen more libraries putting up signs like this in their kids/teen area.
The teen section actually has a teen feel to it--there are a few booths in the section and lots of games, as well as function desk chairs and tables.
In the "adult" section on the 2nd floor.
Looking toward the reference desk, 2nd floor.
The circulation desk.
I thought this staff recommendations display was brilliant!
Sitting area between the front door and circulation desk. Note the piano.

I hope people take advantage of these piano times!
I love Curious George.

Great endcap design.

I'm not a fan of The Great Gatsby, but I do like cats, so perhaps I'll try The Great Catsby.

"Melissa Jones Kindergarten thanks our veterans."

Computers and book display in the children's' section.
View of how far back the new addition stretches.
A view of the entire library from across the street.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

THE ROPE by Nevada Barr

The Rope is Nevada Barr's 17th Anna Pigeon mystery. It's a prequel that goes back to 1995 when Anna Pigeon was first hired by the National Park Service as a seasonal worker. She's 35 and fresh from New York City, still numb from the shock of her husband Zack's death (he was hit by a cab). Zack was an actor and Anna a stage manager. She loved her husband and loved her job and had to get away from it all.

Anna finds herself working as a seasonal in the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area cleaning up the poop of human visitors and monitoring the fecal level of the water. Anna is pasty, skinny, wears all black, and doesn't know the first thing about living in the great outdoors. She sees life and events through the lens of her experience in the theater, which adds not only fun for the reader, but actual help for Anna.

When we first encounter Anna in The Rope she's trapped at the bottom of a deep hole in the ground; She's completely naked, wounded, and already dangerously dehydrated. I felt guilty laying in the comfort of my bed, sipping coffee while Anna suffered. Is someone trying to kill her or cover up another murder or two? Not to give any spoilers or anything--this is, after all, a prequel to the 16 other books in the series so we know Anna lives and becomes a ranger--Anna ends up getting strong and learning how to survive and thrive in the great outdoors.

There's a strong lesbian element and character in this book (Jenny, Anna's roommate and boss). This was satisfying to me and will be to some other readers because I know I'm not the only one who had hoped, in the early years of the series, that Anna would end up lesbian and/or bisexual. That doesn't happen but it was refreshing to see a relatively "healthy" lesbian character who is central to the storyline in an American mystery novel.

Long-time readers of the series will enjoy this book and I think new readers to the series will fall in love with Anna Pigeon. And if you haven't read an Anna Pigeon mystery before, this would be a perfectly fine one with which to start.

Each book of the series is set in a different national park, which feels like a mini-vacation as you're reading. Well, other than some murders and Anna getting knocked around a bit. Barr thoroughly uses the unique landscape of each National Park in her novels. In some of the novels the landscape even seems like a character itself.

About five or so books ago the Anna Pigeon novels started to turn a bit darker in tone and content as Barr explores how violence against women and children permeates our culture, so note that these are not exactly cozy mysteries, but they're not gratuitously violent or gory.

Author: Nevada Barr
Publisher: Minotaur, January 2012
ISBN: 978-0-312-61457-7
My Goodreads rating: 5/5
Recommend to: mystery readers who like strong female leads and outdoorsy folks.

Monday, January 23, 2012

THE KEEP Graphic Novel

The Keep, written by F. Paul Wilson, was a popular horror novel published back in 1981. The graphic novel adaptation was drawn by Matthew Dow Smith and the script was written by F. Paul Wilson himself. It caught my eye while browsing the new books section at my library.

I didn't like this graphic novel. I didn't appreciate the artistic style and I thought the script was bland. Both seem flat, emotionless, and predictable. There is no sense of suspense or tension, which is unfortunate because the premise of the story is tantalizing. It reads more like a work in progress than an adaption of a powerful horror novel that's been in print for over 30 years.

page sample
It's April 1944 and a unit of Wehrmacht soldiers occupy an old "keep," a fort-like structure in the Dinu Pass of Romania in the Transylvanian Alps that's rumored to be over 500 years old. Crosses are imbedded in the walls. Men start dying mysterious deaths. Meanwhile, in Taviera, Portugal, a man wakes up after sensing a shift in the Force. He sets out by land and sea to you-know-where. The Captain in charge of the Wehrmacht unit sends a request for help to HQ. A Major from the SS, notorious from his "success" at Auschwitz, is sent by HQ to secure The Keep. The Captain and the Major have a history together that goes back to the trenches of World War I. One man was brave, one man was a coward. Considering that one man is regular Army and the other SS, you can probably guess which man is presented as the coward. Even the highly-trained SS men begin to die. A message in an ancient language is scrawled on the wall with blood. The caretaker offers up that there's an old man, a Professor in Bucharest, who can translate the message. The Professor is old and sick and Jewish. He is brought to The Keep along with his daughter who is his caretaker. The Professor stalls the soldiers. The man from Portugal arrives. The murderous presence reveals itself to the Professor. The daughter instantly hooks-up with the man from Portugal.

To find out how it all ends, you'll have to read the graphic novel yourself. It's just over 100 pages so it won't take long. You can also read the original novel (403 pages in paperback) or see the 1983 movie (95 minutes) that the author and critics disliked, which I will do in the near future as it's currently available for streaming from Netflix.

Jennifer Egan also wrote a horror novel titled The Keep (2007). I still have an ARC of that novel on my shelves and I know I read it, but don't recall enough to offer my opinion on it. It's odd that her publisher would publish a novel with the same title of a book that's a cult classic. Perhaps they were banking on confusion?

Title: The Keep
Written by: F. Paul Wilson
Art by: Matthew Dow Smith
Publisher: IDW Publishing, October 2011
ISBN-13: 978-1613770504
Genre: graphic novel
Source: library
My Goodreads rating: 1/5
Recommend to: vampire fans and WWII fiction fans
Note: originally published in 5 separate comic books

Monday, January 16, 2012

Alexander's Bridge thoughts & comments

Cather around 1910 (from the Willa Cather Archive)
The response to the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge has been so enthusiastic. There are participants who have never read a Willa Cather novel, some who have read them all before, and lots of folks somewhere in-between. And how fun is it that some of you are reading the novels with a group of friends!

I hope you've all had a chance to read Alexander’s Bridge. How’d you like it? 

My thoughts:
This was my second reading of Alexander's Bridge. When I first read this novel I was in my mid-20s and saw Alexander as a tragic hero. Now, in my mid-40s, it speaks to me as a cautionary tale of what can happen when you lead a life of action without reflection. It seems that Alexander has lost touch with who he is and what he wants. I see him as a victim of his inability to be true to himself.

In some ways, Alexander's plight made me think of a recent cartoon making the rounds on Facebook: “Inside every middle aged person is a teenager wondering what the hell happened.” I can relate.

Alexander has been a man of action, but he's also been on autopilot. Underneath his hyper-masculine frame and worldly success, his foundation is weak. At one point Professor Wilson even says he thought he saw cracks in Alexander's foundation (and ironically declares him "sound" just before the cracks start growing). At home Alexander follows his wife's interests and at work he's gotten to the point where he consents to using improper materials and accepts the minimum safety standards for his latest and largest bridge project. With Hilda he can pretend he's young and free. He latches on to the loss of his youthful idealism and laments on how he feels trapped by demands. He doesn't dig deeper and reflect on how he can achieve what he desires--feeling free and powerful.

Up until the end, Alexander doesn't make a decision or take decisive action. The last time he and Hilda meet it's implied that he's going to leave his wife. He writes a letter to his wife, but then doesn't send it the next morning. Alexander never squares things with himself. The strain becomes overwhelming and, as they say, something's gotta give.

Had he lived, would he have have taken control of his life? He does say to Philip that anything he does can be made public, which up until now we know isn't true, but would he have eventually spoken his truth? Or would he never have given his wife that letter? And if he did, was the letter another garbled message like the one he'd once sent Hilda? Was leaving his wife necessarily what he really wanted? We'll never know. He died in his prime, his marriage intact, but he took down a whole bunch of people with him.

Here are some questions that I've been pondering:
  • Alexander says he’s not a man that can live two lives and even feels like there's a second man grafted on to him. When did this second life begin? Is it after the affair with Hilda? Or is the second man the successful, well-married Alexander grafted onto the younger man with ideals and standards?
  • Do you think Winifred knows what’s going with her husband, particularly on the morning in January when he's agitated and preparing to leave for England?
  • Is there a connection between the mummy in the museum and Mrs. Alexander, or some other character? I was struck by Hilda’s claim that perhaps Mrs. Alexander is afraid of letting the memory of her dead husband out a little and sharing him with others. It reminded me of how Hilda and Alexander used to talk of bringing the priestess mummy out of the museum on beautiful nights.
  • Do you agree with Wilson’s statement that more than anyone Mrs. Alexander did not choose her own destiny? Who has chosen their destiny in this story?
  • Wilson says early on in the novel that when there’s an early hurt in life, a boy can lose courage. Much later near the end of the novel, Alexander is thinking about a long forgotten sorrow of his childhood. Do you think his weak foundation stems from childhood or did it crack later in life? Could he have done anything to strengthen his foundation?
  • Although Freud didn’t publish his ideas about the Death Drive until 1920, I was struck by the statement that Alexander's great mind “may for a long time have been sick within itself and bend upon its own destruction.” Do you think he craved his own destruction?
I'm looking forward to hearing what you all think of Alexander's Bridge!

However short or long, please leave your comments below (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum so feel free to reply to one another.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Library: Westerly, R.I.

Westerly Public Library
44 Broad Street
Westerly, Rhode Island 02981
Library website
  • Established: 1892 to commemorate the soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War. Land and $25,000 seed money donated by Stephen Wilcox.
  • Opened: August 15, 1894
  • Original collection: 5,000 volumes
  • Current holdings: over 170,000 items
  • Addition built: 1992
  • The library originally housed a bowling alley, art gallery, gymnasium, museum, and meeting space for members of the Grand Army of the Republic.

This was a dash-in visit while we were on another mission, so I didn't make it to the second floor, but we couldn't drive by this beautiful library without stopping.

It's one of those libraries that you have to stop and check out.

New addition on the right.
Original front entrance.

New front entrance.
Foyer through the original front door.
This gorgeous staircase stopped me in my tracks.
I couldn't stop looking at it.

Detail of the room to left of the orginal front door. Magazines, newspapers, large print room.
Another view of the room to the left, windows overlook Broad St.
In the new addition.

Facing the back of the library.

Back, right hand side of the new addition, windows look out onto Wilcox Park.

Walk around the building to . . .
Wilcox Park, "A Victorian Strolling Park."

I would have loved to have taken more pictures, especially in the original section of the library, but there were many patrons about and in an effort to respect people's privacy, I try not to take or post  pictures where people are identifiable.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld

Riverhead Books
Paperback release: January 3, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59448-560-2
Source: review copy
My Goodreads rating: 2/5
Recommend to: historical fiction fans

I came close to throwing in the towel multiple times during the first 180 pages of this book. It just wasn't grabbing me. I stuck with it to see what the author would do with the tumultuous post-WWI time period. Flash-backs to the Great War also helped keep me reading as I'm draw to WWI.

The novel begins with the September 16, 1920 bombing on Wall Street that killed 38 people and injured 143 others. Captain James Littlemore of the NYPD investigates the bombing with occasional help from his old friend, Harvard-trained physician Stratham Younger and his love interest, French radiochemist and Curie devotee Colette Rousseau. This is Rubenfeld's second book featuring Littlemore and Younger, the first was The Interpretation of Murder (2006).

Younger and Rousseau met on the fields of WWI where they served as medical personnel. Rousseau's younger brother, Luc, has not uttered a word since his parents were killed in the war. Is his condition physical or psychological? Rousseau is kidnapped, rescued, and now someone seems bend on killing her. She and Younger find themselves traveling back and forth between New York, Germany, France, and Austria to escape assassins, get help for Luc from Freud, and reconnect with Rousseau's German soldier, Hans Gruber. Meanwhile, Littlemore deals with thick-headed FBI agents and then learns how to negotiate his way in and around Washington politicians after he accepts a new job as a special agent in the Treasury Department.

Sigmund Freud and Marie Curie are minor characters in this book and I enjoyed the way Rubenfeld used both of their theories and discoveries as part of the sinew and muscle that holds the story together and moves it forward. I'm not drawn to novels that feature historic personages. In my experience such novels tend to make the characters feel too cute & bumbling or too all-knowing. In The Death Instinct Rubenfeld did neither of these things with Freud or Curie, which I admire. He made them seem like believable characters rather than creating caricatures or using them as plot devices.

This novel packs in a lot of action and issues: there's political intrigue, scientific discoveries, the pros and cons of psychotherapy, cutting edge medical treatments, social unrest, prohibition, abuse of workers, an absent minded capitalist tycoon, classism, sexism, Italian-bashing, antisemitism, rape, white slavery, a gun shoot out, multiple trips across the Atlantic aboard ship, a car and motorcycle chase, and an airplane ride. Although there are many historic tidbits and thriller novel conventions used, none of it came off as overly forced or hokey. There was only one part of a scene that fell flat or seemed completely out of place (when someone talks about the start-up of a literary magazine) and one of the minor female characters seemed cardboard (she actually brought to mind Jessica Rabbit in a suit), but otherwise this is a smooth novel.

Rubenfeld is a skilled writer to pack in as much as he does without the story getting too clunky. While the novel never became a page turner for me, the reading did pick up after those first 180 pages. I'm glad I stuck with it just to see how much he was able to weave into what I thought was a good plot. There are some suspenseful scenes that stick out in my mind. Short ones such as when Rousseau is on top of a building or when she arrives home to find Luc gone, and longer ones such as when Rousseau finally meets up with Hans Gruber and the action that follows, as well as a potential US invasion of Mexico.

The two big things that were lacking for me were well-rounded characters that I cared about and atmosphere. While I enjoyed the characters, I never felt in the thick of it with them. I rarely felt any emotional depth or attachment. As for atmosphere, just adding a little more sensory detail to key scenes could have helped. Hence, the two star rating that I gave it on Goodreads. But this novel is "okay," to use Goodreads's word, and while I wouldn't recommend this novel to a general audience, I do believe historical fiction fans will enjoy it. I never read The Alienist (I tried to and couldn't get into it), but know the cover of that book well, and from the striking cover similarities, it seems like the publisher is trying to draw that audience to The Death Instinct.

I always like to know a bit about authors after I read their book and upon Googleing Rubenfeld I was surprised to find that he's the husband of Amy Chua, his fellow Yale Law professor and the author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the memoir which caused quite a stir when it came out last year.

Here's a video of Rubenfeld talking about the historic bombing at the heart of The Death Instinct. It includes some powerful historic footage.

A bit of a sidebar: The bombing of September 16, 1920 was an actual event where real people were wounded and died, yet the blurb from The New York Times that the publisher chose to put on the top of the front cover calls this book, "A blast to read." I found this offensive. I'm surprised that the publisher would choose such a blurb and that the NYT reviewer couldn't resist writing such a tasteless pun. Does anyone else find this offensive?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Library: New York Public Library, Main Branch

New York Public Library Main Branch
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
Foundation stone laid: November 10, 1902
Dedication ceremony by President Taft: May 23,1911
First day open ( May 24, 1911) saw 30,000-50,000 visitors
Design & construction: Carrère & Hastings
Construction cost: almost nine million dollars

For more information visit the library's website.

Going to The New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman Building felt a bit like visiting a royal palace. I walked in with great expectations and left in even more awe...and I only saw a fraction of its splendors. 

The last time I was in Manhattan, the library was closed. However, last month I was there during library hours and had an hour to look around. I spent most of my time in the Celebrating 100 Years exhibit, but also walked around a bit. I also spent some time (and of course money) in their excellent gift shop as well. Next time I hope to have at least a half day to spend soaking up the details and taking one of the free docent lead tours.

Here's some information about the Celebrating 100 Years exhibit:
Gottesman Exhibition Hall | On View through March 4, 2012
One hundred years ago, The New York Public Library opened its landmark building, now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, dedicated to preserving its varied collections and making them accessible to the public. Over time, the Library has radically expanded its holdings, but its founding goals are as central today as they were in 1911. Library curators past and present have been guided by the philosophy that all knowledge is worth preserving.
Curated by guest curator Thomas Mellins, Celebrating 100 Years gathers more than 250 thought-provoking items from NYPL’s vast collections, a fascinating demonstration of how the Library has encouraged millions of individuals to gain access to a universe of information for more than a century. The first Gutenberg Bible acquired in the Americas is included, as are dance cards, dime novels, and John Coltrane’s handwritten score of "Lover Man." Organized into four thematic sections — Observation, Contemplation, Society, and Creativity — this major exhibition highlights the collections’ scope and their value as symbols of our collective memory. Indeed, Celebrating 100 Years also documents changes in the way information has been recorded and shared over time, beginning with samples from the Library’s collection of Sumerian cuneiform tablets (ca. 2300 BCE) and culminating in selections from the Library’s 740,000-item Digital Gallery.

It looks like they've extended the exhibit because the brochure that I have lists it as running from May 14 to December 31, 2011. So, if you're going to be in Manhattan sometime between now and March 4, 2012, I highly recommend checking it out. The library also posted some videos on YouTube comparing items included in the exhibit such as this one, which looks at a 1552 edition of Dante's Inferno, Virginia Woolf's walking stick, and Malcom X's briefcase.

Below are some pictures from my visit--

Patience and Fortitude are the names of the lions that flank the library's entrance.
Lego versions of Patience and Fortitude.

Nathan Sawaya created the Lego lions.
The library was decorated for the holidays.

Some images from Celebrating 100 Years--
Typewriters always catch my eye.

e.e. cumming's (1894-1962) typewriter

S.J. Perelman's (1904-1979) typewriter

Terry Southern's (1924-1995) typewriter
 Possibly the neatest thing I saw on display--

Charlotte Bronte's (1816-1855) travel writing desk

another view of Bronte's travel writing desk
 And moving further back in time--

Cuneiform tablets. These are tiny tablets--between the size of a matchbook and a small flip cellphone I'd say.

Beautiful wood ceiling in the exhibit hall
Some snap shots during my wandering--

Not a historical display, but a rare, working artifact.
If you've been to the New York Public Library or if it's your regular library, what do you most love about it?
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