Friday, December 19, 2014

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

Is memory just a game?

The ability to remember has been prized by our civilization for ages. Ancient poets recited epic tales from memory. Priests and priestesses performed religious rites unaided. Guides led travelers without maps. Hunters and gatherers remembered when and where to find the food. In more recent times, stage actors remembered all the lines of plays, and classical musicians remembered all the notes to fixed compositions without sheet music. Today, champions on the game show Jeopardy are those who can recall facts faster than their competitors. 

According to journalist Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, our heavy reliance on written text and video recordings has cut into our ability to remember people, facts, events, and other information unaided. Not cluttering our brains with unessential memories has contributed to our technical and cultural advances and having static records gives us assurances of truth, but we may still be losing something.

Foer became fascinated by the subject of memory having reported on national memory games, competitions that bring together men and women who can quickly memorize the order of a pack of playing cards, strings of random numbers, grocery lists, poems to recite, and names with faces. Upon getting to know several of the champions, some of whom have written books on their techniques, Foer joined their racks and trained for the U. S. Memory Championship.

In Moonwalking with Einstein, Foer recounts his year of training, describes the experts with whom he studies, and reports on brain science. The book is an entertaining mixture of intellectual musings, sports reporting, and memoir with some memory tips thrown in. You, too, could become a memory champ.

Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Penguin Press, 2011. 307p. ISBN 9781594202292.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Splitting an Order by Ted Kooser

"I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half
maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread
no pickles or onions, keeping his shaky hands steady
by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table ... "

This is what I enjoy about the poetry of Ted Kooser. In the opening lines of the poem "Splitting an Order" in his new collection Splitting an Order, he describes something ordinary in an extraordinary way. He sees the ways hands move and what is in the sandwich. He shows how the sharing of a meal is a ritual. If you or I were in a restaurant across from an older couple sharing a sandwich, we would pay no attention to them, not seeing the clues to their lives in plain sight. Kooser is different.

"I would love to have lived out my years
in a cottage a few blocks from the sea
and to have spent my mornings painting
out in the cold, wet rocks, ... "

Kooser is a painter, as he tells us here in the autobiographical poem "A Person of a Limited Palette" and later in the grief-filled essay "Small Rooms in Time." He notices details and reproduces them precisely in verse. Paging through his collection is like walking through an art gallery with a variety of portraits and landscapes. You may linger in front of some of them today and others next time you visit.

Kooser's poems in Splitting an Order are the work of an older man. He features his contemporaries in some of the poems, often with a middle aged child, but he also writes about young couples and children, as he does in "Swinging from Parents."

I think my favorite in the collection is a poem about his father called "Closing the Windows."

"It was all so ordinary then
to see him at the foot of the bed,
closing a squeaky window, 
but more than sixty years have passed
and now I understand that it was
not so ordinary at all."

When I return to the library books of poetry after only reading four or five poems, I wonder if I like the idea of reading poetry more than actually reading of poetry. Ted Kooser refutes this notion. I liked the poems of Splitting an Order so well that I read the collection twice. They are worth getting to know. I might return to them again, as I do to galleries of art.

Kooser, Ted. Splitting an Order. Copper Canyon Press, 2014. 84p. ISBN 9781556594694.

Monday, December 15, 2014

True Stories into the Hands of Readers at RASSL

Thanks to Stephanie Miller for inviting me to the December meeting of the Reference Association of South Suburban Librarians (RASSL) held at the Calumet City Public Library last week. I enjoyed our discussion of readers' advisory. I you can see my slides for True Stories into the Hands of Readers online. I enjoyed being paired with Lynnanne Pearson from Skokie Public Library, who spoke about fiction readers' advisory.

Visiting RASSL was a homecoming for me, as I was present at its founding in 1981. I have fond memories of the leadership of Renata Ochsner of the Harvey Public Library and Jim Steenbergen of the Riverdale Public Library. Both were true believers in library sharing. In those pre-Internet days and even pre-shared library catalog days, we put together a guide to the staff and collections of neighboring suburban libraries, so we could more effective referrals to library users. It was a lot of work then and so easily done now.

Thanks also to Pat Coffey at the Calumet City Library who gave me a tour of the busy library. It is a library with a strong sense of mission.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl by Martin Windrow

Martin Windrow considered writing a book about his owl Mumble for over twenty years. Grief among other factors held him back. He needed a bit of distance and perspective before he could write openly about his subject, which he has in The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl.

Windrow is a bit of a rule breaker. When he wanted an owl to live with him, British conservation laws had already forbad capturing wild species for pets. He found someone who could give him a fledgling tawny owl born of captive parents and completed the necessary official application and assurance papers. Upon receiving his owl, he then took her into a London-area apartment building where pets were specifically prohibited, hiding her from the landlord for about three years before moving into the countryside.

In The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar, Windrow lovingly describes the relationship that he developed with Mumble, including all of his special accommodations to make her residence first in his apartment and then in his country home work. He also had to buy a lot of frozen mice. One of my favorite parts explains her moulting (British spelling), the long, slow annual replacement of feathers during which birds are vulnerable to predators - if they are in the wild. He also tells how wild owls were able to locate Mumble despite her initial urban setting.

Though Windrow sometimes compares Mumble to a domestic cat, The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar is not a gentle read. Readers should expect some gore and excrement. Still there is a good dose of compassion in this don't-try-this-in-your-own-home book. Readers might also like Corvus: A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson and The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds by Julie Zickefoose.

Windrow, Martin. The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 302p. ISBN 9780374228460.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman

I do not recall how The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman landed on my reading list. Did I read its Chicago Tribune review last may? Did I spot it in a University of Chicago Press ad or catalog? I just recently borrowed it through interlibrary loan, expecting it to be academically scientific but was surprised to find it a sort of travel memoir with pictures.

The pictures are the primary reason for the writing and publishing of the book. They show, as the title specifies, the world's oldest living things. They are almost all plants, and being really old, most are not really very pretty. Many of the oldest trees and shrubs are rough, twisted, broken, and balding, unless the oldest part is actually underground. In contrast, the quaking aspen of the Pando colony who are 80,000 years old look fresh and new; the 106-acre root system is of a great age, but it sprouts new trees constantly. The DNA of every piece is identical, and it is considered a single organism.

Getting the pictures was the reason for all of Sussman's travels. With each picture or set of pictures about a specific old thing, the author tells us how she got to it and took the picture. In some ways, it is like a National Geographic article with its author describing his or her journey and encounters. Sussman is a bit more personally revealing about herself than a typical NG writer, but not enough to call the book a straight memoir. The writing may interest some readers more than the photographs.

I recommend reading The Oldest Living Things in the World at a desk or table. It is pretty heavy and hard to manage with a cat in your lap. At a desk, you will be able to write notes for your travels. Not all of the sites photographed are open to the public, but some of the ones that are would be great to see.

Not many libraries have The Oldest Living Things in the World. You may have to request it through your library's interlibrary loan.

Sussman, Rachel. The Oldest Living Things in the World. University of Chicago Press, 2014. 269p. ISBN 9780226057507.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Loved One: an Anglo-American Tragedy by Evelyn Waugh

I am not sure whether I ever read fiction by Evelyn Waugh before reading The Loved One: an Anglo-American Tragedy, a short black comedy set in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, California. I may have read Brideshead Revisited before I started keeping a reading log in 1989. I know that I watched the Masterpiece Theater showing of Brideshead Revisited with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews at least twice, and I saw another production a few years ago. It may be my imagination that I read the book, but I know the story well.

The Loved One is something completely different than Waugh's masterpiece, though it does have a tragic trio of two men and a woman. The woman, funeral makeup artist Aimee Thanatogenos, does not really want to become involved with the protagonist Dennis Barlow but then changes her mind, and it does not end well. Maybe the short book is slightly like Brideshead.

The supporting cast is much smaller, though there is a sort of British paternal figure in the character of Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, head of the cricket club, whose membership is British men working in Hollywood. Sir Ambrose demands good behavior of his countrymen, and he is especially disappointed by Barlow. Maybe The Loved One is more like Brideshead than I thought.

The similarities definitely end there. The Loved One is short and wickedly comic. Readers will not equate the failures of Dennis Barlow with the disappointments of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. Or will they?

Waugh, Evelyn. The Loved One: an Anglo-American Tragedy. Little Brown, 1948, 2012. 146p. ISBN 9780316216463.

Monday, December 08, 2014

On the High Line: Exploring America's Most Original Urban Park by Annik La Farge

When Bonnie and I visited Manhattan in May of 2013, the first place that my college roommate Robert took us was the High Line, an urban park created atop an abandoned elevated rail line on the west side of the island, running from Gansevoort Street north to 34th Street, over 20 blocks long. We climbed up the stairs at 20th Street to discover a wide walk surrounded by masses of flowers, shrubs, and trees. At some points along the popular walk, I noticed old steel rails and imagined they carried commuter trains, like the elevated lines of Chicago. But I misunderstood.

Annik La Farge tells the full story in On the High Line: Exploring America's Most Original Urban Park. The High Line opened in 1934 to get freight trains off the busy streets of the industrial west side. These trains delivered produce, raw materials, and manufactured goods from docks on the Hudson River to factories and warehouses, many with elevated rails running right into their buildings. The line was abandoned in 1980, and a debate about what to do with the property began. In the 1990s, naturalists noticed how abundantly wildflowers were growing all along the tracks and the effort to make a park began. Parts of it opened in 2003.

History is just a part of La Farge's book. Almost every page is filled with beautiful color photos of the park as it is today, and the author reports on ongoing projects on and around the High Line, which has proved to be a spark to urban renewal. Readers see that its great variety of spaces provide community gathering spots, places for quiet relaxation, great views of the Manhattan skyline, and a handy path for many New Yorkers going to work or out for the evening.

On the High Line is just what New York needs to combat the image of the city as gray and dreary place. It can go into either landscaping, travel, or history collections.

La Farge, Annik. On the High Line: Exploring America's Most Original Urban Park. Thames & Hudson, 2014. 226p. ISBN 9780500291412

Friday, December 05, 2014

One More Thing: Stories and More Stories by B. J. Novak

B. J. Novak is a contemporary comedian who has been seen on television and in the movies. With his recent book One More Thing: Stories and More Stories, he shows us that comedians are storytellers. They spin stories to make listeners laugh. Novak likes to make us laugh, but in tradition of George Carlin and Dick Gregory, he challenges us to consider subjects that make us uncomfortable.

Novak is bound to offend some readers. I winced several times as I listened to the audiobook as Novak and a cast of actors and actresses read his mostly comic stories. I started to write that he is of the Say Anything School, but I do not believe that is true. Novak sounds spontaneous, but his words are very well chosen.

A part of me thinks Novak's vulgarity is unnecessary in some stories, but another part believes that he depicts a segment of contemporary society as it is. With offensive words, he creates an atmosphere in which his stories seem to have more authority than if he used sanitized language. At least, I imagine it is that way for some readers.

Uncertain whether you want to read One More Thing? Try the first story "The Rematch" which is about the hare wanting the tortoise to give him another chance to race. It is a clever piece that points out that stories never really end, that there is always something next. Novak shows a bit of what he will dish out in heavier doses in later stories.

Novak, B. J. One More Thing: Stories and More Stories. Knopf, 2014. 276p. ISBN 9780385351836.