Friday, November 21, 2014

Mr. Putter & Tabby Turn the Page by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard

It is so nice to see Mr. Putter and his cat Tabby. I had not seen them for years, and it is all my fault. They have been enjoying their calm, sweet day-to-day lives for decades now, and they are just the same as they have ever been. When Bonnie brought home Mr. Putter and Tabby Turn the Page by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard, I realized what I have been missing.

I think Mr. Putter and I are becoming more alike every year. He loves gardening and seeing friends and knows that there is nothing better than sitting in a comfortable chair with a cat in your lap. Tabby is such a sweet and tolerant cat. Our cat Caramel would never agree to go to story time at the library and let children pet her, but Tabby is remarkable. She even likes books about dogs!

It is Mrs. Teaberry's dog Zeke who causes a bit of trouble at the library, but it all turned out well. You should read about it in Mr. Putter and Tabby Turn the Page.

Ryland, Cynthia and Arthur Howard. Mr. Putter and Tabby Turn the Page. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. ISBN 9780152060633.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall

Noah Webster was a know-it-all who was always certain that he was right. He was also awkward in social situations. It is not surprising that he had very few real friends. Even time has been cruel to him. Most modern readers think that his more famous cousin Daniel Webster wrote the renowned An American Dictionary of the English Language. Biographer Joshua Kendall address this misconception and the misunderstood character of a polymath in The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture.

Ironically, Webster was most popular when he was little known or even anonymous. Though Kendall labels him a founding father, he was only involved in one military campaign during the American Revolution and spent most of the war as a student, sometimes in a school displaced by enemy occupation. He was unsuccessful in landing diplomatic assignments upon graduation. He did, however, impress both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin with his ideas for forming an American culture by rejected elements of British language. He was chosen soon by Washington to edit the Federalist newspaper American Minerva. In the political realm, Webster made his strongest mark as the writer of patriotic and persuasive essays published in newspapers of New England and New York. In keeping with the time, he signed many with pseudonyms, such as Honorius.

The idea for writing a dictionary came late to Webster, after his early success in writing spelling and grammar books for schools and then his many failed efforts in literature, business, and public service. Few scholars supported his dictionary, arguing that Samuel Johnson's old dictionary was all that was needed, but Webster worked for over twenty years compiling a dictionary anyway. His family suffered more than he did from the want of stable finances.

In The Forgotten Founding Father, Kendall entertainingly reveals the world of the early United States and a character who should be remembered. If you enjoy this book, you should also try the author's biography of another polymath, The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesarus.

Kendall, Joshua. The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2010. 355p. ISBN 9780399156991.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Charles and Emma: The Darwin's Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

Emma Wedgewood knew the situation when she married Charles Darwin. She was a Christian who believed in God, Jesus, and the afterlife. He was a skeptic who preferred being called an agnostic to an atheist. Charles said that he had an open mind. Emma counted on it. In fact, she insisted on it. They married and maintained respect for each others views. He sometimes attended church with her, while she read and commented on all his scientific papers, even those that explained evolution of species though natural selection. How they remained happily married until Charles' death (43 years) is the story told by Deborah Heiligman in Charles and Emma: The Darwin's Leap of Faith.

I listened to Charles and Emma on an audio download read by Rosalyn Landor never guessing that the book is considered juvenile literature and shelved in the youth or teen sections in libraries. The content is for mature readers, as the author includes detailed scientific and theological content. I never found it simplified. I was instead charmed by the story that was both serious and sometimes sweet.

Throughout the story I admired the patience and care shown by two people with profound differences. I wish the rest of us could learn this lesson.

Heiligman, Deborah. Charles and Emma: The Darwin's Leap of Faith. Henry Holt, 2009. 268p. ISBN 9780805087215.

Audiobook: Random House/Listening Library, 2009. 6 compact discs. ISBN 9780739380499.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson

The origins of libraries are as vague as the evolution of living species. Just when did a room full of clay tablets transform from an accounting office into a library? We will never really know because the evidence is lost. Whoever first kept a collection of documents other than sales receipts, perhaps a collection of letters, epitaphs, or royal proclamations, would not have foreseen the implications of his action. In Libraries in the Ancient World, Lionel Casson reports the first known library in Nippur in southern Mesopotamia where archeologists have found a group of clay tablets dating from the third millennium BCE, that served as a sort of reference collection; they listed geographical places and names of the gods, identified professions, offered exercises for improving writing skills, and recorded lyrics of hymns.

In the majority of chapters of Libraries in the Ancient World, Casson focuses on libraries from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, providing cities and dates, describing buildings, and reporting on collections. He also comments on what is known about the librarians and their staffs and what services were provided for readers. There was often a library catalogue, though it might be more of a chronological accession list on a tablet or scroll. Zenodotus at the library of Alexandria appears to have invented alphabetization. Some libraries inscribed the titles they held into the stone walls.

Through much of the ancient times, books were collections of papyrus or parchment scrolls that were either stacked on nooks or kept in buckets. Library staff usually brought groups of scrolls to the reader. No self-service. When codices (flat books made of papyrus or parchment between covers of wood or ivory) began to be used, librarians had to reorganize to shelve them. Libraries had to keep both scrolls and codices were centuries as the adaptation to the new technology was very slow. (Imagine that we still needed to keep 8 mm films and 8-track tapes in our public libraries.)

Where libraries got their books is a major topic in Casson's book. Remember that their was no printing press in the ancient world. Everything was handwritten. Usually authors wrote single copies for whatever purpose they had, and they would let others make copies. Of course, scholars did not have time to transcribe, so they assigned the work to their slaves. Libraries might acquire titles as gifts from authors or the scholars who had copies made, or the libraries assigned their own slaves to make copies. Libraries benefited greatly when local generals sacked other cities and brought back the books. In later periods there were bookstores, but copies of books made for profit were known to have more transcription errors. Libraries did not want hastily-made bookstore copies if there was any other choice.

Collecting books, cataloguing them, loaning them to readers, and adapting to changes in technology. We are still doing what we have always done. Check it out.

Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World. Yale University Press, 2001. 177p. ISBN 9780300097214.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top by Carol Bradley

The campaign to educate the public about the ethical treatment of animals has been long and difficult. Humankind has not been kind to the rest of the animal world. Many people believed that people had the assignment from God to dominate and use animals however they chose. Anyone who argued against this position was belittled as either soft or radical. Still, a growing concern for the treatment of animals has grown over time. In this light, journalist Carol Bradley recounts the relationship of humans and elephants in her recent book Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top.

Like Topsy, Last Chain on Billie is a book that will challenge many readers to rethink their love of circuses. Our American society has uncritically celebrated the fun of attending traveling animal shows since the early 19th century. From the beginning their have been dissenters who have reported on the harsh treatment of elephants and other animals by circus trainers. Topsy tells how the reports were ignored. Last Chain on Billie recounts some of the that story and brings us to the present, a time at which the reform cause has advanced but has still not stopped the abuse of elephants.

What is shocking in this book? First, the stories of training elephants as young as six weeks old to do tricks that endanger their health. Second, how hardhearted circus owners and employees, such as John Cuneo, can be; many insist that elephants enjoy their lives in chains. It sounds much like the argument for 19th century slavery. Third, how often the U.S. Department of Agriculture has failed to act when it has much clear evidence of violations of animal protection laws.

Last Chain on Billie is a surprisingly positive book in spite of the history of elephant abuse. The author recounts the increasing effective efforts of individuals and nonprofit organizations to expose cruelty to animals. Through the stories of individual circus and zoo elephants, Bradley shows how intelligent and loyal these animals are and tells how they can recover. Her book is definitely one with a mission.

Bradley, Carol. Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top. St. Martin's Press, 2014. 320p. ISBN 9781250025692.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar by Keith Richards and Illustrated by Theodora Richards

Sweet is not an adjective that many people would apply to Rolling Stones founding member Keith Richards. They might reconsider after reading Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar by Richards and his daughter illustrator Theodora, a children's book about a boy and his grandfather.

As a Baby Boomer who has listened to my share of Rolling Stones songs, I was charmed by this story that tells how Richards became a musician. His musical interest was inspired by his warm and attentive grandfather Gus, who introduced the boy to many instruments and musical genre. When Keith was able to play "Malaguena" on guitar, Gus told him "I think you're getting the hang of it." A career was launched.

I like the book's illustrations which blend bands of color into pen and ink drawings. They move from page to page, carrying the narrative forward. I also like how I had to turn the book 90 degrees for one two-page spread. Gus and Me is fun to read.

Gus and Me comes with a compact disc of Richards happily reading the book with a little of his own guitar accompaniment. Be sure to listen.

Richards, Keith. Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar. Megan Tingly Books, 2014. ISBN 9780316320658.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Sapphires, a film by Wayne Blair

Bonnie and I have been watching the British comedy Moone Boy on our local PBS station. One of the standout characters is Martin Moone's imaginary friend Sean Murphy, played by Chris O'Dowd. O'Dowd is also creator of the program. If you have also been watching and would like to see more of O'Dowd, try the 2012 Australian film The Sapphires, an entertaining musical look back at the 1960s.

The story line is that four talented aboriginal girls from a small town outside Melbourne form a singing group hoping for fame and fortune. O'Dowd is Dave Lovelace, the promoter who discovers them and suggests that they switch from singing country songs to Motown soul so they can tour American military bases in Vietnam in 1968. The premise may sound a little far-fetched, but the story is inspired by a true story. Of course, the film producers do not actually tell the true story, changing many of the most important details, but they do capture the sound and look of the time. (Disregard the 1970s Tupperware that appears at a sales party.)

The Sapphires is promoted as a comedy, but it has some serious content. The group is in danger in a war zone, of course, but more critical to the story are scenes in the Australian outback, where they are put down by whites as sub-human. We even see government officials taking away light-skinned children to raise as whites. Comedy and romance, however, dominate. The funniest scenes are those in which the girls learn to sing with soul under O'Dowd's direction.

My library showed The Sapphires in its film discussion series. Attendance was small but we had a great discussion. Everyone said that they were glad they came.