Monday, September 01, 2014

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China by Julia Lovell

In 1839, the British Empire was ruled by a monarch from a German family while China was ruled by Manchurians who invaded the empire several centuries before. From their palaces with little true appreciation for what they asked, both rulers directed diplomats and generals to secure territory and wealth. A trip by sea from London to China took about six months, and there was no faster means of communication. Because diplomats were bound to their monarchs' bidding, even when the tasks were unwise and next to impossible, respectful negotiations were improbable. Mix in the greed from both British and Chinese merchants, and readers discover the plot of the Opium Wars for 1839-1842 and 1856-1860.

Most modern readers from Europe or America know very little about these wars, according to historian Julia Lovell in her new book, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. Few readers studied these nineteenth century conflicts in their schools. Many are truly shocked to learn that the British Empire insisted that the China buy its opium from India, and when the Chinese emperor said no - the official Chinese position was to discourage the use of the narcotic drug - the British sent its navy to level coastal cities and slaughter many Chinese soldiers and citizens.

Nearly every Chinese citizen alive after the Communist takeover of the late 1940s, on the other hand, has heard the Party's very slanted story about this unjust Western imperial violation of the Chinese nation. The example of the Opium Wars is at the foundation of Communist Party thinking about Western capitalism and is still very relevant today. The Party even used the Opium Wars to mask its own actions in 1989 in the aftermath of its killings at Tiananmen Square.

Some readers may find The Opium War challenging to read because of its many unfamiliar place and personal names. The author includes a roster of principle characters in the appendix, which I recommend to anyone wanting to distinguish Yan Fu from Yang Fang and Yijing from Yishan. I also commend the book to anyone wanting to learn about nineteenth century history for the sake of understanding the present.

Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. Overlook Presss, 2014. 480p. ISBN 9781468308952.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears in America's Own Backyard by Mary Kay Carson and photographs by Tom Uhlman

America's National Parks were created to preserve wilderness and wildlife. To succeed in this mission, they have also become places of scientific inquiry, much of it being conducted by park scientists. Author Mary Kay Carson and photographer Tom Uhlman travelled to three of the country's national parks to meet "Scientists in the Field" and learn about their import work. They report in Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears in America's Own Backyard.

Their first reports focus on Yellowstone National Park, which stretches across a might volcanic caldera in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Carson and Uhlman followed geologists who monitor the ever-changing eruptions of geysers on the western side of the park. Then they joined biologists who study the park's population of grizzly bears.

Saguaro National Park in Arizona was their second stop. Here they worked along side the scientists who study large lizards called Gila monsters before joining scientists and local students conducting a census of the park's saguaro, who may live up to 200 years.

Then they crossed the country to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles Tennessee and North Carolina. After spending days with biologist Amy Luxbacher finding endangered salamanders in the park, they turned their attention to night-time research of Photinus carolinus, a rare type of firefly that blinks in sync with others of its kind, putting on amazing light shows.

Being a big kid who has been to two of the parks, I enjoyed learning more about the parks, the wildlife, and the people who work there. If I were a kid, I might be inspired to become a nature scientist. In any case, I would understand and learn to care about the conservation of the great places.

Carson, Mary Kay. Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears in America's Own Backyard. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 76p. ISBN 9780547792682.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Kid Brady Stories and A Man of Means by P. G. Wodehouse

At the same time that a new author is taking up P. G. Wodehouse's characters (see Jeeves and the Wedding Bells), early Wodehouse works are being republished. In 2013, the Overlook Press put together Kid Brady Stories and A Man of Means, joining into one volume stories about two unlikely men, a street boy who becomes a champion boxer and a lowly bank clerk who becomes a multi-millionaire. These stories were all published in periodicals and later collected in books in 1907 and 1914. Together in a new volume, they humorously show us an Englishman's take on American initiative and social mobility.

The boy who becomes internationally known as boxer Kid Brady got his start as a errand boy at a gymnasium. When the proprietor asked what he could do, he answered "Anything," the properly optimistic American verbally-delivered resume. He made good on his promise in stories that must have drawn inspiration from dime-store novels of the time. Thankfully, Wodehouse supplied better than dime-store dialogue and description in his quickly-read stories.

Roland Bleke was a shy young man who seemed to get himself into situations by not being assertive. Readers first learn of him asking his employer to reduce his pay. If his slight savings declined, he hoped to discourage the young woman who had designs on marrying him. How he became wealthy without intention is quite comic. In the last story "The Hired Past," he hired a man-servant to help him escape another romantic entanglement, foreshadowing the later Bertie Wooster and Jeeves stories.

Wodehouse reflected the society of his time in racial and gender attitudes. Still, Kid Brady Stories and A Man of Means is good fun for Wodehouse fans and anyone interested the comic writings of early 20th century America.

Wodehouse, P. G. Kid Brady Stories and A Man of Means. Overlook Press, 2013. 206p. ISBN 9781468308334.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

In writing the novel Flaubert's Parrot, novelist Julian Barnes imagined grief felt by retired doctor Geoffrey Braithwait upon the death of his wife. According to Barnes, he never expected to be in the same position himself, assuming that his wife would survive him. But she died in 2008 very soon after her being diagnosed with cancer. In the third essay "The Loss of Depth" in Levels of Life, Barnes describes his grief, a reality much beyond anything he imagined for poor Braithwait.

The reviewer from the New York Times said that he wished that Barnes had only published the 56-page third essay, as it is so eloquent and powerful. It seemed to him the first two essays did not matter. I would disagree. I think their stories of amusing lightness followed by almost predictable tragedies set readers up well for the third essay. The two pieces (one true and the other fiction) give us memory in common with the author, and he draws from them in telling his own story of grief. We have shared an interest (if the two essay interest you) and are in a sense attune to the author. Their lightness makes the impact of the weighty third essay greater. 

Working in a library, observing the requests for Levels of Life, I saw a borrowing pattern much like that for The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Having now read both, I see why. A book discussion on the pair might be very interesting.

Barnes, Julian. Levels of Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 128p. ISBN 9780385350778.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Books About Birds from the University of Texas Press

When I was in library school at the University of Texas, one of my classes toured the University of Texas Press. It had recently retooled, if I remember correctly, incorporating new automated technology. I remember huge metal plates for printing pages. It was the late 1970s, so I am sure much has changed since, but I was impressed. I did not at the time have the foresight to realize that many years later I would be reading many books published there.

Several years ago I read The Robin by Roland H. Wauer, which is in the Corrie Herring Hooks series of natural history books from the University of Texas Press. At the time, I noticed that there were other books to add to my to-read list. Now I am finally moving a few titles to my books-I've-read list.

The first I read this month was The Cardinal by June Osborne with photographs by Barbara Garland. Osborne describes the seasonal life of the easy-to-identify redbird, starting with January and progressing through the year. In the process, she tells how the species has flourished, much like the robin, as Americans altered the environment. Once the species was a southern bird but now it inhabits much of the U.S. and parts of Canada year round. This is after cardinals were threatened in the late 19th century by people trapping them for the caged bird trade. Luckily legislation in southern states and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 saved them.

While 19th century Americans people caged cardinals for their beauty, they caged the mostly drab northern mockingbird for its song. According to Robin W. Doughty in his The Mockingbird, the master mimic has benefited from human migration as much as the cardinal. The northern mockingbird was also once a southern bird but now is found across much of the United States and has been found in Canada. It is the only member of its genus in the United States; there are 7 to 9 other species (depending on how you define the species) in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. My Texas friends will enjoy this book as much of the described field work was in that state.

I have started reading Return of the Whooping Crane, which is also by Robin W. Doughty and published at the press. I had intended to describe it here, but it is a longer book and deserves much more attention. Look for a review in an upcoming post.

As I get more serious about birding, I may be turning to more titles from the University of Texas Press. Some are a couple decades old and apparently out of print, but they are provide good basic descriptions, insightful history, and colorful photos. They may still in many library collections.

Osborne, June. The Cardinal. University of Texas Press, 1992. 108p. ISBN 0292711476.

Doughty, Robin W. The Mockingbird. University of Texas Press, 1988. 80p. ISBN 0292750994.

Monday, August 18, 2014

I Work at a Public Library: A Collection of Crazy Stories - from the Stacks by Gina Sheridan

I see and hear some strange things working at a public library. So does Gina Sheridan, as she tells us in I Work at a Public Library: A Collection of Crazy Stories - from the Stacks. I was once asked for "actual true photos from future space colonies." Similarly, Sheridan has been asked for an actual autobiography by a dragon. I denied an odd request to load strange software on public computers from a man who would not reveal his name because he was fleeing his evil mother. Sheridan was approached by a self-revealing undercover cop who seems to have told her so she would not tell others. I could probably recall a few more strange stories, but I could never match Sheridan. She has far more stories to tell.

The trick with telling library stories is confidentiality. As librarians, we have an obligation to respect our clients' right to privacy. Adhered to strictly, we could tell no stories at all, but it seems that we need to tell some stories. We need others to help us understand what we have said and done so we can do better or to tell us we did okay. We sometimes need to prepare our colleagues for encounters they may have. We also need to describe the nature of our work for the benefit of the profession. What better way than through true stories - with identifying details removed.

Most of Sheridan's stories will never be pinned on specific library users, as she recounts little other than dialogue in many cases. The exception is the stories in the chapter "598.2 Rare Birds," which focuses on one unique woman, whom a few people at one of Sheridan's former libraries may identify. Sheridan told Cuckoo Carol that she would be in her book, and Carol did not object.

At first glance, I Work at a Public Library seems mere entertainment, but I think it could be used in classes and workshops for librarians learning how to cope with the hazards of public service. It would be interesting to hear students and veterans describe how they would have handled these strange situations.

It warms my heart to find Sheridan included an index. So few books have indexes these days.

If there is ever a Librarians' Old Folks Home, copies of I Work at a Public Library should be stocked in the check-it-out-yourself library to prompt the old librarians to tell their stories. I'm sure they saw and heard some pretty strange things at their libraries.

Sheridan, Gina. I Work at a Public Library: A Collection of Crazy Stories - from the Stacks. Adams Media, 2014. 157p. ISBN 9781440576249.

Friday, August 15, 2014

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

These were my questions before I listened to My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, read by Kate Reading:

Would I find a book about a woman's relationship to a single book interesting?

How much of Middlemarch by George Eliot would I remember?

Despite reading several strong reviews and hearing another on National Public Radio, I wondered if My Life in Middlemarch could retain my interest through eight audio discs. The topic seemed rather narrow. I need not have worried. The subject matter as presented is broader than it first appears. I would estimate Mead's book is 45 percent about George Eliot, 35 percent about the characters and events in Middlemarch, and 20 percent about Mead herself. Of course, it is all tied together in such a way that any one paragraph or even sentence could be about all three. The story keeps turning and evolving so that specific topics are fresh. I never wavered in my desire to keep listening.

It has been a long time since I read Middlemarch - obviously before I started a spreadsheet of my reading in 1990 (unless I somehow neglected to enter the book). I also saw the 1994 BBC miniseries twenty years ago. I only remember Patrick Malahide in the role of the cold Reverend Edward Casaubon. Until I looked up the credits, I could not name any others from the cast, though I now see numerous actors that I recognize. Thinking that I remembered little, I wondered whether discussion about the characters would make any sense to me. Again, I need not have worried. Mead introduces the characters through descriptions that stimulate memory. (I don't know how it would be for someone who has no knowledge of Middlemarch.) I remembered much more than I would have thought.

The surprise for me was that the book is about George Eliot more than anything else. At least, that is what I take from My Life in Middlemarch. I think it serves as an entertaining introduction to the 19th century author's life, coming from a scholarly admirer, tempered but still passionate in admiration. I now want to read or listen again to the novels of Eliot. I only see Silas Marner on my spreadsheet. That does not seem right. Surely I have read more. It has been too long.

Mead, Rebecca. My Life in Middlemarch. Crown Publishers, 2014. 293p. ISBN 9780307984760.

Audiobook: Blackstone Audio, 2014. 8 compact discs. ISBN 9781482973532.