Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Look Back

Currently Reading: Isle of the Saints by Lisa Bitel and The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

Yesterday was Orientation for the incoming Library Studies grad students. While I could not be more excited about starting my program, I have to admit that it was quite an intimidating and overwhelming day. However, I met a lot of nice people, which helped a lot, as well as one of my professors, so that helped me feel more comfortable. It doesn't hurt that campus is so beautiful.....and historic. One of the things I'm looking forward to the most is studying on campus- there's something inspiring and motivating about studying while surrounded by historic buildings or sequestered in a beautiful reading room. Not to mention that I love studying- reading, taking notes, crafting papers. Of course, within a few weeks, that will most likely change but for now, I have something to look forward to. Am I already panicking about the homework load? Yes. Am I worried about not making enough connections and getting enough experience in the Archives field? Heck yes. Does the commuting worry me a bit? Yup. Do I second-guess myself about my decision not to move nearer to campus and the opportunities it offers? Oh yes. But I will just do my best and see where life takes me. That's all I can do, right?

I'm mostly excited about studying here. :)

So with the dawn of school approaching, it feels as if the summer is officially at an end. The days might still be warm and the leaves still green, but my favorite season of butternut squash soup and crunchy leaves is fast approaching. It was a good summer, one filled with family get-togethers, Shakespeare plays, visits from friends, snapping home-grown tomatoes off of the vine, experiments with new recipes, and a lot of good books. Looking back at the summer reading list I posted at the beginning of June, I am pretty pleased with the progress I made. Not only did I finish eleven of the books on my list (technically fourteen, since the Sevenwaters trilogy consists of three books, not one), I also read some books that were not on my list. Nate and I ended up diving into the Little House books, and I found some books that I never expected but ended up reading immediately. Here is the final tally of the books I enjoyed this summer. (I'm including ones that I am still working on, since I hope to be done with both of them within the next week... and that's close enough for me!) In the order I read them:
Midnight in Peking
Jane Eyre
On Celtic Tides
Annie's Ghosts
Daughter of the Forest (#1 in the Sevenwaters trilogy)
Son of the Shadows (#2 in the Sevenwaters trilogy)
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey
Shadow of Night
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Child of the Prophecy (#3 in the Sevenwaters trilogy)
Inishmurray: Island Voices
Little House in the Big Woods
Little House on the Prairie
People of the Book
The Homemade Pantry
The Wilder Life
Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland

As you can see, I had one very good summer. Several of these were re-reads, while some were new. Most were physical books, while a few were audiobooks. While I really didn't have a least favorite book (I thoroughly enjoyed them all... even The Wilder Life), my favorite new book was probably Inishmurray: Island Voices, since it gave me the chance to re-visit a part of Ireland that Nathan and I fell deeply in love with.

Inishmurray Island... heaven on earth

With grad school approaching, I doubt I will get as much reading done as I am accustomed to. However, with all of the commuting I will be doing, I plan on listening to as many audiobooks as I can. I've already started that list. :)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Catching a Ride into the Future

Currently Reading: Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland by Lisa Bitel, The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, and Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I'll start this off with one of my favorite quotes from "Marginalia", a Billy Collins' poem: "Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria/ jotted along the borders of the Gospels/brief asides about the pains of copying,/ a bird singing near their window,/ or the sunlight that illuminated their page-/anonymous men catching a ride into the future/on a vessel more lasting than themselves."

When I first read People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, in the fall of 2010, I was only a few months out of college and had just started my first real jobs at a museum and a library. I was convinced at that time the museum route was the career path I wanted to follow. The library thing... was for extra money. (Not to say I didn't love it...after all, it was a library.) Today, two years later, that has changed and I like to think that People of the Book had a tiny bit to do with it.

I picked up People of the Book because I had loved Brooks's previous novels: Year of Wonders and March. It is difficult for writers to really portray the past effectively, but Brooks does. She gives her characters such life that it is easy to forget the boundaries of time and space; I can relate to each character, whether a Jewish scribe in 15th century Spain or a young mother in a 17th century English village. Yet historical truth is never compromised; instead, she manages to keep the integrity of the historical story, while still making each character approachable and human.You can see why I would love this.

People of the Book is my favorite of all Brooks's novels. It is the story of a religious text, an old, rare book that actually exists called the Sarajevo Haggadah. (A haggadah is a Jewish holy book used in the family home for the Passover Seder). This particular haggadah is richly illuminated, much like a medieval Christian Book of Hours, which sets it apart from other early Jewish texts.

Photobucket Photobucket

It was likely created sometime in the late 15th century and has quite an amazing history. Somehow, it survived through many tragic world events,such as the Jewish expulsion from Spain, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the recent wars in Bosnia. In some ways, it is an amazing symbol of the Jewish people, and as People of the Book expresses, it is now also a symbol of Bosnia's multicultural pride. The People of the Book uses factual details about the book and its history to recreate and reimagine its story. The main protagonist is a book conservator, rebinding the haggadah after it has been saved from a bombed library in Bosnia. As she uncovers more details about the book- a butterfly's wing in the binding, salt stains on a page, a white hair tucked into a page- the narrative switches, working backward from the Holocaust to the haggadah's creation, giving the reader a glimpse of the book's past and the people behind it- creating it, using it, traveling with it, losing it, and saving it. Along the way, we discover where the wine stains came from and how to explain the salt crystals and the butterfly wing. Each chapter is a discovery, which adds up to an amazing story, one that satisfies my love for books and my fascination with people in the past.

Book-nerd that I am, I especially loved "watching" Hanna conserve the book; I fawned over the descriptions of gold-leaf and lapis lazuli, the book's quires and the binding and the fragments tucked into it. I remember thinking at the time how wonderful it would be to have a career like that, up close and personal with the remnants of people who lived and worked and worried and laughed long before my parents' or my grandparents' time, finding the clues to the past from books that acted as my only link to someone long forgotten.

Coincidentally enough, I had to clean several old books yesterday that had been donated to the Local History Room; a bit dirty, with mold spores on them, they needed a good once-over before being added to the collection. Since we don't exactly have a high-tech lab at the library, I just took them outside where the heat would help kill any extra spores (I waited for a low humidity day of course) and any mold spores were free to float away rather than into a vent, as it would if I handled them inside. There is nothing more exciting than cleaning old books. Bending over them with my brushes or handful of Absorene, I smile every time the colors of the binding or the page shines out from years of dirt and white mold residue. There was one book in particular I was excited about: a family Bible from an old family in town. The front page was beautifully inscribed; the dark ink strokes still looked as if they could be fresh and wet, despite the date of 1849. For a moment yesterday, I remembered People of the Book and I smiled. It is so fulfilling to feel like I can, in some small way, contribute to the life and story of something that, as Billy Collins said, is a vessel more lasting than myself. Long after me, that Bible will still bear testament to the people, named and unnamed, who used it, passed it down, and yes, even cleaned it. All of us "catching a ride into the future". While I still have so much to learn in this field, I am on my way. On my way and so much closer than I was when I first read about the Sarajevo Haggadah. Who knows how much closer I will be the next time I pick it up?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Searching for Laura

Currently Reading: The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Isle of the Saints by Lisa Bitel (or Vilette by Charlotte Bronte- depends on the mood I'm in this afternoon).

Today, I'm in that ambiguous position where I desperately want to write but the words won't form themselves properly in my mind. This happens more often than I would like to admit. Part of the reason I could never have a writing career is because I enjoy the romance of writing far too much. Punching out a sentence here, erasing half a paragraph there, plodding and sashaying my way across the keyboard, just for the pure pleasure of hearing the keys click and watching the string of words grow. It may take me half an hour to write a paragraph, purely because I am enjoying crafting each sentence way too much. Add a mug of tea by my side, and throw in a lot of long sighs and head-on-chin, gazing-in-distance postures, and this is a typical picture of me fulfilling my romantic writing ideal. If I had to write for a living, I would most likely starve, since I never like writing when I have to and most of the time, I write slowly, savoring the act of writing just as much as I savor the end product.

But enough about that. I finished my second re-read of People of the Book today but will save my gut reactions to it for a post tomorrow. Instead, I feel like discussing briefly my new thoughts on The Wilder Life, since I am now about halfway through. If you remember my last post about this book, I was not terribly impressed. As I look back, I realize this was an instinctual reaction, rather than a logical one, but now that I have had more time to think it through, I have come to the conclusion that while I still don't really like the book, I can now better express why that is.

Namely, I think it comes down to perspective. As I see it, The Wilder Life is not really about one woman's interest in Little House- it's McClure's attempts and struggles to reconcile her childhood perspective of the book with the actual history behind it. At least, that's how I interpret it. (Another resonating theme is about people's search for a world that is no longer there, only coming up with tacky souvenirs and look-alike contests... but more on that another time). It is an interesting journey, believe me, but one that I am unfamiliar with. I find myself irritated with McClure when she looks at Laura's world with a 21st century eye and judges it accordingly. Don't get me wrong: I am in no way a "simple life" enthusiast. I am not one of those people who wistfully yearn for the "good ole' days" or imagine the past with big old rose-tinted glasses on. While the romantic, Anne Shirley side of me imagines what life was like for those who came before us- whether I'm looking at my 4th great-grandfather's land deeds or standing in a monastery in Ireland- the historical side of me not only colors the picture but keeps it from becoming too air-brushed. As a kid, I too loved reading the Little House books, and I made molasses candy and dragged my little red wagon all over my backyard. But I also loved finding out about the real Laura, the truth behind the stories. Unlike McClure, I never felt that Laura the author betrayed or deceived me, for the Little House books are, at their core, fictional children's books based on one family's experience, not an autobiography. Perhaps the main difference between McClure and I are in what we are searching for: she finds comfort in the details (she even states this in the first chapter) and follows those to find the real Laura in the book Laura. On the other hand, I find comfort in the atmosphere and spirit of the books, which isn't something you can recreate at a festival or with a replica. There's nothing wrong with either perspective.... it just means I don't always see eye to eye with McClure.

The narrator's sarcastic tone still doesn't sit well with me; in addition, McClure's tendency to mock the way in which other people interpret the Little House books continues to bother me as the book progresses (be prepared for her mini diatribe on the readers who like the books for their Christian values). Perhaps this is because one of the things I have always loved about literature is that every book is different to each of its readers. A quote by Edmund Wilson that Shelf Actualization posted recently says it all: "No two people ever read the same book." Think about that for a second. That means that each time you read a new book, it is born anew, as if it was published for the first time, for only you will ever read and interpret that book in the way you do. There is something magical in that thought.Yet I think McClure forgot that, somewhere down the line, and it makes her sound bitter and slightly caustic.

That being said, there are parts I enjoyed: all of the new biographical information about Laura and her family, and the historical details McClure shares (including a fantastic bit from a biography detailing how a historian found the plot of land the Ingalls cabin stood on in Kansas.... the researcher/history major/library geek that I am ate that one up!), her descriptions of the home sites she visited (especially when she comes across something appalling- like soft dolls of the Ingalls family at the Iowa homesite), and the humor that sneaks in when she is attempting to churn butter or analyzing the Little House TV series.

It's a good book, but not what I expected. I still have some more to go on it, so there will most likely be another post on this topic! It has definitely given me a lot to ponder: about our reactions to what we read; how the books we read as a child affect our "growing-up"; how those books change for us when we have already grown. Much to muse over, as always. Have a great Wednesday!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Library Soul Moments

Currently Reading: The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Voyage by Sterling Hayden, annnnd.... my textbook for grad school. Because I am suddenly seven years old again and can't wait for school to start. :)

A quiet Sunday.. the first in a long time. And you better believe we've been enjoying it. The morning started out at church, which is all decked out for VBS next week. (I'm hoping I'll be able to help out on Tuesday or Thursday morning.) From there, we proceeded to the farmer's market in Janesville, which never fails to disappoint. The counter of our kitchen bears testament to our spoils: two pounds of green beans, twelve sweet-smelling peaches, four tomatoes (I have TWELVE on the vine, but none are ready to be picked yet), three huge cucumbers and three peppers. We stopped at Walgreens to get some school supplies (woohoo!) and a cute travel mug for my upcoming commutes. Add in the fact that I got to pet a husky dog, and it all adds up to a great morning. I meant to clean and spruce up this afternoon but after a load of laundry and two loaves of sourdough bread, I was ready to kick back with some books. I am definitely going to be refreshed and ready for work tomorrow.

Speaking of work....

I don't talk about it very often, but my job is a huge part of who I am. Every index I create, every project I finish, every research request I field, and every grateful patron I get to meet, makes my job one of the best there is. (In my humble opinion.) I am proud of my work and my workplace; Ida Public Library may be a small-town library but I love it immensely. To be fair, I love basically all libraries because, let's face it, they are buildings full of BOOKS. But my real love for libraries comes in that moment when I'm searching the stacks or studying at a table or even just walking through the sections- and I pause. I take a moment to look around me and notice the sweet silence of low voices and the swish of turning pages, the gleam of light on wooden shelves, the scent of new paper and old books commingling perfectly in the air around me. Every library possesses this calming quality to some degree and Ida Library has this essence in droves. Downstairs, in the Local History Room, it is less beautiful than it is upstairs, but I am still often hit with a sense of coziness and peace when I survey the shelves crammed with books and indexes, or the symmetrical microfilm readers at the ready for the next patron to walk in the door.

Several days ago, I was walking through the original upstairs section (the section that was built in 1912) when I stopped for a second to soak in the sight of raindrops falling like a curtain past the windows. The rain always makes the library feel even more comfortable than it already is, muting the light outside and enhancing the yellow glow of the lamps overhead, that I always find myself stopping to notice it, however briefly. It was such a soul-fulfilling moment, to watch the rain fall past these windows as it has done for almost 100 years, transforming the room inside just as it altered the world outside. I felt so utterly at peace in that moment, one of those in which I knew with certainty that God exists and that I am right where I should be. In those moments, I lose my doubts and my worries because I know there is nothing more important than this: to stand at a library window and watch the rain.

Hope your Sunday was just as enjoyable... have a great week!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

What Little House Is All About

Currently Reading: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

Summer has been good to us this year. Check out the balcony garden:


Which so far has yielded several delicious tomatoes:


This being the first year I have attempted to grow anything, I am pretty pleased. I daydream about the day when I have a large yard, complete with clothesline and extensive garden. But until then, at least I can still practice honing my greenish thumb.

This week, as I mentioned in my last post, I have accidentally become saturated with the world of Little House. I say "accidentally" because while I did want to read Wendy McClure's memoir on her forays into Laura's real-life world, it was purely coincidence that Nathan and I started reading through the Little House series together at about the same time. I love introducing Nathan to these books, knowing that someday we will both be sharing them with our own children.

As a kid, my sister and I loved the Little House books. Actually, loved is probably not an accurate word. Exchange the "o" for an "i". We lived the Little House books. Making molasses candy on snow? Did it. Playing with our own corncob dolls? Check! Tying on sunbonnets and putting on prairie dresses to drag our little red wagon through our yard and woods? Every summer. So we were Little House girls, plain and simple.

When I was 14, my family and I went on a "Laura trip," hitting many of the sites where Laura lived in the books. We did not make it down to Kansas or Missouri, but we started the journey in Pepin, WI and drove over the Mississippi (while I imagined how on earth the Ingalls' managed to make it across.... on the ice.... in a WAGON). We explored the banks of Plum Creek near the town of Walnut Grove, MN and from there, drove on into DeSmet, South Dakota where we stayed in a cabin right on the shores of one of the lakes Laura and Almanzo drove by during their buggy courting outings. It was really the epitome of a book coming to life. Wendy McClure makes an observation that most of the worlds children love cannot be reached in real life- we don't have the option of visiting Narnia or Hogwarts or many other literary locations. But Little House is different, because it existed. It was real. It may not be a 100% accurate portrayal of Laura's childhood, but the places and the people are not very separated from us at all. Even at a young age, I was completely fascinated by how the history and the story in the books intertwined and separated to create a reality just as compelling as the stories in the books. Walking through Dakota prairie grass, under the trees that Pa planted, I realized that the books would always be different now, enhanced somewhat, since I could now see them through a clearer, sharper lens.

Which brings me to why I'm slightly upset with Ms. McClure. I loved the first chapter, which explained McClure's fascination with Laura as a child. I could identify with this chapter, for I too had imagined what it would be like to be Laura and to live where she did. As an adult, McClure rediscovers the books and becomes obsessed with finding out more. She decides to immerse herself in the Little House world, trying recipes (I can relate to this), going on a road trip to the Little House sights (a girl after my own heart), and discovering more about the facts of Laura's life. Up until now, I was mentally doing cartwheels as she makes these plans. But when she starts learning more about Laura's real life, and begins telling her readers the differences between reality and the world Laura created in her books, my patience began to wear thin. Perhaps it's the narrator's voice. Audiobooks can ruin a good book based on the narrator alone. But I have a feeling the negative, sarcastic tone would jump off of the page as well.

Unlike me, McClure is not a historian. Historical facts do not give her the same thrill. This is apparent within the first twelve seconds of sharing her new-found "discoveries." While I was excited to find out the truth about Laura's life, reading biographies and gazing at pictures, she seems to be appalled by the fact that the children's books were different than real life. Cue sarcastic tone. How could Laura not have mentioned that she had a baby brother? The Ingalls family actually had to live with their in-laws for a short time? What do you mean they had to work at a hotel in Iowa? These facts cause McClure to make erroneous and sarcastic statements, like stating that Pa obviously wasn't able to provide for his family all of the time, or it seems the Ingalls family weren't the Western-moving people they seem, or criticizing Laura's family tree because Pa's brother married Ma's sister. She is critical about the family's photographs too, as if she cannot believe these people were not made for the covers of magazines. The truth disillusions her, which is something I cannot understand or sympathize with at all. In addition, as an adult, she starts reading the books with a very anachronistic eye. She dubs Pa a racist and calls Ma a jerk because of their attitude toward the Indians in Little House on the Prairie. Instead of thinking about why Pa and Ma had the reactions they did based on the context of that era, McClure judges them by present-day standards. A big no-no in the historical world.

What it comes down to is that she has missed the point of Laura's books. They are not about whether every intricate detail is truth or fiction; they capture an essence, rather than act as a memoir. They focus on the love and commitment of family, on one girl's adventurous spirit, and on a way of life that was slowly becoming nothing but a memory. They are comforting and they are special for the simple reason that they engage our imagination and cause us to notice the life around us. One of my favorite quotes from Little House in the Big Woods sums up the poignancy of this series:
"She thought to herself, 'This is now.' She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago."

I still have a ways to go in the book, and I'm hoping McClure's trips to the Little House sites will change her attitude. Perhaps she, like Charlie Brown discovering the meaning of Christmas, will figure out what the Little House books are all about.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Currently Reading: Inishmurray: Island Voices by Joe McGowan, Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

Although it is illogical, I feel such guilt when I fail to blog on a regular basis. Why that is I do not know, since I am not being graded or paid to do this but I still sigh every time I realize another day has gone by without a blog post. Of course, I am having a wonderful summer, complete with cousin sleepovers, Great River Shakespeare Fest, Seinfeld marathons, and farmer's markets. It's just that I love to write here- journaling and poems are not enough. But time and life always seem to get in the way. I think my struggle lately with this blog has been trying (and failing) to remember that even a quick post about nothing is OK. For some reason, I never want to blog unless I know I have hours ahead of me to write and re-write and hem and haw and reflect and muse. Since my life does not allow that very often, my blog posts become fewer and farther between. Maybe the lesson I must learn (and SOON, since grad school is creeping ever closer), is that writing is writing, and I must not be so hard on myself to write epic essays every time I feel the urge to write.

There is SO MUCH I want to write: about how my trip to Ireland has greatly changed the way I read my Irish history books and re-read my favorite novels; about how my life has suddenly become infused with childhood memories since I started listening to Wendy McClure discuss her love of Laura while simultaneously re-reading the Little House series with my husband, who has *gasp* never read them before but is loving them as much as I hoped he would. Coupled with updates on life (I have tomatoes!) and such, I am itching to write and write and write.

It will happen. Just not today. Bear with me, friends. Today I am practicing the art of a quick blog post and to be honest, it feels pretty darn good. I'll be back soon!

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