Blogs

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? bookjacketMy mom is getting up there in years and my siblings and I are learning first hand that there are lots of issues to deal with when you have an aging parent. As a welcome respite from all of the seriousness of trying to help my mom live out her years as best as possible, I’ve read Roz Chast’s wrenchingly honest and painfully funny graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant several times lately. But the book that is really helping me grapple with the issues of an aging parent is Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande.

Being Mortal bookjacketGawande, a surgeon, writer and public health researcher, explores how we make choices as we come near the end of our lives. He looks at the history, how our culture transitioned from caring for aged family members at home to putting them into nursing homes and assisted senior housing (and who knew that the first independent senior community was in Portland?). Gawande questions how modern medicine, which has been so successful in prolonging life, can also cause more suffering at the end of one's life. Wouldn’t it be better to help the elderly live out their lives in as comfortable and positive way as possible?

Or as Roz Chast says, "I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly "done," there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure-oriented. Perhaps opium, or heroin. So you became addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors for the extremely aged. Big art picture books and music. Extreme palliative care, for when you've had it with everything else: the x-rays, the MRIs, the boring food, and the pills that don't do anything at all. Would that be so bad?"

That’s the end of life I want for my mom and everyone else when they get old and reading Being Mortal is helping me figure out how to help my mom get exactly that as she lives out her life.

Utopias Book Cover"Art can cease being a report about sensations and become a direct organization of more advanced sensations. The point is to produce ourselves rather than things that enslave us."
- Guy Debord, from "Theses on Cultural Revolution"

Art has always served a precarious role when it comes to a radical and transformative politics.  Too often, even the most apparently revolutionary art ends up recuperated as market or museum-piece.  MIT Press' elegant 2009 collection Utopias assembles an historically broad (though almost exclusively western) swath of manifestoes, interventions and proscriptions toward utopian and revolutionary transformation.  Editor Richard Noble's introduction situates the power of these texts in their lurch toward a revolutionary horizon (that which is yet to come).  And while the collection is certainly an excellent introduction to many essential and revelatory broadsides and critiques, Noble can't help but find himself stuck in this ultimately unsatisfactory impasse, resulting in toothless assertions like "[the] utopian impulse is implicit in all art-making, at least in so far as one thinks that art addresses itself to the basic project of making the world better."

Nonetheless, the book itself is a formidable archive (ahem) of revolutionary texts (with the occasional negative dystopic warning - like snippets of Orwell's 1984).  Kicking off with an excerpt from Thomas More's Utopia and closing with a 2008 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Adam Phillips, Utopias provides all kinds of known and unknown pleasures.  However, the collection - like Noble's introduction - reproduces the same cul-de-sac the bulk of the excerpts rail against.  At the end of the day, Utopias is another attractive museum catalog, producing weak whispers and disavowed reminders of something far more scandalous, unattractive and untameable.

As supplement and tonic, I'll close with a sentence from an excellent piece on Occupy and art from 2012, co-written by Jaleh Mansoor, Daniel Marcus and Daniel Spaulding:

"Art’s usefulness in these times is a matter less of its prefiguring a coming order, or even negating the present one, than of its openness to the materiality of our social existence and the means of providing for it."

Of course, much of how and when this works is up to us.
 

laptopAt your Multnomah County Libraries, you can find a wide array of free computer classes - from computer labs where you can get extra assistance to e-book and e-reader classes to office productivity skills, like spreadsheets and word processing.  Here are some other great options:

  • Free Geek - Free Geek offers a range of educational opportunities including hands-on experiences in their Build and Adoption Programs as well as a wide variety of desk-based learning in their classroom.
  • Portland Community College (PCC) - offers a wide variety of computer and IT courses, tailored to fit your situation - find out more about their computer education programs
  • Mt Hood Community College (MHCC) - for East County residents, MHCC offers many in-person and online computer classes through their Community Education program
  • Portland Parks & Recreation - offers basic computer and Internet classes for senior

When my sons were in grade school I used to buy special birthday cake candles, the  kind that immediately re-light after they’ve been blown out. I got a bigger kick out of them than the kids!  I still love the uncertainty of  these candles. Will they relight or won’t they?  I love the surprise, the appearance of somehow defying the laws of nature.

I look for that kind of surprise in books too, those rare books that surprise me with their unpredictability, their innovative writing style or ideas.  I love a book that leaves me breathless. On the outside I get up, go to work, cook dinner, make conversation -  but on the inside, the ideas of that book have lit up my mind and just when I think I have let go of one idea, whoosh - another pops up burning brighter than the first.

Depths by Henning Mankell  was one such book.  I loved his Wallander mystery series, but when I saw Depths I was reluctant to pick it up.               

The book jacket, two shades of gloomy gray, and the blurb on the inside cover about a Swedish military officer who is hired  to sound out the depths of the ocean bottom around the Swedish archipelagos, was dreary and uninteresting.  But one day  I was so starved for something different to read, I opened to the first page.

Whoosh... it opens with a woman escaping from an insane asylum on a dark rain-swept night, remembering as if in a dream that once she had a husband: Swedish Naval officer Lars Tobiasson-Svartmann, a man whose compartmentalized emotions threaten to drown him…Whoosh - he sleeps with his sounding equipment like a security blanket to calm his anxieties...Whoosh…physically, he sounds the depths of the ocean but emotionally he is sounding himself...Whoosh...he finds a solitary woman living on one of the archipelagos and Whoosh...400 pages later I come to the surface, like a fish, gasping for air.

 If you live for unexpected, the amazement of realizing that you are about to be lit up with unforeseen wonder, read Depths by Henning Makell.  Whoosh…                                         

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

 

 

Three dozen Head Start preschoolers loudly proclaim in unison, “1-2-3, we are awesome!”Markham Head Start self portraits

The refrain was a fitting recognition of the hard work of these young artists, who contributed Andy Warhol-style self portraits to an art show at Capitol Hill Library in Southwest Portland. On May 5 the children gathered with families, teachers and supporters to show off their colorful art.

“When I first saw these self portraits, I was blown away,” said Neighborhood House Executive Director Rick Nitti. “They create a reflection of self and an expression of self esteem. This partnership with the library is fantastic.”

Markham Head Start self portraitsThe event was the brainchild of teachers at Neighborhood House’s Markham Head Start Classroom in partnership with Capitol Hill Library staff to engage children and families with the library as preparations for summer begin.

After proudly showcasing their work, the students joined Capitol Hill’s youth librarian, Natasha Forrester, for an interactive reading of Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh and sang a song about friendship with lyrics in English, Spanish, Somali and Swahili.

Each month, library staff (including Natasha or Suad Mohamed, a Somali-speaking library assistant) visit Markham Head Start classrooms to delight children with stories, songs and crafts. It’s part of Multnomah County Library’s mission to support and serve educators, children and families beyond the walls of the library. Many of the Head Start program’s students are Somali immigrants, and Capitol Hill Library is the first in Multnomah County to feature a Somali-speaking staff member. Suad leads the Somali Family Time program at Capitol Hill and she also selects books in Somali for Central, Midland and Rockwood libraries.

The partnership, one of many between the library and nonprofit agencies across Multnomah County, serves multiple purposes. It helps new immigrants become familiar with the services of the library in their native language and become comfortable in a setting that can help contribute to their success throughout their education and later in life.

“This is special,” said Head Start Program Director Nancy Perin. “It’s such a diverse, multicultural group and bringing them all together at the library, it’s special.”
The exhibition is expected to last through May 15.Markham Head Start self portraits

Space Tourism ArtworkFor many of us, the most imposing barrier to joining the growing ranks of space tourists has been cost. When Dennis Tito made his eight-day flight back in 2001, you could get in on a ride for around $20 million. That was the going rate for about the first six years before the price inevitably began to skyrocket to its current rate of roughly $40 million. But you know what’s been holding me back? The lack of coffee. Well, not just any coffee -- I’m talking espresso. How do you get a truly great cup of espresso while you’re circling the globe in a weightlessness condition?Espresso in space photo

Well, after reading Wednesday’s New York Times, I learned that that great hurdle has now been cleared. Samantha Cristoforetti, who also happens to be the first Italian woman to travel in space, just became the first person to successfully brew and enjoy an authentic Italian-style espresso in space.

Two developments made this feat possible: The 44-pound ISSpresso machine and the microgravity coffee cup. The fact that the machine weighs 44 pounds really isn’t a problem in space and the cup allows astronauts and space tourists to enjoy their drink pretty much as they would back on Earth.

So what’s holding me back now? Well … I’m still saving for that ticket and hoping that increased ridership will bring down the cost!

Photograph of donation boxes, by Flickr user Joe Schueller.Is simplifying and spring cleaning in full swing at your house? Have you accumulated quite a collection of unnecessary belongings that need to go? In my house the answer to both is, yes! Luckily there are many resources to help you find where to donate or recycle these items.

Oregon Metro is my go to site for information on where to donate, recycle, or as a last resort dispose of as garbage. They have a database where you enter what you want to get rid of and it finds places to either donate, recycle, or dispose of it. There is also information on where to bring hazardous wastes, neighborhood collection programs, and tips on reducing waste in the first place.

211 Info is a clearinghouse of resources. Simply put in your zip code and "donation" in the search bar and it brings up a list of organizations that accept items ranging from glasses to camping gear. If you like more of a list format this is the website for you.

If you have questions about recycling check out Earth911. They have a recycling guide as well as a search feature to find local places to recycle. 

What about that growing collection of old electronics? Free Geek accepts donations of computers, phones, and other electronics. If able to be reused your device will be refurbished and donated back to the community, how cool is that! If it can't be reused your device can be recycled through Oregon E-Cycles. If you aren't able to make it to Free Geek, Oregon E-Cycles has many other collection sites

If you aren't able to go to donation sites the good news is there organizations that can come to you. The Vietnam Veterans of America and The Arc of Multnomah-Clackamas both offer pick up services.

Finally here are my my personal favorites:

  • Have you noticed those green boxes popping up all around Portland? They are part of the Gaia Movement USA. They are an easy way to recycle your clothes and shoes. Use their map to find a drop off box nearest you. 
  • SCRAP accepts a wide range of art and office supplies. Just be careful not to leave with more than you donated!
  • The Rebuilding Center accepts building supplies and it's a fun place to wander around for hours. They also offer a pick up service.

What library blog would be complete without mentioning that the Friends of the Multnomah County Library can accept your book and DVD donations? If you have a small donation your local library will be happy to accept it.


Do you have questions about recycling, donating your unwanted posessions to local organizations, or anything else?  Librarians love questions, so please call, email, or text us -- or just ask the librarian on duty the next time you're at the library in person.  We'd be happy to help you get more information, or even just help you get your curiosity satisifed.


 

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Winnie book jacketI attribute the beginnings of my Anglophilia to two bears:  Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington.  When I was a child, I loved Milne's stories and poems about Pooh and his Hundred Acre Wood friends, my mother's nickname for me was Roo, and we called snacks "smackerels". I knew that Winnie was based on a teddy bear owned by A.A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, but until recently, I didn’t know that the stuffed bear got his name from a real live one!  The “real” bear, Winnie (short for Winnipeg), was purchased at a Canadian train station by a veterinary surgeon serving in WWI.  The seller had shot the cub’s mother (not realizing she had a baby) and now didn’t know what to do with the young bear.  Fortunately, Harry Colebourn came to the cub’s rescue and thus began Winnie’s adventure.  You can read all about Winnie in a lovely new children’s book entitled Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.  The watercolor illustrations are charming and evoke the era, and the endpapers have photos of Winnie, Harry, Milne and Christopher Robin (with his teddy bear). 

For other true stories about children’s literature, check out this list.

heading from an early page of the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths

Have you ever had trouble finding an obituary for a Portland ancestor who died around the turn of the last century?  You’re not alone!

In the 19th century and even in the early 20th, newspapers often put obituaries in with the regular news, making them hard to find.  This was also before it was common for Portland newspapers to include a "Daily city statistics" section listing the names of people who had died in the city recently.  So it’s no wonder that it can be a big challenge to find Portland obituaries from before about 1910.  

But I have good news for you: if your ancestor was a Portlander, and if they died within city limits 1881-1917, their death was probably recorded in the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths.

A page from the Ledger Index, showing December 1913 deaths.  Click for a bigger version.

What is the Ledger Index?

The Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths is a long list of people who died in the city of Portland 1881-1917.  It’s quite a bit more robust than most modern death indexes -- in addition to the name and death date of each person included, it includes details like the address or name of the place where the person died, their cause of death, and (in some years) the name of the cemetery where they were buried.  This additional information makes the Ledger Index a pretty decent substitute for obituaries.  

Here’s what the Ledger Index actually looks like.  The library has a microfilmed copy, which is why it’s white text on a black background.

Finding your ancestor

The Ledger Index is arranged by date of death -- because of this, it’s sometimes referred to as the “Chronologic Index.”  If you know the date your ancestor died, simply go to that date and hopefully you’ll find them!

If you don’t know your ancestor’s date of death, try looking for their name in the Oregon State Archives’ Oregon Historical Records Index.  This index includes most records from the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths.  If your ancestor is listed, their date of death should lead you to the correct page of the Ledger Index.

Detail of a January 1882 Ledger Index page showing racial classification.  Click for a bigger version.

Racial classification in the Ledger Index

There are some challenges to using the Ledger Index.  The information in the Index is a primary source, created a full century ago, and it is a government record reflecting the mainstream standards and ideas of its time.  There is no context or commentary to interpret the index for you -- you will have to provide your own analysis.  

One thing these records show us is the unexamined racism of the past.  The Ledger Index states the race of each person listed, often using terms that are decidedly not used in polite speech today: “Chinese,” “Colored,” “Half-Breed,” “Mulatto,” “White,” and possibly others.  Some of these terms appear on detail from January 1882 at left.  In later years, single-letter abbreviations are used.  There is no key showing what the abbreviations meant, but I’ve guessed that “C” stands for “colored” (meaning Black or African-American); “W” for “white;” and “Y” for “yellow” (meaning Asian or Asian-American).   

Detail of a January 1882 Ledger Index page showing causes of death.  Click for a bigger version.

Causes of death in the Ledger Index

This detail from a January 1882 Ledger Index page shows some familiar-sounding causes of death: “still born,” "consumption," “scarlet fever.”  But read if you read through a few pages worth of deaths, you'll also find unexpected causes like “softening of spinal marrow.”  If you find your ancestor’s death has officially been recorded due to something that doesn’t sound like it would kill a person, be prepared to draw gentle, careful conclusions.  And remember, you may need to do some research to discover what a cause-of-death term meant in the past. 

Portland deaths only

Another thing to beware of when using the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths is that it only includes people who died within the city limits of Portland.  And the city was quite a bit smaller 100 years ago than it is now! 

Map of historical annexations to the City of Portland (pdf, from Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability)Fortunately, the Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability has a very helpful map showing historical annexations to the city of Portland (pdf), which you can look at to get a sense for where city limits were during your ancestor’s lifetime.  

Of course, people are mobile.  The Ledger Index lists people who died in Portland, not people who lived there.  Your ancestor who lived in Linnton or East Portland or St. Johns could well have died within Portland city limits, particularly if they died in an accident or in a hospital.

Using the Ledger Index, and getting help with it

You can consult the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths at Central Library.  Ask at any reference desk, and the librarian on duty will help you get the volumes you need.  To read it, you’ll need to use one of Central Library’s microfilm machines -- read more about that in my colleague Ross B.’s post Microfilm at the library.

But you don’t have to visit the library to tap the riches of this great resource --  librarians are always happy to help.  Just get in touch with us by phone or email via Ask the Librarian, and we’ll do our best to answer your questions or help you plan your research. 

In the meantime, happy researching!

 


Do you want to know more about finding other local obituaries?  Take a look at my post Where is that Oregon obituary? 

Or if you'd like to step it back a bit and learn more about family history research with obituaries, my colleague Kate S. walks you through some of the basics in her post on Obituaries 101.


 

Sometimes I get tired of the boys’ club that is our pop culture. I think “Give me some women’s voices.” You certainly won’t find women’s voices on Portland radio, so I have to start spinning my own musical choices. And find the books for women's voices. And I’ve been lucky lately.  

I found the Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys. I was transported to 1970s London where punk rock was just taking hold and young Viv was just learning to hold a guitar, and her own on the stage. I was floored by the two prominent men in her life: her father and her husband, who sneered and put down her music career. Viv triumphs though! This is a memoir about creativity, aging and empowerment. I found her determination inspiring.

Then I heard that Kim Gordon had a memoir coming out. I got goosebumps. I was more of a pop music lover or local music lover most of my life. My favorite bands in the 80s and 90s were local bands but that’s another story. But I knew of Kim Gordon at that time. She was a beacon of hope for women in rock. Yes, there were others. But hearing that she sang about Karen Carpenter in the song “Tunic” sealed the deal for me. Reading her memoir really fleshes out the story how she began with visual arts and dance in California. Her musical career with Sonic Youth starts in New York City with her relationship with Thurston Moore. This is a wonderful memoir about reinventing oneself, and finding truth and creativity.  

Both women portray the healing power and strength of music and creativity.Their storytelling skills really drew me in as a reader. The musical settings and characters were very interesting for a music fan. Perhaps you will find their memoirs as inspiring as I did.

 

The last few weeks here in Portland have been heavenly! Nights so cold and clear that  the star-scattered sky seems close enough to touch.  Days washed with sunshine and the goodwill of people who can’t wait until summer. But I know this is an illusion.  Summer isn’t here yet and soon we  will be back to the rain and overcast skies that Oregonians know and love.

 So what will I do until then?  Maybe a book, movie or music will bring some of  that warmth and goodwill back to my soul. First on my list is a good mystery.  Nothing cheers me up like a puzzle well solved.  Or a detective who, despite personal problems, can’t stop until justice is done.  

Dr. Siuri is one such detective.  His story takes place in Laos during the time of the Vietnam War. Although 70 years old and hoping to retire into obscurity, Dr. Siri is appointed by the Laotian Government as their head (and only) forensic doctor.  In Coroners Lunch, the first book in the series by Colin Cotterill, Dr. Siri knows nothing about forensics, but luckily with his two talented and resourceful assistants, Mr. Geung, (a mentally challenged man the government wanted to fire for incompetency) and a young nurse Dtiu  ( who is considered too plain and overweight to nurse in the hospital), he is able to solve political crimes without causing an international disaster.  

Along with a good mystery and a steaming  cup of golden hot tea, I am sure to be listening to the Moody Blues - the mellow spirit of their music belies the introspective lyrics of songs that can  still make me ponder the meaning of  life. 

From Days of Future Past :"Cold-hearted orb, that rules the night, removes the colors from our sight, red is grey and yellow white, but WE decide which is right and which IS an illusion".

From A Question of Balance: "Why do we never get an answer, when we're knocking at the door with a thousand million questions about  hate and death and war?"     

If  black clouds and pouring rain put me in the  the mood for for a movie, I might pick the Secret Garden -I love  the version that features  Maggie Smith as the bitter Mrs. Medlock, Linda Ronstadt's airy song Winter Light  and a beautiful sleeping garden just waiting for the innocence and stubborness  of Mary, Dickon and Colin to wake it up. The beauty of the ending that shows them dancing on the sunlit meadow always restores my faith in life again.

It's almost enough to make me hope I will wake up tomorrow  to clouds and the sound of rain falling.

Well, almost.

Our guest reader is Steve Sheinkin, an award-winning nonfiction author and this year's speaker at our Teen Author Lecture.

I started out writing screenplays and comics, and then, because I wasn’t actually making any money, I got a job writing history textbooks. Now I’m trying to make amends for that particular crime by writing nonfiction books for teens that are actually fun to read. When I visit schools and describe my job, there’s usually one kid who raises his hand and says something like, “Oh, so you do homework for a living?” It’s not true, though I guess I do spend a lot of days just sitting at my desk, reading and taking notes. I happen to love it. I think of the research process as a sort of nerdy detective work.

In my free time, or while traveling, I love to read crime and detective novels. Everything from the original stuff, like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and the short stories of Dashiell Hammett, to Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley books and Richard Stark’s Parker novels. Right now my absolute favorite is the incredible Martin Beck mystery series, a set of Swedish police procedurals written by a wife-and-husband team in the late 1960s and early 70s. I’m also tearing through Shigeru Mizuki’s History of Japan, a series of four 500-plus page graphic novels (last volume due in July) combining the artist’s own lifestory with that of the last 80 years of Japanese history. Not too ambitious, in other words.

In terms of movies, these days I mostly go with my kids, 8 and 5. When I get a chance to watch a movie that doesn’t have Spongebob (don’t get me wrong, he’s cool) I go for 1940s noirs, like Out of the Past.

Though I like comedies too, and actually just the other night my wife and I decided to show our kids one of my all-time favorites, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. My five year old declared the opening scene “boring,” and marched off to bed. Then he came back ten minutes later, just to see how things were going, and he watched Harpo rolling up his pant legs and jumping into the obnoxious vender’s vat of lemonade, and he laughed so hard he literally fell off the couch. So I consider that a success.

I won’t try to list styles or music or bands, it’s too hard, but I’ll tell you a story about one of my favorites, Elliott Smith. I know he had Portland connections, but he also used to live in Brooklyn, where I was born, and lived for years as an adult. Once, after a move to a new place, I started getting mail addressed to Elliott Smith. Couldn’t be that Elliott Smith, I figured; this was the late 1990s, so he was fairly well known. But it turned out it was him. He’d just moved out, the women on the top floor told me, and the crazy landlady downstairs, this fake-orange-haired troll who’d come out of her room to shout “You’re nothing but a couple of waiters!” to the aspiring filmmakers on the second floor, used to berate Elliott too, and eventually drove him out of the building. I’ve always wondered if she shows up in any of his songs. Wish I’d gotten the chance to ask.

For more great recommendations, customized just for you, try My Librarian.

Popular book jacketThis summer I was over at my mom's going through some things from my youth and found several diaries from middle and high school.  I glanced through the entries that mostly consisted of "Went to the football game", "Hung out at the mall", "Stalked the cute guy who works at the bowling alley".  Given my lack of meaningful (or even remotely interesting) teen years writing content, I am always somewhat suspicious when I see teen memoirs. What could they possibly have to write about in their short lives? Well plenty it turns out!  In her brand, spankin’ new book, Popular a memoir: Vintage wisdom for a modern geek, Maya van Wagenen tells us about the school year she spent figuring out the meaning of popularity and trying to achieve it.  At first, this sounds like what many middle and high school students attempt, but here’s the twist:  she used a book written for teens in 1951 for her popularity experiment! 

When Maya’s family was clearing out the house one month, she came upon a book her dad had bought at a garage sale, Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide, and thus was born an exciting but scary idea.  Each month of her 8th grade year she would read a chapter and then put into practice Cornell’s advice.  Hilarity ensues as she buys and wears a girdle, tries out a bunch of different hairstyles including a Princess Leia-esque do (“Love your buns, Maya!”), and infiltrates different cliques at their lunch tables.  Does Maya go from being an introverted sort-of-slob to a neat-as-a-pin, pearl-wearing popularity princess?  Can advice from the 1950s still be relevant to today’s teens?  Read Popular and find out!

Take a look at this list for some memorable teen memoirs.

It was my second term in Conceptual Physics when I learned that I was not cut out for the career in science I had dreamed about while watching Star Wars over and over again. Subsequently, supportive friends and teachers taught me this “it’s not the end of the world” mantra: “D is for diploma.”

Things turned out fine. I remained a decent student and survived my remaining science courses. I focused on other subjects that I still excelled in and ended up with a great job that I love after plenty of other failures and just enough success; however, there are still times I dream of discovering the secrets of black holes or the ocean floor.

The Panda's Thumb book jacketArcheological digs and guest spots on NOVA sometimes enter my rich imagination and, just as I used to live out my fantasies of rock superstardom through air guitar in middle school, I find an outlet for scientific delusions of grandeur on the library shelves with those amazing scientists that can speak my language and hold my hand through the equations and lab lingo. One of the best-selling and most entertaining science writers was the late Stephen Jay Gould, and his award-winning series of essays entitled The Panda’s Thumb taught me everything I actually understand about the theory of evolution (well not everything, as you’ll see below). Gould’s short entries make it easier for us in the scientific laity to fight the urge to nap in the middle of a chapter.

For those of you with a longer attention span who are interested in evolution, I recommend David Quammen’s beautiful verbosity. His writings on The Black Hole War book jacketDarwin and Wallace more or less equal the remainder of my evolutionary knowledge. Even though it was physics that destroyed my chances of being an award-winning scientist, it is still one of my favorite subjects. The Black Hole War (eBook ) by Leonard Susskind is my favorite narrative on the subject. It combines great diagrams for all the mathy (all right, this isn’t a real word) points, fun anecdotes about some of the world’s foremost scientists, and a long arduous battle between Susskind (with a couple colleagues) and Stephen Hawking and the entire scientific world concerning what happens when information passes through the horizon of a black hole. Spoiler Alert: Susskind won and opened new avenues for String Theory, Holograms, and oh so many fun physics wormholes.

Cataclysms on the Columbia book jacketCataclysms on the Columbia brings us back home to the ancient history of Cascadia, as well as to the recent past. Bretz, an intrepid geologist, also fought with the scientific community over his discovery. He realized that it must have taken one or many (upwards of 90) cataclysmic floods to form the geological markers from Western Montana through Eastern Washington, down through the Columbia River Gorge, all the way into the Willamette Valley. Of course, everyone at the time accused him of Catastrophism, which was viewed by many as a religious perspective, not legitimate science. Bretz’s strength of character and the vivid descriptions of what the floods must have been like are respectively inspirational and terrifying.

This is only a small sample of the highly readable Science-Fact available at MCL. So if you too are a member of the numerically-challenged laity, please respond below with your favorite science book and I will add it to the Page-turning Science reading list being created as we speak!

Sistine Chapel ceilingAfter the dreadful Dark Ages and the morbid Middle Ages where death and ignorance reigned, something had to give.  All work and warfare made Giovanni a dull boy, and people were tired of being stuck at home on a flat world. A movement began in Italy to enhance people’s quality of life and up the cultural IQ in Europe. Art, literature and education flourished.  To find out more about this heady period in European history, read on!

For an overview of the Renaissance, check out this website.  You’ll learn about printing and thinking during the era; architecture, painting and music; exploration and trade plus movement out of the Middle Ages.

Here you’ll find articles from the Open University’s Renaissance Secrets team on topics such as fashion in Renaissance Venice, medical knowledge and beliefs in Renaissance Italy, and the printing revolution.

Florence was the most important city of the Renaissance.  Get up close and personal with Michelangelo’s David when you take the virtual tour of that city.  Here you can watch videos and read about all of the places important in Renaissance Florence.statue of Leonardo Da Vinci

In Italy during this time, you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of the Medici family. This website, produced by PBS, is all about the specific contributions and historical legacy of the Medici dynasty during the extraordinary Renaissance period.  There is also general information about the Renaissance and links to books and websites about that era.

Check out the Boston’s Museum of Science’s Exploring Leonardo site for information on the amazing artist, scientist and inventor, Leonardo Da Vinci.  There’s an interactive map of Italy where you can find out where Leonardo did what, along with lots of other activities that will help you understand Leonardo and his world.

No Renaissance page would be complete without a tribute to one of the world’s greatest artists, Michelangelo.  For biographical information and photos of his work, see this site. Take a look at Artcyclopedia’s High Renaissance page for information about and links to collections of works by other artists of that period. 

Now go forth now and get some culture!

I’ve played the game “Would you rather?” a few times before where you have to choose which of two things you would rather do/be/have etc.  Some decisions were hard because both choices are equally yucky:  “Would you rather eat a worm or a spider?”  I’d rather eat neither.  Some decisions were hard because both choices seemed to have potential:  “Would you rather be a troll or a Viking for Halloween?”  One choice that frequently comes up in this game is “Would you rather be deaf or blind?”  That one was easy for me.  I need my eyes to do most of the things I enjoy:  reading, crafting, watching TV, observing flora and fauna as I hike, etc.  If I were deaf, although I would have to live without music, I also wouldn’t have to hear the garbage men at 6:00 a.m. or my upstairs neighbors walking around (fortunately, the current ones are really considerate!).  To me, it seems all around easier to be deaf than blind.

El Deafo book jacketBeing deaf is no piece of cake, though, as Cece Bell shows us in El Deafo, her memoir in graphic form. When she was four years old, she contracted meningitis and was left with a severe hearing impairment.  She was able to hear with the help of several devices, but her deafness still set her apart and, at times, left her feeling lonely and isolated.  In addition to dealing with the usual childhood concerns like making friends and keeping up in school, Cece had to cope with people who couldn’t understand her condition.  Although she really, really wanted to help them figure it out, it was hard to communicate what she needed.  El Deafo was her superhero alter ego who could stand up for herself and right the wrongs inflicted on her by mostly well-meaning, but frankly clueless kids and adults.  Her superpower was the ability to hear people – like teachers - from very far away (with the help of her Phonic Ear device). The illustrations, in which people are portrayed as rabbits, are colorful, charming and full of expression. We experience Cece’s big anxieties, but also her joys like her first crush and the fun of discovering a new best friend.  By the time you read the last panel, you’ll want to be pals with Cece!

For other memoirs for kids that are illustrated or in a graphic format, check out this list.

If my husband were to send me flowers at work (please don’t), I’d likely hide them away in a closet.  Not one for overt romantic gestures, it’s unlikely that I’d ever pick up a romance book for the romance.  Yet occasionally I do find myself enjoying a love story, especially if it has an international setting and an unusual narrative.  Here are three surprising, globe-trotting love stories that I’ve enjoyed recently.  But should you read them?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

Book jacket: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno GarciaSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Three misfit teens in Mexico City explore the magical power of music and unintentionally alter the course of their lives.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: Your own life carries a mixtape soundtrack. You enjoy stories where reality is suspended only momentarily to make room for a bit of magic. You love YA books, remember being a surly misfit teenager yourself or maybe still are a surly misfit teenager.

Maybe not: You have little patience for adolescent struggles and need your fiction believable. What you’re really looking for is a book that evokes a sense of place.

 

Book jacket: A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: An ill-suited lover opens up the world and enlivens the city of Delhi for a restless young woman none too keen on having an arranged marriage.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: You like your characters a little dark, reckless and unpredictable.  You take delight in beautiful writing and vivid descriptions of foreign cities. You enjoy psychological stories and pondering women’s roles around the world. You just want to hold this gorgeous, compact and gold-flecked book in your hands.

Maybe not: Unhealthy relationships that play with power balance leave you cold. You need a more cohesive plot and less psychological (and ahem sexual) exploring.

 

Book jacket: I Am China by Xiaolu GuoI Am China by Xiaolu Guo: A London translator takes an unusual assignment translating the journal and letters of a punk rock musician and soon finds herself immersed in the story of two Chinese lovers.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: Chinese punk rockers alone is intrigue enough. You love a slow-to-unravel mystery and a novel in letters. Language and the complexities of translation intrigue you. You like a little revolution with your romance.

Maybe not:  You can’t forgive an underdeveloped character and need a faster pace to keep you interested.

For a long time, I read nonfiction almost exclusively. Much of it was academic so occasionally I needed to find something light and fun to mentally recharge myself. The problem was if I read fiction, then I’d feel guilty about “wasting time” with books that didn’t further my professional development. My work-around was the humorous travelogue. Certain authors have a great talent for both telling a great story about themselves and their adventures while including colorful tales about the history of their destination.

Confederates in the Attic book jacketWhat often makes these so appealing is the emphasis on the colorful, whether it be the place or the people our intrepid travelers encounter. A great example is Robert Lee Hodge, a Civil War reenactor who specializes in imitating a bloated corpse in Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. Another is Bill Bryson’s friend, Stephen Katz, as the two attempt to traverse the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods. Katz had spent the previous two decades as Des Moines, Iowa’s “drug culture” selling pot, partying, and getting drunk.  You can imagine how well he took to life on the trail. . .
Lost on Planet China book jacket
What kept my guilt at bay, however, was the fact all of them incorporate some history into the story. For example, Sarah Vowell is not only very funny, but tells us a lot about the 19th century as she travels to the locations associated with Presidential assassinations in Assassination Vacation, and  J. Maarten Troost provides us with a great primer on post-Mao China in Lost on Planet China.

If this kind of story sounds appealing, please take a look at the accompanying reading list. These are all great fun, and you’ll probably learn a thing or two. If you know of another author with a similar emphasis I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

I loved the 2013 novel Life After Life, which told the story-- stories-- of Ursula Todd and all the lives she might have had, many of which involved surviving the London Blitz. I was delighted this year to find that author Kate Atkinson has written A God in Ruins, a companion piece to Life After Life, which expands on the story of Teddy, Ursula's brother. I love this character, a man who survives real horror, and who, as the pilot of an RAF bomber plane, drops horror on countless others. After surviving when so many pilots have not, he decides that after the war, he must be kind. And he mostly succeeds in being kind to the people around him for the rest of his long life.

Author Kate Atkinson writes so beautifully that she makes me want to stop the endless stream of books flying at me and have myself a little Kate Atkinson festival. It's always so delicious to discover an author you love who's already written tons of books. Maybe I’ll do it. A God in Ruins is glorious, a book about flight, about the terrible cost of war in terms of lost lives, about the value of one single life, about time itself. The narrative skips backward and forward in time and tells stories from Teddy's life and from the lives of the people he loves. But then, within each story, you find yourself shooting backward in time and sometimes forward into the future, so all of that past and future informs the present. I kept thinking about time, how it changes us-- and sometimes can't change us one bit-- about how every moment can be affected by all the moments before-- and how, in our memory, those moments can be colored by everything that comes after, too.

I've read and watched a number of things lately in which time has been used to allow you to get to know the characters in deep and interesting ways. I loved Richard Linklater’s wonderful movie Boyhood, shot in twelve consecutive summers. And then I happened to come across Here, a fascinating new graphic novel set entirely in a corner of a single living room over years and years. It became apparent that I needed to make a list of books and movies in which time plays its very important part, and you can find that list right here

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