alebrijesNot long ago I went through my collection of family photos and found a very special one of my mother. It was taken during a visit to Mexico.  I can see her and my cousin in a small stand of colorful “alebrijes” in the small town of Tepoztlan Morelos. Let me tell you more about the craft of alebrijes.

The origins of these peculiar creations began in 1936 with an artisan, Pedro Linares, who worked at “La Merced” market in Mexico City creating these fantastic characters. Pedro was a “cartonero” (cardboarding maker) who worked mainly with paper mache making piñatas and other pieces. The alebrijes were attributed to a time when he was very sick. During the fever hallucinations he found himself in a forest full of rare creatures that shouted loudly “alebrijes”, “alebrijes!” When he got better he dedicated the rest of his life to recreating those images with cardboard using the papel mache technique. His talent was recognized first by the owner of a gallery and then by the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera among others. His alebrije technique was passed to new generations of artisans, mainly in Oaxaca. In Oaxaca, Pedro's technique has become popular with wood carvers.

The dream of such a singular person has transcended time and now these magical characters are enjoyed by people around the world. If you have the opportunity to visit an art craft market in Mexico, don’t forget to ask where to find the alebrijes. I’ll always remember how Pedro Linares dignified Mexican creativity with his work when I look at the photo of my mother admiring the magical pieces one rainy fall afternoon.

Allan Karlsson is a self-taught explosives expert and a charming resident of a Swedish nursing home.  He has no use for politics nor religion, but will readily accept any reasonable invitation to a fine meal, provided there’s no dull chatter of communism or any other ism.   So how did he come to find himself suspected of murder and on the lam with a pair of known criminals, a hot dog vendor, and a runaway elephant? 

It’s simple really.  He climbed out of his window in pursuit of a good vodka.  It’s his 100th birthday after all and after decades spent blowing up bridges and haphazardly falling in and out of favor with world leaders such as Truman, Franco, Mao, and Stalin, doesn’t he deserve as much?

The 100-year-old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is the perfect faux snow day book. Cuddle up with a quilt, a hot vodka toddy, and share some laughs with this wonderfully irreverent centenarian.

For other amusing titles to keep you entertained when the possibility of wintry weather interrupts your plans, check out this list.

Death of Klinghoffer CDThe Metropolitan Opera has just wrapped up its new production of The Death of Klinghoffer. Although controversial since its premiere in 1991, the opera has previously been performed with little incident and is considered by many to be one of composer John Adams' finest works. But this year, the production has been met with protests outside the opera house and even a few boos from within. So what's the big deal and why now?

The opera is based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly Jewish passenger on board the ship. But this year, Klinghoffer’s daughtersJohn Adams photo have made a very public objection to it, claiming it is anti-Semitic and glorifies the terrorists who perpetrated the crime. This objection, combined with recent anti-Semitic events in Europe, fighting in Gaza, and the growing threat posed by the Islamic State have combined to whip up a great deal of emotion around the staging of this work.

Still, most of those protesting the performance have probably never seen or heard the work. Check it out and decide for yourself -- is it anti-Semitic or is it a great piece of art that has been unfairly labeled?

According to the Washington Post, every year the federal government classifies millions of megabytes of information as secret. Sometimes this is necessary but a recent report by the government’s own Public Interest Declassification Board makes it clear that classification is used far too often and declassification takes far too long. Why does this matter? Because this is a democracy where open government and public access are necessary if we, the people, are to be informed and responsible citizens. With that in mind, what are our options if we suspect the government is withholding information we need to know?

The Freedom of Information ActFOIA logo

The official avenue to classified information is through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  This act allows anyone to request materials generated by the executive branch of government with certain exceptions. The nature of those exceptions has varied over time—some administrations are more lenient others more guarded in how vigorously secrets should be kept—but it still provides us with a means of accessing classified federal records. The legislation had also changed over time. One of the most important amendments to the FOIA is the Privacy Act of 1974 which provides individual citizens the right to know what information the federal government has collected about them personally. If you are interested in taking advantage of the FOIA, there is A Citizen’s Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records.

Who Uses the Freedom of Information Act?

While anyone can use the FOIA, requests from certain kinds of groups are more common than others.  Journalists, academics, and government watchdog groups are the most frequent users. Of all those who utilize the FOIA, however, the National Security Archive makes  more requests than any other entity. Based at George Washington University, it is a private, non-profit organization that specializes in requesting and publishing official secrets and is the largest holder of federal records outside of the government itself. If you have any interest in American military, foreign, or intelligence policy, this is a site you really need to explore. Because it is a strong advocate for open government, the National Security Archive also provides its own detailed instructions designed to help those filing FOIA requests.

Alternatives to the Freedom of Information Act

There are sources operating without sanction that seek to expose government secrets. Some people consider these sources as heroic whistleblowers exposing government misdeeds while others think of such sources as criminals who endanger American security. For example, revelations coming from documents leaked by Edward Snowden have created a maelstrom of controversy over privacy both in the U.S. and abroad. Much has been written about Snowden but good places to start are The Guardian (the news outlet with whom Snowden initially worked) and an extensive interview in Wired.   Also significant is Wikileaks, a self-described non-profit organization dedicated to providing a secure outlet where anonymous sources can leak information. Historically, some leaks have proven invaluable such as Daniel Ellsberg exposing the Pentagon Papers and Mark Felt (AKA Deep Throat) who assisted reporters investigating the Watergate scandal. The challenge is telling the difference. What, if any, is the difference between a “good” leak and a “bad” leak?  What are the ethical ramifications of leaks? These are questions we must attempt to answer as a society if we are to fulfill our obligations as citizens in a democracy.

If you want to know more about government secrecy or using the Freedom of Information Act, don't hesitate to Ask a Librarian. We would love to help!


The Greatest Knight: the Remarkable Life of William Marshall, the Power Behind Five English Thrones

by Thomas Asbridge

Read about one of the legends of knighthood who served many kings including Richard the Lionheart. A BBC program willed be aired in the future based on the book.

Collecting Shakespeare: the Story of Henry and Emily Folger

by Stephen H. Grant

The story of the American couple who devoted their lives to acquiring the world's largest collection of the original folios of William Shakespeare. It is a tale of literary obsession and the legacy they left to form the Folger Shakespeare Library which is a thriving museum today.

Empire of Cotton: A Global History

by Sven Beckert

An expansive history of how the cotton industry changed the world and its lasting influence on all facets of our lives today. For fans of Mark Kurlansky and Jared Diamond.

The Afternoon Men

by Anthony Powell

Originally published in 1931, this author has recently become of interest again to readers of today. The story is a satire of young men in London revolving through the social arena with comic scenes and bitter wit.


Miles from Nowhere bookjacketI love to travel and when I do I like to feel fairly confident that I will return in one piece. So when I want to do some seriously adventurous travel, I naturally turn to books. Longest walk bookjacketHere are a couple of my favorites:

In the spring of 1978, Barbara Savage and her husband hopped on their bikes, leaving their comfortable home in Santa Barbara, California on the first leg of their journey around the world. Along the way, they encountered maniac drivers in south Florida; experienced the extreme poverty, squalor and disease of rural Egypt; and learned that in India what appears to be a toilet could actually be shower. Miles from Nowhere is a really engaging account and one of the few books I have read for a second time.

The Longest Walk Along with his Japanese girlfriend, Englishman George Meegan began walking north from Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. This was in 1977. By the time he had taken his final step in September of 1983, he had covered over 19,000 miles, married his girlfriend Yoshiko, become a father twice, met an American president, and traveled to the shores of the Beaufort Sea at the northernmost tip of Alaska. Definitely not something I would try to emulate -- but what a story!

I think it was in the late 1980s when I became a Remedios Varo admirer. It might be that her close relationship with Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington made me aware of her contextual Celestial Pablum by Remedios Varoexistence. Born in Spain in 1908, this surrealist artist was strongly influenced by her father, a hydraulic engineer, her second husband Benjamin Beret a French dadaist, and her friend André Breton.

When living in Paris she was forced into exile during WWII and settled down in Mexico City. She found refuge in Mexico until she died in 1963. Graduated from the prestigious San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, she created around 150 art pieces, 110 of them created in Mexico using oils on masonite panels she prepared herself. Her art is full of ambiguous characters; the elements of her painting are mostly biographical, and her art is allegorical, humorous, fantastic, and oriented to science, the spiritual and the psychological.  

From the very beginning I was fascinated and intrigued with her peculiar style and wanted to know who she was. Back in the days before the internet, information was very limited so I couldn't pursue my research; but I held in my mind some images of her artwork that I saw in books and postcards. Then one day, I was reading the newspaper and discovered that the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City would be hosting one of her exhibitions -- what an opportunity! I went and spent and entire afternoon contemplating her creations and trying to digest every single image. Among my favorite paintings were "Celestial Pablum," "Creation of the Birds," and "The Cats Paradise." Her potential and her creative mind were not recognized as she deserved; you probably won't find much information about her. For me, the afternoon I spent in the company of this forgotten surreal artist will always remain in my mind. Learn more about her work in The Magic of Remedios Varo.

When I read Caitlin Moran's 2011 collection of laugh out loud-funny feminist essays, How to be a Woman, I found it  wildly inspiring and entertaining. If I was the Queen of the World, all women in their 20s would be required to read this book, which deals with subjects like the Brazilian wax, body image, abortion, porn and princesses with such wit and verve that I alternated between laughing hard and fist-pumping. I should warn you that she's a bit of an opinionated potty-mouth-- but I'm okay with that.

Her new book, How to Build a Girl, is clearly a pretty autobiographical novel about Joanna, a teenager growing up on a council estate (think "projects") in a small nowhere-town in England in the early 1990s. Her father is an unemployed alcoholic, her mother is clinically depressed, and Joanna spends a lot of time providing childcare for her younger siblings and worrying about money. Afraid her family will lose their government benefits, she decides to save the  family, get herself out of the trap her mother is stuck in, and invent herself anew-- by becoming a music journalist. She starts sending articles to music magazines, and then, miraculously, gets herself a job. And a lot of eyeliner. And a top hat. 

As the title suggests, this book is really about being young, deciding who you're going to be and making it happen. We all have to do it, but Joanna is brave and starts young, and she does it dramatically, making bigger mistakes. Towards the end, she is feeling her way towards considering her own needs and desires, as well as learning to be kind to other people. But in much of this book, she reminded me of one of the bad characters in a Jane Austen novel, if Jane Austen wrote graphic sex scenes and had an indie rock sensibility. If you like coming-of-age stories and books that make you laugh in an unseemly way when you read them in public, you should give How to Build a Girl a try.


Chocolate bookjacketMy Mexican pride elevates each time I hear the word “chocolate”, knowing that the word comes from the Aztec “Xocoatl”. The great recognition of this peculiar Man holding cacao fruit -  National Antropology and History Museum of Mexicobean and is unprecendented; it is one of the most relevant contributions from the Mesoamerican civilizations to the world. The Olmecs, a social group established along the Gulf of Mexico, were the first to taste the flavors of this special fruit in the form of a drink where the cacao (cocoa) was ground, fermented and mixed with herbs. In those days cacao was used as currency in trading among Mayans, Aztecs and other social groups in Mexico and Central America.

The cacao was a symbol of great abundance and was used to pay taxes, to honor gods and goddesses in religous rituals, and as an offering during the funerals of the elite. The Xocoatl drink was reserved exclusively for privileged social groups and soldiers, who used it during times of war.

Columbus tasted the drink in 1502 on the island of Guanaja in Honduras, on one of his last voyages to the New World. He brought it back to the King and Queen of Spain, who didn’t see the value of the product. It wasn't until 1519 when Hernan Cortes “the conquistador” was invited to drink it by Moctezuma, the Aztec Emperor and then revealed the culture of the cacao for the first time in the Old Continent.

After its introduction to Europe this great product inspired the imagination of artisans, and cooks all over the world who have transformed it into delightful treats.

When you eat a piece of chocolate don’t forget the history and culture behind that delicious taste.


November 11 is Veterans' Day. President Woodrow Wilson first declared the date Armistice Day in commemoration of the end of The First World War, occurring at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. 100 years this past July, WWI began. It lasted four awful years and changed how we think about war. Historians still debate the exact causes of the conflict but they agree that the level of carnage and horror was to that point, and maybe since, unmatched.

At the outset, the war was a patriotic rallying point on all sides, for all levels of society. Poets were not immune to the zeal of fighting for king and country, but they also reacted to the hideousness of trench and gas warfare. Here are two poems. The first was written by the English poet Rupert Brooke in 1914:


The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

By the end of the war Brooke’s poem was criticized as an example of a mindless patriotism that contributed to the zeal for war.  In high contrast the following poem was written by another English poet, Wilfred Owen, in 1917:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The Latin of the last line translates to “it is sweet and right to die for your country”.

In the United Kingdom November 11th is called Remembrance Day.  A hundred years on, the importance of remembering the horror of that violence is something no one should find controversial.



Subscribe to