Hattie heard the strangers approaching long before they reached her father’s tobacco farm. The groan of straining wagon wheels. The thudding of horses’ hooves on the hard Missouri dirt. And as she lay worrying and waiting for what was to come, she looked out of her upstairs window until she finally saw their shadowy shapes form at the edge of the yard.

She crept out of bed and headed downstairs, wondering who would visit their home in the middle of this stifling August night night. Was it a neighbor in need or a band of raggedy soldiers seeking shelter?

Hattie, the heroine of Susan Salzer’s dramatic Civil War-era novel Up From Thunder, was about to find out.

Outside, she heard men yelling and Pa’s scuffled footsteps on their warped wooden porch. The front door flew open like it had been forced by an invisible wind, and a group of scruffy men with guns hurried a fellow rider inside. They marched him up to the tiny attic with a large trail of blood following behind them.

Through the light of Pa’s flickering lantern, she looked at the face of the wounded man as they carried him by. He was pale, but handsome, with sharp cheekbones and a boyish face. She had no idea who he was, and she turned to Pa quizzically. He looked back with worried eyes and whispered, “Hattie, I am going to need your help.”

The Trails West teens do not mess around. This past October 17-23, libraries around the country celebrated Teen Read Week, and at the Kansas City Public Library’s Independence branch, it was all about competing – and connecting.

Throughout the week, Teen Services Library Assistant Amanda Barnhart conducted a Battle of the Books poll, with more than 100 patrons voting on eight young adult titles. To some folks’ surprise, Harry Potter claimed the ultimate victory, defeating newer series like Twilight, The Hunger Games and Bleach.

The Hogwarts stalwart wasn’t the only story of an old favorite beating out the newcomers. In a triumph of primitive technology over digital diversions, a Connect Four tournament capped Teen Read Week at Trails.

Indeed, that 1970s Milton Bradley classic and originator of the catchphrase “Pretty sneaky, sis,” is back.

Branch manager Ritchie Momon says that he hasn’t seen as much interest in a game since the Speed card craze of a few years ago.

If you had to pick one writer alive today whose autobiography could become a bestseller 100 years after his or her death, who would you choose? Rowling? Roth? Franzen, perhaps? It’s hard to fathom which of today’s literary celebrities might still be relevant in 2110.

When it comes to native Missourian Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, his power to get people talking is as potent as it was during his lifetime. This year, on the centenary of his death in 1910, a complete and unexpurgated version of Twain’s autobiography has the literary world abuzz.

Resting comfortably in the Amazon top 10 as it awaits its November 15 release, volume one of the University of California Press’ three-volume, 500,000-word Autobiography of Mark Twain begins the fulfillment of Twain’s own decree that his memoirs not be published until 100 years after his death. The book is the work of a team of editors at UC-Berkeley, where the Mark Twain Papers are held at the Bancroft Library.

Soldier says goodbye to his wife in the Buenavista station (1913). Agustín Víctor Casasola

In 1908, American journalist John Kenneth Turner, posing as a wealthy investor, infiltrated hemp plantations in the Yucatán peninsula. His goal: to expose the “chattel slavery” abundant Mexico under the oppressive regime of Porfirio Díaz.

“Slavery in Mexico! Yes, I found it,” he wrote in his 1910 book Barbarous Mexico. A bestseller at the time, Turner’s exposé of the so-called “Porfirian Peace” provided context for understanding the revolution that eventually drove Díaz out of the country and ushered in years of upheaval and reform.

With Barbarous Mexico, he addressed an American audience that viewed its “Sister Republic” as perhaps a bit poorer and less technologically advanced than the U.S. but not much different in terms of liberty and justice. And while Mexico did have democratic written laws, Turner found the government to be hopelessly corrupt:

This past October, the Barista’s Book Club voyaged from the Plaza Branch to the darkest heart of South America via The River of Doubt, a fascinating account of Theodore Roosevelt’s exploration of the Amazon River.

This book not only offers a riveting characterization of Roosevelt, it evokes the mysterious untamed beauty of the Amazon Rainforest in the early 1900s.

Kansas City-based author Candice Millard's description of the Amazon is mesmerizing in its historical and geographical detail.  You feel transported to this incredible place with its endless amounts of rain and thick, almost impenetrable foliage, in which the most interesting inhabitants thrive. Millard describes flesh-eating piranhas, wild monkeys, deadly snakes, endless species of insects and unbelievably primitive indigenous Indian tribes, who wear little to no clothing, shoot poisonous arrows and practice cannibalism.

If you’re looking for a book to match the dreary mood of autumn, and you aren’t afraid to look at life in fierce, intense ways, you might consider Sourland. This latest collection by the great Joyce Carol Oates gives us 16 stories that unflinchingly speak of violence – both physical and psychological. 

The tales are full of rich details and observations told in such a calm, matter-of-fact manner that it is hard to look away from their horror. Be warned, this is not a book for the faint of heart.

As the stories build, the reader develops an imminent sense of dread for the characters, who don’t seem to see the horrors creeping up on them – widowhood, rape, abduction, and the twisted acts of internal cruelty we do to ourselves when we’re left alone.

However, throughout Sourland, there is a growing sense that perhaps the characters not only anticipate but are even almost masochistically expecting their fates.

Though the lives of the characters are unapologetically dark, the details and surroundings are described in beautiful ways. Despite its stern subject, Sourland is literary and eloquent.

Election Day is November 2. Do you know where your ballot box is? Because we love helping people exercise their right to participate in democracy, we thought we’d compile a short list of some resources to help you get your vote on in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

What would you do if you had to build a nation? Start Googling? Download an app? When John Adams strode onto the world stage by joining the Continental Congress as a representative from Massachusetts, he had no iPhone or MacBook Air. Contemporary European books (often in their original languages) and Greek and Latin classics were his RSS and HTML.

Unlike his more privileged colleague Thomas Jefferson, Adams was the son of an uneducated farmer. His father had to sell ten acres of land to pay his son’s tuition at Harvard. Mindpower, not money, was Adams’ currency in the social climate of colonial America, and devouring the knowledge contained in books was Adam’s ticket to self-betterment.

A more-than-avid reader, Adams built a library of thousands of volumes – a search engine in paper, ink, and binding. The knowledge contained in Adams' vast library not only fueled his passionately principled mind but shaped the creation of our country -- and set the course of a family.

A brand-new exhibit and a special event happening this week at the Kansas City Public Library celebrate Adams’ bibliophilic legacy.

Welcome to the first of our KCPL Book Group profiles. Mysterious Undertakings at the Waldo Branch gladly agreed to accommodate a drop-in visitor who took copious notes and photographs. But then again, Waldo welcomes all newcomers, and on this particular night, there was more than one newbie.

Mysterious Undertakings meets the first Monday of every month in a meeting room. The members take turns choosing the books and the selector leads the discussion. Facilitators Ann and Marty make certain the room is booked, cleaned, and set up.  Another participant brings tea, and everyone is free to bring their own tea cup. (If you use one of the Library mugs, you must wash it before you go.)

At this gathering, Phil led the discussion on the first Joe Pickett novel, Open Season. Phil knew that author C.J. Box was likely familiar to many of the attendees, and he took the time to point out that the conversation had to be focused on the book, not the author.

Earlier this month, Kansas City Public Library Executive Director Crosby Kemper III was officially sworn in to the Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. In addition to having a tongue-twisting name, the MCWSC aims to commemorate Missouri’s historically significant yet often overlooked role in the Civil War, and to recognize how that role reverberates today. The Commission was established in April 2010 by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon.

Our Food for Fines Week (October 18 through 24) has come to a close. And while we’re still running the numbers to see how much food Library patrons donated to our community partner Harvesters and how much we forgave in overdue fines, we’d like to recognize one person with exceptionally good taste.

Last week, on the KC Unbound blog, we ran a recipe contest based on some of the food items people commonly donate each year to reduce their Library debts and help Kansas City families in need. We gave you a list of 16 ingredients and asked you to make up an original meal using at least five.

Hearty congrats to winner Jeanne Calkins, who took a south-of-the-border approach to the recipe challenge, baking up a veggie casserole using the corn muffin mix, mixed greens, refried beans, corn, and olives from the list, plus some additions of her own.

Jeanne won a free cookbook – but better than that, she earned the bragging rights that come with being our honorary KCPL Top Chef!

Here’s Jeanne’s recipe:

The world may have never known Doonesbury if it weren’t for Jim Andrews and John McMeel. The founders of Andrews McMeel Universal (then called Universal Press Syndicate) were headquartered in a rented house in Leawood when they discovered a young cartoonist named Garry Trudeau.

Forty years, 14,000 strips, and one Pulitzer later, Trudeau and AMU are still going strong.

On October 25, Trudeau visits the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library to present his brand-new book, 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective. We caught up with John McMeel and CEO Hugh Andrews of AMU to discuss the iconic Doonesbury from a publisher’s perspective.

What’s so special about Kansas City that has kept AMU rooted here all these decades?

Do you have what it takes to become the Kansas City Public Library’s resident Top Chef? In celebration of Food for Fines Week, we’re holding a culinary contest to see who can come up with the best recipe using some of the ingredients people have donated toward reducing their Library fines. Now, you may find these ingredients a bit unorthodox. But nothing’s impossible for the true book-lovin’ foodie.

If you’ve been reading our blog and following us on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll know that between October 18 and 24, we’re encouraging patrons to bring non-perishable canned and boxed food to any Kansas City Public Library location to be donated to Harvesters: The Community Food Network. Each item is applied as a $1 credit toward the reduction of your existing Library late fees.

In 1936, Mao Tse-tung was not dead, as his enemies would have China believe. Indeed, despite frequent reports of his demise, the 43-year-old communist leader was alive and well and giving his first-ever interviews to a foreign correspondent: Kansas City-born journalist Edgar Snow.

Snow had been living in China since 1928. Before leaving for his 13-year stay in China, Snow studied at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and briefly pursued advertising in New York. By 1936, he had written two books on China, the non-fiction travelogue Far Eastern Front and the short story collection Living China.

When Snow met with Chairman Mao at the communist capital of Pao An in far northwest China, the West knew very little about this son of a peasant who would fight a war with Japan, defeat Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and later be responsible for social and economic upheavals such as the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Food for Fines

Hey you – yeah, you, the one who’s been avoiding the Library because you’ve got overdue fines and money is tight right now. Today through Oct. 24, just bring a few cans of food into a Kansas City Public Library location near you, and, voila, our collection of four-squillion books, CDs and DVDs will once again be at your disposal. Why? Because it’s Food for Fines week.

Here at the Library, we like giving things away. Late fees, of course, are a necessary part of doing business. But it really bums us out whenever we hear that you aren’t coming to partake of our eighteen-quindupletillion free items (OK, OK, more like 1.1 million) because you kept that copy of The Ersatz Elevator too long.

That’s why every year, we team up with the wonderful people at Harvesters Community Food Network to bring you the one time of the year where you get the satisfaction of feeding your fellow citizens and having your foolish fines forgiven in one fell blow.

Each food item erases $1 in late fees for overdue items. And that really adds up. To wit, here’s a Harper’s Index-ian rundown of some of last year’s numbers:

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