Book Review: The Beat Goes On by Ian Rankin

I started reading Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels a couple of years ago and the character immediately became one of my favorites, ranking alongside Spenser, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, Alex Delaware, and V.I. Warshawski. John Rebus is simply a fascinating police detective.

The Beat Goes On collects all of Rankin's Inspector Rebus short stories and presents them in chronological order. Reading through them is a delightful journey through the history of this character.

I tend to be cautious about short stories in the mystery genre. The short form is too short to create truly compelling whodunits. The mystery aspect must necessarily be rather simplistic, due to spatial constraints.

The reason Rankin's short stories work so well is because the mystery isn't the point. He uses these stories to offer snapshots of Rebus' life. The cases he works on in the pages of this collection range from the mundane to the bizarre, and a couple of the stories are written from the point of view of other characters, but all of them show us a bit more of Rebus' personality. These stories add detail and dimension to the man and his world.

Devoted readers of the Inspector Rebus novels have watched the character develop over the years, certainly, but each individual novel takes place in its own bubble of time. What chronology we have for Rebus exists in our own minds, as we connect those bubbles together. The short stories in The Beat Goes On span the decades from the mid-1980s through 2010—the full span of the first nineteen Rebus novels. By presenting them in chronological order, all in one place, Rankin makes the evolution of the character explicit. It's really quite wonderful.

That being said: I wouldn't recommend this collection for anyone who's looking for an entrée into the world of Inspector Rebus. These are snapshots from various periods of his life—embellishments and elaborations—but they don't go into depth. Characters come and go without a great deal of explanation as to who they are, or the full nature and history of their relationship to Rebus. These are stories written for fans who already know the background from the novels.

For those of us who are already fans, these are welcome moments to spend with one of our favorite characters.

One other thing I noticed, apropos of nothing much, Rankin has a thing for setting short stories during the holidays. Several of the stories in The Beat Goes On take place during Christmas and New Year's. There are a few appearances by people dressed as Santa and Rebus spends a couple of evenings patrolling New Year's festivals. I don't know why I'm so taken with the presence of the holidays in these stories but it's a phenomenon which struck me.

About the Author

John Keogh

John Keogh is the Digital User Specialist for the Digital Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. He grew up in Fargo, ND, (too small) and lived in Chicago for several years (too big) before he moved to Kansas City. He calls KC his "Goldilocks town" because it's just right.

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American Public Square Series Debates Hot-Button Issues – Get This, with Reason and Respect

Here’s a novel idea for these mean-spirited, finger-jabbing, high-decibel times:

Civilized debate.

The Library and American Public Square, an organization founded by Allan Katz, a UMKC professor of public affairs and political science and former U.S. ambassador to Portugal, kicks off a series of spring discussions of some of the city’s most polarizing issues—minus the invective that too often feeds polarity—in early December.

Topics range from what to do with Kansas City International Airport to the future of the city’s new streetcar system.

American Public Square will address other issues at additional events held across the area throughout the spring.

KCI Up in the Air
December 2, 2015 | Reception: 6 p.m., Event 6:30 p.m.
Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.

Experts on both sides of the debate join University of Missouri-Kansas City professor and moderator Scott Helm in examining the future of Kansas City International Airport. Remodel or rebuild? Stay with multiple terminals or move to just one? The panel includes Skopos President Kevin Koster, a member of the KCI Airport Terminal Advisory Group; Rockhill Strategic President Jon Stephens, interim executive director of the Kansas City, Kansas, Chamber of Commerce; and Pitch writer Steve Vockrodt. There are fact checkers and a “civility bell.”

A Streetcar Named …
January 20, 2016 | Reception: 6 p.m., Event 6:30 p.m.
Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.

Kansas City’s new streetcar line will run from the River Market through downtown and to on Crown Center. Where should it go in the future? North to KCI? South to Brookside and Waldo? East? Is this the future for public transit in the city? If so, who pays for it?

Who Can Help Johnny Read?
March 16, 2016 | Reception: 6 p.m., Event 6:30 p.m.
Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.

Third-grade reading proficiency is a major factor in determining youngsters’ future success. What’s being done – and what more needs to be done – to insure that local schools are helping their students make the grade?

Cents and Sensibility
May 11, 2016 | Reception: 6 p.m., Event 6:30 p.m.
Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.

Where are our tax breaks and economic development dollars going and who is reaping the benefits? Are we getting the best bang for our bucks?

The format draws from town hall meetings of the past, emphasizing decorum. Speakers who cross the line on politeness are dinged by a “civility bell.” Applause is prohibited. There are on-the-spot fact-checkers.

It’s designed to be an antidote to today’s political rancor. Katz introduced the concept in Tallahassee, Florida, where he served as a member of the Tallahassee City Commission. It fostered a near-complete halt in negative political advertising by local candidates there.

In addition to the free events at the Library, American Public Square also is offering — with paid admittance — these events as part of two separate programming series:

Religious Literacy: What We Don't Know is Hurting Us
December 10, 2015 | Breakfast: 7:30 a.m., Program 8 a.m.
Village Presbyterian Church
in Prairie Village, Kansas

Part of APS’ Faith Fellowship series, it examines the state of religious literacy in contemporary America – why we need it, why we don't have it, and what it means to be religiously literate. Moderator Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and a host and contributor at KCUR, is joined local religious leaders including Rabbi Mark Levin and Helen Stringer of KC Oasis.

All in the Family
January 28, 2016 | Dinner 5:30 p.m., Program: 6 p.m.
Pierson Auditorium
in UMKC’s Atterbury Student Success Center

Part of APS’ Dinner at the Square series, it spotlights the evolution of the family in contemporary America. Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus will serve as moderator.

For additional paid programming, please visit
the American Public Square website.

Katz launched American Public Square—formerly called The Village Square—after joining UMKC’s faculty in August 2012. It, in turn, has inspired similar initiatives elsewhere in the country, most recently in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

“Political dialogue in America represents a food fight,” Katz told the Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle last month. “What we’ve discovered is people who are willing to come together and have a fact-based conversation, and who disagree significantly about what the facts mean, can actually come away with a different understanding of those facts.”

Book Review: Ashenden; or, the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham

Ashenden; or, the British Agent, by W. Somerset Maugham is not the first secret agent novel in English. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) may hold that honor. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, “His Last Bow,” (1917) which has Holmes doing secret agent work and outwitting a German secret agent, also precedes Maugham’s work, though Doyle’s work is a short story.

Maugham’s novel, though not the first secret agent novel, was quite influential. Later spy novelists, such as John LeCarre, Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler and Len Deighton, all give a nod to Maugham as inspiring their own work. For instance, James Bond’s boss at MI-6 is “M,” just as the book's titular character Ashenden’s boss in this novel is “R.” Apparently, the idea of using a letter began with Sir Marshall Smith-Cumming, the first chief of MI-6, who signed all documents with his initial (“C”), and the use of “C” continued, as many read it as “chief.”

Maugham himself was a secret agent during WWI and he based Ashenden’s experiences on his own during the war. There is a lot of the British Public School in Ashenden – he is well read, always polite, and has a wry way of looking at the world. There’s quite a lot of Maugham in Ashenden.

The novel has more of an edge than do British cozy mysteries (where everyone is polite and the murder/trouble, once solved, leaves no bitter aftertaste). In one chapter, Ashenden teams up with a colorful Mexican assassin, nicknamed the “Hairless Mexican,” though he prefers to be called “the General,” to eliminate a German spy. The information Ashenden gets, however, is not clear and the Mexican kills a man entirely innocent. Only after the man has been eliminated does Ashenden get information from MI-6 exculpating him. This does not bother the amoral General, but regret lingers in Ashenden’s mind.

At another point, Ashenden must use the love of an Indian separatist, Chandra Lal, who has been working with the Germans in hopes of forcing the British to give up India, for Giulia Lazzari, a cabaret entertainer, to get the man to cross from Switzerland into France, where he can be apprehended by British authorities for trial and execution. In this adventure, Lazzari appeals to Ashenden’s (and British) ideals in suggesting that it is wrong to use a man’s affections to trap him. Ashenden, however, remains impassive through Lazzari’s appeal, pointing out in turn that Lazzari’s own continued good fortune is dependent on her assistance, a point neither he, nor the British government will bend on. The capture, trial and execution of Lal happens “off-stage,” with little mention by Ashenden. Ashenden has grown hard in the service of his country.

In another case, Ashenden must trick a very friendly and engaging Britisher, living in Switzerland with his German wife to wait out the war, into returning to Britain, where he will be tried and executed for passing secrets to the Germans. The striking thing in this whole episode is that Ashenden clearly likes the man, and is quite taken by the affection of husband and wife towards each other. Again, we do not see the result of Ashenden’s actions, but we do see the German wife becoming increasingly despondent at her husband’s protracted absence, and the couple’s little Dachshund begins to howl in anguish over his missing master. Ashenden has no doubts about the man’s guilt, and feels little regret for his actions. And yet, we readers get no clear evidence of the man’s guilt, and after the mistake with the Mexican, we wonder if another mistake was made here. And by witnessing the wife’s slip into despair and the Dachshund howling for his master, Maugham makes the whole scene very disturbing.

The book’s concluding chapters deal with a mission to Russia after the abdication of Nicholas II, when the Russian government, now a republic under Alexander Kerensky, to try to keep Russia in the war. We know from history that Britain failed in its attempt to keep Russia in the war. And so, we know that Ashenden’s efforts will be a failure. What we don’t get is a clear sense of Ashenden getting out of Russia as the Bolsheviks take power. In the final chapter (SPOILER ALERT), we largely follow the adventures of a Mr. Harrington, an American businessman who is loud and proud of being an American, and who loves (much to Ashenden’s annoyance) to read aloud, something Ashenden sees as akin to barbarism. In the final chapter, Harrington travels about Petrograd trying to get hold of his laundry which has not been returned, and the book concludes with the sobering image of Harrington dead in the snow, tightly holding his recovered (but still unwashed) laundry.

The book does not hold together as a novel. It is more a series of stories which are grouped together as the adventures of Ashenden. That said, the book is a pleasant read (Maugham was a master of English prose style and the short story), and suggests, if it does not outright condemn, the various compromises made in wartime.

If you read the book, be sure to see Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Secret Agent, starring John Gielgud as Ashenden and Peter Lorre as the General, which is based on some of the novel. The film like the book does a good job of stressing the messiness of the spy business.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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Top 2½ Percent: We Earned a 4-Star Rating from Library Journal

The Kansas City Public Library remains among a select group of public libraries across the country, earning a 4-star designation from Library Journal.

The Journal’s ratings, measuring the contributions that public libraries make to their communities, were released by the trade publication on Monday, November 2, 2015. Only two other Missouri libraries, the North Kansas City Public Library and St. Louis County Library, were accorded 4-star status.

Nationally, fewer than one in 30 public libraries — 261 of 7,663 — received 3-, 4-, or 5-star ratings from the trade publication. Only a little more than 2 percent earned four or five stars.

“Kansas City is lucky to have such a passionate Library staff, one that is so committed to its mission of literacy and lifelong learning,” says Library Director Crosby Kemper III. “This 4-star designation underscores that.”

The New York-based Library Journal bases its ratings on per-capita library use in four areas — circulation, library visits, internet computer usage, and program attendance — as reported to state library agencies and compiled nationally by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This year’s index uses that data from the 2013 fiscal year.

The Journal classifies libraries according to their yearly expenditures, and awards three, four, or five stars to the top libraries in each category. The Kansas City Public Library is among 112 libraries with budgets between $10 million and $30 million, the second-highest spending group. In that category, it was one of 20 earning four or five stars.

Money Matters Workshops at the Library

The Kansas City Public Library is one of 21 nationwide recipients to receive a $100,000 grant to help launch a two-year program aimed at improving financial literacy.

We have partnered with the Women's Employment Network and other local agencies to provide a range of services, including workshops, web resources, and individual financial coaching, to residents who are looking to enhance their money-managing skills but may lack access to reliable, unbiased education opportunities and resources. The Money Matters Workshop Series is projected intended to reach hundreds of residents in areas most in need served by our North-East, Bluford, and Southeast Branches.

Currently, workshops are being held at these three locations and we are looking to expand to local area community centers, social services agencies, and religious facilities. The Money Matters Workshops will cover banking, budgeting, credit management, and protection against identity theft.

The Women's Employment Network and other financial opportunity centers will also offer free individual financial coaching sessions to workshop participants. The Money Matters Workshop Series and coaching are open to anyone but specifically targeting:

  • Young women are entering the workforce and women newly assuming primary responsibility for managing household finances.
  • Immigrants—primarily Somalis and Latinos–living near the Library's North-East Branch at 6000 Wilson Rd.
  • Adults 55 and older who are preparing for retirement or managing income in retirement.

Workshops include:

Banking Basics focuses on empowering participants to utilize and develop relationships with either a bank or credit union, access banking products and successfully use money management tools.

Budgeting: The Money Diet focuses on creating a household spending plan. Participants will get an overview of the components of a budget, gain tools to help with expenses, and explore ways to save on everyday expenses.

Give Yourself Credit focuses on how lenders view credit, being smart about selecting a credit card, teaching participants how to read their credit reports, and improving credit scores.

Yes, I am Janice Brown: Be safe from Identity Theft focuses on education participants on how to identify the warning signs of identity theft, how to protect their children, and being proactive if identity theft occurs.

For a full list of upcoming workshops and to register, please visit

This program is made possible by a grant from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's Investor Education Foundation through the Smart investing@your library initiative, a partnership with the American Library Association.

About the Author

Amy Morris

Latoya Woods works with the Library's H&R Block Business & Career Center as a Financial Literacy Specialist. She develops financial literacy workshops as part of the FINRA grant offered at three Library branches and other community agencies.

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Book Review: Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer

Adams. Kennedy. Roosevelt. Bush. Clinton. All these names are political dynasties in United States history. Sometimes these family members have been treated like royalty. Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer in Hissing Cousins: the Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth examine the lives of these two women who led parallel yet different tracks in American politics.

Alice and Eleanor were first cousins born eight months apart and spent part of their unhappy childhoods together. Alice lost her mother shortly after her birth and her aunt looked after her. Her father never spoke about her mother with Alice leaving a void. After rejoining her father and his new family, Alice never felt comfortable with them. Eleanor adored her alcoholic father until he died leaving her an orphan to be raised by a remote grandmother.

As they grew up, Alice and Eleanor had different interests. First educated by tutors, Eleanor went to boarding school in England while Alice refused to attend private school. Alice’s father, Theodore, became active in Republican politics as New York governor, Vice-President, and President of the United States. Alice supported her father’s ambitions and loved living and creating havoc in the White House becoming Princess Alice in the media.

Eleanor spent three years in England before returning home and attending her coming out. She became close to her distant cousin Franklin marrying him in 1905. She settled in to become a wife and mother. She also began to be involved in social causes to alleviate poverty in New York.

This book is part of our Kauffman Collection, a selection of titles intended to enhance the Library’s collection with significant works in the humanities and other genres.

Alice, as the President’s daughter, lived the high life although she traveled to foreign countries as a goodwill ambassador on behalf of her father. She married Nicholas Longworth, a Congressman from Ohio who eventually became Speaker of the House. Alice lived primarily in Washington, D.C. for the rest of her life.

Alice and Eleanor lived public lives with their political spouses. Both had mothers-in-laws who dominated their marriages. Both women had unfaithful husbands. However, party affiliation defined both women earning their nicknames; Mrs. Republican (Alice) and Mrs. Democrat (Eleanor). They supported their husbands throughout their political careers. Alice and her family live in fear that Franklin would achieve greater accolades than Theodore and his clan. Franklin’s bout with polio caused him to drop out of sight to recover leaving the stage for others.

Eleanor became very involved in political causes helping Franklin win governor of New York. She wrote for publication especially after Franklin became President. She traveled the country reporting back about condition during the Great Depression and later from the battlefields of World War II.

Alice lost her husband in 1931 but kept an active social schedule in Washington. She campaigned against Franklin supporting his Republican opponents. She also wrote a newspaper column like her cousin. For family and social events Alice and Eleanor remained on friendly terms.

After Franklin’s death, Eleanor thought her public career would end. However, she helped establish the United Nations and pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Alice and Eleanor continued to support different political candidates and clashed over them. Eleanor died in 1962 and Alice in 1980. A lifetime of family and politics united Alice Longworth and Eleanor Roosevelt. They lived and made American history and are still remembered today.

About the Author

Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.

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Food For Fines - October 12-18, 2015

Food for Fines is the annual Kansas City Public Library program that allows patrons to donate food to Harvesters—The Community Food Network in exchange for credits towards their Library fines.

From Monday, October 12, through Sunday, October 18, every item donated will equal $1 off your existing overdue fines.

In 2014, Food For Fines brought in almost 8,900 pounds of food for those in need in our community, and we eliminated over $9,000 in overdue fines!

What items can you donate? Non-perishables like canned vegetables, boxed dinners, canned juices, peanut butter, soap, deodorant, shampoo, toilet tissue, facial tissues, paper towels, and cleaning supplies.

What can you not donate? Perishables, homemade or home-canned foods, soda, candy, glass containers, alcoholic beverages, and items that are damaged/opened/expired or that are missing a nutrition label.

What fines will be reduced? Existing overdue fines. We cannot forgive fines for lost items, printing/copy services, or give credits towards future fines.

Check out the FAQ for full details!

The Library is now a multiple Emmy winner!

Our unique historical series Meet the Past with Crosby Kemper III landed its second regional Emmy Award in as many years over the weekend, for a program spotlighting preeminent African American writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.

The episode—with longtime Johnson County Community College professor Carmaletta Williams in the role of Hurston—was produced in collaboration with KCPT-TV and broadcast by the public television station on March 19, 2015.

Meet the Past features Kemper, the Library's director, interviewing an actor or re-enactor portraying a famous individual with Kansas City connections. The Hurston episode was recorded live on February 25, 2015, at the downtown Central Library.

The Mid-America chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded the program an Emmy in the category of interview or discussion program. Library Director of Strategic Initiatives Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner and KCPT representatives accepted the award—"for excellence in a program, series or special consisting of material that is at least 75% unscripted"—during the chapter's 39th annual gala on Saturday, October 3, 2015, in St. Louis.

The chapter includes television markets primarily in Missouri, Arkansas, and Illinois and parts of Kansas, Kentucky, Iowa, and Louisiana.

"The Kansas City Public Library is honored to have received an Emmy from the Mid-America chapter of NATAS for the second year in a row," Kemper says. "Meet the Past is a unique contribution to the Library's mission of lifelong learning, bringing knowledge of our local, regional, and national history and culture to television audiences in an entertaining as well as enlightening way.

"Special kudos to Carmaletta Williams, whose portrayal of Zora Neale Hurston made this a special show."

Conceived by former Library Director of Public Affairs Henry Fortunato and launched in 2009, Meet the Past won its first Emmy in 2014 for a program spotlighting celebrated African American horse trainer and equestrian showman Tom Bass. The series' other subjects have ranged from Harry S. Truman to Walt Disney, Jesse James, Charlie Parker, and Mark Twain. Fortunato served as a producer.

The episode revolving around Hurston, who published her seminal Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937, drew a crowd of 261 to the Central Library. A dynamic presence in the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston published three other novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, numerous short stories, and several essays, articles, and plays over a career that spanned more than 30 years.

Williams, recently retired from Johnson County Community after serving 26 years as a professor of English, has focused her academic interest in part on Hurston, the Missouri-born Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. Williams has performed a one-woman play, Zora Neale Hurston: Queen of the Harlem Renaissance, throughout the Midwest and took part in a series of presentations on classic African American literature at our Bluford Branch in 2011.

Major funding for this episode of Meet the Past was provided by the Enid and Crosby Kemper Foundation, UMB Bank, n.a., Trustee.

More episodes of the program can be viewed online at

Book Review: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

Before going any further, I must confess that Dalton Trumbo is one of my heroes. When the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) turned its attention to Hollywood in the late 40s (to generate lots of publicity and boost their own popularity in America’s Heartland by going after an easy target—Hollywood leftists—let me be clear, the left in Hollywood was never any threat to America; the greater threat was intimidation of those exercising their right to free speech and association), there were 10 men, popularly known as the Hollywood Ten, who boldly stood on their constitutional rights and refused to play the committee’s game. Among them was Dalton Trumbo, easily the biggest name and arguably the greatest talent among the ten.

Before Trumbo appeared before the committee and invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination and protested the bullying technique of the committee, he had been a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, though his greatest screenplays would come later. In 1938, he published one of the most famous anti-war novels ever written, Johnny Got His Gun.

This book was hugely popular in the early 70s, when I was in high school, partly because of the film based on the book, starring Timothy Bottoms, which came out in 1971, but largely because many saw in the book, which was critical of the warmongering done by the powerful at the expense of the powerless who ended up fighting and dying in war, a parallel to Johnny’s nightmare in the topsy-turvy world of Vietnam, a deeply unpopular and costly war ostensibly being fought for noble aims, but which seemed to be more about the egos of leaders and the profit margins of big business.

The book was also hugely popular when first published. Trumbo won the National Book Award for Most Original Book for the novel, and the anti-war sentiment resonated with the American public, many of whom still looked on the United States in idyllic ways, cut off from the troubles of Europe in the 1930s. Isolationism was very popular on Main Street. In the late 30s, the memory of the Great War was still fresh, and both left and right had reasons to push for the United States staying out of any war in Europe. The non-aggression pact signed by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 intensified this desire on the far left, while the far right was always in favor of staying out of the war against Hitler.

And yet, by the time the United States entered WWII in December 1941, and the available copies of the book were few, Trumbo agreed with his publisher that it was in the best interests of all concerned to keep from reissuing the book until hostilities were concluded. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor had galvanized the general public for US entry into war, and Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union got America’s far left, which had been opposed to war with Germany, fully on board.

Right wing groups interested in advancing Germany’s interests in the war (and keeping the US out of the war on England’s side) tried to convince Trumbo to reissue his book, whose powerful message they felt would revive isolationism, but Trumbo refused. He even reported these letters to the FBI, but found that Hoover and company were much more interested in his leftist activities than in those of the right-wing groups. Trumbo notes in his preface to the post-war edition of the book that it probably served him right for reporting on fellow citizens. One can imagine that the lesson learned here was much on Trumbo’s mind when he was called upon to name names to HUAC, and refused.

Ron Kovic, a Vietnam vet and an opponent of the Vietnam War, whose life story was told in Born on the Fourth of July, kept a copy of this book with him at all times, and read it many times. In a sense, he took it to heart that he could do what Joe Bonham in the novel could not do – use his own war experience and the injuries sustained in the war to speak out passionately against that war and war itself.

Cindy Sheehan, a mom whose son was killed in the War in Iraq, and who maintained a lengthy vigil outside George Bush’s ranch in Crawford, TX, also found great inspiration in this work, as she took it upon herself to speak out for all the mothers and spouses who’d lost loved ones in Iraq, and for her dead son, who could no longer speak for himself.

The message of the book is mixed. Celebrating the little guys like Joe Bonham, the book is brutally frank on how little power the little guys of the world have in the capitalistic system that often uses up its human resources for the material gain of the few—the novel was serialized in The Daily Worker—but the novel also serves as a clarion call to ALL citizens to stand up and speak out, a call many like Kovic and Sheehan have heeded.

Check out this book, and don’t miss the feature film, Trumbo, based on Trumbo’s life and especially his experience as a blacklisted writer, which hits the theatres on November 6. Bryan Cranston plays the author, and heads an all-star cast. It’s a profile in courage I’ll be sure to catch.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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Book Review - His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is most famous as the creator of the character of Sherlock Holmes, and the author of 56 Holmes stories and 4 Holmes novels. Though the adventures of Mr. Holmes and his friend, companion, and chronicler, Dr. Watson, Doyle achieved fame and a degree of material success he did not get from his medical practice or from his other literary work. After the success of the novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, and of Holmes’ adventures in 23 stories, Doyle decided to kill off his famous detective in a final and fatal battle with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Solution.”

Royal desire (Queen Victoria was a big fan) to have more Holmes adventures resulted in Doyle first producing adventures that took place prior to the Reichenbach Falls incident, but which had not yet been published. And then, with the story, “The Empty House,” Holmes made a triumphant return. Apparently the rumors of Holmes’ death were greatly exaggerated.

Given Holmes’ popularity (Doyle continued to write Holmes stories into the 20th century), it’s not surprising that when World War I broke out, (Doyle did his patriotic duty, organizing a group of volunteers to assist in the war effort) that a young British soldier might ask Doyle whether Mr. Holmes was doing anything for the war effort. That encounter with the soldier resulted ultimately in Doyle’s penning “His Last Bow,” a story published during the war, but which is set just prior to Britain’s entry into the war, with Holmes outwitting a German spy in the months and days before Britain’s entry into the conflict on 4 August 1914.

“His Last Bow” was meant to be the last of the Holmes stories, and is given the subtitle “An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes”. Doyle did pen and publish a subsequent collection of stories, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, but all the stories in that collection “take place” a decade or more before “His Last Bow.” The story is unusual in that it is one of only a couple of Holmes stories not written in the first person; most of the Holmes’ stories, and all of the novels are written from the point of view of Dr. Watson, Holmes’ faithful companion, and a few stories are written from Holmes’ own perspective. This story, though, was written in the 3rd person, perhaps because Doyle wanted to present this story of espionage thwarted in such a way that Holmes’ entrance comes as something of a surprise, though the subtitle kind of serves as a spoiler.

Within the story, Holmes’s appearance, and that of Dr. Watson, does come as a surprise. Holmes had been disguised as one of the informants serving von Bork, the German spy, and his true identity is not revealed until he has disposed of von Bork. It does make one wonder if Doyle had originally intended this spy story to feature some other British agent, but changed it to a Holmes story after his encounter with the young soldier.

The story first appeared in The Strand magazine on September 22, 1917, and chronologically in terms of Holmes’ narrative life, it is Holmes’ last adventure. The adventures contained in the rest of this collection and in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, the final Holmes collection, all have dramatic dates well before WWI. According to the preface to the collection, “written” by John H. Watson, M.D., Holmes retired from detecting after this case, in favor of a quiet life keeping bees.

The story concludes with this most famous interchange between Holmes and his friend:

“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”

“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”

“Good old Watson. You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”

It’s not clear what exactly Doyle envisioned by this “cleaner, better, stronger land” following the bitterness of WWI. In September 1917, the end of the war was not quite in sight. The reality, in any case, I’m sure, fell far short of his hopes.

In addition to “His Last Bow,” this collection contains “The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans,” another espionage story involving stolen submarine plans, set in 1895. That story, which features Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, as well, is generally placed among the top ten Holmes’ stories.

On the audio front, there are good audio recordings of the collection available through hoopla, though sadly the best recording, done by Sir Derek Jacobi, is not currently available through any of local libraries.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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Book Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

There are certain people—artists, writers, performers, musicians—who are so breathtakingly good, such absolute masters of their craft, that I can only stand in awe of their work and think: It's not fair. No one has the right to be this talented.

This is especially true every time I read a novel from Neal Stephenson. Seveneves proves once again that he possesses an imagination of staggering inventiveness and scope. For him, an event that most of us would find unthinkable is where he starts the story.

Seveneves is somewhat unexpected. Unlike much of Stephenson's oeuvre, this book is classic hard science fiction. It is set in the future, where large-scale engineering and physics play a central role in the action.

The novel is divided into three parts. Parts One and Two take place contiguously in the near future, with the same group of characters traversing a unified narrative arc. Part Three skips ahead 5,000 years and introduces new characters in a radically different milieu.

Parts One and Two rank among the very best of Stephenson's writing. He renders the world of these sections so vividly, in such fine-grained detail, that I honestly believe I can see the dust bunnies under the furniture, the scuff marks on the floors. The devil is in the details and it's all utterly believable and immersive.

As impressive as his imagination is, it's easy to overlook how good Stephenson is at creating characters. Every character feels complete and fully rendered from the moment they first appear, like Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus. The individuals who people these pages carry a sense of reality that's more than you typically expect from characters in a novel. They're real in a way that's rare and very self-assured.

The stories told in Parts One and Two are grounded in the characters. This isn't a just a tale of humanity and disaster, this is the story of individuals and how they cope—snapshots of moments and complications, conflicts and repercussions. I found these parts to be some of the most affecting work Stephenson has produced to date.

Simply put, Parts One and Two of Seveneves make up my new favorite Neal Stephenson novel.

Part Three is a disappointment. It's still staggeringly imaginative—indeed, set 5,000 years in the future, it's more unrestrainedly speculative than Parts One and Two—but it feels less immersive.

The world of Part Three is rendered in less detail. It's multifaceted and fascinating, but it's as if Stephenson imagined it at a lower resolution than the world of the first two parts. As if he hadn't spent quite enough time envisioning it at as completely as he could have. For all that it presents some amazing concepts, it's fundamentally less engaging.

That may be unavoidable—the world of Parts One and Two is based very much on the real world we live in today. The details are easy to see. The messy, complex reality of it is apparent.

A far-future world, by contrast, can only be imagined. It's probably inevitable that Part Three feels less realistic.

But the characters in Part Three are also less believable. They feel more like characters than real people, ideas that haven't quite fully taken flesh. Again, the ideas are wonderful but they're not alive in the same way that the characters in Parts One and Two are.

As a result, the exposition in Part Three becomes more burdensome. Because this section is more about concepts than about people, it necessarily means that there's more telling and less showing. This makes it more difficult to invest in the story.

Inexplicably, there are several descriptive sections in Part Three where Stephenson summarizes important events that took place in Part Two, recapping things I had read just a day or two before, as though he thinks that I won't remember them. These sections actively put me off.

Part Three comes across as incompletely developed. The narrative is inelegant, choppy and disengaged. The characters are less authentic.

It's frustrating—the ideas for the world and the characters in Part Three are so good, so intrinsically interesting, packed with so much potential, that they deserve to be as well developed as what we get in Parts One and Two. But they're not. Part Three reads as though Stephenson said, "Meh, good enough," and just left it at that.

It feels like Part Three belongs to a different book than Parts One and Two. It feels like the outline of a sequel, stuck on the end for lack of a better conclusion.

And that's what I wish had happened here:

Seveneves should have ended with Part Two. Stephenson should then have spent more time developing Part Three more thoroughly, expanding it, discerning a more elegant narrative for it, and breathing more life into the characters. Part Three should have become a full sequel novel.

Taken all together, even with a disappointing third act, Seveneves is still one of the very best books you're going to read this year. It's worth it just to experience Parts One and Two.

About the Author

John Keogh

John Keogh is the Digital User Specialist for the Digital Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. He grew up in Fargo, ND, (too small) and lived in Chicago for several years (too big) before he moved to Kansas City. He calls KC his "Goldilocks town" because it's just right.

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AmeriCorps VISTAs at the Library

Through an AmeriCorps VISTA grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Kansas City Public Library is working breaking the cycle of poverty with the support and service of four VISTA members.

VISTAs (Volunteers In Service To America) make one-year commitments to serve the community on a specific project at a nonprofit or public institution. They will expand the Library’s capacity to serve our homeless, refugee and immigrant, and teen populations by connecting them with quality services, resources, and lifelong learning opportunities at the Library.

Two VISTA members, Danielle Danforth and Mary Maxine Luber, will work closely with Refugee and Immigrant Services Outreach Manager Julie Robinson. Lyn Cook will work with Kansas City Digital Media Lab staff Andrea Ellis and Marcus Brown to develop a volunteer mentoring program. And Sam Melton will work with Mary Olive Thompson, the Library’s director of outreach and community engagement, and other Library staff members to develop programming and outreach for our homeless populations.

In addition to their duties on specific projects, the VISTAs also will contribute to the Library's social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) and write blogs lending the public more insight to their work. If you happen to see the VISTAs around the Library or in the community, make sure you stop to say hello and thank them for their efforts in Kansas City!

Lyn Cook will be building the framework for the volunteer program of the Kansas City Digital Media Lab. She is a digital director and producer by trade and she enjoys contributing to and celebrating the potential of today's youth. To unwind, Lyn enjoys nice music, good sushi, and great company.

Sam Melton will be focusing on outreach and community engagement. She was born and raised in Kansas City and has always felt a commitment to her community. During her year of service she hopes to create a pop-up library pilot and host a bi-monthly Coffee and Conversation program for patrons of the library. Her favorite book is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and she can likely be found checking out plays at one of the city’s many local theaters.

Mary Maxine Luber will be working for Refugee and Immigrant Services. She is a recent alumna of William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, where she studied nonprofit leadership and psychology. Mary Maxine spends every minute she can reading about urban gardening, community revitalization, and deep space. She loves a good graph and lives for dark roast coffee.

Danielle Danforth graduated from Drury University with degrees in fine arts and Spanish, and is currently in her second year of AmeriCorps service. She is passionate about lifelong learning and loves reading nonfiction, making art, and being active. You can usually find her doodling, sipping herbal tea, or sharing her latest culinary creations. Danielle will also be working in Refugee and Immigrant Services at the Library.

Librarians Work To Keep Collection Current

Clothes. Cars. Computers. They don’t last forever, succumbing to wear and tear, obsolescence, or shifts in interests and tastes.

It’s the same with library books. The Kansas City Public Library counts some 747,000 items in its collection, housing close to half of them in its downtown Central Library. They age. Some are torn or stained. Others languish on the shelves, unnoticed or unneeded by patrons for years. If not timeless classics, it might be time for them to go.

The formal term for removing materials that have outlived their usefulness is deaccession. Informally, libraries call it weeding. “It’s an essential part of maintaining and managing your collection,” says Debbie Stoppello, the Kansas City Public Library’s collection development manager. “If you didn’t weed your garden, it would get overrun. It’s the same premise.”

The Library uses a two-pronged approach. Librarians at its 10 locations keep an eye out daily for damaged or outdated books that might be candidates for removal from the collection – what Stoppello calls “a serendipitous type of weeding.” And there is active weeding, a more focused and concerted effort to evaluate the Library’s holdings and identify what perhaps should be culled. The Central Library is in the midst of its first such undertaking since moving into the former First National Bank Building at 10th and Baltimore in 2004.

Originally planned to take place over a couple of years, the thorough, long-overdue weeding at Central has been accelerated as the Library does some rearranging and makes room for a new, first-floor technology center. From February through the end of June, according to Central Director Lillie Brack, some 30,000 items had been removed. But the past year also has seen the addition of more than 39,000 items.

All told, the Central Library was home to more than 365,000 shelf-ready items at the start of its new fiscal year in July.

Weeding is no simple process. The Library carefully spells out its guidelines for evaluating and withdrawing materials. They must be deemed obsolete – the subject matter no longer timely, accurate, or relevant. Or they’re found to be damaged or in otherwise poor condition. Or they’re completely ignored by patrons, not checked out for years. Or there’s a space crunch.

Reference librarians do the evaluating, with five of the seven at Central pulled into its current weeding project.

Reference librarian Judy Klamm evaluates books while weeding at the Central Library.

“I’ll look at the dead list,” says Carol Bruegging, a reference librarian at Central for 25 years, “and pull some of those books out and say, ‘Yeah, that can go. It’s not being used; I see it hasn’t been checked out. It’s kind of ratty looking. Maybe the cover is gone. Others, they’re on the dead list and I think, ‘You know, that was an important author, (maybe) an important person in child development. I don’t care if it hasn’t been checked out. It’s staying. It needs to be part of the collection.’

“Everything on the dead list isn’t going to go. And some things that aren’t on the dead list are going to go.”

Says Stoppello, “We are not an aggressive weeding library. … We make every effort to keep a book and give it a long life.”

Or give it a new life.

A book that’s no longer fit for Central might find a home in one of the Kansas City Public Library’s nine branch locations. Many history titles are relocated to its Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Others have gone or will go to the National World War I Museum and Memorial, the Jackson County Family Court Juvenile Detention Center, the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, area nursing homes, senior centers, and smaller Missouri libraries. Many children’s books in good condition wind up in preschools and child-care facilities as part of the Library’s Books to Go program.

The remainder go the Friends of the Library to be featured, if usable, in their annual series of book sales. What they can’t use is shipped to the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City, which sells what it can—tens of thousands of books in the past 2½ years—and recycles the rest.

A candidate for weeding: a history of silversmiths’ art in Great Britain and Ireland, published in 1936
and showing its age.

“There are so many chances a book gets to have a new life,” Stoppello says. “And many of them do get new life.”

The Library’s aim is to complete its extensive weeding in Central by the end of August. The result should be a more vibrant, more relevant, more accessible collection.

Nationally, libraries often see circulation spike after a weeding project as their patrons no longer have to sort through aging or unwanted titles in search of something they want or like. “It’s like getting out the deadwood,” Brack says. “You can’t browse a popular area if every second or third book is something old and moldy and outdated.”

“We want to keep our collection viable so it is meeting our patrons’ needs with material that is relevant, up to date, of interest, and in reasonably good physical condition. … It’s a continuous cycle.”

Steve Wieberg, Department of Public Affairs

Book Review: August 1914 by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

When World War I broke out, great crowds of people in Russia found themselves, like crowds in France and Germany, swept up in a burst of patriotic fervor. Men were eager to do their part for Mother Russia, and to serve the Tsar in this great endeavor. Unfortunately, poor preparation led to disaster. Russia in 1914 was not on a par with the other European powers, all of which had gone through massive industrialization in the 19th c. Russia came late to industrialization, and was still, largely, pre-industrial.

Consequently, the Germans expected the Russians to be very slow in mobilization and their plan of attack, the Schlieffen Plan, developed in 1905 by Count Alfred von Schlieffen was predicated on the assumption that. For the first six weeks of the war, they could focus their attention on France, which they saw as the biggest threat. If all went according to plan, the French would be defeated or near defeat within 6 weeks, and then German could turn its victorious army to the East to take on the Russian forces. The original Schlieffen plan did not involve Russia at all.

Things did not go exactly as Germany envisioned. The plan called for an attack on France from the North, through Belgium. The Belgians, though, refused to cooperate and grant free passage through their country; the delay in Belgium allowed France and its new ally, Britain, which was offended by a brutal attack on “little Belgium,” to take a stand in Northern France.

In addition, the Russians fielded a much larger army sooner than expected. Their numbers were about twice that of the German forces, who planned on having six weeks to deal with France before facing the Russians. This miscalculations required Germany to send more of its troops to the East.

Read more of Bernard Norcott-Mahany's 2015 reviews of books about the First World War:

January 12, 2015
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

February 5, 2015
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

March 13, 2015
Tarzan the Untamed by Edgar Rice Burroughs

April 6, 2015
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

May 4, 2015
Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner

June 3, 2015
The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings

July 8, 2015
Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship by Victor Appleton

Though the Russians mobilized faster than expected, they could not maintain proper supply lines. Russian rail lines were of a different gauge than that on the German lines, leaving Russian trains useless at the border. When the Russian army reached Prussia, the only way they could use the German rail tracks was to capture German trains, and so troops, artillery, and supplies had to travel on foot or horseback or by car once they hit the border, delaying the reinforcement and supplying of Russian forces.

The Russians also failed to do proper reconnaissance. They did not use airplanes or balloons to do recon. They often had no idea where the enemy was, or even where other parts of the Russian force were. And the two Russian generals in command in Prussia, Paul von Rennenkampf (commanding the 1st Army) and Alexander Samsonov (commanding the 2nd Army), could not stand one another and so they did not coordinate their movement.

Finally, the Russian forces did not use coded communication, but broadcast information on position and movement in the clear, so that the German High Command had access to enemy communiques — this was so peculiar, the German High Command’s initial reaction was that these communiques were planted and false. In the battle for East Prussia, the Russians lost a tremendous number of men, armaments and supplies, which left the Russian Army, by the end of September, far weaker than they had been at war’s start. Samsonov’s Second Army was largely wiped out, and Samsonov himself committed suicide.

As a young man, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn hit upon the idea of writing a great epic cycle of novels about Russia, and especially the history of the creation of the Soviet Union and its rise. He first began work on this series of novels (August 1914, October 1916, March 1917, and April 1917) known collectively as the The Red Wheel, in 1936. But August 1914 was first published in 1971, by which time Solzhenitsyn had become a great critic of the Soviet Union. The current edition of August 1914 (published first in 1984) adds another couple of hundred pages to that published in the seventies.

In reading August 1914, I had the sense that Solzhenitsyn was very much influenced by Tolstoy and his great novel, War and Peace. Tolstoy’s sweeping novel mixed the private lives of a few Russian noble families and looked at the Napoleonic War and the Invasion of Russia in 1812 as it affected them. It is through the lens of these families that the war and their enemy, Napoleon, are viewed. For Tolstoy, his was a better way of relaying history than more traditional history books, as it allowed the reader a vicarious sense of living history. Solzhenitsyn is largely doing the same thing here, though perhaps on a grander scale. The original plan for The Red Wheel was to cover the years from 1914-1922, but the four completed novels run only to 1917 and are 8 volumes.

Solzhenitsyn follows a lot more people than Tolstoy did and he spends much more time with the soldiers on the front. He also includes occasional snapshots from the news of the day, with actual snippets serving as snapshots of the day at different parts of the book.

Unlike many of the novels I’ve read so far this year, which cover a longer period and emphasize the long hard slog of the war, this focuses on a particular moment in time, a point when Russia surprised its foe and almost won a major battle which would have helped to dramatically shorten the war. But it is also a time when poor Russian preparation and a failure of leadership led to disappointment, and which contributed to the environment which would give Lenin and his Bolsheviks the chance to take power. This particular disaster did not end the war for Russia, but Solzhenitsyn sees it as a major turning point (“knots” as he called them) which had far-reaching effects.

Solzhenitsyn took great care to research the events of the war, looking at Russian and German records, but he also takes great care to personalize this key month in Russian history through the supporting characters he creates.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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Go Set a Watchman: From Ordering to Shelving

Just how does a Library book find its way onto the shelf? With the recent release of the highly-anticipated Go Set a Watchman, this is a good opportunity to give you a behind the scenes look at how things work at the Kansas City Public Library.

Purchasing decisions start in the Collection Development department, run by Debbie Stoppello. The Library is always adding new titles: It could be a newly-released crime novel or a perennial favorite children’s book. High demand titles and bestsellers are almost always purchased, but the Library also tries to acquire a good selection of award-winning books, significant cultural or literary works, as well as 'in-fill' or replacement copies of books that are already in the collection.

A classic like To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect example of a book that is consistently in print and in demand. As existing Library copies are lost or damaged beyond use, they are replaced with newer editions. The Library also has to keep up to date on so-called 'serial' releases, such as travel books, software manuals, and other items that need to be updated regularly to keep the information correct and current.

Each location in the Kansas City Public Library system is also different in its reading habits, so you may notice different types of books available at the branches. You might find more children’s books at a branch frequented by more families with young children, or perhaps more books in languages besides English at branches near larger immigrant populations, but patrons can always request items from any location in the Library system for pick up at their preferred branch. (And books not available at the Kansas City Public Library may be borrowed from libraries throughout the country through Inter-Library Loan.)

Ordering new releases pose an interesting challenge. How does the Library know how many copies they’ll need to order for the different branches? It's demand that drives the ordering, according to Stoppello. Even before the book has been delivered, it is listed in the Library’s online catalog allowing users to ‘place a hold’ on the item, putting them in line to check it out once it is available. We've found that for most titles, ordering additional copies at a ratio of one copy per every five holds gives the Library enough copies to fill holds in a timely manner and meet demand over time. So if a book has 20 holds in the system when it comes time to finalize the order, four additional copies will be purchased on top of the quantity the Library had planned to purchase.

For blockbuster books such as Go Set a Watchman, Stoppello has the book added to the Library's catalog as soon as possible, in this case a full six months in advance, giving users plenty of time to place their holds.

Once the order is placed with the distributor, it's a matter of waiting for the release date. Publishers strictly enforce releases on new and popular books at both bookstores and libraries. With Go Set a Watchman, the boxes from the distributor arrived in the morning on the release date, Tuesday, July 14.

At this point, they're ready to be processed and put into circulation. Delivery Service staffers like Hannah inspect the new book shipments and add the items to the Library's computer system, so their locations can be tracked at all times.


From here, books are ready to go to their destination (out to the branches to go on the shelf, or to the hold shelves to fill individual users' hold requests.) They are marked accordingly and put into totes awaiting delivery drivers to take the books to their destination branches.

By mid-afternoon, all the books had arrived at the appropriate locations, ready to be picked up by readers.

With so many holds placed on a popular book, it can be a long time before you might actually see a copy sitting on the shelf. To address this, the Library created the Browsing Collection, also called "New & Notable." These are additional copies of books set aside in displays at our Central, Waldo, Trails West, and Plaza locations.

Browsing collection books can be checked out, but only for two weeks at a time, and they cannot be renewed. Items in the browsing collection also cannot be placed on hold, in order to make sure that as many copies as possible of new titles are available for patrons to check out when they visit the Library.

If you need longer to finish reading a book, these titles are still available through the regular catalog system, with standard check out times (21 days) and the possibility of renewal.

Want to read Go Set a Watchman?

It’s currently available from the Kansas City Public Library in multiple formats: as a print book, an audiobook, an eBook, and a digital audiobook.

You can place a hold through the online catalog links above, or call us at 816.701.3442 or visit your favorite Library location to speak with a librarian who will be happy to help you.

About the Author

Liesl Christman

Liesl Christman is the digital content specialist for The Kansas City Public Library, managing content for the Library's blogs and social media accounts. She is an unabashed enthusiast of comic books, roller derby, and all things food.

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