Book Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Reading Landline by Rainbow Rowell made me long for the old-fashioned landline phone – for the days when a phone fit your hand perfectly and your ear with the warmth of the voice at the other end, for the excitement a phone ringing and not knowing who was calling.

Landline is a unique story about a marriage and a landline telephone with a time travel element. One person has been in the marriage for fourteen years, while the other hasn't yet proposed. It's about the wonderful and complicated moments of falling in love, being in love, and the complexities of marriage, work, and children. While it may sound a bit like The Time Traveler's Wife, it couldn't be more different.

Georgie McCool — yes, that's her real name — is a successful TV sitcom writer. She and her writing partner have landed the perfect opportunity and have about a week to pull together four episodes for a meeting with the executive at their dream network. The week falls during the Christmas holiday and Georgie decides she needs to stay home to work instead of heading to Omaha with her husband Neal and two daughters. Once again Georgie's career takes priority.

Her mother insists she come over for dinner the first night Neal is gone. Has Neal become fed up and left for good? She can't stand the thought of going home to her house alone and stays at her mother's house. She finds an antique yellow rotary phone in her childhood bedroom closet, and plugs the phone in to give Neal a call. He sounds different and over a few phone calls Georgie begins to realize that landline-Neal is in 1998. She realizes this may be her chance to save her marriage. Humor and flashbacks to their early relationship help Georgie with the struggle of talking to Neal without ruining their future together. Landline-Neal doesn't know how she's screwed up.

While I was reading Landline both times, I couldn't help but recall the days of lying in bed or on the couch talking late into the night with a boyfriend. Those late nights when all that mattered was that time on the phone, and it was worth losing sleep and waking up groggy the next morning. The warmth and closeness of someone's voice on a landline is lost with cell phones. Now there is the delay or tunnel sound to deal with and the nights of long conversations have moved into short conversations or conversations over text. I wonder how teens and twenty-somethings fall in love now without those long heart-to-heart conversations over the phone?

Rowell's fans of Eleanor & Park and her earlier book Attachments will fall in love with Georgie and cheer for her and Neal. I've determined that Rowell's books are dangerous to my sleep, because each of her four books have kept me up way past my bedtime reading.

About the Author

Erica Voell

Erica Voell is the Youth Collection Development Librarian at the Kansas City Public Library. She enjoys gardening, sewing, knitting, seeking out gluten-free vegetarian cuisine around the city - and yes, being a good librarian, she is owned by a cat.

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Community Builders: Volunteer Spotlight

Melanie Griffey is a petite woman with a warm presence and a ready smile. As a 43 year veteran teacher of Kindergarteners, and first and second graders, she gives new meaning to the term "retired." On Tuesdays she offers her considerable skills at the Plaza branch. She also volunteers with Children's Centers for the Visually Impaired teaching visually impaired children, The Children's Place (with the 4 year olds) and on Wednesdays she and her husband fill backpacks for Harvesters.

I was at Plaza Tuesday morning preparing to make popcorn—my official post at Ron Freeman's science program—when I had time for a brief chat with Melanie. Melanie was busy with her first task of the day, wiping off all the toys with Clorox wipes.

KT: Haven't you been here three years now?

MG: I think so. Being retired, I lose track of time.

KT: We are so happy to have you. Why did you choose the library?

MG: When I retired I knew I wanted to stay connected to kids and books and it was a no brainer to see if there was a need here at the Plaza children's section.

KT: What do you do here?

MG: Anything they want me to do. I usually start with the toys and then do the children's POSH [Pull On Shelf Holds] list. Sometimes I cut things out or get supplies together to support the pre-school story hour and craft activities.

Over 100 kids and their caregivers came to the library that morning shooting marshmallows, building marble runs, and setting off rockets. Melanie was unphased by the chaos. As I stood in a pool of spent kernels I looked over to see her fixated on the POSH list and watched as she placed each book in its exact spot on the shelf.

MG: I feel so privileged to have found great things to do in my retirement.

No, Melanie, the privilege is ours.

About the Author

Katie Taylor is a Development Associate and volunteer coordinator for the Kansas City Public Library.

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Book Review: The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen

The Greek Coffin Mystery is currently available for checkout as an eAudiobook from Hoopla! >>>

 
The Greek Coffin Mystery is the fourth Ellery Queen mystery novel, and was published in 1932. The book was written by two cousins, Daniel Nathan (aka Frederic Dannay) and Manford Lepofsky (aka Manfred Bennington Lee), who coauthored the original novels under the pseudonym Ellery Queen. Ellery Queen is also the name of the novels’ detective as well, so that the illusion is created that the author of the books and the main character are one and the same. The novels, though, are not written in the first person, as are many of the hard-boiled detective novels, a device that gives the reader the sense that s/he is being told the story by the investigator him/herself.

The mystery can be summed up as follows: an elderly and wealthy Greek art dealer and collector, George Khalkis, dies, and at his funeral, it is noted that his will has gone missing. The District Attorney is informed, and Inspector Richard Queen of the NY Police is brought in to investigate. Tagging along is his college-aged son, Ellery. When it has been determined that the will is most likely in the coffin with the dead man, the coffin is opened only to reveal the body of an ex-convict who has been murdered. The will, though, is not found in the coffin.

And so the investigation begins in earnest to determine which of the guests or acquaintances of the dead collector was responsible for the death of the ex-convict, a man who had been involved in art forgery, and who seems to have made off with the will.

This book is typical of the classic mystery school, with the mystery as puzzle being key. The police are involved in the investigation, but like Lestrade and Gregson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, they are present only to provide access to the machinery of the police to the gifted amateur.

Like many of the early Ellery Queen novels, the title consists of "The + National Adjective + Common Noun + Mystery" (e.g. The Roman Hat Mystery, The French Powder Mystery, and The Dutch Shoe Mystery precede this novel). In those first three mysteries, the character of Ellery is more closely modeled on S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance, a patrician who loves to solve mysteries, and who is rather impatient with (as he sees them) the dim-witted police. Ellery even wears pince-nez glasses, and seems a lot like the arrogant and patrician Vance, which is somewhat surprising, given that his father is a police inspector who rose through the ranks – the chemistry between Ellery in those first few novels and his dad is a lot like (but with fewer comic payoffs) that between Dr. Frasier Crane and his retired police officer dad in Frasier.

The Greek Coffin Mystery presents a younger Ellery (this adventure takes place before the earlier published novels), with Ellery still in college. Ellery, though he is given to strange reveries, is not coldly arrogant in this novel. He also seems much more conversant with the classics of literature here than he had been in the earlier novels, where he seemed downright proud of his ignorance of the classics. He is more approachable than in the earlier novels, but he does display a young man’s confidence in his own infallibility and in a key chapter midway through the book, Ellery delivers a brilliant analysis of the case and offers up his own solution, which proves to be erroneous.

Ultimately Ellery, and his father, Inspector Queen, do get the culprit, but not before the reader is addressed by the authors with a “Challenge to the Reader,” in which the point is made that the reader has seen all the clues and so can, before the solution is given in the final chapter, attempt his/her own solution. Though all of the classic mystery authors are expected to engage in “fair play” and provide all the clues to the readers, Ellery Queen is unique in hitting the literary PAUSE button and issuing a direct challenge to the reader. Despite having all the clues, most readers will find it an almost insurmountable challenge, but that’s part of the fun of these brain-twisting puzzlers.

Though I chose to read The Greek Coffin Mystery this time around, I might as well have read any of the Ellery Queen novels using the formulaic title of The National Adjective Common Noun Mystery. All these novels are equally focused on the puzzle.

Interested readers might also want to look into some of the radio shows from the 40s — you can find some on The Internet Archive — these radio dramas follow the same sort of formula as the books, though Ellery is generally accompanied by a secretary, Nikki Porter. By the late 30s, when Ellery went to radio, the fictional Ellery has become a mystery novelist, who also solves mysteries, a creative approach later used on TV (in the 1950s and 1970s). The intriguing part of the radio shows was that each show had a panel of “experts,” often including some celebrity, who were asked to offer their solution to the mystery before Ellery himself gives the solution and the reasoning behind it.

So whether you choose to read, or listen to, or watch some Ellery Queen, you’ll find an intriguing puzzle, and a direct challenge to you to see if you can solve the puzzle. If you pay close attention, you just may do it.

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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Community Builders: Westport Branch and Collection Development

This week, Building a Community of Readers will begin to highlight the wonderful things happening in different departments and branches of our Kansas City Public Library community. Building a Community of Readers is not simply an invitation to visit your local Library. We seek to empower Kansas Citians to join our efforts to become a more engaged city.

The Library is full of movers and shakers, unafraid of change, who are devoted to finding new and innovative ways to make the Library experience better.

Our journey begins with the lovely people who choose which books go on the shelf—Collection Development. I met with Debbie Stoppello, Collection Development Manager, located on the second basement level of the Central Library building.

Immediately, Debbie set me straight; Collection Development is much more than buying books. The Collection Development department manages and maintains print and electronic collections, databases, and special collections such as the Kauffman collection.

Collection Development is one of our newest departments, which used to fall under Collections Management. In the old system, development was decentralized—each branch was responsible for its own collection. Under their new system, they take a holistic approach to development. With the centralization, the department can make decisions for the whole Library system, and has successfully saved the Library thousands of dollars through their evaluation process.

With different branches, serving different demographics, and working rather autonomously, it can be challenging choosing what is best for collections overall, but the Collection Development department makes every effort to find new ways to streamline their system.


Inside the first floor of the Westport branch,
managed by Megan Garrett.
 

In November of 2013, Megan Garrett was promoted to Branch Manager at our Westport Branch. For one of her first undertakings, Megan met with Debbie Stoppello and Erica Voell from Collection Development to reorganize Westport’s collection.

They created a list of things that had not been checked out recently, or were needed at other branches. With the proximity of the Westport branch to both the Plaza branch and Central, Westport receives many returns. During the weeding, reorganizing, and shifting period, the team was able to send some great books to the two other Libraries. For months the three of them worked diligently on the collection.

In the end, Westport’s adult fiction was moved downstairs to improve circulation, the teen collection remained upstairs, but with a new space for teens, non-fiction moved upstairs, and new books are now displayed front and center, to give many patrons better access to what they want.

I asked Megan how the patrons responded to the new system. She said they have been positive, if not at first a bit confused. But, that is what our great Library staff is for. “We’re happy to help them find the stuff they are looking for,” Megan said.

The project was completed in April, in time for the monthly board meeting, which was held at the Westport branch.

Debbie and Erica’s work in Collection Development, and their work with Megan in the Westport branch are just a couple of many examples of teams of people who are working to make the Library a part of a sustainable community.

Many people can see when changes need to be made, but it takes someone special to decide that they are the person to do it. The Library is made up of those people, who work every day to make the experience inclusive to all people, regardless of background, and to add to the wonderful landscape of Kansas City.

Keep up with Building a Community of Readers to learn more about the exciting projects happening to turn Kansas City into one of the most literate cities in the country.

A city that reads is a city that leads!

About the Author

Alex Krause is the Building a Community of Readers Project Director. Originally from Omaha, she has been in Kansas City long enough to stop using the excuse that she’s “new to this town.” Alex enjoys traveling, the outdoors, dabbling in cooking, and will quickly tell you of her years in a Pantomime Troupe.

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All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

As a parent of a seven-month-old, I was curious about All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood as it made the rounds through my friends’ Goodreads accounts. My interest was piqued by friends’ reviews and with Jennifer Senior’s visit to the Library in early June. I’m not big on parenting books except when I want to know what new thing my daughter may be doing this month. But nearly everything that I read I think, “my child isn’t doing that” or “that’s not my experience.”

I could only fit this book in by listening to the audiobook. When I started it I had no idea what I was in for. Senior narrates the audiobook with enthusiasm and a heart for the material. She’s obviously a parent herself not just from the material but also in her inflections. My plan was just to listen to the first few chapters about parenting babies and young children. Soon, though, I was so drawn into this book that I had to finish it.

All Joy and No Fun covers the years of parenthood from birth through late adolescence. She shares many stories of parents and grandparents who are raising children, backing up those experiences with serious research. No topic is off-limits, from sleep deprivation of new parents to how children affect marriages to dealing with identity issues as parents of teenagers.

Today middle class parents are more likely to have lead productive, full lives for several years before children enter in the picture, which explains the difficult transition to parenthood. No books or classes fully prepare you for the first few months as a parent. Sleep deprivation takes on a whole new meaning, as you have no idea how you’ll ever be able to leave the house in one piece or if you’ll ever experience a quiet moment alone ever again.

In her recent interview with Steve Kraske on KCUR’s Up to Date, Senior mentioned how many parenting books today seem to be about either postpartum depression and troubled child problems or how to enrich your wonderful life with your child. Very few books discuss the day-to-day craziness of parenting and how some days you begin to wonder, “is this what I really signed up for?”

[video:http://youtu.be/jSL7qCXwjZc]
Senior spoke at the Library on June 5, 2014. You can watch
the full video of her talk here.

She also follows a history of the family through the 20th Century and how parenting changed drastically over the last 100 years in ways our grandparents would barely recognize. Working parents have new demands that they didn’t even have 15 years ago with smart phones and the expectation of being connected even after leaving work.

While Senior discusses many of the struggles of modern parenting from living far from relatives and the role of technology on parents, she also discusses the the wonderful things about being parents. The last chapter in the book is all about joy, making a strong distinction from happiness. While we focus so much on happiness, it doesn’t encompass those transcendent moments of pure joy and grace.

All Joy and No Fun begins a dialogue about how children change their parents. It made me realize that my experience as a parent is very normal and that many of my emotions during the rough times are what many other parents experience. My hope is that this will start a dialogue about what social structures we lack in our country to help support families. It’s an essential book for parents of children of any age to read, including grandparents.

About the Author

Erica Voell

Erica Voell is the Youth Collection Development Librarian at the Kansas City Public Library. She enjoys gardening, sewing, knitting, seeking out gluten-free vegetarian cuisine around the city - and yes, being a good librarian, she is owned by a cat.

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Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct Series

When it comes to reading mystery series, I generally follow a simple procedure: Start with the third or fourth book in the series and then work back at some later point if the author grabs me. My reasoning is that most series writers don’t really get moving, don’t really get a feeling for their characters, don’t fully grasp the world in which their detectives live until the third or fourth novel. And so, if you start with the first novel, it is quite possible you might give up on a good series simply because it got off to a poor start.

That said, there are some remarkable first books in a series. A Study in Scarlet, which introduces us to Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, is one, and Ed McBain’s Cop Hater – which kicks off his long-running 87th Precinct crime series – is another.

One advantage McBain had over other mystery writers starting a series was that he was already a successful author when he got the idea for his 87th Precinct novels. As Evan Hunter (his real name, having legally changed it from his birth name of Salvatore Albert Lombino), he already had written several fine stand-alone novels including Blackboard Jungle. When he was approached about writing a mystery series, he decided that he wanted to focus not on an individual detective but rather on the precinct, making the precinct itself the central character. As he says in his introduction to Cop Hater, “it … seemed to me that something new in the annals of police procedurals … would be a squadroom full of cops, each with different traits, who — when put together — would form a conglomerate hero.” And so was born the 87th Precinct.

Clearly the city in which the 87th Precinct stories take place is based on New York City, but McBain didn’t want readers fixating on New York. And so, he named his city Isola, which is (but is not) New York just as Metropolis and Gotham City are (but are not) New York. He takes care in the first novel to describe the geography of the 87th Precinct in some detail, devoting a couple of pages. In giving us a very strong feel for a city that is like, but isn’t quite, New York — in creating a sense of place — McBain demonstrates the highest level of skill.

McBain, however, was not entirely successful in avoiding having a main individual character. One, Steve Carella, appeared in the first novel and remained a prominent figure in many of the subsequent stories about the precinct. Still, it is clear that Carella is part of a team that is almost family, absent the dynamics one sees in a family. In envisioning the 87th Precinct, McBain may have been inspired by films about World War II, many of which focus on “the squad” rather than an individual. Battleground (1949) is an example.

Cop Hater, released in 1956 and available through interlibrary loan, sets the start of McBain’s series in the hottest July anyone can remember. At a time when air conditioning was not omnipresent, the heat adds to the tension felt by the cops as they try to find out who has cut down one, two, and ultimately three of their number. Just look at how McBain describes the heat, as if it were one of the characters in the drama:

“The heat on that July 26th reached a high of 95.6 at twelve noon. At the precinct house, two fans circulated the soggy air that crawled past the open windows and the grilles behind them. Everything in the Detective Squad Room seemed to wilt under the steady, malignant pressure of the heat.”

McBain knows how to start his book with a bang. Within the first few pages, we already have our first murder victim, Detective Mike Reardon. His introduction is brief but skillfully handled. We get the sense that he is a good cop and a loving family man, and so we are eager to see his killer brought to justice.

It is fitting that we are introduced to the world of the 87th Precinct through the eyes of a cop at home — about to go to work — for family life gives us insight into the cops themselves and how they are molded by the world beyond the station house walls. Some, like Mike Reardon, are good family men. Others, like Hank Bush, Steve Carella’s partner, are good cops but jerks.

McBain aims to enhance the reader’s feel for the investigation by using actual police forms throughout the book, and so we see facsimiles of ballistic reports, coroner’s reports, and the like. We get snippets of news stories and headlines, as well. All of this gives us a sense of the action happening in a real place and in real time. And, just as in any police investigation, though we see more than the cops do, we are not given any information pertinent to the investigation until they get it. Our third-person narrator is not omniscient, and that makes for a more challenging mystery.

A film version of Cop Hater stars Robert Loggia as the chief detective, and is available online through Amazon.com or other outlets. But if you really want to see a stunning film adaptation of an 87th Precinct novel, catch Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low — loosely based on McBain’s King’s Ransom. Moving the story to Tokyo entails some changes. But it’s refreshing to see what a Japanese master makes of a largely American form, the police procedural.

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: Motherland by Maria Hummel

Inspired by stories of her German father’s childhood and letters written between her grandparents during WWII that were rediscovered after fifty years, author Maria Hummel’s historical novel, Motherland, tells the tense and turbulent survival tale of a Third Reich family in Germany near the end of the war.

The story begins in December of 1944 in the small spa town of Hannesburg, Germany. The brutal conflict has discovered this once peaceful community and transformed it into a ravaged and fearful skeleton of its former self.

Food has become a luxury. The housing authority is stuffing refugees into residents’ homes until they look like human anthills with walls, and Allied air attacks are regularly destroying anything that is left of the recognizable landscape.

For Liesl Kappus, life in Hannesburg has become terrifying. Newly married to Frank Kappus, a local doctor and recent widower with three young sons, Liesl has been alone with the boys since Frank was drafted into medical service. While in her care, the middle son has contracted a mysterious illness that is only growing more severe.

Stationed as a surgeon in Weimar, Frank spends much of his time worrying about his family, and after receiving a desperate note from Liesl about his child’s debilitating condition, he deserts his post and attempts to make his way home.

As Motherland’s story anxiously unfolds and alternates between Liesl and Frank Kappus and their ultimate outcomes, you slowly begin to view them as people more than characters. You experience their fears, their bravery, what brought them together, and what they are willing to do to survive.

What gives this book an additional interesting layer, too, is that the Kappus family is Mitläufer, meaning “Germans who went along with Nazism.” This is an issue that Hummel pondered deeply when she was writing Motherland. Her own grandparents — whose letters partially inspired Motherland — were Mitläufer and always good, decent people, but still she wondered to herself, “What did they know about the Holocaust and other Nazi war crimes and when did they know it?”

Eventually, Hummel pared that question down to its bare bones, and instead of asking what did they know and when, it became, “What did they love and what did they fear?” Stripping that question to its basic core changed Motherland from a novel about guilt or innocence, knowing or not knowing, into both a dark and hopeful story about personal and political choices and consequences.

So, why is the book named Motherland? For one, mothers are a strong symbol in the novel and Liesl is by far the strongest character. Additionally, when Hummel was writing the book, her own child became sick with a mysterious illness, later diagnosed as an autoimmune disease. As a mother, this gives her a special maternal connection to Liesl and her inability to help her stepson with his strange sickness.

Motherland was also partly inspired by a poem of the same name by Rose Ausländer:

My Fatherland is dead
They buried it
In fire

I live
In my Motherland—
Word

(translation by Eavan Boland)

This poem signifies that women and mothers must rise up and create a new world out of the ashes from what men lost and destroyed, even if it is only in the mind/word – very similar to Hummel’s book.

Motherland is definitely worth reading. Published in January 2014, the historic novel moves quickly, has an engaging writing style, presents solid characters, and best of all, it that takes a familiar subject and looks at it from a slightly different perspective, one that ultimately reaches into the depths of your soul looking for answers.

Check out a copy of Motherland from the Kansas City Public Library today. If you like it, also try reading The Boy In The Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

About the Author

Amy Morris

Amy Morris is a senior library technical assistant at the Westport Branch. She earned a B.A. in English, with an emphasis in creative writing, from Avila University. Besides reading and writing, Amy enjoys traveling, art, being creative, playing the piano and spending time with her family. She also writes her own blog at livingkansascity.blogspot.com

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Remembering Maya Angelou



Maya Angelou lent grace even to Twitter.

“Listen to yourself,” the 86-year-old author and poet tapped out late last week, “and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

It would be the last of her 255 tweets — to nearly 400,000 followers — and among the last public pronouncements from an American treasure. Angelou died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, closing an extraordinary life that began in Missouri and yielded what President Obama described as “one of the brightest lights of our time.”

Most acclaimed for her seven autobiographical volumes and perhaps best loved for the poetry that brought her to the podium at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, Angelou accumulated Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominations, three Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts and, in 2011 the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She once worked as a streetcar conductor and a restaurant cook, once was a madam and a prostitute, once danced in nightclubs and sang calypso. Her experiences shaped her and her writing, and her willingness to write about even the most ugly and painful of them — including a childhood rape — broke new ground for African American women.

It also struck some nerves. Angelou’s first and most praised autobiography, the best-selling I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969 and covered her birth in St. Louis, the rape, and nearly five subsequent years in which she didn’t speak in the wake of the rapist’s murder. In identifying him, she later explained, she felt she had killed him.

But the subject matter, which also included racism and homosexuality, and the volume’s sometimes-raw language made it a banned-book target. Caged Bird ranked sixth on the American Library Association’s lists of top 100 banned and challenged books of the decade from 2000-2009, just behind Of Mice and Men. A decade earlier, it ranked third.

Angelou kept good company. Steinbeck. Twain. Salinger. Toni Morrison.

She ruffled a different set of feathers a little more than 12 years ago, when she partnered with Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards on a line of greeting cards and other household items ranging from bookends and wall hangings to pillows and mugs. Leading poets sniffed their displeasure at the supposed lower-brow platform.

Angelou told USA TODAY that she found it “challenging and daring,” recalling one struggle to pare five pages of writing down to a single sentence: "The wise woman wishes to be no one's enemy, the wise woman refuses to be anyone's victim.”

She told the newspaper, “When I finally got it just to those two lines, I came into the dining room and poured myself a glass of red wine!”

Throughout her career, a vast majority celebrated her work with her. Angelou taught. She provoked. She inspired.

“Still I Rise,” the title piece of her third volume of poetry — published in 1978 — speaks eloquently to her life’s journey:

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.


The Galton Case by Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald (pen name for Kenneth Millar [pron. Miller]) was one of the triumvirate of great hard-boiled detective fiction, the others being Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Just as Chandler looked to Hammett, the pioneer, MacDonald looked to Chandler, whom he called a “slumming angel.”

MacDonald was the last of the three to start writing, publishing stories while still a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in English literature with a dissertation on romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. MacDonald is credited with bringing to the hard-boiled genre a psychological depth of characterization and motivation. And it is with this book, The Galton Case, that MacDonald’s fiction really begins to take a much more psychological direction.

MacDonald was married to Margaret Millar, a fellow Canadian. Ms. Millar was a mystery author in her own right, whose novels often took a psychological and even pathological bent (Note: MacDonald chose a pen name so that his own work would not be confused with his wife’s work). Her earliest mysteries featured psychiatrist Paul Prye as detective, and her later stand-alone novels often involved instances of psycho-pathology.

MacDonald’s early novels were consciously imitative of Raymond Chandler’s work, as you can see from this brief excerpt: “A Harvard chair stood casually in one corner. I sat down on it, in the interest of self-improvement.” And later, when he’s summoned to his client’s secretary, he gets up from the chair noting: “I got up out the Harvard chair. It was like being expelled.”

MacDonald’s detective, Lew Archer, like Philip Marlowe, was a former member of the police, now an independent investigator, and like Marlowe, was let go because he was not a team player. MacDonald’s style was originally a lot closer to the syncopated style of Chandler, and in his earliest outings, his detective was more cynical than he would later become. Over time, Archer became less hardened, and more world-weary. He could still utter wise-cracks with the best of them, but he clearly came to be much more sympathetic to the unfortunates with whom he came into contact in his investigations.

In The Galton Case, Archer goes to track down a wealthy man long alienated from his family. What he finds instead is a youngster claiming to be the man’s son. He had grown up in Canada, however, far from California, where he had been born. The young man seems to have some secrets, though, and Archer stays on the case at the request of the Galton physician, even after the young man is introduced to the elderly Mrs. Galton. This novel marked a shift towards more psychologically rich characterization and to more Oedipal stories, features that would become standard in subsequent Archer novels. Some of the impetus towards greater psychological writing may have come from his wife’s novels, which were psychologically oriented. And MacDonald himself underwent psychoanalysis around the time he began working on this book, through which he came to consciousness of issues he had with his own absent father. And in John Galton, Ross MacDonald crafted a character very much like MacDonald in his twenties. Like the young Galton, MacDonald was born in California, lost his father at an early age, was raised by relatives in Canada, and went to college at the University of Michigan.

MacDonald was hugely influential on the next generation of hard-boiled detective authors, especially Robert B. Parker, whose own doctoral dissertation at Boston University, "The Violent Hero: Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality", focused on the works of Hammett, Chandler, and MacDonald. Parker’s hero Spenser may owe his name to Chandler’s Marlowe (both named after Elizabethan poets and both knights errant in their own way), but Spenser’s sympathetic involvement with his clients recalls Archer more than Marlowe. Note: MacDonald named his detective after Lew Wallace (author of Ben-Hur) and Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner at the start of The Maltese Falcon. Sue Grafton, author of the popular alphabet series (starting with A is for Alibi) featuring Kinsey Milhone, places her detective in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, the same town where Lew Archer operated in years past (Santa Teresa was a thinly disguised Santa Barbara, where MacDonald lived for most of his adult life).

If you’re eager for more MacDonald (and who isn’t?), you might also try The Chill, The Ivory Grin, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Far Side of the Dollar, and The Blue Hammer. If you’d like to watch a movie based on MacDonald’s Archer, you might check out Harper (based on The Moving Target) and The Drowning Pool, both starring Paul Newman as Lew Harper (I don’t know of any definitive reason for the name change – there’s more than one explanation out there). You can’t go wrong with Ross MacDonald for hard-boiled fiction with heart and psychological depth.

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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How I Got My First Library Card

I grew up in a family that was filled with voracious readers. From the time my brothers and sister and I were very, very young, we heard our parents reading to us and telling us stories of when they were young.

I fell in love with words and letters as far back as I could remember. I found it fascinating to watch Mom and Dad simply look down at an open book and then hear as this steady flow of words and sentences and paragraphs and stories would flow out of their mouths.

At that time, I didn’t have the necessary words I needed to describe what I was feeling, but I could see that my parents had the key to unlock this amazing mystery, and I yearned, almost ached to discover the secret so I could do the same thing.

My mom loved to tell the story about when my sister Barb and I first got our library cards.

I grew up in Boise, Idaho, and our family made regular trips to the Boise Public Library, which I later learned was one of the Carnegie libraries. It sat on the outskirts of the downtown business area, its entrance just one block west, as the crow flies, from the entrance to the church we attended. The children's department was partly below ground level, and had its own separate entrance on the south side of the building—concrete steps leading down from the sidewalk that circled from the front of the building, where the grown-up steps went up to the front entrance.

For local residents the only requirement to get a library card was to write your name on the form. (I imagine you also had to show some form of ID, but Mom’s library card apparently probably covered Barb and me.) I was about four years old and, as I’ve indicated, already deeply fascinated with letters. (We had a small framed blackboard with an attached tripod, letters surrounding the frame—probably in alphabetical order. I loved copying the letters from the frame onto the blackboard in different combinations, then asking Mom if I had written a word. As I remember, considering that I wrote random combinations, I had a fair amount of success. Perhaps I was already starting to associate the shape of letters with sound.)

After we had entered the children's department, Barb and I walked up to the circulation desk with Mom and told the children's librarian that we wanted to get our library cards. Mom filled in our address and other information, and then put the forms in front of Barb and me.

My mind was already attuning itself to the nuances of language, especially when it came to how rules were laid out. I had discussed my idea with Mom, so after the librarian told us all we had to do was write our names, she was rather surprised when Barb and I each reached into a pocket and pulled out a piece of paper upon which Mom had printed our name.

With great care I spread the paper flat on the counter and then, with painstaking focus, copied the letters of my name onto the form.

The librarian got a big, big smile and told Mom she had never known of any children who had wanted a library card as much as we did.

From then on there was no stopping us.

About the Author

Dr. John Arthur Horner of the Missouri Valley Room has a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from UC-Santa Barbara, as well as a deep love of history. He is an award-winning playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild of America. He lives in Independence with his wife, two pianos, and their multitude of books.

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Libraryland: Mid-Continent Adds To KC Area’s Roll of National Medal Winners

Call us America’s library capital – or at least, one of them.

The Mid-Continent Public Library, whose sprawling system counts five branches in Kansas City and more than two dozen others in the surrounding area, has been named a recipient of the nation’s highest honor for libraries: the National Medal for Museum and Library Service.

Here here! The announcement was made Thursday, April 24, 2014, by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Kansas City Public Library was a National Medal honoree in 2008, cited for making “a significant impact on individuals, families, and communities.” The Johnson County Public Library received the award in 2005. The area is a confirmed bastion of library excellence.

Only Chicago — with three National Medal libraries in the city, itself, and another in suburban Skokie, Illinois — compares. Los Angeles has a couple. San Antonio has two, including the medical library at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Missouri has produced two other honorees since National Medals were first awarded in 1994: the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia (in ’94) and the Bootheel Youth Museum in Malden (in 2012).

In response to this year’s selections, Mid-Continent Director and CEO Steven Potter wrote on the system’s website, “This is an unbelievable honor and a testament to all the hard work and great service performed by (the) library and the team of dedicated library professionals, both past and present.”

Agreed. We thought the IMLS got it right in 2005 and 2008. It did again in 2014.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

There are those books that you love for the story, the books you love because you identify so well with the characters, and the books you love for so many reasons that you never want them to end. It’s been a long time since I took my time reading a book because I didn’t want it to end. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is one such book.

A.J. Fikry is the independent bookseller at Island Books on Alice Island, a fictional island off the coast of Massachusetts. Still mourning the loss of his wife, he’s depressed and isolating himself from people on Alice Island. In addition, sales are down at his store. The locals are concerned about him.

Enter Amelia Loman, the new sales representative for Knightley Press, who visits Island Books for the first time. She’s there to pitch the new season of books to A.J. but he’s less than interested. He’s not the most personable man and isn’t shy about pointing out to Amelia that he is very particular about the books he likes for his store: no genres, no fantasy, no children’s books, and no series.

Amelia’s determined to leave A.J. with one book in the catalog that he’ll like. But after a rare book of Poe poems goes missing from A.J.’s house, a mysterious gift is left at the bookstore, setting into motion a series of events that changes A.J.’s life and the bookstore forever.

A witty story of love and books, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a humorous look at how personal the book business truly is. One of A.J.’s friends puts it best, “There ain’t nobody in the world like book people. It’s a business of gentlemen and gentlewomen.” I couldn’t agree more.

You'll fall in love with A.J. and the residents of Alice Island. After you finish the book, you may wait a few minutes to let the book sink in before you email or text your friend to say, “I’ve just read a book you must read.”

About the Author

Erica Voell

Erica Voell is the Youth Collection Development Librarian at the Kansas City Public Library. She enjoys gardening, sewing, knitting, seeking out gluten-free vegetarian cuisine around the city - and yes, being a good librarian, she is owned by a cat.

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All Is Well(ness) at Bluford Branch

One by one on Tuesday, April 22, 2014, some 60 people of varying size, shape, and age will step atop a scale at the Kansas City Public Library’s L.H. Bluford Branch to measure the returns from 12 weeks of sweat and self-discipline.

To the top three finishers in the branch’s annual weight-loss challenge will go prizes ranging from a $100 Visa gift card to a Library gift pack. But the rewards go far beyond that.

With healthier diets and participation in Bluford’s weekly fitness classes, “I’ve literally watched people shrink. It really has impacted their lives,” branch Manager April Roy says. “They’re so grateful. They’re, like, ‘We love being able to come here. It’s free. It’s safe.’”

It’s just one facet of a far-reaching health and wellness initiative sponsored by the Library branch at 3050 Prospect.


  • The first in a series of six-week, chronic disease self-management workshops, co-sponsored by Truman Medical Centers, wrapped up at Bluford earlier this month. They’re being held in various neighborhood locations through early 2015, moving to the Library’s North-East Branch, in August and September 2014 and returning to Bluford next January and February.

  • The Mobile Market, a traveling produce market making fresh vegetables and fruits available to low-income neighborhoods that otherwise have limited access to supermarkets or other sources of fresh food, stops at Bluford each Tuesday from 10:30-11:30 a.m. It will continue at least through the summer.

  • A vision fair, featuring free screening by the Lions Club, will be held at Bluford on Monday, April 28, 2014, and already has reached its ceiling of 50 signups — with a waiting list. Vouchers for eyeglasses, redeemable at local retail outlets, will be available for individuals needing them.

  • Bluford is one of four Library branches hosting a series of health fairs in the coming year, offering general health checks by Cleveland Chiropractic College and blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar screenings by Truman Medical Centers. The first of three at Bluford is May 10. Other participating branches are Southeast, I.H. Ruiz, and North-East.


Roy, who arrived at Bluford in 2012, is making the wellness initiative a branch signature, complementing the permanent Health and Wellness Center it houses in partnership with Truman Medical Centers.

The soon-to-be-completed weight-loss challenge saw 61 entrants shed almost a collective 200 pounds in the first eight weeks. Last year’s winner lost 32 pounds over the full 12 weeks.

The challenge is held in conjunction with Tuesday evening cardio-kickboxing classes at Bluford. The branch also offers strength and endurance training on Thursdays.

The chronic disease self-management sessions follow a Stanford University program designed to help sufferers feel less overwhelmed by their conditions. The first round at Bluford, which concluded April 10, had 18 participants.

“The other day, in the chronic disease self-management class, we were going around the room and all of these people who are suffering – I mean really suffering – from all of these chronic conditions were talking about things in their life that they were grateful for,” Roy says. “I was literally weeping.

“These people are suffering. They have chronic pain. One lady’s on oxygen. All these things, they could be totally down in the dumps about. And here they are, talking about what they’re grateful for.

“It’s so fulfilling for me to see. And to know that my community is responding.”

Leo Damrosch: Library Speaker, Newly Minted Pulitzer Finalist

Columbia University released the roll of 2014 Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists this week, and one name — Leo Damrosch — caught our eye.

He’s speaking at the Library next month.

The Harvard University professor and author will discuss the book that impressed the Pulitzer board, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, on Wednesday, May 14, at the Central Library. The deeply researched biography adds depth to the story of the author of Gulliver’s Travels, who also was a major 18th-century political and religious figure and a national hero who fiercely protested English exploitation of his native Ireland.

Damrosch's book was one three earning Pulitzer recognition in the category of biography or autobiography. Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life was the Pulitzer winner. Jonathan Swift and Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life were named as finalists.

Sperber, you may recall, spoke at the Library in July 2013, shortly after the release of his Marx biography. (You can watch the video of Sperber's discussion online.)

They and the rest of the latest Pulitzer honorees are a trove of recommended reading. To wit (with comments from the Pulitzer board):

FICTION

  • Winner: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. “A beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.”
  • Runner-up: The Son by Philipp Meyer. “A sweeping multi-generational novel that illuminates the violence and enterprise of the American West by tracing a Texas family’s passage from lethal frontier perils to immense oil-boom wealth.”
  • Runner-up: The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis. “A a novel spanning 50 years and three continents that explores the murky world of American foreign policy before 9/11, using provocative themes to raise difficult moral questions.”


HISTORY


GENERAL NONFICTION


POETRY

  • Winner: 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri. “A compelling collection of poems that examine human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless.”
  • Runner-up: The Sleep of Reason by Morri Creech. “A book of masterly poems that capture the inner experience of a man in mid-life who is troubled by mortality and the passage of time, traditional themes that are made to feel new.”
  • Runner-up: The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka. “An imaginative work by a commanding poet who engages the history and mythology of larger-than-life boxer Jack Johnson.”


Steve Wieberg, Department of Public Affairs

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

I know what you must be thinking – how does this Greek tragedy (the most famous Greek tragedy of all) fit into my ongoing blog series about classic mysteries? Well, I admit, it’s something of a stretch, but April is National Poetry Month, and I strongly advise readers to find some great poetry out there to soak in – it’s time well spent, and will leave you with a greater appreciation for the wonder of language. Oedipus’ play could be classified, in some sense, as a mystery story – Sophocles sets it up as an investigation, one where we know more than the investigator himself. So far as the poetry goes, well, Sophocles is one of the greatest of the ancient Greek poets.

We tend to think of mystery stories and novels as “whodunits,” and as a “whodunit,” Oedipus Rex is a failure. We know who done it (SPOILER ALERT) – Oedipus killed his father and slept with his mother, having four kids by her. In case you now feel that the whole point of reading Oedipus Rex has been taken away, I’m sorry, but the ancient Athenians who watched the play at the City Dionysia in the spring of 425 BCE (we don’t know the exact date of production but 425 is close) knew the basic story of almost every tragedy performed. So, Oedipus Rex is not a whodunit. But there is a whole group of mysteries called “howcatchems.” Many of these are police procedurals, but some classic mystery novels (some of the Sherlock Holmes stories [“Scandal in Bohemia” and “Charles Augustus Milverton” for example] do not have Holmes trying to solve a crime, but rather trying to catch the criminal). And police procedurals, which focus a lot on the machinery of justice, often take this form (every Columbo episode, for example, is a “howcatchem”).

And consider how Sophocles composes this particular tragedy – the event that starts the play and precipitates the action is that Apollo has sent a plague against the city of Thebes, and will lift the plague only when the murderer of Laius (the previous king) is caught and driven off the land (the murderer is a source of pollution). Oedipus, in Sophocles’ treatment of him, is almost a superhero (at least he and the people of Thebes view him as such) — his power being Riddle Solving — and in one of his first big speeches, he proclaims in no uncertain terms that, just as he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, he will find the murderer of Laius and punish him appropriately. Of course, the audience knows the truth -- Oedipus is the murderer he seeks, but as we watch it, we still get caught up in watching the murder investigation unfold. There are leads to be followed, and people to be questioned, the very stuff of every murder mystery. Oedipus fails to live up to his Riddle Solver reputation (his wife/mother, Jocasta, figures out the solution before he does), but he is as dogged an investigator as any inspector of Scotland Yard, and he pursues the investigation to its end. At the point where he is about to uncover the final bit of evidence, the herdsman he is interviewing notes: “O God, I am on the brink of frightful speech.” And Oedipus replies, “And I of frightful hearing. But I must hear.” (translation by David Grene). Oedipus is a man driven – he must solve this mystery, not only for the city whose champion he remains, but also for himself. He simply must know the truth, a quality we find in all of the mystery sleuths, but especially those of the “classic” mystery school, where the puzzle, or the riddle, is everything.

The recasting of the Oedipus story as an investigation does not add to the mystery — we already know the truth — but in Sophocles’ handling of the story, we get a carefully controlled and modulated revelation of the truth, as we watch an investigation “in real time.” And, if we allow ourselves to get caught up in that investigation, I think we can derive a special pleasure in this most famous of Greek tragedies. Try reading it as a mystery, and see if you don’t agree.

There are several great translations of this play. I would recommend any of the following: translations by W. B. Yeats, David Grene, Anthony Burgess, Dudley Fitts and Robert FitzGerald, H.D.F. Kitto, or Robert Fagles.

There is also a very bizarre film version of the Yeats translation, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, with William Shatner as one of the chorus. Guthrie had hoped to recreate the experience of the Greek audience with the large masks, but as this production was filmed on a very small sound stage, the large masks and big gestures look rather silly. Still, it is a joy to hear Yeats’ translation performed.

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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