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Friday, January 30, 2009

Farethewell, John Updike.

John Updike, noted American novelist, died on Tuesday. No matter how you feel about his books personally, you have to respect the place he holds in American writing. The internet book world offered tributes to Updike this week:

• Slate magazine’s tribute to Updike (contributors include Tom Perrotta and Anne Fadiman).

• John Irving remembers getting Updike's mail.

• The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog’s tribute to Updike.

• Also interesting: Updike’s guidelines on writing a book review.

MLC has Updike’s Collected Poems: 1953-1993, which is full of poems that reflect the things Updike is known for: some are mildly profane, some are humorous, and some celebrate small, everyday things, like this one:

Celery

So near to air and water merely
and yet a food, green,
fibrous like a ribbed sky at sunset,
diminishing inward
in nested arcs to a shaving-brush heart
paler than celadon:
the Chinese love you, and dieters,
for you take away
more calories in the chewing
than your mass bestows,
and children, who march around the table
to your drumbeat,
marking crisp time with their teeth,
your dancer’s legs long as they leap.

Updike, John. Collected Poems: 1953-1993. New York: Knopf, 1993. 250.

A Horse is a Horse, of course, of course... Except when He's Art

I was flipping through The New York Public Library Desk Reference (which by the way, has quickly become one of my favorite books) when I found this interesting morsel:


If a statue of a horse has both front legs in the air, the rider died in battle.
If the horse has one front leg in the air, the rider died as a result of battle.
If the horse has all four legs on the ground, the rider died of natural causes.
I'd heard of this practice of documenting the lives of military leaders before and decided to investigate. Could it be true? After some digging, I found that the oldest statue honoring a ruler is one of Emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback in the Campidoglio at Rome. If you look at the statue, you'll see that one of the horse's front legs is raised. Unfortunately, Marcus Aurelius did not die as a result of battle. It seems that when the statue was first created, the figure of a barbarian was placed underneath the horse's raised hoof, where he cowered and hoped not to be crushed to death. At some point, the barbarian disappeared, leaving Aurelius's horse's hoof raised above the ground. Fascinating, but my quest was still on! (By the way, the reason this particular statue is still around is due to the fact that it was believed to be Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman Emperor. Otherwise, it more than likely would have been destroyed with the many other works of art deemed to be paganistic by early Christians.)
I decided to check out what Snopes had to say on the subject, which was not encouraging! Urban legend! I'm so disappointed!

It seems that I am left with the other equine fact I unearthed in my research. In Japan, it used to be a tradition in the Shinto religion to offer a horse to the temple of the gods. If one were hoping for precipitation, a black horse was given. If, however, one was desirous of clement weather, a white horse was the offering.
What's my conclusion? A horse, be it black or white, with its hoof raised above your head, must be terrifying!
Amelung, Walther, Holtzinger, Heinrich, and Strong, Eugenie. The Museums and Ruins of Rome.
Duckworth, 1906.Fargis, Paul, ed. dir. The New York Public Library Desk Reference, Third Edition. Macmillan, 1998.
Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Harper and Row, 1974.
Hall, James. Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art. Harper Collins, 1994.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ordinary People, Awesome Obituaries

My grandmother was one of those women who read the obituaries every morning. Sometimes she would call out an age and how someone died, or she would throw out little facts about the lives on the page. I thought it was strange. Why would anyone want to read about death? As a child, I just thought it was weird and kind of spooky.

Then I grew up and became a librarian. Now I am the one reading the obituaries, usually to find something for a patron. Sometimes these searches are mind-numbing, and I tend to get dizzy from the microfilm. But, sometimes, you come across obituaries that stand out for some reason–maybe they are very sad, or tragic. Sometimes they are funny, or they tell a story about a person in a way that makes you feel that you knew them.

Thinking about this recently, I stumbled across a book by Jim Sheeler, titled Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives. Sheeler won a Pulitzer Prize for his work at the Rocky Mountain News, where he also worked as an obituary reporter. This book is a collection of his work during that time. What I love about the concept of this book is that the author chose the common man or woman as his subject. He realized that every person has a story, and everyone’s story has value.

On the lighter side, a quick Google search will bring up several links to humorous obituaries. Try this link from the publication Mental Floss. In addition, the book Cool Dead People: Obituaries of Real Folks We Wish We’d Met a Little Sooner by Jane O’Boyle is a little collection of interesting obituaries. The description on Amazon says the book includes the obituaries of people like “…the literary agent, Connie Clausen, who began her career as an elephant rider in the circus…the doctor who healed a town…a typewriter repairman to the stars...the countess who traded her title for a waitress tray…the cleaning lady who left $150,000 to a local college.” It is described as a “whimsical and moving collection” that “…has the last word on over 100 people who could be, well, any one of us.”

I think the reason I love these kinds of humorous and interesting obituaries is that they remind us that life, despite its problems, can be unexpected, crazy, beautiful, and ultimately, worth celebrating. Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time in the obituary pages. I am suddenly learning what my grandmother knew: that sometimes, reading about death can actually help us understand our own crazy, strange, beautiful lives.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Golden Lotuses and Dragon's Eyes

Lately I've been reading at a book called Peony in Love that I bought for myself last summer. I'm still waiting to be swept away by the story as I was with the author's previous book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Both books do, however, provide a unique insight into Chinese history and culture.

For example, both go into excrutiatingly detailed explanations of footbinding. I'll just skim over the facts here and say that the custom was practiced by binding the four smaller toes of the foot to the sole of the heel. Eventually, the arch of the foot would break. Girls were in danger of infection (due to toenails digging into the soles of feet) and even death (due to gangrene.) When the perfect size and shape foot was finally attained, it was known as a Golden Lotus. The tiny feet were prized as objects of beauty and eroticism. Go here and here to read more about footbinding.


On a lighter note, I also learned about two Chinese fruits. Carambola is actually another name for star fruit. This yellowish, waxy fruit is shaped like a puffy star and is used in sweet and savory dishes in China. Dragon’s eyes are small and round with a brown shell.Inside a whitish flesh surrounds a black pit, giving them the look of eyeballs. They are similar to lychees and are also known as longans. I would definitely try these!

I am still trying to find an explanation for See's list of eight 'tastes' served in foods at a banquet: "good, bad, fragrant, stinky, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter." What foods taste stinky? And the ultimate question: why would you want to serve them at a banquet?!

Ayto, John, ed. An A-Z of Food and Drink. Oxford University Press, 2002.
See, Lisa. Peony in Love. Random House, 2008.The New Food Lover’s Companion. Barron’s. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Superheroes, Rock and Roll, and Halloween: New Reference Sources.

When you think of encyclopedias and other reference sources, what comes to mind? Dusty, crusty old volumes that expel a cloud of dust when opened? Antiquated, moldy tomes with outdated information? Encyclopedias get such a bad rap! Here are some snazzy new titles we’ve recently acquired in reference that might put an end--or at least, a brief pause--to the traditional view of reference books.

The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television by John Kenneth Muir (McFarland, 2008).

Open this book at random, as I just did, and you may encounter detailed information on Automan, short-lived, live-action series starring Desi Arnaz, Jr. as a nerd whose crime-fighting alter ego, Automan--who, by the way, was a hologram--could infiltrate computers and other mechanical devices in order to beat the bad guys. Oh, man, this sounds awful! There’s even detailed descriptions of each horrendous episode, which surprisingly got pretty low ratings when they originally aired in the 1983-84 season (apparently poor Automan was crushed by both Magnum P.I. and Gimme a Break).

Oh: the book also has information on successful tv and movie versions of superheroes as well.

Led Zeppelin Crashed Here: The Rock and Roll Landmarks of North America by Chris Epting (Santa Monica Press, 2007).

With this handy volume by your side, you can explore not only the sites where rock music was written, performed, and recorded, but also where the covers of some famous albums were photographed, where Courtney Love once beaned a guy in the head with a microphone, and the restaurant where Paula Adbul’s car was stolen. The book also lists various rock and roll museums as well.

The Halloween Encyclopedia by Lisa Morton (McFarland, 2003).

This book can help you out on little known Halloween food superstitions (and who doesn’t love a good antiquated food superstition?). There’s scadding the peas, a fortune-telling game where you cook one lone bean with some peas and whoever gets the lone bean is assured good luck, or the meaner barm brack, which is an Irish cake made of dried fruit and filled with tokens like a ring (the person who gets this will be married in a year), a rag (the person who gets this is doomed to spinsterhood), a pea (poverty), or a bean (wealth). I am all for tokens in my cake and all, but who wants to eat a cake with a rag in it? Mmm, rag cake, hot out of the oven!

As always, if you have any questions regarding these titles, leave them in the comments and we’ll get back to you!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Get your Motor Running! Head out on the (International) Highway!

Here is the problem with being a librarian: we have to verify everything. Last night, in a discussion of driving rules, a friend of mine mentioned that the Swiss require you to see a psychiatrist if you fail your driver's test three times. The psychiatrist determines if you are mentally stable enough to attempt the test for a fourth, and final, time. I thought to myself, "Oh, he's got to be kidding." Oh, ye of little faith! Not only do they require a visit to the psychistrist after three failed tests (which, admittedly, is a lot), there is also a mandatory 10-hour first aid course and an 8-hour "traffic-awareness" course you must complete.


I have to say that the first aid course makes sense, since if you're that bad of a driver, you're certain to get in a wreck at some point, right? Here are some other fun facts about international driving tests:


  • If you hold a Mississippi driver's license, you do not have to take the written part of the driver's exam in Germany, just the road test. Of course, if you hold an Alabama driver's license, you don't have to take either.

  • In Spain, you have three chances to pass the driving and written portions of the licensing test. On the written test, there are 40 questions, of which you can only miss three. After you fail one or both of the tests your maximum of three times, you must pay to get three more chances. The point that would drive me crazy (ha ha!) is the fact that you aren't told what you have missed. What's a perfectionist to do?!

  • To obtain a driver's license in Egypt, you not only have to submit copies of medical and eye exams, you also have to provide copies of educational degrees.

If you are planning a trip abroad any time soon and want to be able to zip around on your own, check out this information about the International Driving Permit available from AAA. You can also obtain this from the AATA. Some countries recognize an American driver's license, some require the additional IDP, and some just flat out won't let you drive in their country. Be sure to check the rules before you go!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Poetry in the Night Sky.

Ever looked up at the night sky and wondered about the stars? I love to stargaze, but that’s about as deep as my interest in astronomy went. One of my first reference questions here at MLC led me to look in an astronomy encyclopedia. I came across this quote:

“Stars are, in fact, a temporary halting point in the process of collapse” (414).

How poetic! I had never thought of stars that way before—something so beautiful, formed from chaos. Apparently, stars are made up of clouds of gas that are about to dissipate. Sometimes, before the gas has a chance to collapse, they bundle together in a balancing act to form what we call stars.

Scientists refer to the stages that a star goes through as its “life.” Stars go through many changes from the time they are formed to the time they disappear. Each stage of a star’s life affects how we see it. Depending on how old the star is, it may look brighter or appear to burn a color, such as red or blue.

Stars move, too—star streaming refers to their movement around the Galaxy. According to The International Encyclopedia of Astronomy, “…stars move in parallel groups called star streams, whose paths cross so that the stars intermingle like marching bandsmen in a military display” (415). (Again, more poetry mixed with astronomy!) When a star reaches the end of its life, it goes through a dying process. The death of a star is actually a violent explosion, where the star is “…ripped apart as a supernova” (415).

If all this information has you a little more interested about what’s going on above us, check out skyandtelescope.com or stardate.org. Both of these sites give you info about what’s happening in the night sky each night of the year. Enjoy!

Reference:

Moore, Patrick. The International Encyclopedia of Astronomy. New York: Orion Books, 1987.

Friday, January 9, 2009

National Literacy Report Released Yesterday.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy just released the results of its latest report on nationwide literacy--the last was in 1992--and the news is good, for Mississippians, at least. While the county hasn’t made a lot of improvement, Mississippi actually has. In the 1992 report, Mississippi’s percentage of adults with low literacy skills was 25%; in the updated report, we’ve moved to 16%.

We get questions about the “illiteracy rate” of certain counties often, and what I like about the National Assessment of Adult Literacy is their emphasis on literacy, not illiteracy. The percentages reported are of those adults who lack the basic prose literacy skills (BPLS). According to the NAAL website: “The literacy of adults who lack BPLS ranges from being unable to read and understand any written information in English to being able to locate easily identifiable information in short, commonplace prose text, but nothing more advanced.”

You can click here to check out county estimates as well.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

MLC's New Year's Rockin' Blog Post.

New Year’s is one of those holidays that we celebrate—sometimes with wild abandon (I’m looking at you, NYE 1999)—without thinking about the meaning of the holiday. Sure, we know we’re welcoming in a new year by making toasts with friends, watching the ball drop in Times Square, having a little champagne...but what did people used to do? How did people celebrate this holiday before Dick Clark?

We have a collection of materials on holidays and traditions that proved to be very useful, not to mention entertaining. I relied heavily on All About American Holidays for the information below.

The Scottish used to observe the custom of “first-footing,” where hosts would open their doors to friends and relatives from midnight to one o’clock. Guests were expected to bring small gifts. According to All About American Holidays, “The first guest was the most important. It was considered unlucky for a woman, a criminal, a person with a squint, or a deformity, or for a red-haired individual to come into the house first on that night” (4). This was, naturally, terrible news for the one-legged, redheaded, myopic lady thief in the village.

Making a lot of racket at the new year is designed to scare away the old year and the evil spirits associated with it. In Siam, they shot off guns to frighten the demons; in Japan, they rattled bamboo sticks; in China, they used firecrackers. Some cultures created dummies or effigies of the old year that they would burn (Scotland, Bohemia) or drown (Austria). Italy was a little more gentle and rang the church bells to scare away the witches.

As for New Year’s Day superstitions, there are several entertaining ones: in Germany, people wore their best clothes and avoided doing anything unpleasant. In Scotland, “if one met a beggar, sexton, gravedigger, or a person with empty arms on New Year’s Day, [it] presaged ill fortune” (8). So let me get this straight: you are to avoid women, criminals, squinters, those with deformities, and redheads on New Year’s Eve and beggars, sextons, gravediggers, and those traveling light on New Year’s Day. So many rules!

There are foods associated with good luck on New Year’s Day as well. Most of us here in the south know that we’re supposed to eat our black-eyed peas for good luck, but there are other foods, too: the Romans ate honey, the Hungarians have roasted pig with a four-leaf clover in its mouth, the Greeks eat Basil cakes, the British have god-cakes (small mince pies), the Germans eat fish and cabbage, and the Dutch enjoy apple fritters.

I have some friends in St. Louis who insisted I should eat pickled herring for good luck one year, but the closest it got was on my plate (I thought that was very generous of me). I think I’m going to go Dutch next year and only eat apple fritters on New Year’s!

Krythe, Maymie R. All About American Holidays. Harper & Row, 1962.