Monthly Archives: February 2011

A Valentine

It’s Valentine’s Day. Since I can’t drop handmade cards into each of your mailboxes, I offer another kind of valentine.

My offering is mysterious, powerful, full of word pictures that will burn bright in your imagination.

Between the covers of Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel, Winter’s Tale, live magic and romance.

A fairy tale of Dickensian proportions, Winter’s Tale moves from gritty streets in nineteenth century Manhattan to a lake so far upstate no one can find it, back to the city and forward in time to the dawn of the twenty-first century. One travels on foot, by sleigh, ice skates, river boat, train, on a huge white horse that can leap a city block, and by falling into the white curtain of a cloud wall, which relocates people in time.

In the late 19th century, orphan Peter Lake is raised by illiterate marsh dwellers. At age twelve, they send him alone to live in the city. Ignorant of civilization, he quickly learns what money is, dances for coins, and becomes a thief. He learns the trade of mechanic, joins a gang, makes a lifelong enemy of the gang leader, Pearly Soames, survives by his wits and the speed of his horse. (Now we’re on page 100.)

This 700+ page book divides into four sections with Biblical names: The City; Four Gates to the City; The Sun . . . and The Ghost; A Golden Age. Besides Biblical allusions, readers have identified influences of a host of predecessors: Dickens, Mark Twain, Dante, Shakespeare (whose play The Winter’s Tale shares a title), Hans Christian Andersen.

A background in literature is not required to bring this challenging book to life. A willingness to accept a new set of rules by which the universe operates will help. So will an appreciation for flights of dazzling description, winter in her many forms, and a saga of romantic love.  


P.S. Earlier this month, writer and film producer Akiva Goldsman announced he would begin working on a Warner Bros. production of Winter’s Tale in the spring of 2012. I urge you to read the book before allowing a screen version to do the work of your imagination.


Filed under Uncategorized

Loads of Lovely Love

I’m a sucker for a good love story, most likely thanks to my parents. Forty years ago this weekend they tied the knot after a long and spirited courtship that nobody really believed would end in marriage, given how independent both parties were (think Beatrice and Benedick). To this day they remain devoted, affectionate sparring partners in the game of life; it’s inspirational, really, the kind of long-term success story about which epic poems and great novels are written. 

I’ve noticed, though, that in fiction and literature so many of the “great” love stories end badly, be it by death, betrayal, or temporal dislocation. That’s not exactly encouraging, now, is it? Luckily, there are also many wonderful novels with happy endings that can reaffirm your faith in true love without going overboard on the treacle factor. Observe.

PossessionPossession, A.S. Byatt. This is the best kind of love story, the kind where all the obstacles the characters encounter turn out to be worth it in the end. Getting there is half the fun, however, and there’s quite a lot to get through in this long, literary tale of two sets of lovers:  a pair of Victorian poets and the scholars who study them after their deaths. The passion and angst quotients are high, but that just makes the resolution all the better. Read the book, then pick up the film for date night with your favorite lit crit wit. 

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen. No offense to Colin Firth or the entire Sense and SensibilityMr. Darcy franchise, but I’ve always preferred this tale of lessons learned and love won (and the presence of Alan Rickman in the film certainly doesn’t hurt). Flighty Marianne Dashwood learns the hard way that a handsome physiognomy doesn’t necessarily house a gentlemanly heart; meanwhile, sister Elinor discovers that while reserve is admirable, it is occasionally possible to keep one’s feelings too much a secret. After much confusion and mayhem, the sisters’ double happiness is secured. Hurray!

Our Mutual FriendOur Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. In typical Dickensian fashion, his final novel is jam-packed with enough characters and plotlines to render all but the most careful readers dizzy. These include two romantic storylines in which wealth and social class play pivotal roles. Determined to help her family by marrying for money, proud young Bella Wilfer grows to care for John Harmon, a man she thinks is a pauper. Meanwhile, Lizzie Hexam, a waterman’s daughter, finds herself embroiled in a love triangle with two gentlemen far above her station, one of whom she loves, but fears she can never hope to marry. Dickens definitely turns on the brooding and despair for this episode of his London chronicles, but brings both romances to tender, satisfying endings that will melt even the most hard-hearted reader.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. Three out of four March sisters find Little Women romantic happiness against the backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods (I suppose there has to be a little tragedy to keep a novel interesting, but, still, poor Beth!). Conventional Meg and coquettish Amy are paired off easily enough, but the highlight of the book, for me, is when tomboyish, career-minded Jo manages to pursue her own dreams and find true love, without compromsing on either aspect. A pretty nifty writing feat, that, considering the limited range of acceptable paths for women in Alcott’s era. This is the most sentimental of the lot, so you might want to opt for the most recent film version, and fast-forward through the mushy parts (at least until Gabriel Byrne shows up).

Dared and DoneOf course, one of the best love stories ever was the real-life romance and marriage of the Brownings, poets Elizabeth and Robert. An attraction sparked by poetic skill, a disapproving papa, a miraculous recovery from long-term illness, and a dashing elopement are just the beginning of what was definitely a marriage of true minds. You can read all about it in Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, which describes in intimate detail how the couple weathered both the sunny and shadowy elements of their relationship, and helped each other grow as poets and people. 

Scoff if you like, but if life hasn’t beaten faith in true love out of me by now, it probably never will. Do you have a great romance to share, either fictional or biographical? Do you like your love stories sunny or star-crossed? 

Leigh Anne
who is more like Marianne than Elinor, despite her best intentions

Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway.  Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


Filed under Uncategorized

I’ll give you something to whine about!

I’m cold, I’m tired and I’m hungry.  It seems that I am in the mood to whine lately, and there’s just nothing to be done about it.  Or is there?  Perhaps it’s time to read about people who have it, or had it, worse than I do.  Let’s see how this works…

Strength in What RemainsStrength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder (who is coming to the Drue Heinz Lectures this month, by the way!).  This is the story of Deo, who lives in a tiny village in Burundi.  He wants nothing more than to be a doctor, so somehow he gets to medical school.  Once he gets there, though, the violence in Rwanda spills over to Burundi, and he’s forced to run for his life.  From there, he manages to get to New York City, where he has to learn to survive all over again, since he speaks no English, has no contacts and only $200 in his pocket. 

My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor.  She’s doing well now, of course, but Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist at Harvard, woke up one morning to find herself having a stroke.  It took her eight years to recover from a complete state of no identity and non-functionality.

The Center Cannot HoldThe Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, by Elyn R. Saks.  The brain of a schizophrenic tells its owner all sorts of things, often scary, violent and nonsensical.  Imagine having that going on in your head while you’re trying to go to law school and you’ll have a sense of what life is like with what can be a debilitating mental illness.

Ten Thousand Joys & Ten Thousand SorrowsTen Thousand Joys & Ten Thousand Sorrows:  A Couple’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s, by Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle.  It’s hard to say who has a more difficult time with a disease like Alzheimers, the patient or the caregiver.  For Ms. Hoblitzelle and her husband, who is diagnosed at the age of 72, it’s a chance to put all their understandings of psychology and meditation into practice.

I Remember RunningI Remember Running:  The Year I Got Everything I Ever Wanted – and ALS, by Darcy Wakefield.  Living with a terminal illness like Lou Gehrig’s disease could be such a downer – serious whine potential.  Yet so many quotes from this book sum up Darcy Wakefield’s attitude, such as “The real truth of my ALS is that it takes daily acts of courage to get up, live the day fully, be grateful for what I have, and to find the humor and grace and the pleasure, yes, pleasure, in not being able to clip my own nails.”

Best Seat in the HouseThe Best Seat in the House:  How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life, by Allen Rucker. Another title that tells you most of the story, but you’ve got to read it to get the full benefit of Allen Rucker’s humor, such as his idea for a daily flip calendar for people who are paralyzed, “flip” being the operative word.

To tell you the truth, I actually feel better.  Not so much because I’m glad that I don’t have a physical or mental disease, but that I’m grateful that there are folks out there who have had tough rows to hoe and were still willing to share their inspiring stories with me. You never know, though, when I will slip again and start whining.  What would you suggest to get me out of it?


Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway.  Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


Filed under Uncategorized

Smooth Move

spinach smoothie!

"spinach smoothie!" by Flickr user indigotimbre.

Lately, I’ve adopted a new habit. Every morning, I make a smoothie. It’s easy: I just pile handfuls of fruits and vegetables into my food processor (Don’t ask what happened to my blender; it’s a violent tale of unchecked ambition that ends in smoky disaster), and ta-da: breakfast fantastic-ness!

Part of the motivation for this new breakfast tradition is to incorporate more raw fruits and veggies into my diet. One of the main ingredients to the smoothies is spinach. Don’t cringe! I can barely taste those tiny green leaves once they’re pulverized and blended with other ingredients like fresh or frozen blueberries, mango and strawberries. If it weren’t for the distinctive green hue they add, I might not even know they were there.

Smoothies are a favorite recommendation of lots of vegetarian and raw foods Green for life covercookbooks, but the library also owns cookbooks specifically dedicated to smoothie making. In fact, we even have a book about green smoothies in particular. So far, I’ve experimented with adding ingredients like fresh ginger, coconut milk, yogurt and carrots. I’m planning to try avocado and probably peanut butter at some point. The situation is becoming a lot like that saying “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Pretty much everything in my refrigerator looks like eligible smoothie material to me.

Cool smoothies : juices and cocktails coverGive the morning smoothie a try. Drinking a glass of vitamin-rich, colorful vegetables and fruits is  a nice way to start your day. If, like me, you’re less than a morning person, the promise of a sweet healthy drink might be enough to bribe you out of bed. The drink adds a bright bit of cheer to blue winter mornings. One caution, though: the morning smoothie habit is a contagious one. I’m the third person in my department to join in.

Be healthy and enjoy!


Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway. Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


Filed under Uncategorized

Quite possibly the cutest anime ever.

If you’re looking for a fairly painless introduction to the huge and sometimes terrifying world of anime and manga, may I suggest the obnoxiously delightful Azumanga Daioh?


The story focuses on the day-to-day lives of the six schoolgirls pictured above, a group purposefully designed for maximum comedic effect: child prodigy, slacker, reluctant athlete, idiot, exchange student, and lone voice of reason.

This is my plush version of my favorite character, Chiyo's dad. Which one's Chiyo and who's her dad? Find out for yourself!

Of course we have some teachers – there’s a hyperactive English teacher who’s a horrible driver, her friend the (mostly) normal gym teacher, and a stereotypical male teacher who’s obsessed with girls in gym shorts. But it’s all in good fun.

And what does this cast of characters do? Nothing, really. Nothing terribly exciting, at least. They go to school. They study. They take vacations together. They compete in sports festivals (while wearing the previously mentioned gym shorts). But somehow, it never gets boring.

The anime series consists of six DVDs, all housed here in the Main library for your viewing pleasure. Or if you prefer to read (as I usually do) we also have all four volumes of the manga. Enjoy!

- Amy

and remember: Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway.  Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Fever

Still have Super Bowl fever? Or a Super Bowl hangover? After a memorable season of ups and downs for our Steelers, the library is here to help you get back on the mend and ready for next year’s campaign. Note: this post was written before last night’s Super Bowl, and it’s basically the only thing on my mind right now.

From commemorative issues to the celebratory DVDS to the story of the franchise, the Steelers are an investing football team to follow. With long roots in Pittsburgh and a sole family ownership for the duration of their history, they are unique and as part of the community as some of the greater institutions in Pittsburgh.

Read local authors takes, remember the legends, watch this highly praised performance, and take on how a Steelers fan should live. Learn and grow, see why the “Steelers Nation” is as strong as it is.

I think that should suffice until next season…oh wait, the Pens are still playing!

- Tony

Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway. Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Working Life

“You’re always dealing with teenagers, people, drunks, drug addicts, or prostitutes.”

–Lupita Perez, Bus Driver

Aw, the variety of the human experience. There are some jobs I am sure I would be incapable of doing; bus driver certainly ranks close to the top. Also, underwater welder . For the most part though, I enjoy working, and not just because I have a pleasant and thoroughly satisfying job at my local public library. I grew up in a working-class family, and have worked innumerable odd service jobs over the years—farm worker, pizza delivery driver, ice cream scooper, live-in housekeeper, waitress, Americorp worker, overnight shelf stocker, intern, to name a few—before landing at a public library some years ago. As a teenager I preferred working to other extracurricular activities. I could never get excited about sports or theater or any of the clubs, but I found workplaces endlessly fascinating. I spent many a happy afternoon in the kitchen of a hotel/restaurant in my hometown, watching the goings-on of the “front-of-house” and “back-of-house” staff, my own private version of Upstairs, Dowstairs. I was a busser and room service clerk, and enjoyed having a small part in the commingling of kitchen staff (largely immigrant populations), waitstaff (college kids and tough working moms), bartenders, desk clerks, and an endlessly rotating cast of hotel guests—winter brought skiers, summer brought windsurfers, and retired folks seemed to visit all year long. 

I’m not quite sure where my fascination with thinking about work comes from—I suppose it’s just interesting to consider how people spend their time and energy. Although most people work because they have to, there are some people who work even though they don’t have too, and there are people who instead of working develop elaborate systems for avoiding work (an ingenous act of work in itself, you have to admit). When I was eight or so, I remember having a really weird, quasi-existential conversation with my dad (a construction worker) about work that went something like this:

Me: Why do you work?
Dad: What kind of a question is that? I go to work because I have to.
Me: But why do you have to?
Dad: It’s just what people do.
Me: But do you want to work?
Dad: What? I don’t know. I don’t think about that. People just have to work.
Me: But why? What’s the point?
Dad: I don’t know. You know, you probably shouldn’t ask questions like that. You’re just going to make yourself miserable.

My dad may have had a point there. Nevertheless, I still keep thinking and reading about work. A few favorites:

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do
by Studs Terkel

A wonderful, surprising, and addictive read. Mr. Terkel interviews farmers, office workers, hookers, janitors, car salesmen, teachers, poets, nuns, and many more about what they do, and how they feel about what they do. You should probably check this book out right now.

Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs
edited by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe & Sabin Streeter

Wow. This book completely blew me away. It is a great follow-up to Working, and is done in roughly the same format. Real workers are interviewed, and reveal candid, surprising, moving, and occasionally scandalous details about their jobs. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a UPS delivery driver or a Walmart greeter, this is the book for you.


The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work
by Joanne Ciulla

This book provides a history of the working life, as well as a philosophical discussion on the meaning of work, the nature of freedom and working for “the man,” and how we experience time. Overall, this is a very thoughtful book about the idea of work, and the question of how we can best spend our short amount of time here on planet earth.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
by Alain De Botton

A philosophical journey into the nature of work. De Botton looks at industries as dissimilar as biscuit manufacturing and rocket science (to name only a few) while trying to determine what ultimately makes work either fulfilling or soul-crushing.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Have you ever found yourself getting lost in a project, maybe while rearranging your cupboards, or possibly engaging in basket weaving? This book is all about being “in the groove,” that zone of contentment you go to when you’re completely focused and engaged in whatever task is at hand. Yep. Work can actually make you happy.
Happy reading, and happy working!


Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway. Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


Filed under Uncategorized

For the Love of Trains

I come from a train family. My great-grandfather worked on the Delaware and Hudson Railway for 47 years, and literally died on its tracks. He instilled in my father a love for trains, and my father did the same for me when I was a child. Now, I intend to pass a love for trains on to my own son.

My love for trains lay dormant for awhile as I pursued other interests as a teenager and twenty-something. But those transient years apparently weren’t enough to wipe trains from my memory. As I’ve emerged into adulthood, trains have again become one of my biggest interests. Why? I have a few ideas that I think most train buffs will be able to relate to:

1. The Power. Trains are an engineering marvel that helped build the world, and it’s easy to be awestruck by a 1,600 horsepower diesel engine (or several) pulling hundreds of cars filled with thousands of tons of coal or freight. The power of trains is what brings out the child in us as we’re humbled by their might. At the same time, this power reminds us of the greatness that people can achieve.

2.  The Artistry. Though filled with immense mechanical power, trains were also made to be aesthetically pleasing. As far as diesel engines go, I’m a big fan of the round-nosed ALCO PA’s, as seen here. But trains also add a lot to scenery; whether an industrial landscape or a wintry mountain forest, trains add beauty to the world rather than detract from it.

3. The Collectibility. Trains are utterly collectible due to the immense range of varieties that exist. And, it’s possible to collect a lot of different things related to trains, such as images of certain trains, train rides, or model trains. I attended a model train show recently, and I noted the detail with which model train collectors can become involved when a man next to me to pointed at an HO scale No. 19 Delaware and Hudson ALCO PA1 diesel engine and said “they have 19, but I need 17.” There are actually four models of these diesels, 16 through 19, and I need them all.

4. The Lineage. For all of the reasons above, a love for trains is easy to transfer to younger generations. Their power teaches; their beauty inspires; and their collectibility allows for these virtues to be physically passed along. Indeed, trains are a family thing, and even if my son should forget about his boyhood trains while he’s studying microbiology at Dartmouth, I’m sure he’ll return to them someday when he stumbles across his old train sets, and decides to pass them along to his children.

Are there any other train lovers out there?


Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway.  Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


Filed under Uncategorized

Revisiting Movies for Groundhog Day

Since today is officially Groundhog Day, I decided to revisit Melissa’s idea of revisiting the stories we love.  And I’m going to start with a story of my own.

Once upon a time, the First Floor experimented with a “New and Featured Film and Audio” section, including a librarian’s desk and a TV.  We were allowed to run a movie on the TV, on mute with closed captioning.  But it had to be from that room and rated PG.

There weren’t any children’s titles in the room, and the newest and most interesting titles were always checked out.  So I usually ran the same four or five movies repeatedly.  (Okay, I’ll confess — I slipped in the occasional PG-13 during the low-traffic early hours.)  Fortunately, I was busy enough that I wasn’t paying attention most of the time, and I never really got sick of them.

Yes, one of them was…

“What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”

But I also spent a lot of quality time with…

“A shark ate your eye?”

“In Okinawa, all Miyagi know two things: fish and karate.”

“More amazing than the time Michael Jackson came over to your house to use the bathroom?”

The Blob (motion picture)

“I wouldn’t give much for our chances, us running around in the middle of the night, looking for something that if we found it, it might kill us.”

Of course, everybody’s got a few movies they could recite on command.  Outside of my time in that department, I’m notorious for never watching movies, and even I have a list–

“It’s in that place where I put that thing that time…?”

“We got five thousand dollars, we got five thousand dollars!”

“It’s one of my personal favorites, and I’d like to dedicate it to a young man who doesn’t think he’s seen anything good today.”

“No ticket.”

So even though I’m not a big movie person, I’m always up for some comedy, action, or horror.  What movies could you watch a hundred times?

-Denise  (with a little help from my friends)

Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway.  Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


Filed under Uncategorized

Revisiting Books for Groundhog Day…

Even though I live in Pennsylvania where we consider Groundhog Day to be a real holiday complete with loud celebrations, drinking and furry mascots, as this day approaches I find myself thinking more about the theme of that movie with the same name.  I have come to see Groundhog Day as a time to reflect and look back on people, places, and even books that I’d like to revisit.  Here’s my book re-visitation list for this year:

Book Cover for Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilMidnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt – I love the descriptions, of the quirky people, of the stately houses, and of the town. This book made me want to live in Savannah. Yes, I know it is also a true crime novel, and that shouldn’t make me want to move there. But honestly, there’s crime everywhere and this one was more interesting than your run-of-the-mill murder-for-drugs sort . . .

Book Cover for And Then There Were NoneAnd Then There Were None by Agatha Christie – If you’ve never read Agatha Christie, here is where you should begin. This is the quintessential whodunit. You will be amazed and enthralled. You will probably not figure out the ending. This is one of the books that even convinced the mystery hating librarian, Will Manley, that not all mysteries are bad.

Book cover for A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – To this day, I still have no idea why this book moved me so much. But it did. And I’m not alone. Everyone I know who has read it has immediately fallen under its spell. First you read it, then you love it, and then you have to talk to others about it. It’s almost addictive and that’s how reading a good book should be.

Book cover for The House at Pooh CornerThe House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne – I love the Pooh books. I didn’t love them as a child. But as a college student I used to read them aloud to the guy I was dating at the time, whose name happened to be Christopher. I still remember laughing out loud with him while reading the last chapter, when Eeyore and the rest of the gang play poohsticks. Ah, college life . . .

Book cover for Joy of CookingJoy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer – I should use this book more than I do when referencing a recipe to cook. Maybe it’s because I have one of the newer editions and I really prefer my mother’s older version from the ’60s. I used to read and re-read the opening chapter on entertaining like it was a novel. Hmmm. Maybe I should see if she’s willing to make a trade . . .

And a movie or two . . .

Movie case for The Princess BrideThe Princess Bride – ”Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” “Aaaaaaaaas Youuuuuuuuu Wiiiiiiiiiiiiish!” “Inconceivable!” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” “Love IS pain, Highness!” “I’m not a witch, I’m your wife.” “Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday.” Do I need to go on? I didn’t think so.

Movie case for My Fair LadyMy Fair Lady – This is one of the most visually stunning movies I have ever seen. I love the uncovering of the flowers in the opening scene. The sets are very detailed. All of Eliza Doolittle’s outfits are fabulous!  (And everyone else’s too.) I think I’m going to have to watch it on the BIG television this time.  Warning: I will sing along!

What books and movies are on your revisitation list?

–Melissa M.

Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway.  Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


Filed under Uncategorized