Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cowboys and the Internet

Since this blog is called "Reader's Corner", most of the things I post will be book reviews. But occasionally I will post things that I've come across that I find interesting, or write about something I've been thinking about, that have to do with the world of books and reading

Recently I read an article at called "Why Cowboys Read" that was complimentary to libraries in this internet era, but one of the things that surprised me in the article was the fact that Wyoming residents checked out nine books in 2005-2006 compared with an average of five in California and two in Washington, D.C. I wondered how Kentucky measured up to these numbers. After doing a google search and coming across the National Center for Education Statistics, I found out that Kentucky ties with California (not as good as Wyoming, but not as poor as Washington, D.C. either). For years I have kept a list of the number of books I have read in a year. During good years, I have read as many as 51, and in poor years I have read as little as 15. That's probably better than some and a whole lot worse than others. But I would certainly be more comfortable in my profession and also with the country in general if these statistics were at least in the double digits for a year's time.

Another interesting thing I came across lately was an article at the called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" This one made me really stop and think, because as a Librarian I use Google a lot (just like I'm sure the average internet user does). No wonder we all love Google. It gives us what we really want: an end to our search, our questions answered, instant knowledge. It gives us the instant gratification we all crave. But Nicholas Carr says it exacts a price, and I think he makes a lot of valid points. See what you think.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Black Belt Patriotism: How to Reawaken America by Chuck Norris

I have always loved Chuck Norris, even before he became fodder for a book called "The Truth About Chuck Norris: 400 Facts About the World's Greatest Human" by Ian Spector. I'm sure you've heard the jokes going around the Internet: Guns don't kill people, Chuck Norris does; Chuck Norris can eat just one Lay's potato chip; Chuck Norris's blood type is D.O.A.; and Superman owns a pair of Chuck Norris's pajamas. But Chuck is much more than a 6 time world karate champion who retired undefeated. He's an actor, political activist, and humanitarian. In 1988 he wrote his autobiography "The Secret of Inner Strength" that became a New York Times best seller and then followed it up with "The Secret Power Within".

In this book Chuck outlines what he thinks are the 8 most important challenges we face as a country

1) No national legacy
2) No control over spending
3) Not enough border control
4) No moral compass
5) Not enough value for human life
6) No future for children
7) No traditional values
8) No might to fight

He has appendices that include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Ten Commandments.

In ten practical chapters he gives us insights from our founding fathers applying that wisdom to the problems of today. Among other things, he says we need to recall the purpose of government, return to a pay-as-you-go government, implement a fair tax (the ultimate economic stimulus package), cultivate a culture of peace to curb spending, secure and protect our borders, reclaim the value of human life, protect and reconnect our youth, honor and care for the family, educate ourself on health and nutrition so we will be fit for the fight, and finally reawaken the American Dream. Sounds like a pretty attractive proposal to me. Why don't you see what you think by picking up a copy of this book.

Brother to Dragons by Robert Penn Warren

[There are several versions of this book. The version I read is from 1979]

[The title is a Biblical reference, Job, 30:29, listing his reasons to mourn: "I am a brother to dragons and a companion to owls."]

The year is 1811, "annus mirabilis," the year during which history records strange happenings. Floods change the courses of rivers, create lakes, sickness strikes the valley dwellers, squirrels migrate in huge numbers, pigeons scour the grain fields, a total eclipse of the sun, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes rock the county. And in December of 1811 a savage crime was committed. A negro slave was brutally murdered. The perpetrators of this crime were the nephews of Thomas Jefferson--sons of his sister Lucy. Lilburne and Isham had the slave tied to a table in the meat-house and hacked him to death with an axe, casting his mutilated body parts into a roaring fire before the eyes of the other slaves. The supposed reason for this brutality was that the slave had broken a favorite pitcher of Lilburne and Isham’s dead mother. Eventually news spread about the murder (a fire-blackened bone was discovered, having been sniffed out and gnawed by a curious dog) and the brothers were arrested and indicted. After they were released on bail, Lilburne convinced his younger brother to engage in a suicide pact, according to which each brother would fire a fatal shot simultaneously into the other. Things did not go according to plan, and Lilburne was killed, while his brother survived unscathed. Isham was taken into custody again, but escaped and fled before being brought to trial.

Jefferson, despite the fact that the act was common knowledge, apparently could not bring himself to comment on or even acknowledge it, possibly because he could not accept that he, such a wealthy, prominent leader, could carry within his blood the capacity to perform such evil.

Robert Penn Warren in this long narrative poem examines the fact that while we are capable of great good, we are also capable of despicable evil. The events leading up to the murder, and the more astonishing aftermath, provide the framework for the poem. He uses multiple voices in his poem in order to give the reader a sense of fairness and lend more authority to his text. So we have a list of characters that includes Thomas Jefferson (the third President of the United States), Meriwether Lewis (with Clark, the co-commander of the Voyage of Discovery), Colonel Charles Lewis (Husband of Lucy Jefferson), Lucy Jefferson (sister of Thomas Jefferson), Lilburne Lewis (son of Charles and Lucy), Letitia Lewis (wife to Lilburne), Aunt Cat (a slave in the household of Charles Lewis, and black Mammy to Lilburne), Brother (to Letitia Lewis), Isham Lewis (brother to Lilburne), and John (the young slave). Warren himself is also a participant in the story as he moves in and out of the text contributing to the dialogue. Instead of setting the poem in 1811 and making it a traditional historical narrative, he has a set of characters meeting at a place and time not named to try and make sense of their actions.

Warren alludes to a human nature at odds with Jefferson's vision of perfectible humanity. But it is the inherited violence of slavery that profoundly impacts everybody in the poem, black and white. The ramifications of slavery are so widespread that all the poems figures are somehow complicit in the brutal act. And by inference that complicity extends to every reader.

This narrative poem says a lot about the human condition and the nature of the human heart. It's an extraordinary book.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Aunt Jane of Kentucky by Eliza Calvert Hall

"Eliza Calvert Hall" was the pen name of Mrs. Eliza (Lida) Calvert Obenchain (1856-1935), a native of Bowling Green, Kentucky. This book is well known for it's gentle folk wisdom, provided by an elderly fictional Aunt Jane, a plain old Kentucky woman. But it is more than a collection of reminiscences about the region of Western Kentucky where the author was born and raised. The author worked hard to win rights for women in the areas of property ownership and divorce.

The first entry is called Sally Ann's Experience. It pits a group of women against the organized church. It was first published in Cosmopolitan in 1898. This one piece was popular in Chautauqua performances in the early twentieth century and even prompted Teddy Roosevelt to say in a speech in Lansing, Michigan in May of 1908 "I cordially recommend the first chapter of Aunt Jane of Kentucky as a tract in all families where the menfolk tend to selfish or thoughtless or overbearing disregard to the rights of their womenfolk."

These stories recall Sunday dinners, church meetings and county fair competitions and her lively and folksy comments are often sly comments on the society of her time. Her insights on women's lives and work are showcased in these clever tales. As an example, at one point in her essay "The New Organ" after an old yellow rooster flutters up to the door-step and crows ominously Aunt Jane says "There, now! You hear that?...There's some folks that gives right up and looks for sickness or death or bad news every time a rooster crows in the door. But I never let such things bother me. The Bible says that nobody knows what a day may bring forth, and if I don't know, it ain't likely my old yeller rooster does."

Humor plays a big part in this book and the tales are delightfully told. She uses eccentric characters to illustrate simple values, and she does it in such a way that no one would take offense. It is comforting to go back in time to a community where everybody knew one another and people worked together despite their differences. That is part of the charm of this book. This is what accounts also for the popularity of books like Jan Karon's The Mitford series.

In a story called Mary Andrews' Dinner-Party the character Aunt Jane says "He preached about Nebuchadnezzar and the image he saw in his dream with the head of gold and the feet of clay. And he said that every human being was like that image; there was gold and there was clay in every one of us. Part of us was human and part was divine. Part of us was earthly like the clay, and part heavenly like the gold. And he said that in some folks you couldn't see anything but the clay, but that the gold was there, and if you looked long enough you'd find it. And some folks, he said, looked like they was all gold, but somewhere or other there was the clay, too, and nobody was so good but what he had his secret sins and open faults. And he said sin was jest another name for ignorance, and that Christ knew this when he prayed on the cross, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' He said everybody would do right, if they knew what was right to do, and that the thing for us to do was to look for the gold and not the clay in other folks. For the gold was the part that would never die, and the clay was jest the mortal part that we dropped when this mortal shall have put on immortality."

I think the character Aunt Jane was presented as loving life and enjoying it and not just enduring it, and she seemed to live a very happy and fulfilled life, and believed that there was value in all spheres of women's life and work. I think that is a very endearing lesson for all of us and that is why this book is popular still to this day.
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