Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: Norwegian Wood

I spent the good part of my Sunday afternoon yesterday finishing Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood. My first Murakami novel was The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, quite different from this read, which lacks the mystical elements of the later publication. The novel is told from the perspective of the 37 year old Toru Watanabe, who reflects on his first years of college in Tokyo after hearing an instrumental arrangement of The Beatles song Norwegian Wood. His story focuses on his relationships with two very different girls, Noako, the girlfriend of his high school friend, Kizuki, and Midori, who he meets in college. After Kizuki committed suicide their senior year, Toru continued seeing Naoko, mostly during walks through the countryside, but because of Naoko's own psychological deterioration, he finds himself unable to be with her completely.

Toru begins with his adjustment to college life in the late 1960s, living with a weird roommate he nicknames Storm Trooper and befriending the charismatic Nagasawa, who encourages him to join him on outings to pick up women for one night stands. He meets the sexually liberated Midori, with whom he kindles a relationship between visits with Naoko, who's committed herself to an nontraditional institution for psychological healing. In the translator's note, Jay Rubin explained that some of Murkami's earlier fans were disappointed in that this novel seemed to be just a "love story." Even if it were just a love story, I think the author successfully brought more to the table than you'd get with your typical Nicholas Sparks, Nora Roberts, etc. sort of romance. But then again, I haven't read any Sparks or Roberts in a while, so I could be mistaken. Anyway, I feel Toru's situation forced him to mature and understand his feelings for both Naoko and Midori in a way that isn't typical of post adolescent relationships.

I can't really call myself a hardcore Murakami follower, but I've enjoyed all of his novels that I've read, and Norwegian Wood certainly isn't an exception. In many ways, Toru's story reminded me of my own post adolescent adulthood, trying to understand my relationships and how I fit in the world. Though there are a few graphic descriptions of sex, they aren't gratuitous--Murakami successfully demonstrates how they are important to the plot and the development of the characters. If you're a Murakami fan and haven't picked this one up or if you're new to him and just looking for a mature romantic coming of age story, I'm positive you'll enjoy this book.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Keeping the community going

After the second part of my Intro to Email class today, a patron explained that, before attending this week's sessions, she had no idea that the library offered free computer classes. Then she said, "This is what keeps the community going--the library." That statement stuck with me all afternoon--one more affirmation of the value of my job and libraries in general, and I couldn't agree more. I've had several job-seeking patrons in my computer classes, because, they've said, there are very few positions out there that don't rely on computer skills. This week's session focused on setting up and using an email account, something virtually all online applications require these days. I wasn't a bit surprised that out of the 10 people who attended, 8 of them had never opened an email account.

When my supervisor asked me two years ago to help develop and teach computer classes, I jumped at the opportunity. Having come from an education background, I knew that teaching the classes would be something at which I could be successful. The same patron commented on how well I was able to take information about computers and present it in a way that they--older adults--could understand it. She said that she's tried learning from her nephews who have degrees in computer science and information technology, but they just couldn't help her understand. As first a teacher, and now a librarian, that's one of the cornerstones of my responsibilities--finding ways to present information in a way that patrons can understand and use it successfully.

From computer basics to getting patrons started on Facebook, we've offered computer classes on a number of different topics, but it's always those beginning level sessions that are the most popular. We've recently started advertising our classes in the local newspaper, and it's been surprising how much that has increased interest. Word of mouth has helped a lot too. Attendees, ranging in ages from 16 to 102, are always eager to learn something new, and have pretty much consistently been patient with me if they've felt the pressure of information overload. Many of them even come back for more. It's inspiring to know that the library is becoming more and more the number one place for learning in the community--keeping it going.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ghosts of Lawrence's past

This morning my supervisor handed me a thick envelope with the library's address scrawled across the lower left hand corner in barely legible print. Inside was a 20 page request, written in the same print, for information on the alleged paranormal activity at the nearby Eldridge Hotel that was recently featured on My Ghost Story shown on A&E's Biography Channel, as well as historical information on Lawrence, Kansas and its involvement in the Civil War. Astonished at the fact that it actually reached us--the three lines of both the return and receiving addresses slant downward and nearly run into each other and off the envelope, postmarked from Santa Rosa, California--my boss passed it along to me after laboriously reading through the first page. She assumed that I would have no qualms with responding to the request, and after my initial shock, I embraced the challenge.

I've heard about the ghost stories involved with the Eldridge Hotel, but this gave me the opportunity to look into it a little closer. The patron specifically asked about Colonel Shalor Eldridge, who, according to The Spencer Research Library at Kansas University, was a businessman that was active in making the territory of Kansas a free state and who bought the land where the current Eldridge Hotel sits at 701 Massachusetts street (see "Ghosts rumored to haunt site," Lawrence Journal World, Wednesday, May 11, 2005). The lot was home to the Free State Hotel, which was destroyed by a pro-slavery mob, and the colonel built what was known as the Eldridge House afterward. Some say it's his ghost that lingers there today. The activity seems to center around the 5th floor, where an original corner stone resides, and some tell tales of the old elevator (now no longer in the building) bringing them to this floor after they requested others.

Most interesting, to me, was the patron's concern for the colonel's spirit. She writes, "I would like to know why is Colonel Eldridge's ghost and spirit still remaining and lingering and hanging around the hotel and haunting the hotel? Does he know that he had died and does he know that he is dead and that his body was placed in a casket and buried in the grave? And does he know that it is his time to move on and go and walk toward the golden light. And go into the light and cross over the river into the summerlands?" I thought, now how am I supposed to find that out--talk to him?! The rest of the letter requests information on the history of Lawrence during the Civil War, the state of Kansas, any Native Americans that occupied the area, and any cemeteries, prisons and forts in the area.

As I've no talent for communicating with spirits, I'm afraid I wasn't able to find all the information this patron was asking after. With all that she was requesting, I could have put together a lengthy report, or even written a historical account of Lawrence in the late 1800's! Instead, I simply printed off a couple of articles and pictures from the Lawrence Journal World, an excerpt from Beth Cooper's Ghosts of Kansas, and a list of books about Lawrence that she could read, and I wrote her a letter explaining what I found and how she could request more. Our library's policy requires that special requests for research like this be presented on a form and be accompanied by a small nonrefundable fee, so I let her know if she filled out the form and sent it back, I could find more for her.

Though the letter was a little difficult to read, and I may have let it entertain me a little more than I probably should have, I'm glad that it led me to look into Colonel Eldridge's story. Having not grown up in Lawrence, I really appreciated the chance to learn a little more about the city's history--and it's just another reason why I love my job so much.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Can you tell me where the books are?

Sometimes it's real easy to tell when someone hasn't been to the library in a long time, or has never stepped in the building in the first place. Questions like "Where can I get a library card?" or "Where's nonfiction located?" and even "Where's the restroom?" are key clues, but then there are those that make me stop and blink a few times. Today I had a patron approach the desk and ask, "Can you tell me where the books are?" I must have given her a funny look, because she continued, "You know, the ones you can stick in your car...the DVD player?" After this clarification, I made the wild guess and walked her over to the audiobook CDs, and fortunately that's what she was looking for. And to make her rookie status even clearer, she asked, "Now you can check these out like the books, right?"

I do hope I'm not giving the wrong impression; I'm not trying to make fun of the patron. There was a time when I, myself, was a rookie to the library stacks. I rarely stepped foot in the small library in my home town--I didn't find the staff all that friendly, and I pretty much purchased all the reading material that I wanted. Whenever I did take a trip for something I didn't have, I always felt a little silly approaching the desk with any questions. So I can understand a little bit of confusion and lack of direction when people find their way into the Lawrence Public Library for the first time--the building is probably four times the size of my hometown's! And I applaud this patron's willingness to ask without fear of sounding ignorant.

As a reference librarian, on the front line, that's part of my job--to make patrons feel as comfortable in their information and entertainment seeking as possible. After my initial hesitation, I gladly got up from the desk and guided her to the right location. I imagine if I had been sitting behind the desk, my nose in the computer or newspaper, and if I had rolled my eyes at her approach, she wouldn't have bothered asking and would have left quite disappointed. She seemed quite satisfied, as it was, and upon walking back past the reference desk, she pointed to the circulation desk (over which a sign reading "Check out" hangs) and asked "I check these out there, right?"

Thursday, February 16, 2012

(More than) One click audiobook woes

I spent about 20 minutes this evening walking a patron through downloading a book from the State Library of Kansas's new audiobook service, OneClickdigital, to his iPod--a task that isn't quite as easy as the service's name makes it sound. What made it even more complicated was the fact that the reference transaction took place over the phone. A part of me can now sympathize with those phone tech support guys. The gentleman, who had one of those smooth southern accents, first expressed concern that he was going to have to create another account because he thought he may have done something to deactivate his first one. I managed to determine that he was still logged in and then proceeded to direct him through the downloading process.

He wasn't able to tell me whether or not he had installed the media manager on his computer, so I had to walk him through the manual download process. To enable the manual downloads, you first have to go in to your account preferences and make sure the OneClickdigital media manger isn't the default player. After we got that taken care of, I was able to direct him to his list of checked out items where he could click a link that would initiate the download. Now the file that downloads is actually a .zip folder, and decompressing it was another process the patron was unfamiliar with. I also had to walk him through adding the folder to his iTunes library, and then he was finally at the point where he could successfully transfer the book to his device.

I'm not a big fan of audiobooks, so I probably won't be using the service all that often myself, but I'm glad I have the experience and know-how to help others with it. The patron was honest with me and told me it was a little too complicated and that he probably wouldn't be downloading audiobooks too often. He isn't the first patron to make such an observation and claim, so I understood how he felt. I assured him, though, that he could always call back and we could walk him through the process again.

Monday, February 13, 2012

What I really do...

I've recently seen the meme for different occupations that illustrate through pictures what different people think people do in those occupations (i.e. journalists, tech support) and decided to put one together for my own!

librarian what i really do
Back when I was going to library school, and I think many librarians can relate, I told people that I was going for my masters, and generally the first response was: "You need a masters to work in a library?!" Shelving books, checking out materials, shushing people...that's probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think of librarians. But, as I've discovered, we can do so much more! What drew me to the library in the first place was the opportunity to share knowledge--to help people find the information they need to succeed. As a librarian I do this in a number of ways--helping people at the reference desk, teaching computer classes, showing people how to use their eReaders and other devices, leading book discussions and poetry socials, and sharing good books to read.

Especially now in a time of decreasing budgets, I think it's important that librarians find ways to actively demonstrate that our roles are not expendable. That libraries aren't expendable. For me it's in the faces of my patrons--that frustrated older woman who doesn't understand our computer reservation system and new software but comes in every day to apply for unemployment nevertheless, that gentleman who's satisfied that we're one of the only libraries he's been to that carries the daily New York Times, or simply that patron who's found a good book to read. I don't think there's a day that goes by that I'm not grateful for my job, the people I've met because of it, and the experience it has given me. I really look forward to the future and how the role of the librarian will change as technology advances and time progresses.

Friday, February 10, 2012

eBook Review: Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan

After a lengthy deliberation on how to spend the $25 Amazon gift certificate my fiance gave me, I finally went with the Kindle edition of Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan for my first eBook purchase. My colleague, the Librarian in a Banana Suit, belongs to the local PBR Book Club, a self-proclaimed "group of scenesters who read pretentious tomes and other relevant hipster texts and gather infrequently to talk about them (drunkenly) over PBRs" who've chosen Shteyngart's book for their February read. I decided to check it out as well, but since both of my library's copies were unavailable, I went with said purchase. I just scrolled through the final pages last night, and I have to say I found it entertaining.

The last, and only other, title I read by Shteyngart was his Super Sad True Love Story, which I gave a brief review of in my "Favorite Things" post back in December. I found Absurdistan, published four years prior, a grungier read than Shteyngart's later title. Graphic sexual encounters, depictions of violence, and a lot of crude, sexual language might deter some readers. And then there's the few instances of disgustingly descriptive imagery of the main character's khui, which was mutilated in a post-adolescent circumcision hack job. Misha Vainberg, the narrator and character in question, was forced in to the operation by his father, who tried to instill in him a bit of pride for his Jewish heritage. Further in to the reading, I thought of it as a physical manifestation of the mutilation of Misha's masculinity by his father, with whom Misha had a physical relationship as a child (something he often alludes to throughout the novel) and under whose shadow Misha constantly lives.

We meet Misha--rich, arrogant and overweight--after the assassination of his father, a successful criminal in post-Soviet Russia. Having spent the past 12 years in the United States, studying at the liberal-arts Accidental College in the Midwest and then living it up in New York City, Misha finds himself back in Russia and stuck in St. Leninsburg. He wants to return to New York and the love of his life, Rouenna, who he met at a bar in South-Bronx, but because his father murdered a man from Oklahoma, the United States refuses to grant him a visa. After Misha receives a multi-million dollar under-the-table settlement from the mobster assassin who killed his father, he determines to return to the United States via the Republic of Absurdistan, a former Soviet state on the Caspian Sea, by obtaining a Belgian passport and moving to Brussels. However, things don't go according to plan for the 1,238th richest man in Russia.

To start, Misha's beloved Rouenna falls for and becomes impregnated by the despicable author, writing professor and former classmate of Misha's, Jerry Shteynfarb. Incapable of leaving the small republic, caught in the middle of a civil war between the local Sevos and Svanis, Misha gets involved with the daughter of an Absurdistani official who tries to convince him to marry into the family. However, he still dreams of finding a way back into the United States and returning to New York City. Though I found very little I could relate to with Misha--he's arrogant and pretty detestable--a part of me couldn't help feel sorry for him in his deteriorating situation, and I was interested in discovering how things turned out for him. So I'm pretty happy with my eBook purchase. For more thoughts on this title, I would encourage you to keep up with the PBR Book Club's blog at:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Looking forward to National Poetry Month

The month long celebration of verse is just two months away, and as I'm planning events for the library, I'm getting more and more excited about it. As a poetry enthusiast, I've recently been trying to find ways to incorporate poetry in the library setting. Besides a display I created a couple of years ago, this is the first year that I've worked at the Lawrence library in which I think a lot of attention will be brought to it. The programming librarian and I are working with the Lawrence Arts Center on a series of events titled "Poetry Off the Page," which will include readings, Speed Poetry installations and "guerrilla poetry" sightings.

For presentations and poetry readings, I'm looking forward to bringing KU doctoral candidate and self-proclaimed "poetry freak," Mark Hennessy, and Kansas Poet Laureate, Dr. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, to the library in April. These events will be in addition to our normal monthly Poetry Social and a Poetry Slam. I'm also working on developing computer lab classes that will teach patrons and poets how to make a chapbook using Microsoft Publisher and where to find places to publish their work on the web. Once we get all the details figured out, we'll have the list of events on the Lawrence Public Library's web site.

For the April display I put up two years ago, I made a pretty simple sign and pulled poetry related titles from the collection. Then, with the help of our foundation director, we borrowed a couple of mannequins from the nearby Gap location, dressed them up in "hispter-ish" clothing and stuffed their pockets full of poems we encouraged people to take for Poetry in Your Pocket Day. Though I'm unsure of how many poems were actually taken, I do know that the mannequins attracted lots of double takes and attention. I haven't taken the time to think about this April's display, but I'm hoping I can come up with something just as eye catching!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

More Love Across the Genres!

My "Love Across the Genres" display is now up, featuring many love themed titles from our collection, from general fiction to horror to westerns! Now, I kind of went back on my promise about not including hearts on the display...but there's only three! Inspired by a photo I've seen around the internet, I took four black and white pictures of my hand in the shape of L, O, V and E, printed and pasted them to a large piece of white foam core, and hand wrote "across the genres" below it. Very simple, but I think it has a nice effect. To top it off, I did, admittedly, scribble a couple of red hearts on it. Not too overly mushy, right?

And as I promised in the last post, I'll go ahead and share a few more of my favorite loves stories, starting with Harry Potter! Now I didn't put any of the Harry Potter books on the display, mainly because they're in the children's collection, but also because it may have been a little bit of a stretch for some. When you think of Valentine's day, you think of romance and relationships, and though there is some of that in the saga, people will mostly think of a "Good Vs. Evil" theme. However, I think J.K. Rowling's seven book saga demonstrates that love is the greatest magic of all, as that idea not only comes straight from Professor Dumbledore's mouth, but in the plot itself. Saved by his mother's self-sacrificial love, Harry survives Lord Voldemort's attempts to kill and then bring harm to him. It is in turn Harry's own self-sacrificial love that ultimately defeats Voldemort and saves the wizarding world from the Dark Lord's evil. It was my goal, though, to include this and other types of love when considering titles to add to the display.

The theme of self-sacrificial love continues in my next selection, the film Dancer in the Dark. Björk stars as the young Czechoslovakian mother, Selma Jezkova, who emigrated to the United States with her twelve year old son, Gene. Suffering from a disease that will eventually lead to the loss of her sight, Selma works day and night at a factory, trying to save up enough money for an operation for her son that will prevent him from going blind from the same condition. However, when her trusted landlord, who's also a cop with a wife who has an expensive taste, steals her savings, Selma is forced to make a decision that has serious consequences. Selma's love for her son, and her secret passion for musicals, helps heal her and prepare her for the worst. The most touching line in the movie is her response when a friend asks why she had Gene knowing he would go blind. She said, "I just wanted to hold a baby."

The last title I'll share is one that does fit a little bit better into the whole Valentine's love thing. Though still not a definite romance, Kevin Brockmeier's The Illumination demonstrates the different ways love can affect human beings. After the mysterious "Illumination" begins, in which every inflicted or received wound begins to shimmer and glow with an odd light, a fatal accident causes a journal of love notes written by a husband for his wife to pass through the hands of six strangers. "I love the soft blue veins on your wrist. I love your lopsided smile. I love watching TV and shelling sunflower seeds with you." The journal, a collection of endearments the husband wrote each morning before leaving for work, touches and changes each reader differently, and demonstrates how everyone is connected in Brockmeier's strange new world where pain is visible as light.

Now that I've shared some of my favorite love stories, I'm curious about my readers! Comment below and tell me what yours are!