Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What the Library Staff Read in 2008

I just went around and asked the BHPL staff to tell me what was their favorite book read in 2008. Almost everyone blanked out at that question at least momentarily, but here are the answers off the top of their heads without looking at their book lists if they keep one.

Reference librarian and co-blogger Ellen liked all the 44 Scotland Street books by Alexander McCall Smith. She listened to the whole series in 2008 on audiobooks.

Our Director liked and recommended to many patrons The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

Reference Assistant Linda liked Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson.

Administrative Assistant Susan liked the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Our book mender and Circulation Assistant, Linda, liked Cleo Coyle's first Coffeehouse Mystery, On What Grounds and recommends the whole series.

Our other Technical Services/Circulation Assistant, Elaine, liked Mary Higgins Clark's latest book Where Are You Now? and has put herself of the holds list for Clark's 2009 title, Just Take My Heart.

Children's Librarian Laura liked all of Bill Bryson's books, especially the Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid which made her think back on the good old days of the 1950's.

Head of Circulation, Magdalen, liked 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper.

Circulation Student Assistant, Danny, liked Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns and he was the fastest to answer the question without hemming and hawing and changing his mind.

2008 was the year of rediscovering Agatha Christie for me. I like her earlier mysteries best.

As I type this, Ellen keeps adding more books she liked from the BHPL book groups. Crow Lake by Mary Lawson, Gilead by Marilyne Robinspm. The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell.

A book I enjoyed and which falls into the I never would have read this unless I was in a book group, is The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. It might also be in the weirdest book I've read for a long time category.

The book which our book groupers unanimously found annoying and not-her-best was Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen - which is my favorite Austen title. So that goes in the no accountin' for tastes category.

The everyone loves it except for me and it was too long anyway category goes to Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett which I had recommended to my online book group and which ultimately killed the group. So lesson for 2009: very long books may pose problems for books groups.

The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard

The morning book group will start off the new year by discussing The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard on Friday, January 2 at 10:30 a.m. Set at West Point Academy in 1830, The Pale Blue Eye is the story of August Landor, a retired New York City constable who must solve the murder of a West Point cadet. Landor asks Edgar Allan Poe, a first year cadet at the Academy, to spy on the other cadets for him and generally help him with the investigation.

A few biographies of Poe, including Kenneth Silverman's Edgar A. Poe, confirm the accuracy of the historical details of The Pale Blue Eye, right down to the books that his French class read and the poem Poe wrote making fun of his instructor Joe Locke. Poe did tell a lot of lies about his family to West Point and the other cadets (among them, that his parents died in the Richmond theater fire of 1811 and that his grandfather was Benedict Arnold - who offered West Point to the British for 20,000 pounds in 1780). A cadet named Thomas Gibson said that Poe fretted over the rumor that Poe (at 21, much older than the other cadets) had substituted himself for his son, who (it was said) had died after receiving his cadet's appointment.

Here's a prank that does not show up in The Pale Blue Eye: Gibson came into the room that he and Poe shared with their roommates and said that one of their officers had been killed. Poe pretended not to believe him, "after which Gibson returned with a bloodied knife, swinging a bloody gander" that was supposed to be the decapitated head of the officer (page 62 of Kenneth Silverman's biography).

About Louis Bayard

Early History of West Point Military Academy

About Edgar Allan Poe

Discussion questions:

What does the title, The Pale Blue Eye, refer to?

What did you think about the plot twists and red herrings?

How important is the setting to the story?

If you're familiar with Louis Bayard's other novels, did this book live up to exceed your expectations?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Shmoop - New Literature Website

T0day the developers of the new homework-helper website, Shmoop, sent an email to the Reference Department asking us to take a look at their site. Shmoop, currently in beta (testing) mode, has three sections: Literature, American History and Poetry. Each section critiques classic books, poems or frequently-assigned historical events in a way that will help students understand, review and write about the work or topic.
I chose to read the section about The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and found it to be fun to read and thorough in its scope. The website developers are scholars and teachers who hope to inspire students to enjoy literature and history. Take a look and tell us or the Shmoopers what you think. Remember that BHPL also subscribes to databases of literary criticism which are accessible from our website like Granger's Poetry, Contemporary Authors, and the Literary Reference Center. These databases have signed articles and can be used for highschool and college research because they are edited and authoritative sources which teachers will allow as valid "works cited" for term papers.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Best Books Lists 2008

Best books lists are typically compiled in November and December each year by various book reviewers. There are lists of best non-fiction, fiction, mystery, science fiction and other genres. There are high-brow lists and lists aimed at recreational readers. There are lengthy, subdivided lists and the punchy best five or best ten lists. The overall effect can be like listening to the weather report, at the end you still don't know what the weather will be like tomorrow. There is just too much information and the mind starts to tune it out. Well, mine does anyhow.

Some library patrons print out best books lists and carry them in their wallets all year, working their way systematically through them. Others produce rumpled scraps of paper with faded or illegibly scribbled titles of books recommended by friends, or heard about on the radio or television. Some people rely on their memory and others just browse the shelves when they get to the library. Some people put themselves on reserve for most bestsellers and others never read bestsellers. Some swear by Oprah picks and others find her taste very depressing.

Fortunately enough books are published each year so that there should be something for everyone. The trick is to figure out what it is. As I was browsing through the New Fiction shelves on Tuesday for myself in anticipation of two days off and optimistically thinking there would be time to read, a patron asked for a recommendation. Since I was stumped myself about what to read next, we looked together. My Director and I recommended the Inn at Lake Devine by one of my favorite authors, Laura Lipman and Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman because the patron seemed to like character-driven, psychological fiction like Jodi Picoult's and Sara Gruen's. I took home Bailey White's holiday stories as told on NPR, Nothing with Strings which was terrific, and Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders as the latest evidence of my 2008 addiction to the Grande Dame of Mysteries.

Take a look at these end of year lists to find what you plan to read in 2009 or come ask at the Reference Desk and we'll see if we can come up with a list made just for you.

NPR, the Complete Holiday Book Recommendations 2008

Amazon's Top 100 Editors Picks and the Top 100 Customer Favorites

Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year

Louisa Ermelino writes in PW, "There were the authors we expected to deliver, and they did: Louise Erdrich with The Plague of Doves, Richard Price with Lush Life, Jhumpa Lahiri with Unaccustomed Earth, Lydia Millet with How the Dead Dream. A breakthrough surprise about cricket, Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, delighted us, while Tim Winton's Breath took ours away. We listened to our elders in How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People; thought about our planet with The Soul of the Rhino; examined our history in The Hemingses of Monticello and Abraham Lincoln: A Life; and, thanks to Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, we even considered Jesus for President."

The PW Fiction list starts with Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? the third novel featuring PI Jackson Brodie which I just started and expect to be as good as the first two.

Library Journal's Best Books 2008

The New York Times 10 Best Books 2008

USA Today's list of 10 Books We Loved Reading in 2008 probably coincides most closely with my own tastes because it includes Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows which I enjoyed and which both appear on several other lists.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Holidays

The library will be closed all day December 24 and 25.
If you forgot to pick up a copy of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol to read, the full-text is available online with the original illustrations. The poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas (Twas the Night before Christmas) is also available online with illustrations and falling snow!
If you need a last minute recipe, try AllRecipes online.
Don't forget to track Santa's progress on the NORAD website. Every year the North American Aerospace Defense Command takes on this important task for the boys and girls around the world.

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — The North American Aerospace Defense Command is again getting ready to track Santa! On Dec. 1, the NORAD Tracks Santa (NTS) Web site,, will go live and feature fun holiday games and activities that will change daily. On Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, NORAD will begin tracking Santa Claus' journey via live video feeds...

The mission started in 1955 when a child accidentally dialled CONAD asking for Santa's whereabouts. The Commander on duty gave him the information and a tradition was born. NORAD celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and the 53rd of tracking Santa by military radar, Santa cams and other up-to-date spyware.

Ho Ho Ho and to all a good night!

Monday, December 22, 2008

On Tea & Coffee

It's currently 14 degrees in Berkeley Heights, so perhaps these titles from this month's book display on tea and coffee will help warm you up:

Uncommon Grounds by Sandra Balzo. This is one of a couple of coffee-themed mysteries (the other being Cleo Coyle's). Author SJ Rozan wrote the cover quote: "If Nancy Drew grew up, got married, ditched her no-good husband, and opened a coffeehouse, she'd be Maggy Thorsen."

Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire by Roy Moxham, who managed tea plantations in Malawi when it was still a British colony. He begins with Europe's introduction to tea (which is originally from China) in the 17th century and ends with his experiences in Africa.

Coffee and Kung Fu by Karen Brichoux. A copy writer who is obsessed with Kung Fu has to choose between a sensitive guy who works at a coffee shop and a debonair sailboat dealer.

Tea and Sympathy: The Life of an English Teashop in New York by Anita Naughton and Nicola Perry. This is a memoir of the life of a teashop interspersed with recipes that made The Sunday Times of London call it "the most important British cookbook for a generation."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Let It Snow

People are still trickling in to the library, despite the snow, to check out books and DVDs and check their e-mail. (Imagine how dreadful it would be to be snowbound without a book.) I am shamelessly filling up the rest of my post with photos of the snow.

The view from a study carrel

The library's neighbor, Little Flower Church

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What's the Magic Word?

When parents ask that rhetorical question, they are trying to prompt their child to say "thank you." What do you do if your child slyly answers, "Now!" You could try a little bibliotherapy by reading them Perfect Pigs, an Introduction to Manners by Marc Brown and Stephen Krensky. Search for 'children and etiquette' in the library catalog and that book and many other gentle approaches to teaching manners will turn up, like Hello Gnu, how do you do?: a beginning guide to positively polite behavior by Barbara Shook Hazen or It's a spoon, not a shovel by Caralyn Buehner. Not everyone's parents have done their homework though judging by the incidents of road rage and other rude behaviour that we all experience everyday.

What do you do when you encounter someone who as a child has not absorbed those gently humorous nudges to say please and thank you and is now tailgaiting you on Route 78, or taking the parking place you have been waiting for, or drinking the last cup of coffee at work and never ever starting a new pot? These daily examples of rudeness and how to respond to them constructively are discussed in P.M. Forni's The Civility Solution, what to do when people are rude. Professor Forni teaches Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University and founded the Civility Initiative in 2000. His book Choosing Civility was a bestseller and the Civility Solution continues the good fight by suggesting very practical ideas for people who want to know how to not only be more polite, but also to encourage politeness in others.
For an interview with P.M. Forni read this article in the Johns Hopkins Gazette.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Alexander McCall Smith's Digital Novel

If you're a fan of Alexander McCall Smith's series 44 Scotland Street, take a look at his newest serially published novel, Corduroy Mansions, which is about a group of neighbors in the Pimlico section of London. Unlike 44 Scotland Street, which is first published in the newspaper The Scotsman, Corduroy Mansions is being published a chapter a week on The Telegraph's web site. Not only can you read it online, but you can listen to it on the site as well.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Booklist's Top Ten Sci-Tech Books of the Year

Earlier this month Booklist named the top ten science and technology books of the year. I was never an avid science student, so I was amazed that all of these books sounded really interesting (The Parrot Who Thought She Was a Dog or Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Others, for example). And some, like Fruitless Fall, seem like essential reading. If you don't have time to read them now, start a list of books you'd like to read using Next Good Book (register and then start a new Book Shelf).

Flash Mob at the UNC Undergraduate Library

A mob of University of North Carolina students converged on the library December 9th to dance and boogie around in an event arranged by cell phone text messaging. It's called a flash mob and this one happened during exam week to break up the stress and monotony of round-the-clock studying. Looks like fun. UNC has exam week flashers too, but since this is a family-friendly blog, we won't link to any videos of those happenings.
What do you do to break up the monotony of studying at the library? Leave a comment.
Daily Tar Heel report on the UL Flash Mob

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Library Usage Up During Recession

NBC News reported on the uptick in library usage during this economic recession. Click here to watch the video. The report notes that ironically tough times also bring library funding cuts. As people increasingly turn to libraries for free bestsellers and DVD's, internet connections, job support groups, movie nights, and programs for children and adults, library hours and in some cases, branches are cut in Philadelphia and other hard-hit towns and cities.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Uncivil Book Groups

The New York Times article "Fought Over Any Good Books Lately?" reveals the hidden world of book groups. No, that doesn't mean the civilized and earnest discussion of classic literature; the NYT article uncovers the rivalries, spats, infighting, powerplays, and just plain dirty politics of belonging to a book group. Who knew? Well, anyone who has ever belonged to a bookgroup, that's who apparently.
The article goes on to say,
"Yes, it’s a nice, high-minded idea to join a book group, a way to make friends and read books that might otherwise sit untouched. But what happens when you wind up hating all the literary selections — or the other members? Breaking up isn’t so hard to do when it means freedom from inane critical commentary, political maneuvering, hurt feelings, bad chick lit and even worse chardonnay."
Not to say that you can't find a group that will fit your style, not just style of reading, but style of group interaction. If you can't find a compatible group, there are bookgroup leaders that can be hired to troubleshoot the situation. These hired guns put a stop to the long-winded members, keep the group on task by cutting back on gossip and non-book related chat. That sounds kind of like going back to school to me. Pay money, listen to teacher, stop daydreaming and above all, don't fall asleep .
What about the snacks, you may ask? Well, that too can become a competitive event at these occasions. One bookgrouper interviewed for the NYT article says that even a tea time book meeting became a war of clotted cream and bigger and fancier teas.
The BHPL book groups are not like the book groups mentioned in this article. We are very civilized, democratic and so far, things have not devolved into an insult hurling fracas.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Early Childhood Library Class and Book Abandonment Issues

This just in from our Director - reminiscing about the start of a lifelong love affair with books.
Ms. Bakos writes,

"I started 6th grade in a newly built middle school with a library stocked with brand new books. My classmates and I were excited about our first in-school library, but we were less than pleased to discover a weekly Library Class, complete with homework and tests. We learned to introduce ourselves to books. First, you look at the front and back covers, then you read the inside blurbs, and finally you read the first page. At any point in this process it is acceptable to return the book to the shelf. I still follow this procedure when selecting a book to read.

I must have been absent the day the Librarian discussed how to separate from a book that is just not living up to its promise. Over the years I have downsized my own rules about how many pages to read before calling it quits from fifty to twenty. When I am listening to an audiobook, I have lowered the standard to two CDs before ejecting and listening to the radio. My arbitrary rules do not lessen the guilt I feel that someone has taken the trouble to write/record this story that I am abandoning.

There is one rule of Library Class that I have never broken. I never read the last page first."

Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes

The Tuesday Evening BHPL book group will discuss Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes tomorrow at 7:30 PM. Ms. Vanderbes's first novel won critical acclaim and was selected Best Book of the Year in 2003 by the Washington Post. The novel follows three stories: that of two women who visit Easter Island 60 years apart and the story of the German fleet that stopped in Easter Island during World War I. The book offers something for everyone: it is quite detailed about the archaeology, botany, and history of Easter Island. The characters are well-drawn and there is mystery, romance and suspense in the intertwined lives of the characters over time.

Related websites:

Friday, December 5, 2008

Holiday Gifts for Book Lovers

Take a look at the New York Public Library's gift shop to find cool gifts for book lovers. I especially liked the purses made from old subway maps or license plates. Not that they have anything to do with books.
Speaking of NYPL, Winnie-the-Pooh and friends have moved from the Central Children's Room; they now live at the History and Social Science Library at 42nd Street.
Photo: a mousepad featuring one of the lions guarding the 42nd Street Library.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

The First Friday library book group will meet this Friday, December 5, at 10:30 a.m. to discuss A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, which is set in a certain unnamed seaside city in India (surely Mumbai, Mistry's hometown) during the Emergency in the mid 1970s. A Fine Balance begins on a train, with a student and two tailors colliding when the train comes to a unexpected halt. It turns out they are heading for the same apartment, where the poor widow who lives there rents a room to the student and hires the tailors. (The book ends with a train, too, bringing the story full circle.)

This 600-page tale of hill stations and slums, beggars and beggarmasters, hair collectors and government "motivators," monkeymen, untouchables and Brahmins, exporters and tailors, policemen and soda bottlers, is an epic. At one point the cook at the Vishram restaurant whom the tailors relate their stories to at tea every day says, "If all our customers were like you, we would be able to produce a modern Mahabharat - the Vishram edition." (The Mahabharata is an ancient Sanskrit epic poem seven times the length of the combined The Iliad and the Odyssey, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Like his character Kohlah, Rohinton Mistry is a Parsi (although this book seems to have a character for every religion in India - Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs as well). He left India shortly after the Emergency began, for Canada. There was a interesting kerfuffle between Rohinton Mistry and Germaine Greer after A Fine Balance was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1996. (Greer said that it was a Canadian book about India.)

There are two sets of discussion questions, which you can find on Oprah's site (it was one of her book club's selections) and on the Borders UK site.

Interviews with Rohinton Mistry have been posted online by the Asia Society, Knight-Ridder newspapers and Oprah.

Winnie-the-Pooh Dedication

A patron walked into the library yesterday and asked who "her" was in this book dedication from Winnie-the-Pooh:

To Her

Hand in hand we come

Christopher Robin and I

To lay this book in your lap.

Say you're surprised?

Say you like it?

Say it's just what you wanted?

Because it's yours--

Because we love you

There are lots of theories floating around, but Our Director came across this one: "Her" is A.A. Milne's wife, Daphne. We'll stick with that explanation for now. Click here for details.

While we were looking for the answer, we read the Winnie-the-Pooh chapter in Who the Hell is Pansy O'Hara, the fascinating stories behind 50 of the world's best-loved books by Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy (pp. 82-86, call #820.9 BON) The answer wasn't there, but it did answer the question, which was not asked, about who the original Pooh bear was.

Pooh was named after a Canadian Black Bear named Winnipeg which lived at the London Zoo. The orphaned bear was the mascot of a World War I Canadian regiment. The regiment veterinarian left it with the Zoo while the soldiers went to the front. Christopher Milne, A.A. Milne's son, used to visit the bear and renamed Edward, his toy bear, Winnie. He also added "the Pooh" after a swan in one of his father's poems in When We Were Very Young.

Back to the patron who walked into the library. The patron said that Pooh was a girl not only because Winnie is a girl's name but also because in his Hungarian translation of the book, the bear is treated as female. However, I offered up this tidbit: in the Latin version of Winnie-the-Pooh that my father gave to me as a child, Winnie was Winnie Ille Pu, which meaning Winnie That Pooh kind of dodges the question of gender. In fact, Winnipeg, the real London Zoo bear, was a female. Trying to figure out the literary Pooh's gender is as difficult as trying to figure out who the book is dedicated to. According to our research, Christopher Robin, the real one and the literary one, was rather vague on that point.

As Pooh might say, the fluff in my head is beginning to hurt. I think it might be time for a spot of honey.

Topics not covered here: why would anyone give a child Winnie the Pooh in Latin? Who was Pansy O'Hara anyway? Why did a Regiment have a vet? (Horses.) Why would a swan be named Pooh? And finally, is this what they taught us in library school? (Yes.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Thanksgiving Thank You

A patron gave the library staff a really nice thank you note today:

"Thank you for the superb computer class lessons, for ordering books from other libraries (and renewing them!), for finding Martha Stewart recipes and miscellaneous addresses and facts, and just for being kind, caring, dedicated people (with expertise to spare!)! The B.H. Library is some library! Happy Thanksgiving!"

We'd just like to say thank you for coming to the library (or stopping by the blog). A library is not a collection of books but the group of people who share them, and we would not be around if it were not for you.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cyberchondria: The Internet and Health Information

Do you use the internet to find health information? If you do, you may be a cyberchondriac. Cyberchondria is a new word according to this article ,
" Microsoft researchers coined the term after finding that thanks to a plethora of online medical information, more and more people think they are sick."

The article goes on to say that,
"Information can assist people who are not health-care professionals to better understand health and disease, and to provide them with feasible explanations for symptoms," said the researchers in a report. "However, the Web has the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when Web search is employed as a diagnostic procedure."

It looks like the key point there is that using the web to diagnose an illness can cause a lot of problems. Even doctors can hear hoofbeats and think zebra instead of horse, but it's a much more common problem for the layman. That refers to the tendency to think that symptoms point to something really rare and serious rather than to the more common cause of the symptoms. For example, a websurfer may conclude that a headache is a sign of a brain tumor rather than just a garden variety stress headache. Add into that the effect of watching TV programs like "House" where the diagnosis is always something really arcane and websurfers may easily jump to the wrong conclusions.

The cure for this cyberchondria is to start with your doctor. Once you have a diagnosis, be sure to use reliable resources to research the disease or condition. Many library patrons come to the Reference Desk to ask for help with medical questions. The medical books in the library have all been reviewed and selected, for the most part, with an eye for accuracy and helpfulness to the layman. Sometimes, bowing to popular demand, we buy a health bestseller which may contain dubious information. The medical reference section has the most unbiased health information in the library's book collection. The Merck Manual of Medical Information (Ref 610 MER) and the Johns Hopkins White Papers (Ref 616 JOH) are two good places to start your research.
To find medical information online, the Reference Staff has bookmarked authoritative health websites to use and is trained to be skeptical of websites that seem to be primarily a marketing tool for online quacks and opportunists.

Here is a list of websites we use for medical information and links to a few articles about choosing reliable health information. One more caveat: make sure you have the correct spelling of the condition or drug you are researching.

The first stop on the web for the BHPL Reference Staff is usually the National Library of Medicine's website,
This website will take you to articles from The Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, various medical schools, hospital centers and universities. It has links to the the National Institutes of Health and other U.S. government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture (for nutrition.)
Notice that many of these websites are dot govs or dot edus, in other words, they are government or university websites, not dot coms, which essentially are commercial,profit-making websites.

The American Cancer Society
Top 100 Health Websites from CAPHIS
Clinical Trials
Healthy New Jersey from UMDNJ, the state medical schools
Household Products Database from NIH
MyPyramidTracker to plan your food intake -for free, no ads for supplements or other dubious or expensive promotions.
Sloan Kettering's website about herbal supplement efficacy and potentially harmful interactions with prescribed drugs.
The ABMS, American Board of Medical Specialties, list of Board Certified doctors

And finally, an entertaining, thought-provoking, possibly controversial website
Quackwatch. You may not agree with the website author, Stephen Barrett, MD, but at the very least you will learn to be very skeptical of medical information you hear about from friends, read online or see on television.