Friday, October 26, 2012

Berkeley Heights Old Houses & Sites: the Post Office

Berkeley Heights Post Office circa 1885 - 1900
In the 1880's, the front porch of this house served as the post office for the town of Berkeley Heights. According to the local history book, From the Passaiack to the Wach Unks,(203 - 205) there was a post office at 220 Plainfield Avenue in 1885 with a Mr. Brown serving as postmaster, but at some point the house was moved to 182 Plainfield Avenue. From 1885 - 1900, Mrs. Hannah Wahl served as postmistress from the front porch of the building pictured above. The home is now part of Vito Mondelli's Nurseries.
In the remainder of the 20th century, the post office continued to move about town from place to place and house to house until it came to rest at the current 465 Springfield Avenue in the local shopping center.

This picture was scanned from the library's vertical files (aka: photographic and clippings archives). Several more pictures from the 'Old Houses and Sites' binder can be viewed on the library's Picasa album. Here is the link
Pictures and information will be added to the Picasa album as part of an ongoing local history project of the library Reference Department and library volunteer, Matthew Taylor.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Unfinished Reading

A gloomy rainy day is the perfect time to confess which books I have recently not finished:

Hunger Games – wonderfully exciting and scary, but I watched the movie and             finishing the book seemed unnecessary

Fifty Shades of Grey – I wanted to correct the grammatical errors with a red pen

Goldberg Variations – I usually love Susan Isaacs, but I didn’t trust her and             Gloria Goldberg Goldberg Garrison to return me safely from Santa Fe to Long             Island

Gone Girl – if I wouldn’t eat lunch with these two psychopaths (using the term             loosely), why would I finish the book?  I do look forward to Gillian Flynn’s next             book because I admire her writing even though the characters made me squirm

Please feel free to share your recently unfinished books.

posted by S. Bakos

2012 must be the year of the unfinished book. I have finished fewer books this year than ever before. Here is my list on GoodReads of unfinished books from the past few years.

Some, I ran out of time, because the book was due. Some were just too slow, not bad, but just dragged, so I started something else and never returned to the slow-going book. Some were recommended by people whose reading tastes never coincide with mine, so I don't know why I bothered. And so, for each book there was a different reason for not finishing.

I am currently reading Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon; this spy thriller is going very slowly, so much so, that the I am losing the plot. Maybe I should give up? I borrowed the paperback copy from the library's freebie shelf, so I wouldn't have to worry about a due date. If you want my copy, let me know.

I was trying to read Anna Quindlen's Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake in which the popular journalist/novelist writes about turning 60, the empty nest and having too much stuff. There was not much original here and her 'hey, girlfriend' tone is just annoying to me. This is just a personal, gut feeling, not a true objective critique. She is hugely popular with women readers, so just ignore me. I have an empty nest, too much stuff, and no second house to put the stuff in. It's just a boring topic, isn't it? But I have some kitschy old mugs I could give you. Any takers?

And finally, I like to read American and British humorists, but two books that didn't make me laugh were:
Laurie Notaro's Autobiography of a Fat Bride and
Sloan Crosley's How Did You Get this Number?
The best thing about these collections of essays, or loosely related chapters, were the titles. I think some humor is generational and perhaps that's why these young-ish authors just don't work for me. Humor is perhaps the trickiest kind of writing and what tickles one funny bone, will leave another person's fb totally untickled. It's a puzzle. Generally, I don't find substance abuse amusing though, so that knocks a lot of contemporary humor off my bookshelf.

So there you have it, let me know if I should give any of these books a second chance. And now you know why I don't usually give bad reviews on this blog, I just get too harsh and cannot be objective about books I don't like. It's easier to write a good review.

posted by Anne

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reading about the Civil War, part 2

Building on my earlier post concerning the Civil War, I have been thinking about a display at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg.  Although I can only paraphrase what a young soldier said – I’ve seen one battle and would like to be excused from the next – it provides an inkling of the despair, fear and sadness these soldiers must have experienced.  Earlier this year BHPL hosted a program including three Civil War re-enactors.  One of the men said his favorite book about the war is Mark Nesbitt’s 35 Days to Gettysburg: the Campaign Diaries of Two American Enemies.  He felt that this book depicted the War on a personal level.

Many books are being published as part of the 150th anniversary observance.  Here are a few of the most recent non-fiction titles purchased by the library:

Shiloh, 1862 (Winston Groom)
Decided on the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln and the election of 1864 (David Alan Johnson)
War in the Waters: the Union and Confederate Navies,1861-1865 (James M. McPherson)
The Long Road to Antietam: How he Civil War Became a Revolution (Richard Slotkin)
True Crime in the Civil War: Cases of Murder, Treason, Counterfeiting, Massacre, Plunder and Abuse (Tobin T. Buhk)

Related websites:

posted by S. Bakos

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Tiger's Wife

Last night, the Berkeley Heights Library Tuesday night book group discussed The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. All the readers enjoyed the book, but some found the multiple storylines and connections between characters confusing. Many plot points or mysteries remained unresolved in this book. Despite that confusion, the book group members decided not to 'overthink' the plot and meaning, but just enjoyed the folklore and stories that are told throughout the book.

The Tiger's Wife is the story of a young physician, Natalia, practicing in a city in an unidentified war-torn Balkan country in contemporary times. Natalia's first person account of her life is interspersed with accounts of the life of her grandfather, also a physician. Natalia writes,
" everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger's wife and the story of the deathless man"

Natalia's grandfather meets Gavran Gaile, the Deathless Man, three times in his life, each time to discuss the rituals and superstitions surrounding death and the way people anticipate death. Each time, more is revealed about the Deathless Man. Gaile, a physician and the nephew of Death himself, has been given the ability to predict a patient's death. In an ironic twist, in retaliation for breaking the rules on this gift of prescience from his uncle, Gaile is doomed to never die. In his frustration with his immortality, he takes on the task of the 'mora' who gathers the souls of the newly departed at the crossroads.  In their last encounter, the grandfather and the immortal Gaile share an elaborate and elaborately described dinner served by a soon-to-die waiter, in an about to be destroyed city at the beginning of a war. The image of death with a sickle playing chess with the knight in Ingmar Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal', kept popping up in my mind's eye as I read these scenes. Shoving aside that iconic image and related parodies, I was determined to try to understand the story of the tiger's wife in order to further mine the meaning of the grandfather's life and the book as instructed by the author (see above quotation.)

When the grandfather was a child, during a previous war, a tiger escapes from a city zoo during the bombing and wanders around the countryside until it comes to the grandfather's village. A battered deaf-mute Muslim wife, an outcast in the Christian village, feeds and befriends the tiger. The superstitious villagers call her 'the Tiger's Wife' and believe she is pregnant with the tiger's child. The grandfather, as a child, befriends the woman and takes her food, but ultimately is the instrument of her death.

So there you have it, the story of the grandfather is bracketed by his encounters with an immortal gatherer of souls and his childhood witnessing of brutality by the group toward the outcast. To me, the book is a jumble of good writing; but thin characterization and relationships; multiple digressions for backstories as each character is introduced; many many animal stories; many colorful local myths and superstitions; a few allusions to complex Balkan history. All these interspersed stories are strung loosely together to form an impression of a region too familiar with war and death given its difficult history of invasions, ethnic and religious feuds, and untrustworthy political alliances. Finally the book's ending may or may not wrap things up to the satisfaction of all readers. I struggled with this book. Probably readers should read it twice or at least not hurry through it to meet a book group deadline. Or readers should just read, enjoy and get a general impression without digging too deep for answers.

Related websites for further reading:

This first novel by a very young author has received awards and great reviews and is now a favorite for book groups. For reactions of readers who are not book reviewers, take a look at the discussion on GoodReads

Tea Obreht's website
New York Times review of the Tiger's Wife 
Washington Post review of the Tiger's Wife

 Quote from the Deathless Man - "the greatest fear is that of uncertainty...have they [the patient] done enough, discovered their illness soon enough, consulted the worthiest physicians, consumed the best medicines, uttered the correct prayers?" (183)

    Tuesday, October 9, 2012

    Reading about the Civil War

    A recent visit to the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg and the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center made me reflect on the horrors of the Civil War.  I knew that Antietam was the bloodiest day in the War, but a film at the museum in Harrisburg showed a man snapping his fingers and saying that statistically a man died every second for six hours.  The Gettysburg Cyclorama has always amazed me by depicting such a deadly battle in such a peaceful setting.

    The first book I read about the Civil War was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.  The first film I saw about the Civil War was Gone with the Wind.  Perhaps not the best introduction, but it encouraged me to read several of Bruce Catton’s popular trilogies.  I suddenly had a more accurate, less romanticized, view that did not feature Rhett Butler.  To this day the film Shenandoah (1965) can make me start sniffling in the opening scene when Jimmy Stewart talks to his dead wife.  Glory (1989) and Gettysburg (1993) are my favorite Civil War films, but I tend to forget Brigadier General John Buford’s name and refer to him as Sam Elliott. 

    During this period as the 150th anniversary of the War is being honored, I have compiled a list of books, all fiction, which may be of interest to anyone considering reading about the past in an attempt not to repeat it.  The list is brief and is not intended to provide a balanced view. 

    The Killer Angels (Michael Shaara)
    God and Generals and The Last Full Measure (Jeff Shaara)
    Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier)
    White Dove at Morning (James Lee Burke)
    The March (E.L. Doctorow)
    The March (Geraldine Brooks)
    Enemy Women (Paulette Jiles)
    Widow of the South (Robert Hicks)
    Devil’s Dream: a novel about Nathan Bedford (Madison Smart Bell)
    Coal Black House (Robert Olmstead)
    Wilderness (Lance Weller)
    Killing Lincoln (Bill O’Reilly)
    Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe)

    Websites related to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War

    posted by S. Bakos

    Monday, October 1, 2012

    The Mutability of Literature

    While wandering through Westminster Abbey, Washington Irving visits the library. Feeling sleepy, the author takes an old book in his hand and it begins to speak to the him! 

    'the little book gave two or three yawns, like one awaking from a deep sleep; then a husky hem; and at length began to talk.'

    The book complains that no one has looked at it for two hundred years!

    “Sir,” said the little tome, ruffling his leaves and looking big, “I was written for all the world, not for the bookworms of an abbey. I was intended to circulate from hand to hand, like other great contemporary works; but here have I been clasped up for more than two centuries, and might have silently fallen a prey to these worms that are playing the very vengeance with my intestines, if you had not by chance given me an opportunity of uttering a few last words before I go to pieces.”

    Washington Irving and the little 'quarto' talk about the new literature which is not as good as the old, or is long since forgotten and of the old books which were a passing fad. The 'talking' book in Irving's hand is very emotional about the state of books and libraries and the taste of the reading public. Irving points out that anyone can now easily write and publish a book and that quality has suffered. These remarks sound very familiar:

    '...the inventions of paper and the press have put an end to all these restraints. They have made everyone a writer, and enabled every mind to pour itself into print, and diffuse itself over the whole intellectual world. The consequences are alarming. The stream of literature has swollen into a torrent—augmented into a river—expanded into a sea. A few centuries since, five or six hundred manuscripts constituted a great library; but what would you say to libraries such as actually exist, containing three or four hundred thousand volumes; legions of authors at the same time busy; and the press going on with fearfully increasing activity, to double and quadruple the number? Unless some unforeseen mortality should break out among the progeny of the muse, now that she has become so prolific, I tremble for posterity.'

     Irving thinks literary critics have a valuable role to play in the face of too many books.

    'But I fear all will be in vain; let criticism do what it may, writers will write, printers will print, and the world will inevitably be overstocked with good books. It will soon be the employment of a lifetime merely to learn their names. Many a man of passable information, at the present day, reads scarcely anything but reviews; and before long a man of erudition will be little better than a mere walking catalogue.'

    If you feel overwhelmed by the amount of information poured out every day, it's interesting to note that feeling is not new. It's not just the 'information explosion' or the 'digital revolution' that has made readers feel that they are buried in an undifferentiated mass of verbiage. What would Washington Irving and his little talking quarto think of  e-readers which contain thousands of downloaded books? Of self-publishing on the internet? Of blogs and tweets and Facebook and cheap paperbacks?

     Excerpts from Washington Irving's essay The Mutability of Literature (1819 - 1820).