Barbara Robinette Moss (1954-2009)

changemeintoA colleague shared with me that one of her favorite authors, Barbara Robinette Moss, had died recently (Oct. 9, 2009).  Considering that Moss had lived in Iowa (Des Moines and Iowa City) for a good portion of her life, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of her passing.  Moss was both an artist and an author.

Her memoir, Change me Into Zeus’s Daughter, is one of our Book-Club-in-a-Box selections.  It’s compelling reading.  The opening scene has her mother preparing a meal of seeds they had intended to plant — seeds saturated in pesticide.  The family is starving and there is nothing else to eat.  Her father is an alcoholic, often out of work and often abusive.  Barbara is particularly unfortunate in that malnutrition has caused the bones in her face to elongate, giving her a “twisted, mummy face.”   Her wish to change her appearance — which she eventually is able to do —  is the basis for the book’s title.

Though at times it’s difficult to witness the hardship the family endures, this is truly an uplifting book. In her follow-up memoir, Fierce, Moss covers later episodes in her life, including finally leaving Alabama and her abusive second husband for art school at age 27, with her 8 year old son in tow.  To know that she overcomes her harsh beginnings and becomes a productive and successful adult is amazing.   It’s unfortunate that we cannot look forward to more work from this creative talent.

Flying Feast

If you spend a little time in the regional news, you might know the spread of the Asian Carp has reached epidemic levels.  It has the discriminating diet of a billygoat and the reproductive powers of a bunny rabbit.    It is a hearty old beast, reaching up to 40 pounds apiece by eating nearly half their weight in plankton to the detriment of all the indigenous species.  One characteristic trait of the flying fish is its utter bewilderment by boat motors, causing them to leap out of the water and strike passengers.

How did we get them?  These bottom feeders were imported to Arkansas in a contested decision to have them clean out the waterways.  A flood deposited them in the Mississippi where they have proven quite hearty in a variety of water temperatures.

An estimated 20 million pounds of asian carp are in the waterways where the Department of Natural Resources is taking drastic steps to keep them out of Lake Michigan.  Ideas are in the works to harvest as many as possible for homeless shelters, prisons, and even to be ground into fertilizer and animal feed.

Outside of some pockets of Chicago’s Asian communities, there doesn’t seem to be a market for commercial fishermen to sell this catch.  This confuses the USGS’s Duane Chapman, who has put a very informative how-to series on youtube on how prepare the asian carp, which he feels yields very tasty and high-quality fillets despite an undeserved bad rap.  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Fact:  There once was an ugly and plentiful fish no one would even consider eating called the Patagonian Toothfish. Some savvy marketers got together and it now commands a high price on restaurant menus under a different name… “Chilean Sea Bass.”

I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas by Anna Getty

greenchristmasYou can enjoy a colorful, festive holiday and still be eco-friendly. Check out I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas by Anna Getty for lots of simple and creative ideas.

Getty touches on nearly every aspect of Christmas preparations – recipes, decorations, gifts – and also includes lots of general tips. There are the usual “green” recommendations with a focus on Christmas. For instance, buy local (purchase your tree from a local tree farm, and food and decorating materials from the Farmer’s Market), use what you have (create decorations from natural materials in your yard or common objects in your house) and recycle (make pillows out of worn out sweaters or ornaments out of tea bags) A lot of the suggestions have an old-fashioned charm – stringing popcorn for tree garlands, making wrapping paper out of newspaper – that have the added bonus of fun projects to share with children. Scattered throughout the book are lots of eco-tips which are useful at any time of the year. For instance, Getty has several recommendations for “green” shipping, claiming that UPS has the most environmentally friendly shipping policies and the largest alternative-fuel vehicle fleet.

Enjoy a greener and healthier holiday!

The Best Christmas Special Ev…er

Lynn wraps up our week of holiday recommendations with a favorite for kids ages 2-92.

Heat MiserDuring the Christmas season, appointment tv for me is The Year Without a  Santa Claus (the original 1974 Shirley Booth version).

Kids can really relate to the story, which is based on the Phyllis McGinley book. Among other things, it features sibling rivalry in the form of brothers, Heat and Snow Miser, fighting over the earth’s climate. Their mother, (Mother Nature) is constantly mediating their feuds. Also cool, the brothers each have super powers (melting and freezing objects).

But, really, it’s the catchy tunes and the chorus lines of miser dancing that I  love. Just try to get his out of your head now:

“He’s Mr. White Christmas, he’s Mr. Snow. He’s Mr. Icicle, He’s Mr. 10 below.” and “He’s Mr. Green Christmas. He’s Mr. Sun. He’s Mr. HeatBlister. He’s Mr. Hundred-and-One….”

Favorite Christmas Movies

Rita’s choices for Christmas viewing are all about 1940s and 50s nostalgia. Take a step back to a simpler time before the words “video game” and “internet” were invented.

white christmasWhite ChristmasBing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen.

After leaving the Army after W.W.II, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis team up to become a top song-and-dance act. Davis plays matchmaker and introduces Wallace to a pair of beautiful sisters (Betty and Judy) who also have a song-and-dance act. When Betty and Judy travel to a Vermont lodge to perform a Christmas show, Wallace and Davis follow, only to find their former commander, General Waverly, is the lodge owner. A series of romantic mix-ups ensue as the performers try to help the General. I love the singing and dancing and the romantic mixups of the 1954 movie.

ralphieChristmas Story Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon

This vignette-laden, nostalgic view of Christmastime in 1940s Indiana follows nine-year-old Ralphie, who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas–and is waging an all-out campaign to… This vignette-laden, nostalgic view of Christmastime in 1940s Indiana follows nine-year-old Ralphie, who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas–and is waging an all-out campaign to convince his reluctant parents that the toy will be safe in his hands. By turns warped and winsome, the comedy follows Ralphie as he prepares for the big day with his rather idiosyncratic family. Based on the novel by humorist Jean Shepherd (who also narrates the film), A Christmas Story gained popularity long after its theatrical run, through frequent holiday broadcasts that turned its schoolyard “triple-dog” dares, family neuroses, and childhood indignities into a Yuletide tradition. I love this movie as it reminds me of my early life in Davenport. In the 1960’s we were still double dog daring, going to see Santa Claus at Petersen Harned Von Maur and wishing for the perfect Christmas gift. Mine was a Tiny Tears Doll.

My new Christmas tradition is to watch all the Christmas movies broadcast on ABC Family Channel’s “25 days of Christmas” Some of these are the hokest Christmas movies ever, but it does get you in the mood.

A Little House Christmas

Amber’s recommendation for holiday cheer celebrates our unique American history and appeals to our can-do spirit against all odds, just like the pioneers.
littlehouseI love everything about the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, but I especially love holidays in the Ingall’s household. These collections of Christmas stories, A Little House Christmas and A Little House Christmas Vol. 2, bring together all my favorite Little House moments: Maple Syrup candy hardening in the snow, Laura and Mary secretly making a button string for Carrie, the beautiful fur cape and muff from the present tree that Laura wished so hard for, and many others. This is Christmas at its purest and best.

Hello Bedford Falls!

Bill’s choice for favorite holiday escape is a beloved classic. Since it is largely set during the austerity of the Great Depression and World War II, it reflects many of the same economic hardships we’re experiencing now – and shows that there’s always something to be grateful for.

The 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life frequently appears on lists of the top 100 movies of all time (sometimes it ranks in the top 10) for a reason…it’s good.  It’s a feelgood story from an innocent American age, when all that was needed was black and white celluloid and a good script.  I suppose it doesn’t hurt to have the Tom Hanks of the World War II era on your payroll either.

We can relate to George Bailey’s existential questioning.  It has a happy ending for the holidays.  Finally, its over-the-air broadcast is a free local television tradition that serves as a much-needed respite from the brutal Iowa winter, people jockeying for your last cent, and familial stresses.

And in case you were wondering, young Zuzu is no longer six years old.  She will be 70 next year.

Behold a Star by the Nova Singers

The Christmas/End-of-Winter holiday season is a wonderful time of year but sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the chaos and endless to-do lists.  The librarians here at the Davenport Library Info Cafe blog offer some reasons for making time to stop and make the season “merry and bright” with their favorite holiday movies and books.

beholdastarI’ll get things started with my favorite Christmas music. Firmly rooted in tradition (there’s no “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” here!) but with a fresh and modern approach, the Quad City-area-based Nova Singers offer some of the most beautiful music of the season.

The Nova Singers is a 20-voice ensemble with a nationwide reputation and are known for their creative song choices and virtuoso performances. They’ve produced six recordings, three of which are made up of Christmas music. All of them are beautiful but Behold a Star is my favorite partly for the Nova Singer’s version of  “The 12 Days of Christmas” (you can tell they’re having a lot of fun with this) and partly because of the inclusion of “A Shoot Shall Come Forth” a gorgeous and unusual carol that speaks of renewal and peace and promise, exactly what the Christmas season is about.

The best part is that you can see the Nova Singers perform right here – they put on 8 concerts a year, divided between Galesburg and the Quad Cities. Their Christmas concerts this year will be held December 18 and 19. Be sure to check their website for times and locations. Then treat yourself and go – you’ll be glad you did!

Backyard Chickens

chickensCity officials in Davenport, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids aren’t the only ones to be considering how to deal with the recent vogue of urban chickens. The locovore movement and a struggling economy have combined to produce the “It” Bird, as Susan Orlean calls chickens. There are those that say that the Obamas should have a few at the White House. You can even find plans on the internet for building a coop out of Ikea furniture.

Orlean, author of the Orchid Thief, turns her eye to small-time chicken raising  in the September 28th  New Yorker. She traces the history of keeping fowl  in America, how they went out of favor in the fifties and  how they were gentrified by Martha Stewart’s gourmet chickens and pastel eggs. You may or may not know that Iowa is the home to the “largest rare-breed poultry hatchery in the world.”

Orlean herself finds the perfect solution for her needs…just a few chickens (guaranteed to be hens) and a small plastic coop. ( A British company called Omlet manufactures the Eglu).

If the subject intrigues you, check out The Joy of Keeping Chickens by Jennifer Megyesi, Living with Chickens: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Backyard Flock by Jay Rossier, and, of course, Raising Chickens for Dummies.

Right of Thirst by Frank Huyler

right of thirstAfter his wife’s death, successful cardiologist Charles Anderson volunteers to assist with earthquake relief in an unnamed and impoverished Islamic country in Right of Thirst.  At the relief camp, he joins a young German woman doing DNA research as well as a local soldier assigned to them, presumably because he speaks excellent English.  Though they wait patiently and try to keep busy preparing, the refugees never come.   However, the volunteers do visit a local village where they find a young girl with a mangled foot, which Charles later amputates.  This scene is particularly credible, perhaps because the author is himself an emergency-room physician.

The fact that the author, Frank  Huyler, has also lived extensively abroad (including Iran, Brazil, Japan and  the U.K.)  seems to serve him well in describing cultural differences.  For example, one character explains that giving water to travelers is one of oldest laws in their religion. They call it the “right of thirst”, and that is why offering tea is an obligation, not simply a social pleasantry.

The book’s plot takes a sudden turn when artillery fire is heard along the country’s border.  It’s assumed that spies have mistaken the relief tents for army ones, so a quick escape is planned for the relief workers, traversing  dangerous mountainous terrain.  A tragic accident occurs, further tainting the doctor’s good-will expedition.  This is a book that will make you think;  it may also make you a bit sad, or perhaps it just might make you question relief efforts in general.  It also qualifies as a good choice for a book discussion group as there are ample opportunities for opposing viewpoints, such as the doctor’s role in his wife’s death.