Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

I just finished listening to John Darnielle read his book, Universal Harvester, on CD. I am left asking myself, “What just happened?” I liked it. I think I would like to re-read it, this time in print.

The book is about a young man named Jeremy Heldt who works at Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa in the mid-nineties. He is a down-to-earth guy, having lost his mother to a car accident six years prior. As a relatively responsible twentysomething adult, he isn’t sure what to do when he discovers that some videos have been returned with strange footage spliced into them. It is unclear to him whether the scenes are a goof, or if someone is getting hurt and sending out a cry for help. Also, his boss at the video store may or may not have become personally entangled in whatever it is.

I was first drawn to listen to this book because I read in a Booklist review that it is set in small-town Iowa. Not knowing anything about author John Darnielle, I thought, “I want to find out how he portrays an Iowan. I want to hear if he’s going to butcher the way we talk.”  I was admittedly skeptical that I wouldn’t find his portrayal of an Iowan to be silly, maybe a little bit insulting. Often it seems to me that nonnatives perceive us all to be rubes. Sometimes actors portray our manner of speaking in a way that more resembles a southern drawl than the intonation of an actual Iowan. I was pleased to find Darnielle’s main character sounding like some Iowans I know, albeit the ones who have also spent time living out west. This made more sense to me once I looked up a little more about Darnielle online and learned that he grew up in southern California and lived in Portland, Oregon briefly after high school. He did live in some of the Iowa towns where the events in Universal Harvester take place, though it is unclear when and how long.

My opinions of the writer/reader’s dialect aside, this book is a hard one to categorize. Some libraries in our system have classified it as fiction; others put it in the horror section. I am not usually a reader of horror books, and when I realized it was considered that, I thought “Uh oh. What am I getting myself into?” As I got further into the book, I kept bracing myself for something gory or horrifically disturbing. When I think horror, I think gore. However, there isn’t anything terribly gory in this book.

It turns out I was just as mistaken as the folks who think Iowans speak with a drawl. I came across this great article from The Horror Writers Association and learned that horror can take as many forms as the people who read it. After all, not everyone is horrified by the same things. I happen to find gore horrifying, some people are just as horrified by the unknown. Death is perhaps the biggest of the unknowns, but there are also a myriad of other unknowns throughout life.

There are many unknowns in Universal Harvester. If you like a plot that gets neatly tied up at the end, this book is not for you. However, if you appreciate great writing and a story well-told that makes you think and ask questions, then you should check this book out. It would be a great book club selection, because there is plenty here to explore and discuss. (In fact, if you know me, please read this book so we can talk about the details together! I’m still not sure what just happened.)

Next, I am going to check out some Mountain Goats CDs. The author of this book is in a band called the Mountain Goats, and he has been hailed as one of the best living lyricists. Judging by his novel writing ability, I’d say that’s likely a fair assessment. Happy reading and/or listening!

Pogue’s Basics by David Pogue

Journalist David Pogue has written a series of books sharing some tips and tricks to make life easier.  I started with the ironically titled Pogue’s Basics. Life : Essential Tips and Shortcuts (That No One Bothers to Tell You) For Simplifying Your Day.   Some critics say they already know this stuff. Good for those geniuses. As for the rest of us, there are some very useful things to pick up in Pogue’s books.

For instance: you can tell whether your upcoming exit from the interstate will be on the left or the right by the placement of the exit number on the sign. If exit is on the left, the little sign displaying the exit number will be on the top left. If exit is on the right – you guessed it- the little exit number sign will be on the right. There is a helpful picture in the book that best explains this. This knowledge helped me navigate with aplomb on a recent trip to Chicago.

Another useful tidbit I took from it was the tip on placing my vehicle’s key fob up against my neck fat when attempting to unlock it from across the parking lot. It will unlock from a greater distance, and can be useful during those times when you forgot exactly where you parked. Pogue says this technique works because the fluids in the head act as a great conductor. I say it’s nice to know my neck fat is good for something.

Pogue’s suggestion for getting a lost dog back: place a toy and/or blanket with the scent of home on it outdoors, near where the pet was last seen. Leave it there for 24 hours. The pet will most likely follow his or her nose back toward it. I hope you never need this particular piece of information.

There are lots more suggestions that you’ll just have to check the book out to learn. If you like this book, you might also like Pogue’s Basics. Tech: Essential Tips and Shortcuts (That No One Bothers to Tell You) For Simplifying the Technology in Your Life. It will tell you, among other things, what to do when your cell phone falls into the toilet. You can thank me for this recommendation later. Preferably not with a handshake.

Astronomy Photographer of the Year: Prize-Winning Images by Top Astrophotographers

Take a deep breath – then, open this book. Astronomy Photographer of the Year : Prize-winning Images by Top Astrophotographers will transport you.

Every year since 2009, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, England hosts an Astronomy Photographer of the Year Competition. Entries are collected in the spring. Winning exhibitions are displayed at the Royal Observatory September to June. This book is a compilation of the best from the first six years of that contest.

It is hard to believe these images were not captured by the Hubble telescope, but rather by amateur astrophotographers on earth. Flip through the pages of this heavy book and find eyeball-shaped nebula staring back at you from a background of innumerable stars. Feel a shiver as you take in an image of a snowy night with Aurora Borealis coloring the sky in purple and green. Ponder how tiny you are compared to all the galaxies out there. It always fills me with wonder to see images of galaxies and nebulae that resemble eyes or other body parts. I think the one displayed on the cover of this book looks rather like a heart, don’t you?

Some photos, such as the ones tracing the sun’s position in the sky over nearly a year made me wonder aloud, “How did they capture that?!?” The collection is even more remarkable when you consider that some contest entries were submitted by people who have only been practicing astronomy photography less than a year. There are special categories for those who have not entered the competition before, as well as a youth category for ages 15 and younger. You can learn more about the contest at the Royal Museums website.

 

Life Unstyled: How to Embrace Imperfection and Create a Home You Love

If you enjoy perusing images of eclectic home furnishings used in creative ways, have I got a book to recommend to you!  Life Unstyled: How to Embrace Imperfection and Create a Home You Love by Emily Henson is filled with a wealth of full-color photos sharing the unique ideas of homeowners from varying parts of the world.

I like it because it left me with a feeling of validation of what I have always believed at the core: a home need not be a polished display of swanky décor to be great. It can be so much more gratifying to make your space uniquely your own, conforming to your way of being rather than try to live up to a magazine perfect ideal. After all, shouldn’t a home tell a story about the personality and life experiences of its residents?

Another thing I like about this book is that you don’t need an overabundance of time or money to borrow ideas from it and modify or incorporate them into your current living space. True, some of the homes pictured in the book are owned by buyers for textile or furnishings companies. I’m sure that definitely helps them gain access to the goods. But I think you will find that whatever your profession or station in life, there is a spark of an idea waiting inside this book somewhere for you.

If you are reading this blog, you are likely a fan of libraries and books. Let me share two ideas that will delight the book lovers. The first (pictured on the left) is featured in a warehouse-turned-residence in London. The owner has archive shelves (much like the kind used in our very own Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Department.) Here, they are used to divide the bedroom and the kitchen. They store everything from clothing to kitchen crockery and everything in between. You can see from the photo that the metal panels on the side are employed to display lots of pictures and artwork. Feel free to fall in love with this idea like I did,  just don’t ask me how to get rolling archive shelves into your home!

The second idea for book lovers is the vertical shelf featured in a bedroom (below). It looks like a floor-to-ceiling stack of books, but there are shelves in the middle of it all keeping it (hopefully) stable. This idea could be done relatively easily and cheaply in a variety of ways. Your imagination (and ceiling) would be the limit.

Happy home decorating! I’ll leave you with this quote: “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
― Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

Little People, Big Dreams

I happened upon a charming series of books for children called Little People, Big Dreams. (Not to be confused with the TV series Little People, Big World.) These are picture book biographies of notable figures from different parts of history. I loved reading them and learning more about the protagonists along with my children. The depictions of the heroines are captivating and, although they do not all have the same author and illustrator, they share an endearing similarity in style – large, round faces and colorful attire and settings.

I first read Frida Kahlo to my kindergartener. He came up with so many follow-up questions, I soon realized I didn’t know as much about this famous artist as I would like. I mentioned this to a friend and she insisted I should see the 2002 film Frida starring Salma Hayek as the title character and Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera. I did (alone), and enjoyed the sensual interpretation of the artist’s life.

Then an idea occurred to me. Wouldn’t it be nice to read a bedtime story for the kids and after they are fast asleep, read or watch something more adult on the topic? You know how a wine will sometimes be suggested that pairs well with your food? Couldn’t we do that with the books we read, as well? With that thought in mind, here are some recommendations you might want to try.

In Maya Angelou, author Lisbeth Kaiser and illustrator Leire Salaberria present to children the difficult topics of racism, domestic and sexual abuse, and mental health sensitively. Don’t let the fact that this book covers a difficult childhood deter you from reading aloud to your little ones what is a very inspiring story. Angelou’s story is, ultimately, one of hope. Most of us are aware of Angelou’s prolific career as a writer and civil rights activist, but how many knew her as a cook, streetcar conductor, dancer, singer, and world traveler? Share this inimitable woman’s story with the children in your life. Then on your own, read her classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings if you haven’t already done so (or even if you have, it may be time for a re-read). Also, listen to Angelou read her poetry in the book on CD entitled Black Pearls: The Poetry of Maya Angelou. I’d recommend the kids not be within listening range of this one, as there are vulgarities in it.

 

I will be the first to admit I am not a couture kind of gal (my style would more aptly be described as thrift store eclectic). Still, I enjoyed learning about Coco Chanel in the book written by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and illustrated by Ana Albero. Tired of seeing her contemporaries unable to breathe in their tight corsets, she designed clothing that was looser and easier to wear while dancing. She also designed hats and, of course, let’s not forget about the perfume. For more on the life of the woman once known as Gabrielle Chanel, you may wish to check out the 139-minute DVD Coco Chanel, a 2008 made-for-TV movie starring Barbora Bobulova as the young Chanel and Shirley MacLaine as old Chanel. You may also enjoy the coffee table style book Chanel: Collections and Creations by Daniele Bott. With 159 illustrations, it goes into delightful detail on Coco’s unique styles. My favorite was the chapter on the Camellia flower, which is pictured on the cover. Other chapters detail ‘The Suit’, ‘Jewelry’, ‘Fragrance & Beauty’, and ‘The Black Dress.’

All the suggested children’s books are from the Little People, Big Dreams series.There are more books in this series and you can find all the ones the library owns by doing a series search for Little People Big Dreams. If you have favorite books or movies that you think go together like Chardonnay and Gruyere, please let us know.

 

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (DVD)

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is a documentary DVD that explores the influence of the internet on human life.

It begins by following internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock into a room on the UCLA campus where the first internet communication took place at 10:30pm on Oct 29, 1969, between UCLA and Stanford Research Institute. Kleinrock describes the moment he began typing the very first internet message, “Login.” Before he could complete it, the computer system crashed, and the first message transmitted by the internet turned out to be “Lo” – thus the movie’s name.

Danny Hillis, an American inventor and computer scientist, describes the phone book he owned back in the early days of the internet. It contained the names of everyone on the internet. Can you imagine a directory of everyone on the internet today? It is estimated it would be 72 miles thick.

Director Werner Herzog takes us to Stanford Dept of Robotics, where we learn how the discovery of biomolecule patterns was enhanced by the creation of a crowdsourced video game called EteRNA. Crowdsourcing, as defined by Wikipedia (itself a famous example of crowdsourcing) is “to divide work between participants to achieve a cumulative result.” In this case, a videogame played by a multitude of interested laypeople -“lawyers, grandmas, students, bedridden people” contributed in useful ways to the collective knowledge base about RNA (Ribonucleic Acid), which is present in all living cells. Crowdsourcing has been used in a variety of other ways for the common good. In addition to Wikipedia, another well-known example of crowdsourcing is crowdfunding, the collection of funds from a crowd (for example, Kickstarter). If you would like to learn more about how you can be similarly involved in contributing to the universe of knowledge (sometimes even by playing video games!) see this list of crowdsourcing projects.

While at Stanford, Herzog takes us to Professor of Computer Science and director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab, Sebastian Thrun, who is designing self-driving cars. He addressed the concern for safety of self-driving cars by saying, “When a computer makes a mistake, it learns from it, along with all the other computers (in use and unborn.) When a human makes a mistake, just that one person learns from it.” He shares a fascinating anecdote about a certain class he taught to 200 students enrolled at Stanford. He was able to offer the same course online to interested members of the general public. Over 1000 people signed up for the online class. When he tested them, he found that the best Stanford student ranked 412th among all the students combined. From this he said he learned that for every one great Stanford student, there are 412 better out there in the world who couldn’t or didn’t go to Stanford.

Then, we are presented with some particularly dark sides of the internet. The family of Nikki Catsouras shares their story, explaining why they no longer use email or the internet. Nikki died in a car accident in 2006 when she was 18 years old. Gruesome photos of her decapitated body were posted online shortly after the accident. Then, the family began receiving anonymous emails containing the photos, one with the caption “Woohoo Daddy! Hey daddy, I’m still alive.” The Catsouras family deeply lamented the lack of accountability on the internet.

What would today’s landscape be like without the internet? We find out more about that by visiting Green Bank, West Virginia, home of a telescope 100 meters in diameter that picks up radio waves from outer space. To eliminate interference with the radioastronomy project, all wireless transmissions are disabled within a 10 mile radius. The area has become a haven for people who experience severe physical reactions to being in the presence of radio waves. Diane Schou and Jennifer Wood describe their lives before they moved to Green Bank. They spent all their time inside Faraday cages –  boxes named for the 19th century scientist Michael Faraday, designed to shield their contents from electromagnetic fields. Some regard their condition as a supersense. They regard it as a nightmare.

We visit an internet addiction treatment center near Seattle, Washington where we hear the personal stories of some clients. We learn about a South Korean couple who were imprisoned for allowing their newborn daughter to starve to death while they were consumed with playing a video game. Ironically, it was a game in which they were nurturing an electronic baby.

Adler Planetarium astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz tells us about large solar flares called Carrington Events, which have the power to disable communications and create widespread power outages, and how we could see the next powerful solar event soon. We are given a glimpse of what that might look like from footage of a recent, relatively small-scale blackout in New York City. Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss warns “if the internet shuts down, people will not remember how they lived before that.”

Famous hacker Kevin Mitnick is interviewed about the methods he employed to gain access to secured information. He goes into detail about how he manipulated weaknesses in cybersecurity systems, noting that he always found them in the people, not the systems.

In the final third of the documentary, the possible future of Artificial Intelligence is explored. Entrepreneur Elon Musk, who made a fortune through PayPal, talks about the rockets he is launching into space, and his goals of creating a colony on Mars in case Earth becomes unlivable.

Marcel Just and Tom Mitchell, brain scientists at Carnegie Mellon postulate on whether or not it is possible for computers to dream.

The Wikipedia Emergency Project is described. It is a plan that people should print out hard copies of the information found on its website and store them somewhere our heirs can find them should a catastrophic planetary event occur.

The documentary prompted much thought, and left me with so many questions the first time around, I eagerly watched it a second time a couple of weeks later, after I gave myself some time to let the ideas rattle around in my mind for a while. If you like to explore multiple sides of issues relating to the past, present, and future of technology I would recommend you watch Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.

 

 

 

Fake News – What It Is and How to Evaluate It

There is a lot of talk in the U.S. and around the world right now about fake news. What, exactly, is fake news? Generally, fake news is information that is wholly or partially made up, but designed to look like an authentic news report and to attract lots of attention – often resulting in advertising revenue. It often appeals to the strong emotions of its targeted audience.

Oxford Dictionary acknowledged its influence by announcing the 2016 word of the year: post-truth, an adjective, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

I think we should all exercise caution especially when dealing with those stories that do cause an emotional reaction. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is fake news (just because you don’t like the message doesn’t mean it is fake news) but it can be a red flag that the story merits double-checking with additional sources. Seek those not related to the first source where you encountered it.

Here are some websites that you can use to evaluate news sources:

The Media Bias/Fact Check news website has a search bar on its main page where you can type in the name of a news source and retrieve a scale that attempts to qualify how far to the left or right that news source typically leans. They maintain a list of questionable sources. The website also has a list of what is generally accepted to be the least biased news sources, which you can find here. MBFC explains their methodology and acknowledges that no evaluation is 100% without bias. Check out the list – you may learn about a new source that you will want to make a habit of checking on a regular basis. I’ll admit the ads are bothersome, but it is how they pay to keep the site running.

FactCheck.org is one source you can use to double-check information. Facebook recently announced that it is partnering with this source to help identify and flag fake news circulated on its platform. FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. According to their website, their mission is “to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics…Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.” This site is primarily focused on U.S. politics. During election years, they will report on the accuracy of what is aired on political TV ads and in debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.

Another source to verify political information is Politifact.com, self-described as “an independent, nonpartisan news organization… not beholden to any government, political party or corporate interest.” They have a long history, which you can read about here. The system of evaluation they use is called the Truth-o-meter, which ranges from “Truth” on one end to “Pants on Fire” on the other. They have a newsletter to which you can subscribe if you wish to receive information updates on the latest fact-checks. They are also partnering with Facebook to help flag fake news when it is shared.

For information that covers a broader array than politics, Snopes.com can be helpful. I like the search option at the top of the page where you can easily type in any keywords and retrieve information on rumors and urban legends. It began in 1995 and has become a well-known online source for debunking falsehoods or verifying facts with evidence.

As an information professional, I encourage people to take some time to verify information sources before accepting them as completely true. When presented with information in any form, take care to ask yourself these questions:

 

  • Who wrote/originally said this? Is the author clearly identified? What else has the author written and has it been disputed in any way?
  • What is this? Is it a presentation of facts? An opinion piece? An advertisement?
  • When was it written? Is there new information available that could shed more light on or take the place of this information?
  • Where was the information gleaned? Was the person reporting it actually a witness to the events reported? Is there data/photos to back it up and are the sources cited? Are there quotes from others in the know and are they relevant to the topic being reported?
  • Why did the author write this? Is it designed to entertain, to influence my purchases or affect my decisions in a certain way?

 

We at the library want to help you build awareness about information and what it is designed to do. Not all information is presented to simply inform. Much of the information we are deluged with on a daily basis is designed to influence. That is not necessarily bad, but we all need to be aware of how information influences us. Likewise, we need to acknowledge our own personal biases and be honest and gracious with ourselves and others that they exist.

I invite you to learn more about this topic by attending a panel discussion about fake news, hosted at the Eastern Avenue branch library on Monday, Feb. 6th at 6:30 pm. The event is free of charge and refreshments will be provided. Please come with questions for our panelists, which include representatives from local television, print and radio news sources as well as writers and educators in the field of journalism. Visit our webpage for more details.

 

Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore edited by Jessica Strand & Andrea Aguilar

upstairs-at-the-strandLocated at the corner of Broadway and 12th Streets near the East Village in New York City is an independent bookstore called The Strand. Its slogan boasts “18 miles of books.” The third floor of The Strand houses an opulent Rare Book Room. Here, dyads (or in one case, a trio) of writers were invited to sit and share their thoughts about life, work, and the things they love.

Upstairs at The Strand is a written collection of these intimate conversations.

As you read each chapter, you may be compelled to imagine yourself an unseen guest in the upstairs room, listening. If you have ever been to the Strand or are familiar with any of the authors included, you may find it especially easy to imagine.

Renata Adler. Edward Albee. Hilton Als. Paul Auster. Blake Bailey. Alison Bechdel. Tina Chang. Junot Diaz. Deborah Eisenberg. Rivka Galchen. A.M. Homes. Hari Kunzru. Rachel Kushner. Wendy Lesser. D.T. Max. Leigh Newman. Tea Obraht. Robert Pinsky. Katie Roiphe. George Saunders. David Shields. Charles Simic. Tracy K. Smith. Mark Strand. Charles Wright.

If you are not familiar with any of these names, by all means check out this book and acquaint yourself with some talented authors whose work you may enjoy exploring. There is something to be found by each of these authors in the RiverShare library catalog.

 

 

100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know

100-words-every-high-school-graduate-should-knowFrom the Editors of the American Heritage Dictionary comes a quick and educational read: 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know. It will help you to ensure you know the meanings of erudite words you are likely to encounter in news articles, books, and possibly cocktail parties (depending on the type of parties you are apt to attend!)

The words span the alphabet and cover a range of disciplines, including agriculture, astronomy, government, literature, mathematics, and philosophy.

A few of my favorites include: abjure, bowdlerize, chicanery, circumlocution, evanescent, facetious, feckless, hubris, incognito, interpolate, jejune, loquacious, moiety, paradigm, pecuniary, quasar, sanguine, unctuous, winnow, and ziggurat.

If you find a few you don’t know, check out 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know. Even if you do know all the ones listed, you might want to challenge yourself to find out if you know the rest found within the pages of this edifying little tome!

20 Feet From Stardom

20-feet-from-stardomBefore I watched 20 Feet From Stardom I never realized how heavily my favorite music relied on the talents of the unsung heroes (pun intended): background singers. As a child, I would sometimes joke that I wanted to be a background singer. I’d dress up and stand in the living room, swaying and ooohing. I thought it was funny because… who wants to be in the background when you could be in the limelight? Turns out, plenty of people.

Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Tata Vega…these are just a few of the names belonging to people so talented they could easily carry the stage on their own. But for varied reasons, each as unique as the individuals themselves, they remain mostly anonymous background singers. To be sure, some of them would love a successful solo career, and have tried to reach that goal… to no avail. Others have been content to leave the spotlight and all the complications that go with it to the names we recognize so well: The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, David Bowie…the list goes on.

20 Feet From Stardom takes us behind the scenes where the singers share, in their own words, what a career as a professional background singer has been like for them. It is as emotional as it is funky and upbeat. As soon as I finished watching, I promptly looked up their names in the library catalog and put holds on as many albums featuring their vocal talents as possible.

I think any of us would be hard pressed to come up with a Top Ten list of our favorite songs of all-time that did not include a contribution from of one of these fabulous singers.  That’s what makes it so unbelievable that they are not household names. I challenge you to watch 20 Feet From Stardom and not come away with a song in your head!