First Library Feature! I visit the Fernandina Beach Branch Library

The name I chose for this blog, Bibio-filia, means “daughter of the library” in Latin. I really wanted Bibliophile, or Bibliophilia, but in these more crowded blogger days, you take what you can get. I’ve really warmed up to my second choice name, and decided to feature this passion for bricks and mortar libraries by profiling the libraries I explore.

Fernandina Beach Branch Library

Fernandina Beach Branch Library

Last week was Spring Break for my sons and their schools, and our family headed for Florida. Our Florida beach of choice was in northern Florida, on Amelia Island, a vacation spot my husband had discovered years ago on a business conference. On Amelia, we found the lovely, very picturesque and well preserved Victorian town of Fernandina Beach. In the center of Fernandina Beach  – where a library should be, in my opinion – was the unassuming Fernandina Beach Branch library, a library of the Nassau County, Florida Public Library System.

Community information at the entrance of the library

Community information at the entrance of the library

The library was one large, open room, well lit with a high ceiling, with sections clearly labeled and easy to spot. The shelves were a bit too close to each other in the adult non-fiction section, which was a bit claustrophobic feeling. But this is a minor thing, I’d much rather a library packed things in a little tight rather than sacrifice volumes. There were plenty of catalog pcs, and internet browsing pcs, and a ton of local information and reference right at the entrance of the library. And racks of paperbacks! It’s been a long time since I saw these spinning racks.

The children’s section had a small play/reading area that was in use while I was there, as were most collections. Plenty of patrons were browsing fiction, reading magazines,  and using the pcs. I made sure that the library had one of my favorite volumes, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and found they had a fairly new edition with illustrations by Robert Ingpen, published in 2009. The illustrations are just astounding, dreamy and colorful, with some new interpretations of the familiar scenes. I’m going to have to find myself a copy!

When I arrived, a librarian was assisting a patron applying for a library card. When she finished, I asked permission to take some photos of the library for my blog, which was very graciously given after she checked with the head librarian. The librarian who assisted me was very friendly, answering my questions about the library.

Amela Island Book Festival shelf at the Fernandina Beach library

Amela Island Book Festival shelf at the Fernandina Beach library

I was intrigued by the shelf that featured books from the Amelia Island Book Festival. A mix of bestsellers, niche, genre, and children’s books were on this shelf. The Book Festival appears to be a separate organization from the library system, but nicely supported by the library. I wish our visit had coincided with the Festival. I would have enjoyed attending some of the Festival events, and browsing the authors’ and publishers’ booths. If you are interested in the featured titles at the book fair, the festival maintains a page on Facebook that seems to list most of this year’s titles.

The Nassau County Library system supports their libraries with a web site (http://www.nassaureads.com) that is both attractive and functional, and makes me realize just how inadequate the web presence of my home library system is. I love seeing the staff book choices on the site, and the quick links to local history and genealogy, plus calendars of events and programming. The links to downloadable ebooks and audiobooks are clear – something so simple that my library can’t seem to get sorted out.

All in all, a very serviceable library with a friendly staff and an obvious enthusiasm for local interest and culture.

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Potato Chips and Passion

508517Recently I read an amusing, two-book children’s series by Allen Kurzweil (Mr. Kurzweil’s website) that uses the obsessions and passions of the characters as plot devices. The first book in the series, Leon and the Spitting Image (2003) introduces the main character, Leon Zeisel, whose “collection” of taxi drivers fuels the first chapter and provides a running thread for the entire book. Leon’s 4th grade teacher, Miss Hagmeyer, uses her passion for sewing to teach  the children their year long theme of the Middle Ages. The kids learn to follow sewing patterns, sew different stitches and construct “animales.”  Leon is fine motor challenged, and finds his 4th grade year at the Classical School a trial – until he creates an animale that becomes imbued with magical properties.

Leon and the Spitting Image is inventive and fun, and filled with memorable characters, like Napoleon the Haitian taxi driver, and crazy contraptions like the evil ice machine. Leon and his mother live in the hotel Leon’s mother runs, which plays host to all the conventions no other hotel would take – usually animal themed conventions – which provides a lot of poop humor and punning possibilities. The illustrations by Bret Bertholf (Mr. Bertholf’s website) are perfect, particularly the vintage feeling pen and ink illustration of the different eyeballs used in the animales.

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The second book in the series is titled Leon and the Champion Chip, and features Leon’s next obsession, potato chips. Leon hits the lucky jackpot in his 5th grade year with his science teacher, Mr. Sparks, who uses potato chips to teach the science curriculum to Leon’s class. Through  potato chip science, the children study scientific classification, combustion, propulsion, and many other scientific topics.

This is another light hearted, inventive book that manages to take on the topic of  bullying. Kurzweil handles it in an obvious way, with Leon’s bully, Lumpkin, and also in a subtle way, with the bullying of Mr. Sparks by some skeptical parents who are not thrilled with the potato chip curriculum.

For me, the issues Leon faced were secondary to the exploration of his passion, potato chips. Leon and his friends attend The Potato Chip Convention and Taste Off in Leon and the Champion Chip. The scenes with the Taste Off competition were brilliantly funny, and would be the highlight of a fantastic kids’ movie. The passions and obsessions in these fun books are treated in a very refreshing way. No one was neurotic or strange, just passionate and intense. Apparently, Mr. Kurzweil shares some of these characteristics, and actually built some of the devices used in these books (potato cannon, anyone?). Kurzweil has also written a non fiction book for kids called Potato Chip Science, which looks like ideal inspiration for an elementary school science fair.

I would highly recommend this pair of books to elementary age – middle school kids. My 6th grader loved these books, and he is hard to please. Hearing him laugh out loud over Leon’s predicaments, and having him say – “Mom, you have to read this book!” – is the highest recommendation I know.

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Betrayed by MZB

61893This past week I unearthed three Marion Zimmer Bradley paperbacks that I vaguely recalled reading about ten years ago. Since I hadn’t picked them up in a very long time, I decided to reread them and decide whether they should stay in my personal library or be passed on. After picking up title #1, Ghostlight (Light, #1), and reading about 75 pages, my new debate is whether or not I should recycle them or burn them.

I guess burning them is too harsh for a novel that just simply isn’t my taste. And it surprised me that this novel was so far off from my taste. I mean, Marion Zimmer Bradley? The MZB who created the glorious world of The Mists of Avalon? The author renowned for her strong female characters, who created the Sword and Sorceress anthology series that celebrates the heroine? How in the world was this novel a MZB book?  Ghostlight reads like an old fashioned romance. For example:

His gaze rested on her with obvious male approval, and Truth felt the heat rise in her cheeks again. What was it about the master of Shadow’s Gate that flustered her so? This wasn’t at all like her; she was always so cool and self possessed, a creature of the mind, ruled by the mind and wary of emotional entrapment. No flighty Gothic heroine she! (Ghostlight, p 76)

Oh, please, just stop. And then this, later in the book:

The girl wore tiny, square, wire-rimmed glasses with pink lenses, and a peace symbol flashed among the love beads around her neck. Across a quarter of a century she smiled into the lens of an unknown photographer, her hand raised in a “V” sign. A peace sign, Truth remembered, dredging up the fact from some well of antique trivia. (Ghostlight, p 110)

What was that? Did the author just explain the peace sign, a sign completely universal and so ubiquitous?

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After reading that, I tried to understand what led me to purchase this book – and 2 of its sequels. The cover of my book (at the top)doesn’t scream quivery, shuddering neo-Gothic romance. And it has the name of an author I really enjoy, in big embossed letters at the top. So when did MZB write this, I wondered. And there, on the copyright page, was the answer to all my questions. The copyright of this particular novel is not held by MZB, or even her estate. The copyright is held by another author, Rosemary Edghill – who happens to have a number of gothic romances in her bibliography.

After doing some basic reading on Marion Zimmer Bradley and Rosemary Edghill, it seems that a number of novels originally ascribed to MZB had their copyrights reassigned after her death. Bradley had been quite ill for many years, and shared the task of writing with several coauthors. Unfortunately, I was not astute enough to realize this before reading Ghostlight.

My only consolation is that anyone who chooses their reading material based on cover art won’t be misled – the current cover art for Ghostlight is very nicely gothic.

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And in the interest of recycling books, I have 3 books to give away to a reader of this blog that posts a comment below. If I have more than one comment, I’ll pick names from a hat. And – you guessed it, these books are NOT by Marion Zimmer Bradley, they are by Rosemary Edghill. Ghostlight, Heartlight, and Gravelight could be yours! These books are all paperbacks, in good condition. Please post your comment by March 28, 2013.

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420 Characters by Lou Beach

BookFront420 Characters by Lou Beach started out as an experiment of sorts. Beach originally posted his micro stories as Facebook posts, which were limited to 420 characters per post. Beach then put them together in this book, along with collages he created.

This is the first time I have read this type of “micro fiction,” but I have a feeling it won’t be my last. With Twitter postings and Facebook statuses standing in for journalism these days, is it any surprise that authors of fiction would give the micro size a try?

I don’t want to be dismissive, though. What Beach has done is startling. While I was reading, I was trying to get my mind around what he creates in his stories – amazing emotions, scenes, character. I finally decided that he had boiled his stories down to just a few elements, but had to leave out a few. Plot, obviously. At least that’s what I thought until I read this story:

Iris Bedlick sang backup. country, soul, rock, whatever, had a voice could shatter a glass or put a baby to sleep. One night, on the road with Jack Howlette, she was handed a drink that blistered her throat. She never sang again, turned her back on music, was last heard to be a hotel maid. Her replacement married Jack, divorced him, went solo, platinum albums, a Grammy. Started out a chemistry major, became a star. (420 Characters, p 129)

So, even in this micro form, Beach can accomplish a developing plot. Beach’s writing is absolutely luminous in some stories:

His chute failed to open and as he fell he struck a pigeon, pinning it against his chest as they rushed toward the ground in tandem. He felt the pigeon’s heart beating against his own. He closed his eyes and imagined he had two hearts, one outside his body and one inside, beating like a train. (420 Characters, p 64)

Other stories are comical. Beach has a fondness for a cowboy tale – there are quite a few of those – and there are some fantastical stories, comedies of manners, and dialogue that reminded me of film noir. Each story is a chunk of something special. I left the book – finishing seems like the wrong word – feeling like I wanted more, but not of the same thing. Sort of like eating a giant bowl of potato chips and still feeling hungry, but knowing that the last thing you need is another chip. Beach himself said in an NPR interview  that he is finished with this format, and is working on pieces of longer length.

Beach supports his work with a website,  http://www.420characters.net. If you are at all interested in this book, visit the website for a very special treat – Jeff Bridges, Ian McShane, and Dave Alvin have recorded some of the stories, and they are fabulous to listen to. Bridges’ reading of “Finch” is especially charming and warm, and he seems genuinely delighted to be reading his little tale.

I would also recommend reading this in physical book form, rather than a full audio or electronic format. This book is wonderfully tactile, from its red fabric embossed cover, to the tipped in color plates of Beach’s collages. It feels good to hold this book.

If you enjoy inventive, experimental fiction, I would give this a try. Micro fiction is a genre that is probably here to stay, even though at times it seems like a warm up exercise for a college fiction writing class. I may hold out for something a bit longer from Mr. Beach – a short story, perhaps?

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Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Train Dreams is a quiet little book that spans legendary time spaces of the American West. The building of the railroads, the subtle disintegration of the Indians of the West, the advent of cars, planes and the cinema all make graceful appearances here, as Johnson tells the story of Robert Grainier, logger, railroader, husband, father.

Pieces of this book feel almost like an adult version of Little House on the Prairie, with Johnson’s descriptions of the main character Grainier building his cabin, working the lumber trade, and building bridges with the railroad companies, bringing home supplies to his wife and child. Then there are portions of the book that almost read like Mark Twain, in tall tales and stories such as the man shot by his dog, a journey with a Model T and a pair of horses, and the mysterious wolf girl. The changes in atmosphere coincide with the passage of time, moving from a simpler time to a more complicated modern age.

The novel is cleft in two by the catastrophic fire that devastates the valley where Grainier makes his home. There is only before the fire; and after.

Grainier is a sympathetic, moving character who would not want my pity or my concern. He is a self sufficient man of the last century, who rode in a biplane but, as Johnson says, never spoke on the telephone.

Train Dreams is deceptively simple. There are scenes that I will play over in my mind again and again, trying to find the meaning or symbolism. The last paragraph of this novel reduced me to tears, and I am not sure why. Perhaps because the naked emotions of longing and pain were perfectly communicated without any device or trick.

I highly recommend this novel. And, here’s the bonus. If you don’t agree with me, you haven’t wasted much time. Johnson has managed to pack the emotional impact of a family epic into a novella of only 116 pages. Read this book.

Here’s what the New York Times had to say about Train Dreams: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/books/review/train-dreams-by-denis-johnson-book-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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