Gaining Stories Through Loss

This month’s topic of Alzheimer’s, I admit was a little perplexing to me in the theme of books and reading.  The topic holds a special place in my heart, yet how I could relate it to my column was challenging.   I hope my post delivers some inspiration to your reading needs.

As a college undergrad and a member of Sigma Kappa Sorority, I admit, I did not realize the depth, nor fully understand the serious nature of Alzheimer’s disease.  While I participated in the Memory Walk, it still didn’t sink in as to why we, as a sorority,  were so involved.

As an adult, and a granddaughter, I now understand the importance of making such a disease known and its needs to be researched.  The sheer sadness of having a grandparent suffer with dementia is one I didn’t think I would experience.  Forgetfulness and losing your memory seems common, and mostly normal, in the elderly.  Yet, when my beloved PaPa, developed dimentia in his later elder years, it broke my heart.  He still had his charm with the ladies, his goofy laugh and smile, and the best WWII stories in the world, but this strong, tough, handsome, gentle and intelligent man started to forget more than normal.   It was then I realized just how serious Alzheimer’s and dementia can be to a person, and to the whole family.

How to relate this personal experience to reading?  Well, it certainly has peaked my interest in the topic.  I expect a large amount of nonfiction to be published about the disease and didn’t want to cover that aspect.  One idea I have is that Alzheimer’s is the loss and gaining of stories; family stories, individual histories, personal accolades.  While it can be easily understood that the disease is a form of loss, the gaining of stories is one more difficult to articulate.  We as family members lose a part of our beloved when they have Alzheimer’s, yet we also gain compassion for the sick and respect for the caregivers.  We realize the fragility of the mind.  We laugh at the silly new things our family member says or does because without a sense of humor, we will not be able to get past the sadness.  We gain new stories, accomplishments and histories to share.

I was surprised in doing my research for this post at the vast numbers and wide range of fiction stories available concerning Alzheimer’s patients as characters or stories about how the disease affects a family or person.  In an attempt to see how we can gain stories rather than lose them, I would like to share some thought provoking novels concerning the topic.

One book I picked up on a whim because it was a ‘bookmarked’ selection at Target, is called Still Alice by Lisa Genova.  It became a book I read in one night because I couldn’t put it down.  It became a book I suggest to everyone who enjoys reading about character-driven stories that will give you a new respect for your mind and brain.   Intelligent writing told in a brilliant perspective from that of the woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, makes this a must-read, especially if you are interested in the elderly or Alzheimer’s care.

I haven’t read these others, but they have made my to-read list.  Check them out and let me know if you’ve read any of them or how you like/dislike them.  The summaries are from NovelList Plus and I’ve included links to Google Books so you can find out more about these books and authors.

The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block
Resigned to memories of the family he has lost, seventy-year-old recluse Abel Haggard spends his life alone on the family farm while, hundreds of miles away, fifteen-year-old Seth Waller seeks to uncover his mother’s genetic history after a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
In a novel that moves back and forth between the Soviet Union during World War II and modern-day America, Marina, an elderly Russian woman, recalls vivid images of her youth during the height of the siege of Leningrad.

Memory Wall:  Stories by Anthony Doerr
A collection of short stories, set on four continents, describing how memory affects different people.

Keeper: One House, Three Generations, and a Journey into Alzheimer‘s by Andrea Gillies
‘Keeper’ is a very humane and honest exploration of living with Alzheimer’s, giving an illuminating account of the disease itself. Gillies tells about the time she and her family spent living with someone with dementia, in a big Victorian house in the far, far north of Scotland.

The Good Husband by Gail Godwin
The brilliant, charismatic Magda Danvers had once taken the academic world by storm with her controversial book, “The Book of Hell,” and now, gravely ill, she still influences and transforms the lives of those around her.

The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey
With his memories slowly eroding from Alzheimer’s, sixty-five-year-old Jake Jameson struggles to preserve his sense of identity by building stories about his feelings and the events of his life, unaware that even his clearest recollections may not be true.

Tangles by Sarah Leavitt
Recounts in graphic novel format how the author’s well-educated, intellectual mother, Mildred, known as Midge, began showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease at fifty-two, and follows the effects of the disease on the woman and her family.

Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
Medical school dropout Victor Mancini comes up with a complicated but ingenious scam to pay for his mother’s elder care, cruises sex addiction groups for action, and visits his zany mother, whose Alzheimer’s disease hides the bizarre truth about his parentage.
What is your story?  Share yours in the comments or message me.

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School Supplies and Summer Reading

The crisp opening and binding crack of a never before read book reminds me of biting into a juicy piece of fruit. It’s absolutely delicious.  It is why I haven’t transitioned all my reading to an E-Reader.  I would miss that smell of the paper too much.   I have to say, I was a complete booknerd and had the same feeling about a school textbook…but only when I received the brand new textbook, because it had so much possibility!  No one else had smudged their dirty fingers on the pages or written their name on the inside cover. It was all mine, even if I didn’t really enjoy the content inside.

There is a great quote from one of my favorite movies, “You’ve Got Mail” in which Tom Hanks is writing an email to his then unknown love, Meg Ryan about the start of fall in New York City.  He says, “Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me wanna buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.”  Yes!  I love school supplies!  I want to buy that newly sharpened bouquet of pencils every time the end of summer comes around.  It reminds me of those brand new books I can’t wait to read.  It also reminds me of the books I didn’t get around to reading that were on the summer reading list.

Working in youth services at a public library means there are tons of requests for books on the summer reading list.  I love to scour these different lists to check off what I’ve read and to also see what unusual titles make the lists.  The best this year I found was The Crucible by Arthur Miller on a junior high/middle school list.  Yes, you heard right, a college level book usually found in American Literature classes Freshman year was found on a middle school list.  I have a BA degree in English and I didn’t read Arthur Miller until college.  I was very surprised.

I also thought it would be fun to take an informal poll amongst friends to find out what books they enjoyed most that were on their summer reading lists.  Have you read all of these books?  Did any of these books stick with you even today as an adult? Perhaps there was one you dredged through but ended up appreciating later on?

I have two books that make my all-time favorites and strangely, I was assigned to read them sophomore year in high school English;  The Catcher in the Rye and The Old Man and the Sea.  I love the wit and dry humor of The Catcher in the Rye and I think Salinger is one of the great American authors in modern times.  It’s definitely a character driven novel, and I love how he captures this young boy’s whining, his torments, and his anguish.  The Old Man and the Sea introduced me to the greatness of Hemingway.  Such a simple tale told in such carefully crafted simple prose, makes this a truly remarkable book.  Interestingly, both are male authors telling the story of one male figure, which is not a typical story I would be able to relate to.  However, when you look deeper at the symbolism and depth of human nature written about, it makes sense why I would love these books.

I did some digging to find the most assigned summer reading books and came up with so many choices, there could have been a list of 100 books.  I thought this was an interesting list from the Illinois State Library’s Read for a Lifetime program which appears to cover mostly contemporary literature.  Although now a bit old, this list from the Washington Post is a great mix of classics and contemporary authors.

Here are my top choices for summer reading catch-up ideas (aside from Salinger and Hemingway, which yes, you MUST read!).  I also included a list of the books that came about from the poll I took.  What would be your top books?

If you must give someone Charles Dickens, then give them A Tale of Two Cities.  War, love, Paris, nothing but the essentials of a great novel. One of my favorites of all time and a great book for British Lit lovers. Learn more about Dickens at Victorian Web.  Another fantastic family and semi-suedo-historical saga is East of Eden by John Steinbeck which has great scandal and family squabbles.  If I ever make it to Monterey Bay area, I will definitely put the National Steinbeck Center on my tour.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell, or Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.  You can also try The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins  or Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Even if you are not a science fiction/fantasy fan, read one of these fantastic books and you will be transformed. They will make you think more about the world in which we live and how we as humans react and interact.  Check out the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s of America website for even more ideas.

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening or Virginia Wolf’s To the Lighthouse will provide a beautiful read into the lives of women in literature.  Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is another great insight into women’s literature.  While these are not necessarily happy-ending books, they will definitely have you think about and explore how emotions and struggles were once experiences and shared.  For more interesting women writers and topics try the National Archives.

Read a memoir or biography, even if it’s fiction.  A book like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is one example of a fictional story told from the perspective of a young boy who lost his father on September 11th.  Even though it’s not true, you are instantly in this boy’s world.  You realize his story could be anyone’s in search of understanding an influential person in life.  Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos is a great read along with The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, all three a bit of coming of age combined with overcoming struggles stories with a bit of a fictional twist thrown in there. All are highly engrossing and entertaining.  For more biographies and memories, try this page on the Barnes and Noble website.

Other popular books that made the “Favorite High School Required Reading” from my informal pool were:

  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
  • The Scarlett Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne
  • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee Harper
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Jungle by John Updike

I hope these ideas have brought back some great reading memories or inspired a new interest in your reading tastes!  If you have more ideas, I would love to hear them in the comments.

The Freedom to Read

The Freedom to Read can mean many ideas to different people.  One meaning I want to explore is that we as individuals literally have the absolute freedom to read.   We can enjoy the simple act of reading and know that no one can take that act away from us.

As educated women, we have an advantage over those who haven’t had the same opportunities.  We not only have the capacity and skills to read from a variety of sources and topics, we also have the responsibility to use what we’ve learned by engaging and entertaining in what others have put into the written word.

As a librarian, I have seen many times simple cases of children and adults who simply can’t read or are struggling to read.  Unless we are a part of the education system or work with undereducated people, we may not see literacy as a problem.  The Freedom to Read may not exist for this part of the population because they don’t carry the necessary skills or haven’t had the support to become lifelong readers.  There are informative resources especially helpful in determining illiteracy rates for a particular area.   In Illinois for example, (where I live) according to the Secretary of State:

“The American Community Survey indicates that 474,082 of Illinois residents over the age of 25 have less than a ninth grade education. Another 634,000 residents have between a 9th and 12th grade education, but have no high school diploma. That means there are 1.1 million people who do not have a high school diploma. Source: American Community Survey, 2010

While it doesn’t surprise me that this happens, it is baffling to me that in the year 2012 people are not finishing high school and obtaining an education that will help them succeed.  Literacy becomes a huge component in this number, and there are many factors involved in why this problem occurs.  If you are interested in obtaining more information about the topic of literacy and education in our country this, try this website. 

As Americans, we are protected by a very important Amendment in the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution.  Article 1 provides that“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Focusing on the Freedoms of Speech and Press, both affect our ability and our individual freedoms to read.  Without these two rights, we would not have publishing companies or newspapers or bloggers like us putting ideas and opinions out in the public sphere for others to see, hear and ultimately consider that we have something important to say.   As a librarian, I find myself frequently coming across this topic and addressing how far this Freedom to Read can be extended.  Essentially, without such a freedom would mean many children and adults would be subject to censorship.  Yet, censorship, despite our freedoms and the Bill of Rights still exists across the country.

Most recently, the adult romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James has been a target causing huge controversy because of its erotic nature and has been deemed ‘mommy porn.’   Libraries in Mobile County, Alabama refused to buy it or continue lending it because it claimed to go against its selection policies.  After reading the first book, getting hooked and quickly reading the second and third books, sure it’s erotic.  I can also understand why women across the country want to read it and discuss it with their friends.  You simply have to discuss it because it is so controversial!  I think this is what makes the power to read, the freedom to read what we choose a marvelous topic.  Regardless of whether someone else thinks a book is trashy or poorly written, the Freedom of Speech and Press makes it possible for us to read the book in question and make our own judgements.

Each year, the American Library Association produces the Top Banned Books lists and celebrates them in Banned Books Week.  I find myself often gasping not with shock that people want them banned, but that the idea of banning even becomes a possibility in a country which was founded on personal freedoms.    Also check out the Freedom to Read Foundation whose purpose is to protect free speech and press for libraries and librarians.

There is a Voltaire quote I remember made famous from the Superman movies where the uncle is telling Peter Parker, “With great power, comes great responsibility,” and it’s always stuck with me.  Reading, the ability to read, the freedoms to read, and the power this gives us as individuals means we have great responsibility to share our words and ideas.  Embrace the challenge and consider that you have great power to share and freedoms unlike any other in the world.  What does the Freedom to Read mean to you?

Why I Love Libraries: Celebrate National Library Week

It’s National Library Week!  As a librarian, of course I am going to encourage everyone to visit their library this week and share the love with friends and family.   The American Library Association is also recognizing several other areas of librarianship during the week with special events:

Follow on Twitter at #nlw12

Join the conversation on Facebook with atyourlibrary.org

Aside from loving books, reading, stories, the written word, and being a librarian, etc., I would not be able to call myself a bibliophile without being a library patron.  Many would argue I’m a bibliomaniac, which is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as someone with an extreme preoccupation of collecting or admiring books. Yep, that sounds like me.

When I tell people I am a librarian and I went to graduate school to become a librarian, I often get that inquisitive look back with the question, “what did you learn?” or “I don’t read” or “I haven’t been the library in years.”

If you haven’t been to a library in years, months, weeks, days, hours, go and take a 30 minute visit this week!  Not only are you positively supporting your city services and seeing your tax dollars be used for great use, you are telling the world that libraries matter!  It is more than just a building with books.  You say you don’t read but do you watch movies?  Check out a DVD for free.  Are you doing genealogy research about your family?   Talk to the reference librarian for better resources than just Google and learn how to effectively use Ancestry.com.  Many libraries even have subscriptions to sites like Ancestry.com that you can access with your library card.  Do you have children and want to help them make friends or find activities other than homework?  Bring them to storytimes, playtimes, craft sessions, video gaming programs and more for free.

The library is also a place that is no longer managed by the stuffy, old, grumpy lady with her hair in a bun and ugly shoes and glasses.  That’s quite a bit of negative adjectives to describe such a person, and it’s unfortunate so many people still associate the library with this image.  Most likely, it’s because of a bad experience they had while in school and so never went back to the place.  So you say, you don’t read and haven’t been to a library in years.  Could it be because you were one of these kids?  Hopefully most of the libraries in your area have moved to a friendlier, warmer, and more inviting atmosphere with librarians who know their ‘stuff’ and have a passion for helping people embrace their inner bibliophile.  It probably wouldn’t hurt if they have really cool glasses and trendy shoes.

Why do I love libraries?  I love to read. I love to explore.  For bibliophiles like myself, I love going to the library and just wander through the non-fiction stacks looking at the titles.   Dewey Decimal is a great invention because it organizes subjects according to interest.  Yes, libraries still use Dewey Decimal, mostly for non-fiction, and I hope they continue with this grand tradition because it works!  If I had a dog, I would probably name him Dewey.  I absolutely love the wander, it helps me dig deeper into topics I may have thought about but never really explored.  In fiction, the wander is a little tougher for me because I want to read everything on the shelves so I tend to get lost.

Why do I love libraries?  I love to bring my laptop and surf the internet, perhaps do some writing or reading in a completely different environment than the coffee shop or my living room.  It’s quiet, but not annoyingly silent, with just enough distractions.  People are usually friendly and I have unofficially joined the ‘reading room newspaper’ club at my local library.

Why do I love libraries?  I love that such a simple concept became such a unique place in our world where you are granted permission based on the honor system to borrow books, movies, music, and the internet.

Why do I love libraries?  I love that my local library is a place only 5-10 minutes from my house.  I love that I can ride my bike there or drive.  I love that it is the best way I can ‘go local’ in every sense of the word.

Why do I love libraries?  Somehow it became trendy, popular, and cool to be a nerd.  I love libraries because I can embrace my inner nerd.  I can admit to reading the encyclopedia at home when I was a kid because I had read everything else we owned.  I think we are all nerds at some point in our lives and the library is the best place where we can all just be ourselves with no judgements and no apologies for what we enjoy.

Check out this site for even more information on why people around the country love libraries. 

Embrace your inner bibliophile.  Embrace your inner nerd.  Embrace what makes you YOU and check out your local library this week.   Help celebrate National Library Week with one small visit, and I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.  I would love to hear why you love libraries in the comments!

Going Green With Your Bookshelf

April is Earth month and being conscious of the environment has become a bigger priority in people’s lives.  I can remember when it seemed a complete fad that no one would take seriously.  Thankfully, our world and issues such as global warming have become mainstream.

Libraries often face the dilemma of unwanted books, those that have become damaged beyond repair, those that are out of date and no longer factual or relevant, and sadly, those books that no one really wants to read and are taking up space for books that are more desirable to check out.

It is a subject that readers also find in their own personal bookshelves.  Books that you picked up on the bargain shelf at Barnes and Noble because they were only $2 and then hated the story, books someone may have given you, but that you have no interest in reading, or maybe you found yourself simply with books you’ve read, enjoyed but don’t want to keep anymore.  Myself, I had a stack of cookbooks that I just never used and tons of non-fiction and novels from that bargain bin, and I now understand why were in the bargain bin.   In college, I  was sometimes stuck with textbooks for gen-ed classes and had no idea what to do with them once class was over, and I couldn’t sell them back because a new edition came out every year.

Try one of these ideas if you are drowning in books! Photo from pteittinen on Flickr.

What do we do with all these lonely, sad, unloved and unwanted books?  There are many options that are friendly to the environment, the reader, and the book too!  Instead of just dumping the book in the garbage can so it can fill up a landfill and never find its true reader love, consider one of these options:

Donate.  Places such as Goodwill, AmVets, and Vietnam Veterans will take used books and magazines, and you can get a receipt for a tax write-off.  Plus, you’re supporting a worthwhile cause.  I would encourage you not to donate to your library unless you know they will end up in the book sale room, should a library have one.  Libraries are often trying to find places themselves  to rid their weeded materials.

Sell them!  Places such as used book stores take books off your hands and sometimes will pay you for them!    I always take my cash and instead of running, end up buying books.  (More books!)  One of my favorite bookshops called Half-Price Books is an independent seller, has stores around the country and buys used books, cds, games, etc.  I’ve also found several smaller local used bookstores and thrift stores that may not necessarily buy them for more than 25 cents, but the shop owner will put them on the shelves for someone else to discover.  Having a garage sale this spring or summer?  A box of books is often the first place I go and I’ve scored some steals for a dollar or less, sometimes even free because the seller just wants them gone!  Ebay and other sites like CraigsList are decent resources for selling, but I’ve only had luck with series of magazines.  Ebay and other sales sites seems to work better when you have a hot collectible that you know is worth money or a very expensive textbook that is in good condition.

Recycle.  Unfortunately, the big question of what to do with your old set of Encyclopedias may be as simple as recycling them.  I know, it pains me to write that because I love them!  Yet, unless you can find a museum or historical society of some kind that will want them for archival or preservation purposes, the material in them is not always useful to an everyday user.  When all else fails, and you don’t know what to do, don’t dump your books in the garbage to end up in a landfill.  Recycle.

Pass Them Along!  Hospitals, nursing homes, gyms, hair salons and other places with waiting rooms or reading time often love free magazine and books! Just make sure you ask before you dump a pile of Martha Stewarts on the end table.  Not everyone appreciates the act of sharing.  Sites such as Paperbook Swap, BookMooch, and BookCrossing are also fun ways to trade books with other readers and join a community of readers.  They are often free or have a small nominal fee to cover postage and shipping charges.  When buying books, check out sites such as Better World Books who then donates a book to someone else across the world!

Be Creative.  Books as arts and crafts are ever so trendy and fashionable!  There are tons of ideas online and on Pinterest for turning old or unwanted books into works of art!  I thought this blog post was pretty interesting and had some great ideas.

Have you found yourself stuck with a pile of books and don’t know what to do?  Have you tried any of these and found successes or failures?  Do you have any resources you’ve used other than those shown here?  I would love to hear them in the comments.

Literary Loves

I was following a really great discussion on the YALSA listserv around Valentine’s Day where the topic was “Who Was Your First Literary Love?”  It got me thinking about all the fantastic children’s and young adults writers whose books like Ramona Quimby, Age 8 and Charlotte’s Web made in my life as a young reader.  There were great authors I knew and loved that many people shouted out, and there were also many I have yet to discover.  Yet, what held me off from writing about this discussion was thinking about all the wonderful books and authors I’ve read as an adult in college, graduate school and throughout my own choosing from bookstore and library adventures.

Stack of Books Found on Flickr

Studying to become a librarian, being an English major in undergrad and actually enjoying most of my English classes in high school, I have had many first literary loves and they all hold special places in my list of great novels.  Books like Catcher in the Rye, The Awakening, Old Man and the Sea, and Invisible Man are novels that truly made me stop, think, and never want to put it down.  It’s hard for me to pick one!

Then, I was listening to a favorite podcast during one of my typical hour long drives called Book Lust moderated by Nancy Pearl, master librarian.  She was interviewing Charles Johnson, author of the National Book Award winning book, Middle Passage.  During the interview, she asked what he was reading and did he have any favorite books.  His paraphrased reply was that he found books most rewarding when they impacted him in a way that made him think about the world and people around him.

This had me thinking about why I can’t really choose only one literary love.

I am almost always impacted in some way by the books I read.  Some stories haunt me with the choices and decisions made by the characters.  Some books cause me to question my life and what I’ve done throughout.  Others intrigue me and impact me in a way to want to do research to find out more about a particular topic.

So now I ask, as a ‘grown-up’ reader, what or who is your literary love? Did you discover new tastes as an adult or do you find those similar patterns you enjoyed as a child carry over in your adult reading?

Choosing Your Own Adventure

"Choices" By The Real Estreya found on flickr.

Choosing a book to read, for me, is a never-ending process.  I have a stack of unread books on my shelf and an even longer to-read list on my Goodreads account.  I always vow to never put another book on the list until I’ve read every to-read book I own, but I am always buying a new book that makes the pile never-ending!

When I go to read a new book, it can often be a luck of the draw from that list or pile.  I am often swayed by the mood I am feeling, a movie or tv show I’ve watched,  and suggestions by friends, bookstores and library lists.  Sometimes, I am simply choosing the book that has been sitting on my shelf the longest.  Other times it’s that I need a mood changer because I’ve read either a really ‘light-themed’ or really ‘dense-heavy’ book and need a complete contrast.  Then there are the times when I have no rhyme or reason to a choice, and simply like the cover of a book!  I love beautiful book covers and the design of the book can play a role in how I delight in its words.

Luck of the draw, I would say, incorporates into some of my selections.

How do you choose your next book to read?  Are you a die-hard fan of a certain author and read any books they write?  Do you stick to one genre such as Fiction, Non-Fiction, Science Fiction, Biography or Mystery for example?  Or do you abide by the Luck method?