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Best Books This Christmas

Becoming-Michelle-Obama-book-coverAs a young girl, one of my preferred gifts at Christmas was a book. Classics like Heidi, Five Little Peppers, Swiss Family Robinson, and Little Women remain some of my most cherished possessions. I’ve always surrounded myself and my family with books and literally poured books into my children’s hands, overflowing the bookshelves in our home.

We all know librarians fancy books. More than that though, it takes reverence for books to pursue a profession about them. Yet, libraries are evolving places where exciting programs and marvelous things are becoming more and more relevant to a library’s mission. The field is attracting young professionals who are, in addition to clever researchers and keen readers, excited about technology, music, and social synergy.

Not surprisingly, librarians don’t have the corner on book-loving. My family of children and their spouses – educators, graphic designers, marketing gurus – all worship books. Family times always see at least one or two of the adults curled up in a nook – often with a book discovered on one of our many shelves. Our grandchildren held their first books as infants – small cloth or chunky board books were wedged into their strollers and car seats. Their own collections grew until their favorite crawling or toddling activity was swiping them all off the shelf into a heap. They always reached for their favorites: Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin. Most parents (and grandparents,alike) can recite the words by heart through closed eyelids until they open them to turn back to the first page. “Again?” And again. And again.

This year, I bought multiple copies of my two favorite 2018 books as presents for my children and friends. One is The Library Book by Susan Orlean. While I had listened to the audio version, I took out our library’s speed read copy so that I could hold the lovely book in my hand, stroking the cloth cover (no jacket) and flipping through the few illustrations. The back inside cover depicts a library book pocket and date due card. It’s so realistic that you can’t resist touching it with your fingers to find that it is only a photographic image.

The Library Book tells the story of the massive fire that burned in the Los Angeles Public Library on April 29, 1986. The mysterious blaze, officially determined to be arson, destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 600-700,000 more. It burned for seven hours and was fought by over 350 firefighters from 60 firefighting companies. Fortunately, all 400 visitors and staff in the library at the time of the fire were evacuated. Heat swelled to over 2,000 degrees within the concrete walls and firefighters worked to cut 18 holes in the building to release the smoke and heat, thereby decreasing the temperature.

In 1986 the fire hadn’t received much attention. Chernobyl was the talk of the day that captured the media’s attention. More than 30 years later, the story unfolded through Orleans. Susan Orlean is a passionate author who began her research accidentally when she toured the Los Angeles Public Library and heard that some of the books still smelled of smoke. That smoking gun, so to speak, led to research.

The account in The Library Book is so much more than just the fire. It incorporates a history of the city library and a 1921 effort to finally build a respectable library in a sun-drenched, fantastical place named “The City of Angels.” The story includes interesting characterizations of its first and current librarians. In addition, Susan Orlean describes the notable and remarkable attempts to destroy books and libraries throughout world history. She includes the accomplishment of rebuilding the main library in the 1990s.

I gave copies of my other favorite 2018 book, Becoming by Michelle Obama, to my daughters. While it is principally an autobiography of the life of the “first” African American First Lady, it is most significantly a book about a capable woman who learned to navigate her responsibilities as a young girl and young woman, a mother, and a wife. All of our daughters and daughters-in-law are professionals, wives, and mothers and we watch them in awe as they balance all aspects of their lives. Obama’s act is one to follow and includes some of the immeasurable advice they will read.

Our grandchildren all received books, as they usually do for their birthdays, Christmas, and any other chance I have. It was our granddaughter Maeve’s book, the 75th anniversary edition of the Complete Adventures of Curious George (2016), that created the best reading adventure of 2018. While Maeve has copies of the Curious George Around Town books that she fell in love with earlier this year, I wanted to give her a copy of the seven original Curious George stories in one hefty volume. And hefty it is at 3.4 pounds.

There is debate about Curious George. Some feel (my ex-husband among them) that Curious George is obnoxiously curious and never has to suffer the consequences of his misbehavior. Others simply believe that Curious George is a good little monkey at heart who topples again and again into trouble. My ex-husband refused to read Curious George to any of my daughters; I suspect this might be why it warms my heart and tickles my fancy that my granddaughter Maeve can’t get enough of George!

The Complete Adventures actually includes only seven Curious George stories, but they are the originals published between 1941 and 1966, and written and illustrated by H.A. Rey and his wife, Margret. Our very own Curious George Christmas adventures included at least ten readings of Curious George Goes to the Hospital and Curious George Rides a Bike. Other stories in the book are Curious George Takes a Job and the original story, naturally named Curious George. “This is George. George was a good little monkey, but he was always curious.”

If you are a little bit curious, it’s not too late in the first weeks of 2019 to read some of my favorite gift books from 2018.

Charlotte Canelli is the Director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the January 3rd edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.


Binging on Great British Baking and Russian Pastry

a-taste-of-russia-book-coverGerry and I binge-watched at least four seasons of the Great British Baking Show this summer. It had been recommended and once I started binging and proselytizing about my new-found crush, I realized that, as with most other hit series, I was years late to the party. Especially this British one.

During one particular B-A-A-A-A-K-E which happened to be pastries, I thought of the favorite savory pastry that had captured my fancy over 25 years ago. It was the kulebiaka (or coulibiac) – a time-consuming Russian first course. The kulebiaka boasts a flaky, buttery pastry that envelopes a filling of either cabbage and chopped hardboiled eggs or salmon, rice and dill. My finished kulebiaka’s crust is garnished with leaves and a rope closure and rises and bakes to golden perfection.

Once sliced and served with sour cream, it is always met with ooohs and aaaahs across the room. Anton Chekhov wrote in his short story The Siren that “the kulebiaka must make your mouth water; it must lie there before you, a shameless temptation! You cut off a sizable slice and let your fingers play over it. When you bite into it, the butter drips from it like tears.”

I fantasized, recently of course, that Paul Hollywood would have swooned over one of my masterpieces, the kulebiaka. I might have had a handshake.

Long before I was awarded my master’s degree in library science (or MLS) from Boston’s Simmons College, I had returned to college in the late 1980s as an undergraduate. Years earlier I had left behind three years of academic work in History and Political Science at a California university to begin raising my family. A requirement for completing my degree with distinction from a Massachusetts state college was that I must complete more than half of the total required credits (120) at a Massachusetts school. Doing the easy math, I need to complete 150 total credits instead of the normal 120 for a bachelor’s degree. Lucky for me, I had more curiosity than 120 credits anyway.

My favorite courses that second time around were in Russian Studies, which of course fell right smack within my favorite academic areas of interest: history, literature and political science. For a minor in Russian Studies I was also required to take at least a year of Russian language and I memorized the Cyrillic alphabet forwards and backwards. My studies included a tour to the Soviet Union in 1990, a year before my hero USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika helped to dismantle the Soviet Union and communism.

My interest in Russia started many years before… as a very young child. Moving to Berkeley, California at the age of six, my family rented an apartment in a big house just three houses from my new elementary school. Our absent landlady was a large, hardy and hearty block of a Russian woman who was missing most of her right arm. Her infrequent visits, her Russian accent, and her exotic right arm fascinated me. That curiosity led me to other things Russian in my youth, including a book I read my senior year in high school, We the Living by Ayn Rand. It is one I credit with many influences in my life. The young, female protagonist in the book is named Kira. It was years later, after naming my youngest daughter with the Irish version of that name (Ciara and pronounced exactly the same), when I realized just how influential the book had been.

Returning from the study tour in the Soviet Union in 1990, I took up Russian cooking with an energetic passion. My graduation party from college in 1991 was a huge affair with over a hundred friends and family feasting on Russian food and drink. I enlisted the help of some of those friends who cooked and baked with me all week. I rented tables for the backyard and placed centerpieces of pitchers of lilacs, all donated from another friend’s garden. I hired a young Russian man named Sasha who appeared dressed in traditional Slavic costume. He spent the afternoon roaming the yard with his balalaika and entertaining the crowd with lovely Russian folk music. In addition, I contracted a slick-suited pianist named Vladimir who played music by Russian composers on the piano in my living room. It was a tremendously wonderful party and I smile again remembering it nearly three decades later.

So, following that pastry episode on the GBBS, I searched for my recipe books and came across some of my old favorites on my bookshelves, A La Russe: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality by Darra Goldstein and the Art of Russian Cuisine by Anne Volokh. The copy of my favorite book, Russian Cooking, part of the Time-Life Cooking of the World Series I had collected in the 70s as a young wife, was missing. That book was the one from which I’d learned exactly how to assemble the kulebiaka, using the photographs over a two-page spread.  To my surprise, not one of the Minuteman Libraries had a copy. Thankfully, I found over a dozen copies of Russian Cooking listed in the Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Catalog (or ComCat.) Although I could have requested one through Massachusetts library delivery, I eventually unearthed my own copy.  I discovered the very worn and stained spiral-bound book of recipes and the accompanying hardcover in my basement, mixed in with a few other castaways.

Searching the library catalog, I found a more recent copy of Darra Goldstein’s book (published in 2013 as A Taste of Russia and I’ve added to our collection.) Her book is rich with recipes for Marinated Mushrooms, Baked Apple Charlotte, Baba au Rhum, and Siberian Dumplings. The recipe for Apricot Tart is one I memorized 25 years ago and use over and over again. Anne Volikh’s Art of Russian Cuisine is no longer in print, but several libraries have it on their shelves. She also includes a page of drawings illustrating assembly of the Kulebiaka and recipes from across the huge Russian and Soviet empires. Our library has a copy of Please to the Table by Anya von Kremen that includes recipes across the fifteen former republics of the Soviet Union.

If you’d like to learn the art and passion of Russian cooking, like the famed kulebiaka, there are many books in the Minuteman Library Network and across Massachusetts through ComCat. Or watch every episode of the Great British Baking Show and save those calories.

Charlotte Canelli is the Director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the August 23, 2018 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.


It Takes a Stretch

woman-stretchingYou must have a favorite author. Someone you turn to when the rest of the world seems in chaos. Someone who is as comfortable to be with as your warm fuzzy slippers and a chair beside the fireplace. Perhaps it is Jamie Ford or Susan Meissner (two of my favorites) whose lyrical stories carry you back in time and make you fall in love with their characters. Or maybe you are addicted to Mary Higgins Clark or Louise Penny, and you cannot wait to settle down with their latest creations in your hands.

While there is something magical and wonderful about those treasured authors, there is also something to be said for those books that you never ever thought you would read, and suddenly you do. Perhaps you’ve been astonished when your world expands after being stretched by a story or concept that greeted you when you dared to open a book that wasn’t part of your regular repertoire.

Every month I lead between four or five book clubs. I know! I should have my head examined. Still, I enjoy each and every one of them. When I started these groups, I surveyed my readers to see what type of books they loved to read. Many of them preferred mysteries. Hands down! Ironically, it is a rare month now when I select a mystery for a book club read. When it comes to this genre, I find there isn’t a lot to talk about in a group. Trust me, I’ve tried. Once you know “who done it,” the conversation tends to be a bit sparse. So I decided to choose a wide range of books and topics instead. And yes, I like to stretch my readers. Actually, I like to stretch myself, too. Sometimes this means I pick a total flop. This doesn’t bother me, though. We’ve had the most engaging conversations even when the book choice is a bust.

An example of this happened recently. The Spy Wore Red by Aline, Countess of the Romanones was a big hit with my book clubs. Everyone loved the suspense in this true life story of a World War II spy. With this success behind me, I decided a similar read entitled A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre was appropriate. Boy, was I wrong. This was the story of a friendship between two spies, Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott, and the years that Philby deceived both MI6 and the CIA. While we had a lot to discuss, the style of writing was rather dry for most of my readers. Nevertheless, we learned a lot about the circle of Cambridge University friends that the British intelligence recruited. Certainly, our minds were stretched.

Over the years my book clubbers have read a variety of genres that they might not have tried on their own. While we covered classics like Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Margaret Smith, we have also tried a western or two like True Grit by Charles Portis and post-apocalyptic science fiction like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. On occasion we jumped into young readers like Skating With the Statue of Liberty by Susan Lynn Meyer or The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Why? Why not! Challenge accepted.

If you’re willing to stretch your definition of “good reads,” you might be drawn into another reader’s obsessions as well. I have a coworker who loves books about cats, any and all cats. Who am I kidding? I’m surrounded by coworkers who read cat books. To be honest, felines don’t always tickle my fancy as characters but, lo and behold, I found myself swept into a picture book called Caramba by Marie-Louise Gay when I saw it on my coworker’s desk. Now I’m addicted. I’m hoping Caramba, the cat who can’t fly, has many more stories to discover.

Likewise my husband has certain topics that fascinate him and I’m not sure if there’s any rhyme or reason for them. For a while Appalachian history captured his interest. For several nights in a row I fell asleep as he read out loud Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry M. Caudill. Soon I became intrigued by Appalachia as well. When Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance was hot off the press, I raced to get a copy. Later, when my husband’s curiosity shifted to the topic of North Korea, I followed suit. A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim and North Korea Undercover by John Sweeney are two books I would never have touched without my husband’s influence. It seems that other people’s obsessions are catchy.

Truth be told, I enjoy being stretched. I bet you do too! In the words of Charles Scribner, “Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” The only problem is finding enough time to fit it all in. I’d highly recommend trying something completely new. You might even win a prize if you take the opportunity to fill out our Summer Reader’s Bingo in the process. Consider some of the categories: “A Book With a Beach Setting,” “A Book Set in Winter,” or “A Book With a Food Theme.” Go ahead… give it a chance. What have you got to lose?

Nancy Ling is the Outreach Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Nancy’s column in the August 9th issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.


City Girl, Country Girl

backyard-chickensAs a kid I dreamed of living in the Big City. On weekends my mom and I drove into Boston from the suburbs to shop at the iconic Filene’s Basement. I got such a thrill out of walking through the scary “Combat Zone,” past shops and restaurants in Chinatown, and arriving at “The Basement,” where we shielded each other and tried on clothes in the aisles, and I learned math by figuring out the “automatic markdowns.” The variety of different people in the city fascinated me and I longed to live among them some day.

Indeed, after college I moved to Boston where I lived for the next 20 years or so- in a cockroach-infested apartment in Brighton, in three different makeshift artist lofts downtown, and then in a duplex I owned with a friend in Jamaica Plain. I got married, my husband and I consolidated our two households of “stuff” into one apartment, my friend got married and had two children, they moved out, and we decided to follow suit. We felt cramped and had become homebodies taking little advantage of the convenience of nearby restaurants and amenities or our proximity to the T. We also got sick of the occasional sounds of gunshots and all-night parties of nearby neighbors.

In 2015 we took the plunge and moved to Holliston, to a home we fell in love with- a house on a two and a half acre lot with a garden, a swimming pool, a brook, lovely landscaping, and lots of privacy. Oh, and a chicken coop. We went from one extreme to the other, and while I had dabbled in container gardening and watched my parents manicuring their lawn and planting shrubs and annuals, I needed a crash course in country living!

I set a goal, to at least avoid killing all the beautiful plants during the first year. With books like Pruning Basics by David Squire I did teach myself “the basics” of pruning rhododendrons, roses of Sharon, and lilacs. I kept a log book of what came up when: hellebore and daffodils first, followed by irises and poppies, and at this time of year various lilies, daisies and roses. Martha Stewart’s recent Martha’s Flowers provided great ideas for arranging and displaying cut flowers to bring the beauty of the yard inside the house.

Facing a daunting fenced-in garden, I set to work watching YouTube videos and scouring Improving Your Soil by Keith Reid. I learned about prepping soil, rented a rototiller, bought seeds, and planned the layout. Companion planting (see Louise Riotte’s Carrots Love Tomatoes) became a passion. I ended up with too many zucchinis and cucumbers, and relied on Bittman’s trusty How to Cook Everything Vegetarian to make use of it all. Imagine my pride serving guests garden-fresh salads and arugula walnut pesto, followed by cucumber mint sorbet.

The property did not come with chickens, and I insisted on waiting for a year before acquiring any. We had enough to learn during the first year. On the anniversary of moving in, I brought 6 tiny chicks home and delved into the study of keeping them happy and alive. For anyone with the capacity and will to venture into chicken parenting, the library has Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, and A Kid’s Guide to Keeping Chickens, if the children want to help. To get a feel for the way chicken-owners become attached to their flocks, watch the hilarious documentary Chicken People.

Of course, with chickens come abundant eggs. We didn’t realize just how many eggs! Fortunately I received Rachel Khong’s All About Eggs, and Eggs, by Michel Roux, as gifts. For the library’s volunteer appreciation get-together I made “Green Goddess Deviled Eggs” from the library’s D’lish Deviled Eggs cookbook, and they got rave reviews.

Our country oasis surprised us over and over. I discovered Concord grapes growing along a fence and into the trees, and learned a bit about canning and preserving (see DIY Canning). I posted a photo of a weird brain-like mushroom and found out we had precious morels! This prompted the purchase of Foraging New England. Although strange mushrooms frighten me, I delight in harvesting wild berries, chard, and rogue tomato plants that manage to self-seed in the woods.

Home ownership is not all fun and games though. Having never maintained a pool before, I discovered What Color is Your Swimming Pool. With so much space to fill with more and more stuff, I finally read Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and learned to de-clutter. Just because you have room for it doesn’t mean you need to keep it and crowd your living space with junk.

Sometimes I miss the variety of restaurants in Boston, and I don’t like the long ride to and from the city when visiting friends or attending events, but at this stage in life, I definitely prefer being a country girl. A Zen-like calm comes over me while gardening, and after reading my grandmother’s memoir about farm life in Lithuania, I wonder whether this knack is in my DNA. As I listen to songbirds, “peeper” frogs, and even the silence of winter- when I smile watching the silly chickens or discovering that the peonies have bloomed, I have no regrets about moving.

Lydia Sampson is the Head of the Technical Services Dept. at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Lydia’s column in the July 12, 2018 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

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