What the Director’s Reading – January 2017

Winter is the perfect time of year to catch up on one’s reading. Dour days make way for cozy evenings beside a fire or a heating duct, tome in one hand, a glass of wine in the other. Or so perceived wisdom would have us believe. I happen to think that anytime is a good time to read. But not only read. There are just as entertaining/informative/instructive things to listen to, watch or interact with and all can be found at your library or through its website. One can only wonder why more people don’t do so.

There have been a number of studies over the years concerning the benefits of reading, particularly of fiction (check out this article from Psychology Today). Just recently, I read in the New York Times how challenging your brain will keep it healthy (NYTimes, January 1, 2017, on Page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: How to Become a ‘Superager’). I enjoy a challenge. Heck, I already play the ukulele! So I made a New Year’s resolution to read a few books each month and then to write about them (writing helps me remember what it is I read). Contrary to what people think, librarians do not get to sit around and read all day, except for the odd professional article or two. This is a window into how I spend my free time.

A list of material read, listened to or watched:

The Pioneers; or the Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale (1823)   [F Cooper]
James Fenimore Cooper

The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages (1932)        [871.0309 WAD]
Helen Waddell

Nutshell (2016)      [F McEwan]
Ian McEwan

My Brother’s Book (2013)   [811.54 SEN]
Maurice Sendak

Marian McPartland’s Jazz World (2006)
Blackstone Audio (available through Hoopla)

I don’t know if I had read Last of the Mohicans before seeing the most recent film treatment of it by Michael Mann. That was a terrific film, but its storyline was actually based on a 1936 film treatment of the novel. The only other book I had read in the Leatherstocking series (there are five of them) was Deerslayer, the fourth in the series and having the youngest representation of the character Natty Bumppo, alternately known as Hawkeye, Deerslayer or Leatherstocking. The others are The Pioneers, The Prairie, and The Pathfinder. The Pioneers was the first one written by James Fennimore Cooper, in 1823, and includes the character of Natty Bumppo as a man of 70.

The Pioneers is the story of the clash of two ways of life. Set in and around the town of Templeton, the picaresque storyline concerns the interactions between those living in the town, representing ‘civilization,’ and those living outside in nature. ‘Civilization’ has come rather recently to these environs and often clashes with the more ‘natural’ way of life embodied in Natty Bumppo and his friends. Though Cooper’s sympathies can be a little ambiguous at times (one gets the impression he grew up in just this type of ‘civilized’ environment on the edge of the wilderness), his resolution of the story seems to reflect the struggle of a young country with just these type of issues.

The Pioneers starts off slowly, as is typical of Cooper’s conversational style of writing and as he establishes his many characters, but once it gets started the story holds interest. I get a good sense from this story as to why he was the most successful American writer of the early nineteenth century. His characters are interesting, though a bit stilted in their delivery. Perhaps everyone back then spoke the way these characters do. Besides that, there are enough real emotions and situations to involve most readers.

The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages is a truly fascinating history of scholarship, learning and poetry from the late Classical period through the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. What I love about this book is the many personalities it highlights (and there are a bewildering number of them; too many to justify a single reading) along with their stories. The Middle Ages was a long times ago, making it hard for us to relate to its experiences and realities. Having someone like Helen Waddell lead the reader through those stories is a unique experience, and one that I will revisit often.

Latin was the lingua franca of scholarship, government and the church of the time and, considering the amount of literature passed down to us, I can imagine that the lives Ms. Waddell illuminates represent a small fraction of this fascinating era. Take, for instance, Paulinus, who lived in Rome in the early years of the fifth century. In his older years, he sold himself into slavery in order to ransom the son of a widow. He was shipped to Africa, but was eventually returned to his life of quiet simplicity when his innate nobility was revealed. Was the story true? The literature of the Middle Ages is full of such stories. Perhaps the question should not be ‘was the story true,’ but what role did such stories play? And what are our stories?

Admittedly, The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages is a dense read. Ms. Waddell packs a good deal of information into 240-odd pages. But if you are looking for something completely different, learned but with a dash of humor, this could work.

There is something of Blake in Maurice Sendak’s artwork, at least here in this slim volume. My Brother’s Book tells the story of Guy, who eludes a bear and finds solace under his brother’s protection. The artwork is the interest here. It is more baroque than his children’s book illustrations and the story might be considered a bit less accessible than Where the Wild Things Are or I Saw Esau, but it might be the best introduction to an exhibit of his works coming to the library this summer.

Nutshell is the first novel by Ian McEwan I have ever read, but it will not be the last. He is the author of The Good Son, Enduring Love and, most notably, Atonement, which was made into a movie in 2007. He is a very thoughtful, articulate Englishman if the The Paris Review is any indication. They published an interesting interview with him in issue 162, “Ian McEwan, The Art of Fiction No. 173.”

I cannot write too much about the story of Nutshell, since I don’t wish to give away any of the story. Suffice it to say that it concerns a love triangle: Trudy, the wife of John, and John’s brother, Claude. Oh, and the story is narrated by Trudy and John’s unborn child.

Yes, the premise is preposterous! The narration is articulate and culturally informed, which makes it all the more absurd coming as it does from a fetus, but then what should we expect? The unexpected is what makes this novel so satisfying, even though the plot is straightforward almost to the point of being cliché. However, the unborn child (never given a name) is like a conscience, an omniscient presence held back from participation in the action by the thinnest of barriers. Still his running commentary on events, based solely on what he can hear and feel around him, is perceptive to say the least. I would like to get to know the kid…after he is born. And I will have to explore McEwan’s other works as well.

Marian McPartland became an institution in jazz during her ninety-five years as pianist and radio personality. She hosted Piano Jazz on NPR for thirty-three years and her guests included the royalty of jazz, piano and otherwise, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Tony Bennett, as well as pop figures, Willie Nelson, Alicia Keyes, and Renee Fleming among them.

Marian McPartland’s Jazz World, an audiobook available through the library’s digital collection on Hoopla (accessed through our website) and narrated by the author, begins as a name-droppers delight. In telling her series of anecdotes, Ms. McPartland lets us into the diplomacy of doing a radio program with a varied array of musicians. The logistics of doing an ongoing radio show are mingled with the sheer joy Ms. McPartland brought to her conversations and playing. She was known to have an encyclopedic command of tunes, seeming to effortlessly reproduce and improvise on any one suggested by a guest, all in a very laid-back and intimately inviting manner. I listened to her show off and on from the late 80’s until her death in 2013 and this audiobook brings me right back to the pleasure of those days in discovering a deeper delight of jazz with such a wonderful guide. Listening to this audio really highlights to me how diverse jazz was and is, and how little I know about the many obscure, but marvelous performers she has stories about.

I love this type of material. It tells me about something I know a little about and gives me a path to follow towards a deeper knowledge and appreciation of its subject. And let’s face it, Jazz is worth delving deeper into.

That’s some of what I read and listened to this month. I’m looking forward to what next month has in store.