Saturday, May 26, 2007

Strange Bookmarks

Our admin staff recently did an unofficial survey to find out the strangest things that have been stuffed inside books when they've been returned. This is a partial list. Some are expected, some are funny and some are just downright odd.

$200 (in $20s)
$50.00 bill
airline tickets
Antique spoon
bag of dog poop in our book drop
bank envelope with $300.00 in cash
big yellow thin button
Bill of Sales on a new car
bill payment
bird feather
birthday cards (with money inside)
book in our book drop that had a big dirt clod in it
book of blank checks
Canadian money
card to a granddaughter with $5 in it.
check for $320
credit card receipts
Dear John letters
diamond earring
divorce decree
Driver's license.
engraved silver bookmark
eviction notice
Funeral Service Program
Graduation card with 10 twenty dollar bills in it
health statement
hotel bill
Library cards
love letter written in Spanish
love letters
lovely tiny pink toddler's sock -- clean and pressed
Medicine prescriptions.
nail files
Pantiliners (clean, fortunately!)
paper clips -- small, oversized, metallic and plastic
Photos, lots and lots of photos
piece of gum (had to charge for that one)
referral for a colonoscopy
report cards
rubber bands
Saving Certificated for the amount of 10,000 dollars
Sewing Needle (that was painful)
shopping receipts
soiled Kleenex
The "rules" for visiting inmates at the Lorton prison. It included
things like "underwear must be worn at all times" and "no men dressed as
women will be admitted"
the strips that come off sanitary napkins
the wrapping of a slice of processed cheese
toilet paper
uncashed paycheck
used band aid
used lollipop stick
vintage photos
wedding pictures
X-ray of the inside of an organ


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Review: Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage

A few months back my coworker John and I were sorting through a bunch of new books the collection development office sent to us at work. Most of it was what you expect: a bunch of mysteries, a few books on Iraq, a couple sex books. In the midst of all that John shoved a book into my hand, saying, "Hey, look at the crazy mug on this guy. This looks like your type of book."


Wizened face, tufts of wild white hair shooting every which way off the guy's head. This author was either 1. a homeless nut, 2. a philosophy professor, or 3. both. So yes, this definitely looked like my type of book. We're not suppose to grab new items when they first come in so patrons can get the first crack at them. I finally checked it out last week and blasted through this short and witty novel.

Sam Savage (who, it turns out, was a philosophy professor at some point) has taken two parts Notes from the Underground, one part Mouse and the Motorcycle and a dash of Mark Twain to give us the thoughtfully funny novel Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. Firmin is a rat, but he's no ordinary rat. The runt of a litter born in the basement of a used bookstore in the Scollay Square section of Boston, he's self-described as the thirteenth child "fighting it out over twelve tits". To help him get by he starts eating the one thing that's around: books. At first it's just food for him, but though some miracle of digestive osmosis he starts understanding, appreciating and even loving the written word. Now that he understands books he feels guilty for destroying them and moves to simply reading them, and read he does. Firmin mentally digests everything from bad joke books to Don Quixote, using it as material to expand his mind.


Firmin looks towards the owner of the bookstore as sort of father figure, and he watches this unaware paternal man as he magically finds books for every customer who walks in the door. Later in the tale Firmin becomes a pet for pulp sci-fi author Jerry Magoon, who teaches him about jazz and even how to play music on a tiny toy piano. As the story develops Firmin continually regrets his status as a rat and aspires to greater things, at one point composing poetry and another teaching himself sign language in a futile effort to communicate with the human world.

The neighborhood of Scollay Square works as a nice backdrop and becomes more important to the story as the novel moves along. Set in the late 60's, the square is a run-down section of Boston made up of low end apartments, porn theatres and local businesses barely surviving. Boston starts a campaign to clean up the area and we see the historic buildings fall down one by one as the city gets ready to revitalize the district. The slow disintegration of Scollay Square works as a nice elegy for a lost neighborhood but also echoes the continually darker and existential thoughts of Firmin's little brain.

This is a definitely a book for book lovers, for those who read indisciminately genre to genre and have a love for obscure literary references and odd philosophical tangents. So really it's no surprise that I loved this. At 148 pages, it's a short novel and Savage's wonderfully offbeat humor delivers some complicated ideas in ways that are imaginative and fun.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lloyd Alexander

Driving home from work today I heard a career profile on NPR on the author Lloyd Alexander. It was nicely done, and it reminded me a lot of how much I loved his books as a little kid. The Prydain Chronicles was probably the first series I was ever obsessed with and it's certainly a big part of why I came to love fantasy fiction. I wasn't sure why they were doing a profile on Alexander, but I had my suspicions. And they were confirmed here. He died Thursday of cancer, at the age of 83, leaving behind some 20 odd books that contribute brilliantly to children's literature and fantasy literature.

I actually saw him once as a little whippersnapper. He gave a reading at a children's bookstore in DC, a place called the Chesire Cat. Graying hair, a kind, wrinkled face and a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, he looked every bit the writer. I've always wondered if that was how he really dressed or just an outfit to portray a particular image. I remember he read well and he handled all the questions from the 4-12 year olds in the crowd with a nice sense of humor. You writers who read in front of adults have it easy...these kids were tough. When they asked a question they wanted an answer, dammit.

I think I may need to go back and re-read those stories again. It's been years, and it would be a good summertime project.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Filtering in Virginia Libraries

Well as you may or may not know, back in March Virginia Governor Tim Kaine signed legislation requiring all public libraries to install filtering software on public computers with internet access. Currently slightly less than half of the counties in Virginia use filtering software in public libraries.

Yesterday we had a staff meeting about how Fairfax County will be conforming to the new law. Filtering will go into effect starting July 7. The software used will block websites featuring child pornography, child abuse, adware, spyware, gambling, malicious code, adult pornography, web-based proxies, anonymizers, phishing, and material deemed obscene or tasteless. We will have the ability to disable the filtering on a case-by-case basis if a patron requests it.

I have mixed feelings about it. Most of the items being filtered certainly make sense, especially the ones dealing with viruses, adware, etc. These could potentially harm the equipment and filtering these out helps keep the computers safe. Child pornography and internet gambling are both illegal, so those make sense as well. A public institution granting access to these is probably not the best idea.

It's the last category.....the material deemed obscene or tasteless....that bothers me. Supposedly sites people are accessing will be reviewed daily to make sure they conform to the standards, but it's a little unclear to me what the standards of being tasteless are. I'm hopeful the people making these decisions will err on the side of not flitering when something is borderline, but we will see. These last categories weren't included because they are illegal or harmful to equipment but because they offend people, particularly people with small children. While a library will fight to keep a book on Mapplethorpe on the shelves it becomes to difficult to fight it when it comes to internet access because it is so much more in your face.

I like the option of allowing us to turn off the filtering, but it makes it like having a separate room in the video store for porn. It takes a certain type of person to walk into that room and not care what others think and it will take a certain type of person to walk up to the reference desk and ask to have filtering turned off. It all creates an unfortunate barrier between patrons and certain types of information. I wish there were other options but for right now this seems to be the best compromise to keep both sides happy.

Back in 1998 the Virginia arm of the ACLU raised a stink when Loudon County, Va. started using filtering software. I'll be curious to see if they say anything now that the whole state is moving that direction.


Friday, May 11, 2007

Promise of a Premise

One of the great joys of Netflix is getting to revisit old t.v. obsessions. This past week I've been reliving one of my favorite shows from the mid 90's, a series called Nowhere Man.


Bruce Greenwood plays Tom Veil, a successful photojournalist. The pilot episode features Veil at his first art opening and the center of his art show is a piece called "Hidden Agenda", a photograph he took in South America of an political execution. Veil's wined and dined by art critics and buyers, and, at least for the evening, is toast of the town. Of course, following Miss L's rule of drama whenever things are going too well it means something bad is about to happen.


Veil and his wife go to dinner to celebrate Veil's newfound artistic success. Midway through the meal Veil gets up to use the restroom---and sneak a few drags from a cigarette--- and he returns to find his wife missing. He questions the owner of the restaurant, who claims to not even remember him or his wife. Veil makes his way home only to find his wife with another man and claiming not to recognize Veil. Not knowing what else to do he returns to his studio to figure out what's going on.

He learns that someone wants the negatives of "Hidden Agenda" and Veil refuses. He's captured, imprisoned and, by the end of episode, finally escapes. The episodes that follow work like a dramatic dance as Veil tries to keep from being caught while also attempting to unearth clues to identity of the people who destroyed his life.

It mines some of the same grand conspiracy material as the X-Files. The nameless villains were not only able to erase every trace of Veil's life but they also seem to have control over pieces of the Army, the FBI and even television broadcasts. Not surprisingly, there seems to be a good bit of overlap with staff who worked on both shows, the most obvious being Mark Snow, who did the theme and incidental music for both shows.

It was a perfect cult show because it was one of those shows where you never really knew exactly what was going on. Characters and plot points from past episodes reappear, but in new ways causing you to continually question whatever assumptions you made about the show previously. Back in the day I kept a notebook filed with clues the show, and I even trolled usenet to find more clues (this was in '95, well before every t.v. show had its own message board). The series ended after 25 episodes, which let down the fans since nothing really got answered. I always wondered what the full story was and was excited to see the DVD's available. I've been enjoying them all week.

Unfortunately, I've also watched some of the DVD extras. One of them features an interview with series creator/producer Larry Hertzog. He admits a strong influence from earlier t.v. shows like The Fugitive and The Prisoner (which I really need to watch someday), but also went into some things that were a little disappointing. He said he didn't know who the ultimate villains were and that he didn't think it was important to the show. He never thought of it as a show with an endpoint, but more as an ensemble show like The Twilight Zone where writers and directors could come in and play with odd ideas. The only common threads were the character of Veil and that each episode explored a different type of paranoia.

I almost didn't believe him. It always felt like there was a larger story behind the scenes and it's too bad to discover there really wasn't. I'm apparently not alone in this since sites like host a fair amount of fan-fic. Someone with a sense of humor has even given Veil his own myspace page.
Possibly a larger story would have formed if the series had been given more time. Or maybe not. But whatever the case it's all made me think about writing and living up to the full premise of what you create. When you don't manage to do that you fail the story and you fail the audience. I, of course, also thought about one of my current favorite shows, Lost, and all the layers upon layers of unanswered questions the show still has. At one point I thought there had to be a master plan behind everything but now I wonder.


In the end it might be best that Nowhere Man never reached an endpoint. If it had, the paranoia would have ended. Instead fans can still think of Veil out there wandering, questioning and struggling to find the answers. In a way a nice, albeit dark, metaphor for life.


Monday, May 07, 2007

Georgetown Library Fire

If you're outside the D.C. area, you may not have heard about the fire at the Peabody Room, a division of the DC Public Library in Georgetown that houses a number of rare books, documents and artifacts. Last week they had a pretty major fire, a fire that was exacerbated by the non-working fire hydrant the fire department first tried to use to put out the blaze. Photos here, both before and after the tragedy, courtesy of H-Net online (thanks to Miss L. for forwarding it to me). Pretty damn scary how much damaged was done. For the original story, check out The Wasingtonian.

Thank goodness it looks like the employees had their act together in getting materials frozen and ready to be repaired. It's all a rather shocking reminder on the importance of good disaster plans, especially if you're building is housing rare materials.


Thursday, May 03, 2007


Well I've made it through another semester of grad school. Monday was particularly fun, since our prof sprung for a catered dinner afterward. Nothing extreme.....a couple of pasta dishes, some salad and a lot of wine. It was a nice bit of relaxation after the stress of the exam. Plus I got sent home on the metro with a big jug of wine. And if you're ever starved for entertainment I highly suggest waiting around on a metro platform with bottle of wine twice the size of your average milk bottle. I got all sorts of strange looks that night.

For some reason I feel different at the end of this term. My other classes have been so theory based, but the two I took this term were more practical. I feel better prepared to work as a librarian than I did a few months ago, and that's a nice feeling. But it might also be that now I'm more than halfway through the program, I can feel the end that's coming about this time next year. I'm still enjoying classes....and looking forward to the ones I'll be taking this summer....but I'm ready to move on to that next phase of my life.

But what I'm really curious about is my paper. What I thought would be a simple ten-pager on comic book criticism turned into a 30 pager without a lot of difficulty. There are apparently a lot of people out there saying some pretty cool things about comics. I discovered the International Journal of Comic Art, an academic-level journal edited by a prof at Temple University. I also discovered Mechademia, a fun looking academic journal that focuses on anime, manga and the surrounding fan culture. I'm curious to find out what my prof thought, because if my paper's good enough I might look into sending it out to one of these crazy places.

My last big discovery, though, was something I should have stumbled across long ago: a comic series called Strangers in Paradise. I've heard about the series for a long time....l mean it has the unusual distinction of winning both Eisner and Glad awards....but I've never picked it up. I bought the first trade collection on a whim and loved it. The story centers on two women, Francine and Katchoo. It's a mixture of stories told in present time and flashbacks, and the core of it is whether the two women are close friends or something more. It's very dramatic but also surprisingly character driven. Some of the strongest characters and most vivid writing I've seen in comics in a long time.

I'll have some reviews and other nonsense up soon. Right now my head is still full, so I think I'll empty it out by watching some mindless cartoons. So until next time...