Saturday, September 10, 2016

Strange Ritual: Pictures and Words by David Byrne (1995)

My latest selection from the St. Denis bookshelf in exile, Strange Ritual: Pictures and Words by David Byrne (1995) is a photography and essay collection featuring some pretty wonderful (and sometimes incongruous) pictures Byrne took while traveling the world making music in the 1980s and 1990s.

The photographs include series of devotional objects, street scenes, mass produced advertisements and consumer products, and (one of my favorite) odd book titles that Byrne has collected. Sometimes the images are presented alone and without comment, other times images are collaged together, juxtaposed, or exposed on top of each other. Brief remarks or captions may run down the bottom or through the center of the page, while longer essays are printed alone, between sets of photographs. All the photos are satisfyingly provided with captions at the end of the book.

 In one of my favorite of his short essays, a rumination on the difference between what other people think we are feeling and what are actually feeling runs along the bottom of a series of pictures of defaced Bollywood posters (also pictured on the cover). Byrne describes people as puppeteers with broken marionettes who are trying to adjust the strings and levers that control our tone of voice and facial expressions to make them match what we want to express, but never being able to really make what we mean and what other people understand match up.

As you may imagine, David Byrne has a wonderful eye for detail, color, and humor and his collection of photography is really fun to flip through. The themes that run through the book hold the disparate series of images together and the variety keeps it from getting boring. This is one I could see coming back to again and again.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Abductors by Stuart Cloete (1966)

I grabbed my copy of The Abductors by Stuart Cloete (1966) from a friend's garage sale six years ago and then let it mellow on the shelf for awhile before digging in. The pulpy cover and salacious description ("Once a girl is a whore, my dear, there's no going back") looked fun, but the book itself is actually quite long (479 pages, with tiny type) and includes an educational appendix on Cloete's research into the continued problem of women being tricked or sold into prostitution. Which, you know, hasn't really gotten much better since the 1880s, when this book is set, or the 1960s, when it was written.

Lavinia Lenton is a wealthy, sheltered, mother of two in Victorian England. Her husband, Edward, tells her that their governess, Ellen, came on to him in the hallway and needs to be fired and sent to London right away, but that they shouldn't tell her father or anyone else why or where she went. Lavinia, used to doing what her husband says, goes along with it and Ellen arrives in London on the last train of the night with no references and nowhere to go. She is met by a kindly older woman who was expecting a young woman to come help with her grandchildren, but that woman didn't show up. She quickly sweeps Ellen up and deposits her in a nicely decorated apartment in town. Then Ellen notices that there are no door knobs on the inside of the doors, and there are bars in the windows. She's been trapped in a whorehouse and there's nothing she can do to get out.

To make it worse, the whole abduction was planned by her former employer, Edward Lenton, who, contrary to his story to Lavinia, tried to assault Ellen in the hallway and got mad when she fought back and refused to meet him in his bedroom. He wrote to his old friend Mrs. Caramine, the madame of one of the finest whorehouses in London, to arrange for her abduction and to keep her trapped until he could come for her. Edward is really really really not a nice guy.

Mrs. Caramine, who gets a lot of rich backstory, has her reasons for wanting revenge on Edward and suggests to him that he hire a French governess for his two girls, one that she will select. The beautiful Delphine is able to make herself look quite plain and trick Lavinia into thinking she isn't a threat, while she sleeps with Edward and, ultimately, kidnaps the two young Lenton girls and takes them to France to enter the sex trade.

All this is too much for sheltered Lavinia who has a huge wake up call about her husband and starts fighting back. With the help of a handsome local lawyer (and childhood friend), she blackmails her husband into letting her do what she wants, finds where Ellen has been held and arranges for her release, and tracks down her daughters. As the novel progresses, things get more complicated and interconnected and Lavinia shocks wealthy society by throwing her name behind a reform group that is trying to raise the age of consent in England and provide some protection for children and young women who are tricked, kidnapped, or sold by their families.


While the combination of a titillating plot and an educational backbone don't always work well together, the author balances the two well and also throws in some excellent characterization, observant description, and clever twists. Stuart Cloete (1897-1976) was a well-respected and popular South African author who was active from the 1930s until his death in the mid-1970s. While he also wrote some "after the bomb," post-apocalyptic books, The Abductors seems to be his most pulpy title, and most of that is in the marketing.

This is a fun book to read and is much zippier than its length and appendices and works cited lists would make you think. I could have done with a few less rich dudes comparing women to horses and sometimes Lavinia's awakening to equal rights and sexual pleasure is a little hamfisted, but that's easy to forgive in a novel with so much unexpected depth and character. Worth picking up at a garage sale near you!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Contemporary Latin American Short Stories edited by Pat McNees Mancini (1974)

I've had this copy of Contemporary Latin American Short Stories edited by Pat McNees Mancini (1974) for so long that I have no idea where or when I got it, but, since it comes near the start of my bookshelf, it was next on my quest to read all the books I own and haven't read yet.

This collection of 35 stories by Latin American authors may stretch the definition of "contemporary" a bit, since some of the stories were published in the early 20th century, but in the contemporary context of 1974, most of these authors and their works would have been unknown to an English-speaking audience. The collection includes some heavy hitters (Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Gabríel Garcia Márquez, Mario Varga Llosa) as well as many authors that were unfamiliar to me, from all over Latin America.

Each story includes a one page introduction with some biographical information about the author and their work. I would have liked more consistency in noting when the story included in the collection was written, but Mancini generally does a good job of putting the stories in context. Having biographical sketches of dozens of Latin American authors in 1974 really highlights the political nature of art in the region, with the many of the authors being exiled, becoming part of their country's leadership, or both. Only two women are included, which doesn't come as a huge surprise, but does date the collection.

The stories themselves are really strong -- ranging in length from just a few pages to entire novellas, they include magical realism, formal structure, humor, tragedy, and political metaphors. Some particular favorites of mine were the extremely weird "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris," by Julio Cortázar (so many bunnies!); the brooding and atmospheric "The Doll Queen," by Carlos Fuentes; "Nest, Door, Neighbors," by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (with the added bonus of being translated by the author, which brings in some excellent effects), and "Paseo," by José Donoso, which I still can't get out of my head.

For fans of both Latin American literature and the short story as an art form, this is a great read. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

How to Manage Processing in Archives and Special Collections by Pam Hackbart-Dean and Elizabeth Slomba (2012)

This work-related book, How to Manage Processing in Archives and Special Collections by Pam Hackbart-Dean and Elizabeth Slomba (2012), is a great overview of  all the different things you have to do manage the processing process in an archives. Plus, I checked it out from my library -- oh yeah!

Hackbart-Dean and Slomba lead us through creating a processing program, setting processing priorities (I loved this part -- matrices!), managing processing, preservation administration, description and standards, training and managing staff, and evaluation and assessment. Whew. If that sounds comprehensive, well, it is. It also bleeds a lot into general archives management, which is a big strength of the book. Processing is such a huge part of archival administration, that you can't really talk about managing it without talking about managing the whole thing.


I appreciated that this is a slim volume with relatively short chapters. That necessarily means that some things are gone over quickly and not every possible topic is covered at length. The authors make up for that by providing extensive footnotes and a really helpful annotated bibliography at the end. My one criticism would be the very short amount of time that is given to electronic records. While they are mentioned a few times, and some suggestions for further reading are given, I think the book would have been strengthened by a chapter dedicated to the unique challenges of managing the processing of digital archives.

This is a good review book for mid-career professionals like me. It helped me to put some perspective on my day-to-day work and to step back and reevaluate the way I do some things. Not every suggestion would work for a one-woman shop like mine, but there is enough here for any archivist to really sink their teeth into. Nice work!

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 4 (1792)

There are twelve volumes altogether, and hey, I just finished number four! 1/3 of the way done! The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 4 (1792), another entry on Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, did not disappoint.

This volume is particularly fun -- it is made up of the first 70 entries in The Rambler, a bi-weekly periodical written and published by Johnson from 1750-1752. The essays, each about 5-10 pages long, are easily digestible comments on modern society and tidbits of advice on how to best live ones life. Some of the most amusing entries are written in the guise of devoted readers asking Mr. Johnson for some of his sage advice. Like much of Johnson, there is a combination of confidence, humor, and observation that make these moral essays not only fun to read, but, with some exceptions, still pretty good life advice.

Take this, for example, from No. 68 "Every man chiefly happy or miserable at home. The opinion of servants not to be despised.":

"This remark may be extended to all parts of life. Nothing is to be estimated by its effect upon common eyes and common ears. A thousand miseries make silent and invisible inroads on mankind, and the heart feels innumerable throbs, which never break into complaint. Perhaps, likewise, our pleasures are for the most part equally secret, and most are borne up by some private satisfaction, some internal consciousness, some latent hope, some peculiar prospect, which they never communicate, but reserve for solitary hours, and clandestine meditation. 

The main of life is, indeed, composed of small incidents and petty occurrences; of wishes for objects not remote, and grief for disappointments of no fatal consequence; of insect vexations which sting us and fly away, impertinences which buzz awhile about us, and are heard no more; of meteorous pleasures which dance before us and are dissipated; of compliments which glide off the soul like other musick, and are forgotten by him that gave, and him that received them....

The great end of prudence is to give cheerfulness to those hours, which splendour cannot gild, and acclamation cannot exhilarate; those soft intervals of unbended amusement, in which a man shrinks to his natural dimensions, and throws aside the ornaments or disguises, which he feels in privacy to be useless incumbrances, and to lose all effect when they became familiar. To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends, and of which every desire prompts the prosecution." 

Pretty spot on for something written 250 years ago....

Or look at this one, which is almost a perfect description of certain politicians that I can't wait to stop hearing about (from No. 11 "The folly of anger. The misery of a peevish old age."):

"There is in the world a certain class of mortals, known, and contentedly known, by the appellation of passionate men, who imagine themselves entitled by that distinction to be provoked on every slight occasion, and to vent their rage in vehement and fierce vociferations, in furious menaces and licentious reproaches. Their rage, indeed, for the most part, fumes away in outcries of injury, and protestations of vengeance, and seldom proceeds to actual violence, unless a drawer or linkboy falls in their way; but they interrupt the quiet of those that happen to be within the reach of their clamours, obstruct the course of conversation, and disturb the enjoyment of society. 

Men of this kind are sometimes not without understanding or virtue, and are, therefore, not always treated with the severity which their neglect of the ease of all about them might justly provoke; they have obtained a kind of prescription for their folly, and are considered by their companions as under a predominant influence that leaves them not masters of their conduct or language, as acting without consciousness, and rushing into mischief with a mist before their eyes; they are therefore pitied rather than censured, and their sallies are passed over as the involuntary blows of a man agitated by the spasms of a convulsion."

I could go on quoting all day, because Samuel Johnson is nothing if he is not deliciously quotable, but instead I'll leave you with a few more of my favorite entries worth reading in their entirety:

No. 16 "The dangers and miseries of literary eminence"
No. 34 "The uneasiness and disgust of female cowardice"
No. 39 "The unhappiness of women whether single or married"
No. 45 "The causes of disagreement in marriage"
No. 50 "A virtuous old age always reverenced"
No 59. "An account of Suspirius the human screech-owl"

Lucky for me, the next volume is even more of The Rambler! Slow and steady gonna win this race...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Harness Maker's Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas by Nick Kotz (2013)

I won this copy of The Harness Maker's Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas by Nick Kotz (2013) in a raffle at an archives conference a few years ago and it finally made its way up to the top of my reading stack.

If you've been in downtown San Antonio you might have seen the Kallison's Western Wear cowboy on top of an old building on South Flores street (he's also on the cover of the book). This book tells the story of how the Kallison's got to San Antonio, how they grew a small harness making shop into a South Texas empire, and how they worked both within and outside of the Jewish community in the city to extend their influence and help their fellow Texans.

Nathan Kallison escaped the Czar's anti-Semitic edicts and  murderous Cossacks in 19th century Ukraine to join his brother in Chicago. Ultimately all three Kallison brothers and their elderly mother were able to make the crossing. Nathan worked hard to build a successful harness-making business, a trade he had learned as a young boy, and soon caught the eye of another Jewish immigrant from Russia the really rather demanding Anna Lewtin. The two married, had a son and daughter, and worked hard. Ultimately, though, the crowds, dirt, and potential of tuberculosis in Chicago did not agree with Anna. They randomly met a couple while traveling who encouraged them to settle in San Antonio and, although they had never been to Texas, they decided to give it a shot. Nathan opened another harness and saddle shop, which was a great success in a Texas still dominated by ranches and where the automobile had not yet made many inroads. The book follows the Kallison's as the store expands, their family grows, they move into nicer and nicer houses, and they really become part of San Antonio's social scene. Nathan buys a ranch outside of town so that he can test some of the recommendations from the newly established extension office and uses that as a way to help Texas ranchers and farmers and to expand their reliance on his store. Eventually, under the leadership of Nathan's sons, the store grows into a downtown behemoth selling everything from hats to jewelry to  washing machines and farm equipment and one of the sons, Perry, becomes the host of a very popular daily radio program, the Trading Post.

While the story of the Kallison family is interesting, the real selling point for me was using that family's story as a jumping board for a history of San Antonio and Texas in the first half of the 20th century. Kotz (who is the son of Nathan's younger daughter, Tibe) is a professional journalist who didn't know much about his family history until he starting digging in to research this book. The reader benefits from the context that Kotz provides, particularly in the areas of Jewish life in Texas and the impact of the dust bowl and the world wars on San Antonio and the Kallison family.

The book is very nicely illustrated with a combination of family pictures and historic shots of Ukraine, Chicago, and San Antonio. The bibliography and footnotes are also rewarding, although I was a little frustrated with the lack of personal reflection from Kotz on his family. There is a brief author's note at the end that talks about his memories of his grandfather and his childhood in San Antonio, but reading an author writing about himself in the third person (particularly when going over particularly emotional and intense family events) is a little uncomfortable for me, although understandable given his journalistic background.

I wasn't sure how into this book I'd be, but with a scope that moves beyond harness-making, the ranch, and the story of a single family, I'd recommend this one to anyone with an interest in San Antonio or Jewish life in Texas. Nicely written, well researched, and excellently illustrated, this one is worth a spot in your reading pile.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (2015)

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (2015) is the next selection for my long-running DAFFODILS book club. In my brain I keep wanting to call this one Dangerous Foods instead because, to be honest, the action here is much more dangerous than it is delicious.

This is a rough book. We start out with a young man named Eddie speeding away in a truck in Louisiana. Both of his hands have recently been cut off, but we don't know how. We know something really fucked up has happened and we also know that he left his mother behind. The first chapter sees him to the relative safety of his aunt's house in St. Cloud, and starting the reader out with his horrible but successful escape helps make the rough times we flash back into a little more tolerable.

Eddie's mom, Darlene, is a crack addict. She wasn't always -- before she was a college student, a wife, a store owner, and a mother. Then her husband, Nat, was violently killed after becoming a leading black activist in a small town in Louisiana. Darlene and little Eddie are left alone and Darlene turns to crack to comfort herself. They move to Houston and Darlene moves closer and closer to the edge, becoming the perfect target for a mini-van full of addicts who offer her an amazing job working on a farm with luxury accommodations and all the drugs she wants to take. Even though Eddie is at home in the apartment alone, she hops in. And then things get bad.

I don't want to give too much away because this is really a powerful book, and I think everyone should check it out. Hannaham has an amazing control over his characters' voices -- Eddie, Darlene (pre and post-addiction) and, interestingly, crack cocaine itself, are all distinct and moving narrators of the story. Most of the book is set in east Texas or west Louisiana, and the descriptions of the land and the people are spot on. There is an amazing (like I still can't stop thinking about it) scene involving Darlene and a grackle that I don't think someone who hasn't been around grackles a lot could ever fully understand. Best of all, Hannaham nails the ending with an event that brings characters together and ties up loose ends, but not too neatly or in a pandering way.

This is a well-constructed, damn fine, moving, funny, horrible, wonderful book.