Sunday, October 09, 2016

Teaching With Primary Sources, edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (2016)

The Society of American Archivists is running a One Book, One Profession nationwide book club this fall, and their selection is Teaching With Primary Sources, edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (2016). A group of Austin-area archivists decided to read the book and get together during October (which just happens to be Archives Month!) to discuss it. I'm really glad I jumped on board with this event because this is a book that I might not have ordinarily read, and I'm glad I had a chance to check it out.

The book consists of three independently-written modules, which move generally from the more theoretical to the more practical: "Contextualizing Archival Literacy" by Elizabeth Yakel and Doris Malkmus; "Teaching With Archives - A Guide for Archivists, Librarians, and Educators" by Sammie L. Morris, Tamar Chute, and Ellen Swain; "Connecting Students and Primary Sources - Cases and Examples" by Tamar Chute, Ellen Swain, and Sammie L. Morris. Sammie is a friend of mine and I was so excited to see that she contributed to two of the three modules in the book, building on the articles I'd read about her research in identifying core skills in using archives for history students.

I found all three modules to be applicable to my work as an archivist, even though I don't do that much traditional teaching in a day-to-day context. I do spend some time every semester doing more formal library instruction, which sometimes involves the archives, and I also do a lot of one-on-one archival instruction and advocacy, both with students and faculty (and members of the general public). The pedagogical framework as well as the concrete case studies and sample activities all help to put this important and often ignored work more to the front of what archivists do. While some of the teaching scenarios were way more involved than I'd ever see as a lone arranger in a small school, reading about the successes and mis-steps in these case studies will help me with my own smaller teaching experiments.

Certainly not a light read or something that everyone is going to want to pick up, but if you are an archivist, an historian, or a teacher of any subject, I think there's a lot to dig into here. Nice work, archivists!

Saturday, October 01, 2016

These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories by Luke Mogelson (2016)

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more. what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

e.e. cummings

The title of Luke Mogelson's debut short story collection, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016) comes from e.e. cummings' poem "next to of course god america i," and the irony in both works is that the experience of these veterans is often merely symbolic to those on the home front and very rarely heroic or happy to the ones experiencing it. In Mogelson's stories of servicemen at war and back at home, even if you aren't one of the dead, the impact of your service is tough to wrap around a civilian lifestyle.

These stories are well crafted with a pleasing diversity of structures and topics, while maintaining a constant focus on character, tight observations, and a good sense of dialogue. Small threads connect the stories in the book, making the collection tie together nicely as a discrete work, but without being too gimmicky or novelistic. While the characters and focus are overwhelmingly male, these are not overly-masculine stories and Mogelson gives us a lot more than the (sadly true) but overly familiar post-combat cliches. These are short stories that take every advantage of the form, and if you are a short story fan, this one is going to be a treat.

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...