Thursday, March 05, 2015

What we're reading: Hidden History

Gateway to Freedom:
by Eric Foner

Eric Foner has had a distinguished and much-honored career as an American historian. His work has centered primarily on the Civil War era. A few years ago, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery was the winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Pulitzer Prize in American History, and the Lincoln Prize. For those of us of a certain age, his first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, was (and remains) a standard supplementary text in college survey courses on this period of American history. Like that book, the hallmark of Foner’s work has been his interest in tracing how particular strands of intellectual, political, and social history intertwine, and how that synthesis comes to define important historical moments. Foner’s explorations leave us with a richer, more nuanced history of ideas and motives than the simplified picture of events (sometimes transfigured into myth) we studied as school children in our first encounters with American history.

Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave
who escaped from Maryland became a
major anti-slavery advocate and was
involved in the Underground Railroad
in upstate New York.  Like Douglass,
almost all fugitive slaves escaped from
the Border States, those states most
proximate to the free north.  Escapes from
the deep South were very rare.

Gateway to Freedom is a book perhaps narrower in scope than some of Foner’s previous work. It is centered on the history of the Underground Railroad in New York City, and the unpublished “Record of Fugitives,” left by Sydney Howard Gay, that he wrote during his period as editor of the abolitionist National Anti-Slavery Standard. In the 1850s, Gay served on the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society and was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. He was also an important agent of the Underground Railroad and, with several key free black operatives, ran an operation in New York that made New York an important nexus to funnel fugitives from southeastern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia to New England and to upstate New York (from which they frequently made their way to Canada).

A poster of the Boston Vigilance Committee.

“Vigilance Committees” were formed in some
Northern cities by free blacks and abolitionists.
Their ostensible purpose was to prevent free blacks
from being kidnapped and sold into slavery,
but they were also very implicated in protecting
and helping fugitives by frustrating efforts
their owners made to capture and return them
to slavery, a goal they pursued by both
legal and illegal means.

Foner argues, “The 'underground railroad' should be understood not as a single entity but as an umbrella term for local groups that employed numerous methods to assist fugitives, some public and entirely legal, some flagrant violations of the law.” Some readers may be disappointed that Foner’s focus is on but one of those local groups (the one in New York) and not a more general or comprehensive study. This, however, is the problem with the myth we have grown up with concerning the Underground Railroad--the notion that it was a single highly organized entity and that it effected, in dramatic fashion, the manumission of a substantial number of slaves (an idea created largely by historians at the end of the 19th Century). If the decentralized and varied nature of activities and organizations that helped fugitives was in fact the true nature of things, then our understanding can only come from examining, as Foner does here, some of its more notable components: examining how they were, or were not, like other operations, and what role they played in cooperation and support of kindred organizations bent on helping fugitives. That is what Foner has done.

Harriett Tubman was a fugitive slave
and one of the most celebrated operatives
of the Underground Railroad. Her exploits
were exceptional and dramatic. She returned
numerous times to slave states to facilitate
the escape of others in bondage, a risk that
few other fugitives would dare take.
He is careful to point out that what happened in New York was not necessarily typical or representative of all Underground Railroad activity, but he uses the centrality of the New York operation to explore connections within the network, as well as to highlight the kinds of political issues that were local (New York City, for instance, with significant pro-Southern business interests, was not a particularly hospitable place for fugitives and most did not stay there) and those issues that also had wider national implications and affinities. Foner's usual interest in making connections between ideas, social movements, and poltics is here as well, as he places the Underground Railroad and the issue of fugitive slaves in the context of the larger antebellum debate over slavery and the internecine battle of ideas within the abolitionist movement itself. 

Gateway to Freedom reminds us that every book of history written is also a book about the practice of history itself, an author’s statement not only about the subject at hand but about the method and purpose of seeking historical truth and meaning. On both counts, Foner, as ever, has something interesting and important to say.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

What We’re Reading: Motion Picture-Related Horror

Horror stories infused with elements of the supernatural and, by design, created to fill the reader with a sense of dread and foreboding, have been around for as long as people have gathered around fires in the dark. The first published horror novels date back to the 18th Century, with horror becoming a true phenomenon in the 19th with the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818), the works of Edgar Allan Poe (1820s-1840s), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886), The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890) and Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). 

The development of the moving picture in the late 19th Century led to early experiments in moving images designed with fright in mind. Film pioneer Georges Méliès made The Haunted Castle in 1896, widely considered the first horror film, but it was certainly not the last! Putting a group of strangers together in a darkened room with their collective attention focused on “the silver screen” was, and is, a situation too good not to exploit! For more than a century, many of our favorite movie “monsters” have come from the pages of horror short stories, novellas and books.

In The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of The Silver Screen, short story collection editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow has gathered a collection of motion picture-related horror stories that puts film and the film industry center stage, shining lights into the darkened corners of studio lots and sound stages, bringing things often best unseen into the clear view of the reader. Of particular note are:

"The Hanged Man of Oz," by Steve Nagy: Nagy uses an urban legend about someone committing suicide on the set of The Wizard of Oz as a jumping-off point for an incredibly creepy story.

"Cuts," by F. Paul Wilson: When a novel is adapted to film, cuts must be made. What if there were consequences?

"The Thousand Cuts," by Ian Watson: We’re used to editing film, and can piece together the narrative from what’s presented on screen. What if editing began to happen in our daily lives? 

"Dead Image," by David Morrell: It’s generally accepted that we only get one chance at our lives and we must live with the choices we make. What if a film icon got a second chance? 

"each thing I show you is a piece of my death," by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer: It is generally accepted that images have power. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much more powerful can a moving image be?

"Onlookers," by Gary A. Braunbeck: Movie making can be magical, and sometimes that magic can last for years and years. . .

"She Drives the Men to Crimes of Passion," by Genevieve Valentine: Are stars made or born? One director is about to find out. . .

This is a must-read collection for horror fans, especially those who are film buffs or who work in the entertainment industry! But be warned: This is a collection you’ll want to read with the lights on bright and, if possible, at least a bit before you have to go to sleep!

Ellen Datlow has been editing wonderful collections of fairy tales, fantasy, horror, and science fiction short stories for more than 20 years. Other collections include Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, Supernatural Noir, Blood and Other Cravings, Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, Snow White, Blood Red, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror annual collection and the upcoming The Doll Collection (arriving this spring).

Monday, March 02, 2015

This week at the library...

Buena Vista Branch, 4:00 p.m.

Crafty Kids presents...

Make fun crafts to celebrate Dr. Seuss's birthday! Sign up: Call 818 238-5610.

Later that same day, in the Buena Vista story time room...

7:00 p.m.

We will discuss Vicious, by V. E. Schwab, and receive Tell the Wolves I'm Home, by Carol Rifkin Brunt.

This club is for enrolled teens only!

Central Library, 4:00 p.m.

Family Films presents...
102 minutes / rated PG

Set in a futuristic city called San Fransokyo, the story centers around Hiro Hamada, who, with his friends and his brother Tadashi's robot Baymax, set off to save the city of San Fransokyo from a notorious villain.


See the encore presentation of BIG HERO 6 at Buena Vista branch at 4:00 p.m.

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

There will be a multi-media presentation of Mozart's comic masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro, followed by lively discussion with our guest speaker from LA Opera's Community Engagement Program.

Buena Vista branch, 2:00 p.m.

Join us for a panel discussion with Sisters in Crime/LA, with mystery writers Andrew Jetarski, Robert S. Levinson, Rosemary Lord, Maxine Nunes, and moderator Stephen Buehler.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Covered California Continues!

(UNTIL APRIL 30, 2015)

10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
March 7 - April 25

*Did You Recently Learn About the Tax Penalty for Being Uninsured?

The open enrollment period ended February 15th, but Covered California is offering a time-limited extension of the opportunity to enroll for health coverage for consumers who did not realize there was a tax penalty in 2014, or who recently learned they may face a penalty in 2015.

Certified enrollment counselors from the Comprehensive Community Health Center will be here to answer questions or help you with the enrollment process. They will also help enroll those who have experienced a qualifying “life event,” since the end of the last enrollment period and now qualify to apply for health coverage.

Comprehensive Community Health Centers 
Jessica Gonzalez (818) 265-2257

Friday, February 27, 2015

What we're reading: Mystery series

After reading The Lock Artist--Steve Hamilton's terrific stand-alone novel about a mute teenager with an affinity for drawing cartoons and opening safes--with the high school book club a few years back, I admit I had high expectations of anything else from him. That book won an Alex award (which signifies that it's adult fiction that will appeal to teens), and it was such a great story--I still recommend it regularly to people in search of a good read, and no one to whom I have recommended it has ever done less than rave about it.

When I started his series featuring Alex McKnight, who lives in a town ironically named Paradise, up in the frigid climes by Lake Superior on the Canadian border, I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed. At first I didn't appreciate the pacing, or the low-key, somewhat bleak personality of Alex. But Hamilton has a gift for writing interesting characters and situations, so I decided to keep going and give the series a chance. Sometimes authors burst upon the scene with a dynamite first book and then the series wanes; sometimes they maintain their high quality throughout (to everyone's delight); and sometimes they start slow and build into something with which you decide you want an ongoing relationship. The Alex McKnight books fall (for me) into that third category.

I have now read books 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7. I missed numbers 2 and 4 because they were checked out of the library when I was ready for them, and after taking the risk of reading one out of sequence, I discovered that although they did have some continuity one to the next, Hamilton does a good enough job of summarizing at the beginning of each that you can skip one without too much disconnect.

The basic cast of characters--Alex, his best friend Vinnie (an Ojibwa who lives off the nearby reservation as Alex's neighbor), Leon the wannabe private eye who sells snowmobiles to make his wife happy, and Jackie, who runs the Glasgow Inn where Alex seems to take most of his meals--remains the same (with various levels of involvement in each volume), while each book introduces new characters with whom they all interact.

These are not traditional whodunnits, with a detective who purposefully sets out to solve a mystery; rather, Alex seems to attract an extraordinary amount of trouble into what should be a small and peaceful life. In his previous existence he was a police officer in a troubled neighborhood of Detroit, but after his partner lost his life and Alex was shot, he retired to Paradise to fix up and rent out a string of cabins his father built and left to him. Somehow, the mundane nature of his daily routine never seems to last for long before he is again embroiled in high drama.

My favorite so far of the ones I have read is Blood is the Sky. I'll let you know as I continue if another book in the series ousts that one. People who have enjoyed Craig Johnson's books about Walt Longmire, or like the Nevada Barr books, might find these books appealing as well.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What We’re Reading: The Magic Ex-Libris Series

At the end of Codex Born (the second book in the Magic Ex-Libris series by Jim C. Hines), the world of Isaac Vainio, a librarian who works as a cataloger, researcher, and field agent for Die Zweif Portenǽre (the Porters), has been destroyed. There has been a cataclysmic confrontation between the Porters and the students of Bi Sheng, another group of magic wielders. Five hundred years ago, Johannes Guttenberg, the immortal founder of the Porters, personally tried to destroy the students of Bi Sheng. He was unsuccessful and their most recent confrontation with the Porters has left Copper River, Michigan, Isaac’s hometown, in shambles, with many of its residents wounded or dead. Gutenberg blames Isaac specifically for the conflict and has not only removed Isaac from the Porters but also stripped him of his magical abilities.

But Isaac knows the battle that just ravaged his hometown was only a precursor. There is now a malevolent force seeking out and destroying all magic users. And they have kidnapped a young woman with whom Isaac has been working. She can perform a kind of magic no other Porter can, by using e-books to perform libriomancy. It is a power no one completely understands, and now it may be used to destroy the world.

In Unbound, Hines continues the story that began in Libriomancer and Codex Born, but he does so without minimizing the events and actions taken (and their consequences) in the earlier books. An epic magical battle was fought in a small town in Michigan. There would be an aftermath, both for individuals and on a larger scale. Hines skillfully and believably shows how a large organization whose primary focus appears to be keeping magic a secret from the larger population would scramble to perform damage control, even when it is the least productive action it can take in the face of a larger threat.

Even more remarkable is the effect that Hines allows these events to have on his characters, especially Isaac Vainio. Rather than being just the quirky, stalwart protagonist who always has the right answers and saves the day, Hines allows Vainio (and all of the characters in the books) to be affected, often deeply, by their circumstances. Isaac is shown to lose confidence and sometimes even focus, and to take careless, sometimes unnecessary risks as he pushes himself away from the pain inflicted by his loss of magic and towards finding the young woman under his charge who has been kidnapped. This vulnerability of characters isn’t unique within genre fiction, but it is refreshing, nonetheless. 

Even with, or possibly in spite of, the darkness in Unbound, this latest entry in the series is an “E-ticket” adventure. With the loss of Isaac’s magical ability, there isn’t quite as much of the reaching into well-known genre titles to pull out and use items in magical confrontations as there has been in the past. But the exploration of how e-readers could be used to perform libriomancy, as well as learning about those who are powerful enough that they don't require texts at all to perform magic, more than made up for it. And (of course) there are also the adventures of Smudge the fire spider who, on his own, is reason enough to read the series!! Unbound is a solid entry in the Magic Ex-Libris series and will leave readers anticipating the next volume's adventure!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

This week at the library

Central Library, 6:30 p.m.


Buena Vista branch, 7:00 p.m.

Family Night with...
The Buster Balloon Show is an inflatable extravaganza of vaudevillian entertainment featuring the human cartoon character that is Buster Balloon. A wild and wacky mix of side-splitting comedy, mind-boggling magic, and balloon twisting expertise that will have your kids rolling in the aisles with laughter!

Also this week...our various preschool story times and toddler times, which you can find by clicking on the EVENTS CALENDAR on our website...