The Lit Maven

Children’s author, Joanne Mattern, wrote, “It’s a good thing there are ladybugs”. And I agree. With a lifespan of 2-3 years, ladybugs are one of the most recognizable insects on the planet. They are part of the Coccinellidae (meaning “scarlet”) family, no member of which is over .71 inches. With two sets of wings, flying is no problem – the back wings do all the heavy lifting while the front wings are protection for their soft bodies. Seemingly unpretentious, ladybugs are masterful at preying on satanic aphids, those destroyers of garden favorites, especially roses. The Britons call them “Lady Birds“, a shortened term of “Our Lady’s Bird”. The Virgin Mary is often depicted as wearing a red robe and the spots on the ladybug’s back represent her seven joys and seven sorrows. The ladybug is a favorite of children’s literature. Eric Carle immortalized The Grouchy Ladybug and Jacky Davis has written an entire series featuring The Ladybug Girl. So, next time you see one of these cute little beetles, be nice because it’s a good thing there are ladybugs!

HorseshoeWe repaired some drains on the outside of our house recently and that lead to an extensive overhaul of the gardens.  While digging, I found a horseshoe.  We own almost an acre on a property that was once luscious farmland.  The horseshoe was at least 28 years old (as long as our part of the neighborhood was there) encrusted with rust and cemented with clay from the soil.   When was the horseshoe lost?  What was the horse’s name? Did he pull a tractor or a carriage? Did the farmer swear in anger at the loss of the shoe to his horse’s hoof or did he shrug his shoulders and think of it as another small annoyance in another busy day? How much of an expense in time and money was it to get the shoe replaced?  Did he replace the shoe himself or have it done by a farrier?  It’s amazing that the shoe was not unearthed during the house building and even more amazing that I had been living there, raking and planting for 26 years and did not find it earlier.  The horse has passed on and I’m sure the farmer has, too.  The farmer’s complaints about a bit more work to do in re-shoeing his animal, the animal’s discomfort at losing a shoe, the muck that grabbed the shoe and separated it from its owner have all faded, but I have the horseshoe.  I’ve tried in vain to clean it, but the rust is embedded now in the metal.  There are some parts of it that were flush against a hoof and I rub these every now and then and wonder at a more simplistic time in this place.

PrancerChairOur cat Prancer takes his job seriously.  He is the gatekeeper of the house, protector of the estate, guardian of the mansion.  While he looks innocent – the round amber eyes, the wide-striped nose, the fluffy, pure white bib and paws — he is actually a skilled and precise protector.  After two-plus decades of owning cats (or, of them owning me), I am always amazed by their behavior.  I think I have them figured out, then they throw me a pitch that, honestly, is impossible to  hit.  We had the misfortune of attracting a small grey and white cat to our property this past spring and summer.  To this day, I have no idea where he came from, to whom he belonged, or where he has gone since.  I just know that he wreaked havoc in Prancer’s well-balanced life.  “Grey”, as I call him, would nonchalantly slink up our driveway, looking straight ahead and suddenly stop – 2-3 yards in front of Prancer.  They would stare each other down, mewling in that oddly cadenced caterwauling that screams out, “Fight a-comin’!”  The first time I heard it, I went outside.   Grey ran when he saw me with Prancer in tow.   Prancer caught up with him and for a few seconds, there was nothing to be seen except rolling bodies and literal flying fur.  Grey managed to escape and ran for his life – again, followed closely by Prancer.  Prancer returned to the house an hour later – a thin red scratch on his otherwise-white nose.  Two days later, he had an abscess on his face which led us to the vet and ten days of antibiotics.  This problem repeated itself four times in the next few weeks – bite marks on the flank and on the chest mostly.  When our other, more shy, cat would go outside during this period, Prancer would hiss and push him back toward the door.  I believed this was a protective behavior since Todd is not prone to defend himself.   I queried neighbors and, although several had seen Grey, they did not know where he had come from.  As suddenly as it began, it ended.  I have not seen Grey for over a month now, but the questions remain:  Is he feral (doubt:  he seemed well-fed and cared for)?  Why would he come to our property knowing there is an aggressive protector there?  What happened to him?  Did Prancer hurt or even kill him?  Did the owners forbid him from going outside?  The questions have answers – but not in the human realm, only in the feline.

CardCatalogOver the past few years, I have seen comments by people wondering why libraries are needed. The exact question is: “If we have Google, why do we need libraries?”
Let me rephrase the question:
If I have cleaning materials, why should I hire a cleaner to tidy up my house? (time)
If I have roofing materials, why do I need a professional to replace my roof? (skill)
If I have a computer, why can’t I access the article I want from home? (money)
One of the saddest times of my life was disbanding the brick-and-mortar corporate library at a pharmaceutical company. The young, up and coming accountant stars questioned the need for a traditional library amid the wealth of information on the internet. They earned their Bachelors degrees poking around online sites and databases at their universities, so, they asked, “Why would anyone need a brick-and-mortar library?”
There are a number of reasons:

  1. Not everyone has access to the internet
  2. There is A LOT of junk out there
  3. To search properly and refine results, you must have skills, time and money
  4. Libraries are comfort places – a place where discrimination, racism, sexism and prejudice can be left at the door; everyone is equal, everyone is welcome; knowledge is for all
  5. Libraries are quiet places — in the midst of this exceedingly noisy world, libraries offer a place for meditation, reading and studying without noise pressures.
  6. Librarians are like bartenders without the alcohol. Listeners, caregivers, shoulders – you name it!
  7. Some people have a preference for books and like to be surrounded by them
  8. Most people do not have the money to license databases and journals for themselves – publications are expensive; databases and journals are offered for free to patrons (see #4 again)
  9. There are national give-and-take organizations (like Docline and AccessPA) that allow libraries to swap resources resulting in a 99% success rate in procuring articles and books

Does the internet help with searching? Absolutely. I use the internet in all of my searches. Sometimes, I am confronted with a search topic that I know absolutely nothing about – I don’t even know what it IS. The internet tells me. But, I have to wade through junk, advertisements, broken links, and wayward sites that have nothing to do with my topic. A professional searcher (a/k/a a librarian) will know how to navigate these roadblocks.
Having a real, live human being in a physical place is an extraordinary boost to any organization or company. How so? I have answered every question from “How do I convert a Word document into PDF format?” to “What methods can be used to combat bullying in the workplace?” to “How exactly is Narcan used in a heroin overdose situation”?
Where is all this coming from? In February, 2015, the terrorist group, ISIS, destroyed over 10000 books in a public library in Mosul. 8000 of these books were rare manuscripts, one-of-a-kind documents that cannot be replaced. I, and several of my librarian friends, mourned this irreparable loss. Much of Iraq’s history and culture were erased forever.
So, whatever your question, the answer is here in your library – come visit, anytime, whomever you are.

GumballI admit it – I am a gum chewer, but I’m very selective about where and when I chew. I don’t chew at work. There’s nothing worse than talking to someone while that person is chomping away happily, slurring words and pretending to be cool, especially in a professional setting. I chew when I drive. And sometimes when I walk. And sometimes when I sew. And sometimes when I’m watching television. And most times when I am watching a movie (in the movie theater), watching a play (in the legitimate theater), or watching a ball game (at the stadium).

Gum keeps me awake, aware, allows my jaw to have a nice workout and freshens my breath.

But, who thought of chewing gum in the first place? I never knew before today that it was the prehistoric gang. Yes! Neanderthals!

Since they lived before the Wrigley Family, prehistoric peoples chewed gum in its natural state – lumpy tree resin. No spearmint, cinnamon or strawberry-kiwi-watermelon for them! No bubbles either. These were real men and so were the women. The ancient Greeks and Mayans along with our own Native Americans enjoyed chewing gum in different forms and from various trees and sap. Yum!

It wasn’t until 1848 that chewing gum was introduced as a commercial product – a little piece of heaven wrapped in paper that lasted longer than hard candy. John B. Curtis (1827-1897) started the whole marketing movement calling it State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum. It was made out of spruce tree resin and paraffin. Twenty years later in 1869, Amos Taylor applied for and received a patent (# 111,798) for chewing gum. Dentist William Fenley Semple created a gum out of charcoal and chalk using Taylor’s patent. That same year, Mexican General Santa Anna (1794-1876) mentioned chicle (a milky juice from the sapodilla tree) to inventor Thomas Adams (1818-1905). Adams failed miserably trying to make objects like rain boots and toys out of chicle. It wasn’t until he added flavor to it and popped it in his mouth that the first commercially-successful chewing gum emerged. Adams went on to sell Sour Orange gum, the now famous Black Jack and Tutti-Frutti, the first gum sold in vending machines. Smart guy! Vending machines were located in NYC subway stations and sales were decent. The biggest problem was that this “modern” chewing gum did not hold flavor. Enter U.S. Representative from Ohio, William White in 1880 who, after adding sugar, corn syrup and peppermint extract, called his creation Yucatan Gum. It wasn’t long before the healthcare industry got involved. Internist Edward Beeman began selling gum as an aid to treat indigestion. A contemporary of White’s, Frank Fleer (1856-1921) took the chicle, made cubes out of it, covered it with a sweet coating and – voila! –“Chiclets”. The Fleer Corporation also introduced the first bubble gum. It wasn’t until William Wrigley Jr (1861-1932) marketed two packs of chewing gum with each can of baking powder in 1892 that the product really took off. By 1914, Wrigley and Fleer were working together, Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum and Juicy Fruit were everywhere and its most popular brand, Doublemint, was manufactured in Canada, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand. In 1951, the Topps Company sold bubble gum with baseball cards. Believe it or not, they had previously included bubble gum with cigarettes as a promotion. People liked the baseball cards a lot better! Later in the 1950’s, a dentist, Dr. Petrulis, introduced the idea of sugarless gum to Wrigley. The rest is…um…history.

There are many benefits to chewing gum – it increases memory, decreases stress, manages weight, improves digestion, freshens breath and increases alertness.

Just don’t swallow it. My mother told me when I was very young that if you swallow gum, it wraps around your intestines and takes seven years to come out! Actually, this is not true (sorry, Mom!). It passes without incident after a day or two. Biggest threat? Possible choking hazard for children under six. In other words, wait until the age of reason to start chewing. And, don’t take your used gum and stick to the bottom edge of table, throw it on the city street or smash it into someone’s hair. Nobody likes that.

So, next time you pop a piece of gum into your mouth, whisper a thank you to the prehistorics, the ancients, the dentists, the entrepreneurs and the inventors who made such a big thing out of a little pleasure.

JinniI’ve always prided myself on my knowledge of books. I’ve never balked at offering my opinion about particular authors or titles that I’ve read – even if I haven’t been asked for it. One of the genres of literature that I’ve read as a guilty pleasure over the years has been fantasy. Often clumped together with science fiction, fantasy novels highlight the impossible. Science fiction, with its base in science and technology, is possible, but most times not probable. While flying around space visiting different planets may be fun to dream about, the chances of me building a rocket to do so is a stretch. Fantasy is the one genre that has its origins in the ancient world. Think of myths and legends – Hercules, Zeus and his family of wrathful/loving/boisterous gods and goddesses, Pandora, Medusa, Finn MacCool, Sir Gawain. Every culture has had fantasy literature whether it is oral or written, told by storytellers or read in books. In today’s reading world, fantasy has become a cultist magnet. George Martin’s Game of Thrones, Stephenie Mayer’s Twilight series, Coraline by Neal Gaiman, J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter and, of course, Tolkein’s legendary Lord of the Rings series among many others have become best sellers, films and TV shows. But, what IS fantasy – and should I be embarrassed to admit that I like it? A fantasy novel contains unrealistic elements like magic and wizardry; it caters to the supernatural. It celebrates what is outside the norm and, while we read from a distance, we are drawn into the fantasy writer’s world. Fantasy revolves around things that do not exist or are not real (ogres, genies, unicorns, mermaids). But it focuses not just on unrealistic characters, but on unrealistic settings and themes. Think of Star Trek vs. Game of Thrones. Space travel and visiting other planets? Possible. Seven kingdoms fighting for a drop-dead ugly throne made out of swords? Impossible.
As Hugo and Nebula Award winner, Robert J. Sawyer says, “Succinctly: there’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction”. Many fantasy novels are parts of series – think Hunger Games or Harry Potter. If you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a world, why not use it a few times? Adults as well as children enjoy fantasy. Who doesn’t like talking animals, inanimate objects coming to life, worlds where we are giants – or the size of ants? I’d like to try to train a dragon, meet a genie or climb up a beanstalk to see what’s at the top.

Favorite single volumes:
The engrossing and lovely The Golem and The Jinni
Harry Potter for adults Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
The beautifully magical The Night Circus
The now classic Watership Down
The passionate and haunting The Graveyard Book
The juvenile and funny Half-Magic

I like fantasy novels because I can immerse myself in them, but I also like fairy and folk tales (Native American and Asian are the best!). Most of these feature fantasy themes – witches, spells, curses, changelings, monsters. But, don’t take my word for it! Explore yourself. Take a look at some of the best fantasy books and folk and fairy tales out there.

The 2013 baseball season is mid-way through. Since the All-Star Game is now over and in the history books, media and fans alike will start World Series speculation.  Teams as well as individual players will work on their statistics, break records, injure themselves and opposing team players, sweat, spit, crack bats and get thrown out of games.  Let the excitement begin!

It was a bit early in the 1888 baseball season (June 3) when William Randolph Hearst’s The San Francisco Examiner featured a 13-stanza poem about a star-slugger named Casey.  It was written by a staff member, Ernest Thayer (1863-1940), who signed his poem as “Phin”, a throwback pseudonym from his days at Harvard. A few weeks later, Casey at the Bat: a Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888, was republished partially in The New York SunDe Wolf Hopper, a popular actor and singer known for his skill in comedy, performed the poem for an audience that included members of the New York Giants and the Chicago White Stockings at Wallack’s Theater on Broadway on August 14, 1888.  He went on to perform the poem at least 10000 before his death in 1935.  That first performance is considered legendary to this day and brought attention to a poem that had largely been unnoticed in San   Francisco.  The authorship of Casey remained a mystery until around 1901. Thayer was very humble about his poetic accomplishments for decades and finally ‘fessed up to writing it, although he felt disgusted by the several authorship claims of others.  By the time he was discovered as the poet, the independently-wealthy Thayer had returned to his native Massachusetts, helped his family run a mill, married, and wrote articles on philosophy.   Another mystery that surrounds the poem to this day is the identity of Casey himself.  Speculation is that the player is Mike “King” Kelly, a Boston baseball star in the 1880’s.  Thayer covered the team as a reporter in the 1987-88 off-season. Perhaps Kelly did inspire him, but he never confessed to it or denied it.  Casey at the Bat has been republished and reworked into movies, songs, an opera and countless performances and Mighty Casey himself is as much of an American folk legend as Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. The Baseball Almanac calls it “the single most famous baseball poem ever written”.  So, take a good long read and, when your favorite team player strikes out in the bottom of the 9th inning to lose the World Series this year, remember that there was no joy in Mudville either.

So, the jet lag is wearing off and we are able to breathe from our whirlwind trip in Europe!  We loved both Rome and Paris and took over 500 pictures – available later.  In the meantime, this is a list of favorite things in no particular order:

  • Random orange trees on busy city streets
  • Ruins everywhere – even in remote backyards
  • Flowers and potted trees on countless balconies
  • Asking for butter – in French!
  • Feral kitties living in the Colosseum
  • Escargot – two days in a row (Bill was appalled)
  • Pocket-size churches chock full of candles, sculptures and peekabo altars
  • Goat cheese melted on toast
  • Any Bernini sculpture we saw (and we saw a lot of them)
  • The charming village of Versailles and the locals we met there
  • Walking among ancient ruins and imagining life as it was
  • All views of the Eiffel Tower no matter how far or close we were to it
  • The St. Joan of Arc statue in Notre Dame
  • Tiny, quiet, curved walkways leading to big, bustling piazzas
  • Painted and gold gilt ceilings – kudos to the Sistine
  • The Pieta at St. Peter’s – and the thousands of other pietas we saw by countless artists and sculptors
  • Overlooking the Forum from Capitoline
  • Scarves, enormous handbags and leather jackets
  • Pealing bells at random and not-so-random times
  • A small kitty darting around the Bath of Diocletian’s ruins
  • Roman cab drivers and their frenzied passion for soccer
  • A tiny balcony just for the two of us to have dinner
  • The languages
  • Mass at St. Peter’s and Notre Dame with hundreds of our closest friends (present company excepted!)
  • Raphael and Michelangelo – breathtaking, ’nuff said!
  • Marie Antoinette’s bedroom at Versailles – oh! and the Hall of Mirrors
  • Every single Impressionist artist in French history
  • Sainte Chapelle’s stained glass
  • Every square inch of the Vatican
  • The Louvre and its controversial pyramid
  • Monet‘s water lilies in “surround-sound”!
  • Alabaster miniature monks at the Cluny
  • Sumptuous pasta right in front of the Pantheon
  • Antipasta – for breakfast!
  • Tivoli Fountain – by moonlight
  • Paris’ transportation system – c’est magnifique!
  • Napoleon’s over-the-top tomb
  • The Borghese collection hidden in the Villa Borghese Park – and in the Louvre
  • Nuns everywhere in flowing habits with rosaries at their waists
  • Chicory and salmon with the skin still on
  • Rick Steves’ guidebooks on Rome and Paris – would have been lost without him

and the best?  Being with my husband of 25 years 24/7 for 11 days – Priceless!
I know I could have saved a lot of words by saying – we liked it!  A lot.

Every now and then, I read my way past celebrity foul-ups, military offensives and warnings of the latest computer viruses in the news and find something that really captures my interest.  In February, it was the confirmation of the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England.  The actual discovery was in September 2012.  I didn’t even know he was missing but professors at the University of Leicester did – for quite a while!  They documented it on the University’s website.  As usual when the unexpected captures my attention, I thought up more questions than were answered in the articles, videos and press releases. Some of the questions answered included:  1) How did they know it was Richard III? Mitochondrial DNARichard III SculptureThe testers found Michael Ibsen (descended directly from Anne of York, Richard’s sister) who didn’t know he was related until a team of specialists showed up at his door with a Q-Tip.  2) What was Richard doing in Leicester? Fighting the Battle of Bosworth Field during the War(s) of the Roses.  He was the last of the Plantagenet line and the last English monarch to die in battle.  3) Why wasn’t he buried in London? The battleground was close to Leicester, home of the Grey Friars monastery that had a convenient little cemetery next door.  Monks + Cemetery = Instant Burial!  No need for formaldehyde that day!  4) How did they know where to find the skeleton?  There are historic records indicating that the body was taken to the friary and buried inside either at the altar or near the choir area. It certainly didn’t help that Henry VIII had the church destroyed during his reign.  So that takes care of the answered questions. Now to the unanswered:  While the construction workers were laying the parking lot, didn’t anybody notice bones — especially since they knew there had been a cemetery there?  The bones were found fairly well intact. Wasn’t there anyone – ANYONE – who noticed that Richard never returned to London after the battle?  His valet, his cook, his wife – his subjects?  Sure, someone knew he died, but was there no one interested in having his body returned to Ye Olde Plantagenet Family Crypt?  Love him or hate him, he was the ruling king, after all.  And, if they knew exactly where he was buried, why didn’t they leave a note for the long-suffering Leicester professors to find buried under a rock on the side of the parking lot?  Answer:  Richard was fighting for his throne against Henry VII.  He lost, Henry won. End of story, end of the 30-year War of the Roses and end of the Plantagenets. The ever-generous Henry VII did pay for a plaque that was hung in the church indicating that this was Richard III’s burial ground (after he displayed Richard’s naked and humiliated body to the citizens of Leicester as proof of death).  The plaque has not been found to date. These questions intrigue me, but not as much as imagining the feeling of those present who saw the bones for the first time after 600 years of internment.  As Rod Serling would say, “Imagine if you will…” Phillipa Langley, a screenwriter and originator of the Looking for Richard Project, sums it up very nicely in the UK’s Guardian on February 5.  So, after he is poked, prodded, tested, massaged, chronicled and documented, Richard III’s remains will return to the ground at Leicester Cathedral.  The controversy surrounding him, however, will continue.  Do we believe the Shakespeare version or was Richard not that bad, a victim of Tudor gloating?  I’ll leave that up to the scholars. For now, the king can be laid to rest – again.

FirTreesSince I work in the medical library of a hospital, I have access to JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. As a highly respected medical journal, JAMA started publication in 1883 and has not stopped its output since. Every week, JAMA displays a work of art on its cover and a story inside called, simply, “The Cover” that focuses on the artist and the particular painting. Why would a peer-reviewed medical journal, perhaps first in its field, boast a work of art AND information to go with it? I don’t know, but it appeals to the eye as well as to the mind. In the December 19, 2012 issue, JAMA displayed Fir Trees in the Snow by German artist Caspar David Freidrich, circa 1828. Simple, elegant and unadorned, this painting is so beautiful in its naturalness that I had to find out more. He was born in Greifswald in 1774, attended the Academy of Copenhagen (where he studied – what else? – landscape painting), then returned to Germany to the town of Dresden. He became quite famous as a landscape painter fueling his talent with long hikes through the foggy, chilly woods of the area. Caspar was spiritually drawn to theologian Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten who believed that nature was a revelation of God. His most famous work, The Cross in the Mountains was exhibited as an altarpiece on Christmas Day, 1808. He added human silhouettes to his later works giving his paintings a more earth-bound feel, like the contemplative The Wanderer Above the Mists or the vibrant Chalk Cliffs on Rugen. He painted The Chalk Cliffs to commemorate his wedding to Christine Bommer in 1818. Sometime in the 1820’s (when he painted Fir Trees), he became a victim of the fading German Romantic Movement. People of the period wanted modern stuff not landscapes, no matter how beautiful and awe-inspiring. Until his death in 1840, he became a recluse, often walking in the woods to catch any fading light. He suffered a stroke in 1835 which impaired him to the point that he was unable to paint in oil and worked instead in watercolor and sepia. His paintings became more dark, lonely and depressing (in fact, Caspar suffered from several bouts of depression throughout his life). Sadly, almost a hundred years after his death, his painting became the artistic symbol of Nazism. It took decades for his reputation to recover. This is very strange since so many of his works depict monasteries and churches not to mention nature in its rawest, most mysterious and outstandingly beautiful forms. Fir Trees in the Snow was originally titled, Out of the Dresden Heath and most likely copied from actual trees standing in a forest right outside the town of Dresden. Are they still there, I wonder?