I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Undertaker's Daughter by Kate Mayfield

This intimate autobiographical portrait of not just of a girl who lives above the funeral home her father Frank Mayfield runs, but of a broken family and a time and place in history, the 1960s and 1970s when things begin to change in the South, even if the views are harder to change.  In 1959, Frank Mayfield moved his family, wife Lily Tate, son Thomas the peacemaker, daughter Evelyn an undiagnosed manic depressive, and second daughter Kate, to Jubilee, Kentucky from the mountains of Western Kentucky to the border of Tennessee.  He finds a large house to set up his business on the bottom floors and his home on the second and third floors.  He installs multiple phones so he does not miss a single death.  The words, "There is a body", invoke a bit of dread in the family, especially Lily Tate who may have planned a bridge club luncheon, that she's using to find a place in society, and then have to cancel it.  For the children, it means going upstairs and being quiet and not seen.  But that does not mean that Kate does not sneak looks over the banister to see the way her father quietly orchestrates a funeral with only a mere look or small lift of the hands to his employees or the mourners.  Frank is like a maestro in his work.

The first trouble comes when two men from oldest families in the county come to visit him and ask why he has not bought too many concrete vaults (which surrounds the casket in the earth) from them.  He says they leak and will not sell people a shoddy product.  There is another white funeral home in town and they have already sent  business his way and now they have made it a mission of theirs to shut Frank down.  It is the Southern good-'ol-boys network and it is quite effective.  Even though Frank has a  young man who lives in the county to help bring in business from that area. 

Help comes in a surprising place.  There were no ambulances back then.  If you could not get yourself to the hospital, you called the funeral home to come and get you.  Frank had a separate vehicle for that, and unlike his competition, does not charge for the service.  One night, Miss Agnes, a spinster who lives in the largest and oldest house in town and owns the only fertilizer dealership in Kentucky, has hurt herself and calls Frank.  The other funeral director has been sending patients roses to get their business, but all Frank can afford is red carnations, which happen to be Miss Agnes's favorite flower.  Her story is incredible in how she was able to go from a wealthy family in town, until her father dies, leaving her in debt, to being very rich with her own business, a rarity in those times.  She shuns those who turned their backs on her when her fortunes changed, so her and Frank are foes of the same people and she decides to help him.  Miss Agnes is a delightfully eccentric Southern Woman who does things her own way.

Kate's mother gives birth to another child, a girl named Jemma.  Her mother is the strict disciplinarian, something she picked up from her own harsh childhood.  Her father, Kate would find, is a flawed man.  He has a scar on his stomach from the World War II, where he almost died.  It was his brother's dream to open up a funeral home, but he died during the war.  The torments from the war haunt him and he becomes a man who is not always a good husband or father.

There is also the specter of race.  Belle, their black housekeeper, helps raise the kids and Kate wonders why it is ok to sit in Belle's lap at home, but she cannot sit next to her in a theatre.  When black students begin to finally arrive in her middle school, she goes out with one for a while.  When both races find out, she is threatened by a group of black girls after school, and her parents who tell her it could end her father's business, which it would.  Oddly, Frank sometimes helps the only colored funeral director with embalming or with ordering things if need be, but he still does not seem to think of them as being equal. 

While this book offers a glimpse inside of the old way funeral homes worked, it is through the eyes of a child, who basically never goes into the embalming room or see but glimpses of the pageantry of the funerals.  This book looks at a family that is far from perfect, at a dangerous time in the South, a different world all on its own, and small town politics and prejudices.  Kate loves her family, but comes to realize that she is not meant to stay in Jubilee, but for a wider world in which to explore life.  There are many who help her see this, even if her family cannot.

Monday, June 15, 2015

I Work at a Public Library: A Collection of Crazy Stories from the Stacks by Gina Sheridan

As a former librarian I found myself, quite often, laughing out loud at some of these stories, both because they brought back memories and because it made me realize I had sadly not had the ability to continue to work as a librarian and experience more stories.  The author, in true library fashion, orders the chapters in the Dewey Decimal System.  The chapter titles are: Computers, Reference Work, Reading Interests and Habits, Curiosities and Wonders, Listening In, Communication, Failures and Disruptions of, Bullying, Rare Birds, Human Anatomy, Telephones, Children's Humor, and Volumes of Gratitude.

In the first chapter, Computers, what is the reply to the question "I keep getting the blue screen of death"?  "Sir, that's the desktop".  Another man keeps coming up to the desk asking tons of questions, including: How do I make the computer like a typewriter?; There are red squiggly lines under everything I type.; Now I want to make a website.  Do I just get the framework up ...using the typewriter function?; Maybe you could help me make a website. I have about an hour.  Another man wants them to disable Google because they are "taking over the United States".  One librarian was helping a patron upload his resume for a job application from a flash drive.  When she asks him which job is applying for, he says, "all the jobs on the Internet". 

In the chapter "Reading Interests and Habits" here are some of the book titles patrons have requested: Fifty Shades of Grey's Anatomy, How to Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Aunt Frank, Lord of the Flies by Tolkien, The Hungry Games, and The Lively Bones.  A woman expresses her disinterest in e-books, claiming they will be the death of libraries.  When the librarian informs her the library has e-books, she replies, "aren't they invisible?".  In the chapter, Curiosities and Wonders, one person comes in looking for the margarita machine, which, honestly, would have been nice to have at my library. 

A conversation overheard between a young woman showing her mother how to search for items at the library: Mother: There are almost three thousand movies to choose from? Daughter: Well, movies and TV shows.  Mother: So are you saying that the library is now the video store? Daughter: Among other things. Mother: Who else knows about this?.  A seventy-year-old man tells his wife, "I think we really should do the Facebook.  Art and Frieda are doing it.  We don't want to be the only ones left."  A conversation between one parent and another in the children's room: Parent 1: Do you ever hide books you've read over and over again because you're so sick of them? Parent 2: Oh, definitely.  When they ask for them, I say the book fairy came to get it.  One time they saw one of the books at the library so now they think the librarians are the book fairies.  One of my personal favorite lines in this book from a patron who says "It's too cold in here.  What is wrong with you people?  Do you like frozen books?"  I wore a sweater jacket year round at the library.

But my absolute favorite is the one on a librarian putting up a display for Banned Books Week, which is something I did when I worked.  Librarian: I'm making a display about books that people complained about.  They wanted them removed from the library.  Girl: Why? Librarian: Because they didn't like what the books were about and didn't want anyone else to read them, either...Can you imagine what would happen if every person could choose one book to remove from the library forever? Girl: There wouldn't be any books left on the shelves.  Librarian:  That's right!  It wouldn't really look like a library anymore, would it? Girl:  We are learning about bullying at school.  It sounds like even libraries get bullied sometimes.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Tidal Pool by Karen Harper

In this second in the Elizabeth I mystery series, twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth Tudor has just been made Queen and goes to visit her mother's grave on the eve of her procession down the streets of London and is greeted by Jane Seymour's nephew, Edward, whose father, once Lord Protector to the boy King Edward and eventually killed, was with Jack St. Maur, who is a relative of the Seymour's, and whose father, Thomas, died trying to get Elizabeth I on the throne and was once romantically entangled with her in an innocent, young way.  St. Maur grew up under the household of John and Bella Harrington, close family friends of Elizabeth's.  The Seymour family believe that Edward will be the natural heir to the throne.

During her procession, a high-born lady, Penelope Whyte, Bella Harrington's sister, and a known "light skirt" who died pregnant, is murdered, it is believed, accidentally in Elizabeth's stead.  Elizabeth's unusual band of helpers: Meg (the herbalist), Ned Topside (the actor), Kat (her maid), Jenks (her horseman), Lord Cecil (now her Lord Protector and advisor in all things) and her cousin Lord Harry and all here to help her solve the mystery as well as two new people: a former thief named Bett and her deaf son.

Meg runs into someone from her old life who remembers her as Sarah, and some of Meg's memories come back to her.  She knows she has a husband and that she does not want to go back to that life.  She wants to stay working for the Queen and with Ned, with whom she is in love.  So now she spends her time trying to avoid anyone who might recognize her.

There are many suspects, such as Robin, who is the Head of her Stables and a close friend (and later in her life a rumored lover), John Harrington, who confesses to the crime, but whom Elizabeth has a hard time believing did the deed, even Lord Harry, her cousin seems to be a suspect.  Elizabeth feels she can only trust her close circle of advisers who helped her solve the previous murderous plot.

When Bett gets caught looking for information at the Dowager Duchess's house for her diary, which she does not get a chance to look at, but is able to grab a letter with sensitive information in it, she is sent to prison, and because she is a former thief, she will hang.  Elizabeth has no knowledge of this and is looking for her. 

Even though Elizabeth is a first a little frightened by the thought that someone near and dear is a traitor to her and to England, she gathers her strength and goes out to find the killer in the night and becomes captured herself.  This is really a good book, but perhaps I am just saying that because one of my favorite historical figures is Elizabeth I.  She had her father's red-headed temper, her mother's cunning in politics, and an intelligence all her own to not only lead an empire, but to solve any complex murder that may fall upon her doorstep.