Mercury Column

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These Are a Few of My Favorite (Recently-Read) Books

These Are a Few of My Favorite (Recently-Read) Books

By Crystal Hicks, Collections Librarian

I don’t have a favorite book. I know that sounds like heresy, but it’s true. I have favorite books in different genres and subcategories (favorite Shakespearian comedy, favorite “Star Wars” novels, favorite “Sleeping Beauty” retelling), but not one definitive Favorite Book Ever. Nonetheless, I’m constantly reading books, and they’re some pretty good ones, if I say so myself. Here are some of my recent favorites.

            I started out the year reading “Strange the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor, swiftly followed by its companion novel, “Muse of Nightmares.” Immediately, I knew these could be the best books I read all year. Taylor’s duology is YA high fantasy, a genre I adore, and these books follow, of all things, a librarian. Lazlo Strange has always been obsessed with the Forgotten City, lost to mythology and memory, so he jumps at the chance to go on an expedition to save this city from an unknown threat. The plot only begins there, but it’s hard to say more without spoiling the wonder and enchantment of it all. Taylor masterfully weaves together myth and magic to create a world that’s new, spellbinding, and both timeless and timely. I’ll be rereading these frequently.

            One of my favorite authors, Lucy Knisley, pens graphic memoirs about periods of transition in her life: becoming an adult, getting married, and, most recently, becoming a parent. “Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos” really covers a couple years of Knisley’s life, from fertility challenges and miscarriages to a successful pregnancy, difficult delivery, and the early weeks of parenthood. Knisley’s memoirs are always thoughtful and introspective, and this one is no different, as she analyzes the grief, helplessness, and joy she felt on her journey. Throughout the book, she interweaves lesser-known information about pregnancy and the history of reproductive health, making for a fascinating and informative read.

            A soft spot for teen romances and Broadway musicals led me to the refreshingly optimistic-yet-realistic “What If It’s Us” by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera. Unlike a lot of teen romance I’ve read, this one does not go swimmingly from the beginning—Arthur and Ben meet-cute but then neglect to get each other’s contact information. Even after they do reconnect, they suffer not one, not two, but three unsuccessful first dates and several miscommunications, on top of the fact that Arthur’s only in New York for the summer. As Arthur and Ben grapple with whether they’re meant to be a couple, they learn that, even if something isn’t guaranteed to last, the experience can still be worth pursuing and the memories worth cherishing.

            I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the excellent children’s books I’ve read lately. Dominic Walliman’s Professor Astro Cat books spring immediately to mind, with my favorite being “Professor Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure.” These books are as informative as DK’s photo-laden Eyewitness books (you know the ones) but combine the look of comics and infographics for an energetic, brightly-colored reading experience.

            Picture book “Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast” by Sophie Gilmore reads like a fable, about a Little Doctor who treats crocodiles but may be stumped by Big Mean, a crocodile of mythically-big proportions. Gilmore’s detailed illustrations and down-to-earth approach to her fantastical tale take me to a place of nostalgia, echoing “Where the Wild Things Are” and other books that stand out from my childhood. I’d read it again in a heartbeat.

            A vibrant and lively story, Loredana Cunti’s “Karate Kakapo” follows a kakapo who’s training for her black belt in karate. The problem? She may have to perform a flying kick, which is patently impossible, since kakapos can’t fly. This story will give you the courage to try things you thought you couldn’t do, and the charming illustrations contain plenty of karate poses for young children (or childlike adults) to try out. Of course, there are many, many more great children’s picture books out there, but I’ll save them for next time.

            It seems to be my fate in life to keep reading great books, and you can have the same if you come by the Manhattan Public Library. None of these books your speed? Don’t worry—we can recommend others you might like. Just stop by a service desk and ask for a suggestion, or go look through NoveList Plus for some more ideas of new books to read. Great books are constantly coming out, so there are dozens and dozens from which to choose.

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First Ladies

First Ladies

By Rhonna Hargett, Associate Director

Tomorrow, First Lady Melania Trump will host the 141st White House Easter Egg Roll. This long-standing tradition is just one of the many duties carried out by the First Lady, as part of a position that isn’t a formal government position and yet has very clear expectations attached. As we hear analysis of whether or not Mrs. Trump fulfills this role well, it is helpful to look to the words of First Ladies of the past.

In “Becoming,” Michelle Obama shares her experiences growing up and in the White House. Mrs. Obama grew up on the South side of Chicago. Although her parents were not wealthy, her family provided a rich environment that supported her very active mind. She had a mother that advocated for her to receive a quality education, a grandfather that nurtured a love of music, and an aunt that taught her piano. Her father had multiple sclerosis, and his response to his diagnosis taught her about strength and resilience. She overcame financial obstacles and academic doubters to go on to receive degrees from both Princeton and Harvard. Her achievements alone are enough to make this an interesting read, but I was really drawn into the book when she discussed her struggles as a working mother and her efforts to find the balance between her obligation to her country, her children, and her sense of self.

As a librarian, I’ve always had a positive perception of Laura Bush, but her book “Spoken from the Heart” gave me a deeper understanding of her as a person. The initiatives she advocated for during her husband’s presidency were mostly focused on education and literacy, although she was led to become more outspoken for women’s rights after September 11 and the United States’ increasing involvement in Afghanistan. She has been considered a traditional wife and mother, and in many ways she is, but she is also the woman that stood in front of the World Economic Forum in Jordan and said, “Now we know that a nation can only achieve its best future and its brightest potential when all of its citizens, men and women, participate in government and in decision making,” causing the delegation from Saudi Arabia to walk out.

One thing that struck me was in how many ways they were similar. They were both raised in loving families of modest means, and both had mothers who read to them, which probably helped both of them to be successful academically. Both of them married loving husbands that were politically savvy, but not so great at housekeeping. Laura tells the amusing story of the state of their home when they got married, while Michelle was chastened on the campaign trail for being a bit too honest about her husband leaving his dirty socks around.

Both women tell of the camaraderie that develops among First Families, no matter their personal differences. Mrs. Bush shares a story of Hillary Clinton showing her favorite view from a private dressing room out to the White House rose garden, and Mrs. Obama tells in her book of how much she appreciated Mrs. Bush sharing the same view. I also enjoyed the story of the Bushes’ twin daughters giving a welcome tour to Sasha and Malia Obama.

Both of their autobiographies give lots of interesting tidbits about White House life, but more than that, I appreciated their personal reflections on the challenges they faced, the complications of holding onto a sense of self in the public eye, and their own feelings about the world events that occurred while their husbands were in office.

To find out how to access these books in both print and audio – read by the authors – go to

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Digital Resources and eBooks for our Youngest Patrons

Digital Resources and eBooks for our Youngest Patrons

By Jennifer Bergen, Program and Children’s Manager

It is a fine line parents and educators walk between limiting screen time and allowing the persistent technology of our culture to infiltrate down to our youngest minds. If your little ones can’t seem to stay away from screens, the library has some literacy-focused options that have been vetted by educators and include listening to stories, reading or learning words, and discovering appealing nonfiction content. Multiple language options are available on some of these as well.

BookFlix is available from the library’s webpage at under “Online Resources.” It includes videos of popular children’s books made by Weston Woods from Danny and the Dinosaur to Mo Willems’s hilarious pigeon stories. Weston Wood book videos were around when I was young, and we watched them in the classroom as a treat.

The newest videos have high production quality and excellent voice actors, such as Steve Buscemi in I’m Dirty. This story of a backhoe with a dirty clean-up job to do is paired with the children’s nonfiction book, Backhoes, from the Mighty Machines series. Text is highlighted throughout the stories so kids can read along or begin to make connections between the text and the words they hear. Along with the books, children can play literacy games and find other good links. This resource is provided by the State Library of Kansas and will identify Kansas I.P. addresses as users, so there’s no need for a log in or password.

TumbleBooks is another library resource that focuses on children’s books. This database is easy to navigate with 10 category tabs at the top. Storybooks, the first category, is where you will find eBook versions of favorite picture books. You can choose to view all titles which are shown as book covers, making it easier for young children to choose what they like. Parents can create playlists of favorite books for a personalized story time. Some books are also in Spanish and French, and a section called TumbleTunes has illustrated songs like “B-I-N-G-O” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

TumbleBooks sticks with kids as they grow and learn, and many school districts use it as well. The Read-Alongs category has chapter books as eBooks or audiobooks, and the leveled reading measurements for Lexile and Accelerated Reader programs are included. The video category has 190 National Geographic educational videos that are only 2-6 minutes each. Library users should be prepared to type in their Manhattan library card number and password to get into TumbleBooks.

Unite for Literacy is a fabulous site for children (or adults) whose native language is not English. It is listed in the Kansas State Library resources for children’s eBooks, but you can go there directly at All of their content is original, so they do not have to worry about subscriptions or copyright.

One remarkable feature is the number of languages that viewers can choose. While the text of the books remains in English (except for some that are also available in Spanish), the read-aloud narration is available in more than 40 languages (depending on the title), including many that are harder to find like Vietnamese, Danish or Tagalog. The site is simple to use, but it does not have an option for reading the entire story aloud. Parents may need to help children learn to click the arrow to turn pages, and click “English” or another language to hear the narration. For more language options, check out the International Children’s Digital Library, another free eBook site where you can search titles by country or global regions.   For more eBook resources, try the library’s digital eLibrary options for Libby (the app for the OverDrive Sunflower eLibrary) and Hoopla, which has a “kids” interface. Flipster online magazines has a few children’s titles as well. You can click on the Kansas State Library link and try out their digital book eLending resources, especially their eBooks for kids section where you will find Britannica E-Stax, CloudLibrary, Enki, Freading and RB Digital Audiobooks, which all have children’s titles.

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No Land, No Problem: Gardening in Small Spaces

No Land, No Problem: Gardening in Small Spaces

By John Pecoraro, Associate Director


    April is the month when nature at last sheds its winter coat (we hope), and ushers in the greens and colors of the spring garden. April is also National Garden Month, and so the best time to dust off the gardening tools and get your hands dirty. However, not everyone has the acreage, or even the yard, to plant that garden. That’s not a problem.  Gardening can be as small an investment as you want. In fact, you can plant a garden in some very small spaces. The library can show you how with a variety of books on the subject.

     If you have a window and a box, why not create a window box. Chantal Gordon shows you how in “How to Window Box: Small-Space Plants to Grow Indoors or Out.” Gordon is one of the founders of the popular gardening blog The Horticult Her book is a guide to 16 indoor and outdoor projects featuring succulents to vegetables, and a variety of both sun and shade loving plants.

     A few square feet is all you need to grow healthy vegetables in “Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet.” This book is loaded with information on window boxes, potted plants, patio gardening, raised beds, and of course small square-foot gardening. Bursting with colorful photographs, this book will teach you what to grow, how to use the available space efficiently, and how to maximize your yield. 

     “Grow Your Own in Pots,” by Kay Maguire offers techniques to growing more than 60 vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers in containers. Her 30 step-by-step projects explain the best pairings, such as growing tomatoes with basil, as well as identifying the best vegetables that thrive in small spaces. For each project, Maguire explains the size and type of container, and lists materials and tasks involved in insuring healthy plants.

     You can garden anywhere. That’s Alys Fowlers’ contention in her book, “Garden Anywhere.” Fowler explains how you can grow gardens in containers, as well as herb gardens, and kitchen gardens, all without busting your bank account. She shows how to create an oasis in the smallest of spaces and outlines everything the aspiring gardener needs to know to sow a thriving garden.   

     “Crops in Pots,” by Bob Purnell includes plant lists, step-by-step instructions, and at-a-glance symbols of growing requirements that make each of the 40 projects included in the book a cinch.  Purnell explains how to group your containers around culinary themes such as leafy greens or savory herbs. His projects include small spaces on patios, window boxes, and decks. He even shows the possibility of growing apples, oranges, and cranberries in small containers.

     Herbs are the perfect plants for pots and small gardens. In “The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs,” author Susan Belsinger highlights an alphabet of herbs from anise to watercress. Along the way you’ll learn how to grow, harvest, and preserve herbs. You’ll even learn how to use herbs in making herbal vinegars and butters, among other delicacies.

          “The Cook’s Herb Garden,” by Jeff Cox is a practical guide to successful growing and cooking with herbs. In it you’ll find notes on herb flavors, as well as the best growing conditions, storage, and how to use them in the kitchen. This book includes more than 50 recipes for rubs and marinades, sauces and salsas, and herbal butters, among other dishes. It also includes charts on best herb-food pairings.

     “The Encyclopedia of Herbs,” by Arthur Tucker, is a comprehensive reference to herbs. Its 500 entries provide information on growing, identifying, harvesting, and preserving herbs. Each entry gives the history of the plant and its uses in landscapes, cooking, and crafts. 

    Don’t forget to check out the collection of free downloadable eBooks from Hoopla. Titles available all the time include “Pot It, Grow It, Eat It,” by Kathryn Hawkins. This book begins with looking at the tools and materials you’ll need, and about choosing the right container. What follows is a directory of the vegetables, herbs, and fruits suitable for container gardens, and recipes for the produce you’ve grown. Among the dozens of other gardening titles on Hoopla are “Small-Space Vegetable Gardens,” by Andrea Bellamy, and Jessica Walliser’s “Container Gardening Complete.” Both provide a wealth of information on making the most of your limited gardening space.

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On Becoming a Librarian

On Becoming a Librarian

By Bryan McBride, Learning and Information Services Librarian

In 2012, Stephen King finished the thirty-year journey of writing his Dark Tower series, which influenced my own journey to become a librarian. My love of reading was ignited long ago by this epic tale of good versus evil, with its western feel and a touch of weirdness, and I still love such a story as this.  King says, “Think of the gunslingers of Gilead as a strange combination of knights errant and territorial marshals in the Old West.” He built Roland’s tale from Robert Browning’s poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”

Book one, “The Gunslinger,” introduces us to Roland Deschain of Gilead, now the Last Gunslinger, a solitary figure who is on a mission to save Mid-World, and the other worlds attached to Mid-World, which are all deteriorating. In the second book, “Drawing of the Three,” Roland builds his ka-tet of three traveling companions that have fallen through the portals from our world into Mid-World.

I borrowed these first two books from my older brother, read them, and thought they were okay. (King would recommend you read a later, more complete edition of “The Gunslinger.”) My brother then strongly recommended the third book, “The Waste Lands,” which, unfortunately, he did not own. What could a recent college graduate with little income do? I visited my neighborhood library branch, got my first library card for the Lincoln Public Library, and checked out “The Waste Lands.” This book introduced me to the idea that there really is such a thing as a book you can’t put down.

After years of college textbooks and journals, I was discovering a love of pleasure reading. Huzzah! I began to wonder if I could combine my newfound love of reading with my career path in public service. So began my volunteer experience at the same library branch where I had checked out “The Waste Lands.” About a year later, I moved to Manhattan, and the volunteer library experience in Lincoln was key in landing a full-time job at the North Central Kansas Library.  

It was then that after six long years of waiting, King picked up the tale of Roland with the fourth book in the series, “Wizard and Glass.” Blaine the Monorail reluctantly carries the ka-tet through the waste lands and crashes in Mid-World’s alternate version of Topeka, Kansas. (My journey brought me to Kansas just a few months prior to the release this book.) Following the train crash, while journeying on a deserted I-70, Roland tells his ka-tet a tale from his youth. With “Wizard and Glass” King actually managed to write a tragic romance that hooked me. Amazing! As the epic tale continued to gain steam, my own tale began to pick up steam as I started working on my master’s degree in Library Science at Emporia State University.

Enter the “The Wind through the Keyhole.” While sheltering out the aftermath of a ferocious storm called a starkblast, Roland tells his ka-tet another story from his youth, when his father sent Roland and Alain to investigate a series of savage murders in a rural community.  I found this book uniquely interesting as it is a story inside a story inside a story. In “Wolves of the Calla,” along their journey to the Dark Tower, Roland and his ka-tet save a rural community from the wolves of Thunderclap that raid Calla Bryn Sturgis roughly every twenty years. The fearful townspeople have no idea why the wolves abduct one newborn twin and return it later as a sterile, senseless teenager, only to die before age 40. This story has connections to several earlier King books and is darkly suspenseful. It is my favorite book of the series. In “Song of Susannah,” Roland visits our world for the first time as his ka-tet has business to take care of here in their quest to save the Dark Tower and all the connected worlds. Roland has no idea of modern city life, and seeing him react to New York City is amusing.

The epic series concludes with long-awaited “The Dark Tower.” I will say no more about this final book, as it brings to a conclusion the tale of Roland Deschain’s journey. But it might be fair to say that were it not for Roland and his journey to save the Dark Tower, I might not have begun my own journey to become a librarian.  Weird, but I think Stephen King would be pleased.

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Read Together, Laugh Together

Read Together, Laugh Together

By Chelsea Todd, Children’s Services Librarian

Laughter is contagious- especially when it begins with a child. The sound of delighted giggles as they learn something new, or experience something funny, can hardly fail to bring a smile to the lips of everyone else in the room. Having recently endured a long and chilly winter inside, a good laugh and a good book to read together may be just what everyone needs.

Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of children’s literature is its capacity to reflect the humor found in both fantastically imaginative situations such birds wanting to drive buses (“Don’t Let Pigeon Drive the Bus”) and Rapunzel mishearing the prince (“Falling for Rapunzel”); as well any real life situation such as going to school for the first time or dealing with emotions like sadness and anger. Stories that allow for laughter provide levity, and, an opportunity. One of the major tenets of early literacy is the need for children talk about what they read. And when both adult and child are reading the same book, it opens up the opportunity to learn, reflect, and laugh together.

Not sure where to start? Here are a few recommendations to get you started (and hopefully allow you a smile or two):

Picture Books:

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates” by Ryan T. Higgins: Meet Penelope Rex, a dinosaur who is very nervous about her first day of school. She learns pretty quickly that eating your human classmates does not make you any friends. Nor does eating the class pet.  This humorous representation of the first day jitters offers up the chance to discuss and reflect on your child’s feelings toward a new situation, and at the same time enjoy a story about dinosaurs.
Neck and Neck” by Elise Parsley: Leopold the Giraffe enjoys all the attention he gets at the zoo, knowing that he is indeed the very best animal around. Until he sees a little boy and his giraffe shaped balloon, which is promptly declared “better than the real thing.” Leopold vehemently disagrees, and in a series of silly antics attempts to persuade the boy otherwise. Any child that has been to the zoo will enjoy this one.

The Big Bed” by Bunmi Laditan: This book represents a struggle that many parents will find themselves nodding their heads at as they laugh along. A determined toddler tasks herself with explaining to her mom that she needs to continue sleeping in her parent’s bed with her mother, rather than in her own bed.  With a series of inventive arguments this little girl tries just about everything to get her way, including proposing that her dad could sleep on a cot next to the bed by himself.

Chapter Books:

The Timmy Failure series by Stephan Pastis: The opening lines alone of this series are enough to clue you into the fact that there is humor ahead. Take for example, book #1: “Mistakes Were Made.” The first lines of the book are: “It’s harder to drive a polar bear into someone’s living room than you think.”  Meet our protagonist Timmy Failure and his polar bear partner, Total.  Together, outside of school and home, they run a private detective agency that ironically draws from names of both detectives: Total Failure Detective Agency. Sounds like just the place you would go to for help, right?
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” by Judy Blume: Of course, one of the other best parts of reading together with children is getting to share with them stories from your own adolescence. Originally published in 1972 by Judy Blume, came the much loved story of a boy named Peter who is constantly overshadowed by his mischievous little brother Fudge. If you like this one, you will like the sequels too.

Hamster Princess Harriet the Invincible” by Ursula Vernon:  Who doesn’t want to read a story about a hamster princess that knows just how awesome she is? Princess Harriet would much rather go on an adventure than act in any way like a princess, much to the dismay of her parents.  And that is exactly what she does, because until she turns twelve and is claimed by a sleeping curse, she is free to do as she pleases. That’s right, this is a Sleeping Beauty retelling; just with a hamster instead of a human. Harriet’s humorous experiences will keep you smiling. Need some more suggestions? Stop by the library and let us know! We have tons of books just for you.

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Learning a Language

Learning a Language

By Jared Richards, LIS Technology Supervisor

A common thread throughout my life has been language. Which is true for billions of people, so it’s not really that noteworthy, but it remains a thread nonetheless. I have spent decades now trying to develop a passable level of proficiency in the English language. Being a native speaker makes that endeavor easier, and much less impressive, but I have also tried my hand at other languages. I have dabbled in various computer-related languages, most recently HTML and CSS to work on a website. Starting in elementary school, I took several years of Spanish (with a brief, misguided attempt at Latin along the way), but unfortunately I was never terribly committed.

There is still a hint of that commitment issue, but I am trying to do better in my latest effort to learn French. I am taking a multipronged approach, and the Manhattan Public Library facilitates two of said prongs. The first is the use of the Pimsleur audio French course. I was unfamiliar with the Pimsleur method before this course, but I have heard a lot of people swear by it, and for good reason. It starts out with a simple but intimidating conversation, that is then completely deconstructed, even down to individual syllables. And you’re not just training your ear: you’re repeating what you hear, so you’re also training your mouth to form new words (and new ways of pronouncing the letter ‘R,’ which is by far the trickiest thing I’ve encountered). Within the first few minutes, I was speaking French, slowly building to a full conversation, which is a lot more fun than just memorizing grammar rules.

We have ten different languages using the Pimsleur method in our audiobook collection at the library. There is also a whole series of “Little Pim” videos available on Hoopla, one of our online resources. It is a series developed for kids by the daughter of Dr. Pimsleur, which is helpful for building vocabulary, regardless of your age.

The second library-affiliated prong in my language-learning odyssey is the use of Mango Languages, another one of our online resources. Mango Languages offers access to over seventy different languages, from Arabic to Yiddish. You can access it from your computer or smartphone, and you can create an account (for free) to save your progress.

I always struggled at the beginning of a school year when we would spend so much time reviewing what we had already learned. My mind would wander to more interesting things, often not making its way back before new material started, leaving me lost. One feature I really like about Mango Languages is that it starts with a placement test. I needed to start from square one, obviously, but if you already have some experience with a language, you can take the test, and Mango will start you at the appropriate place, hopefully skipping over the stuff you already know.

There are several other small features that I like about Mango Languages. One is how they will show you a sentence in English and the language you’re learning, and then color-code each part, so you can easily connect the translation. This is especially helpful when one word in one language translates to multiple words in the other. Mango also shows you the understood translation, as well as the literal translation. Cultural notes are spread throughout the lessons, and these give you further insight into the language and these translations. An example early on is the translation of ‘tiens,’ which literally means ‘hold it,’ but is used colloquially as an exclamation meaning ‘oh.’

Another helpful aspect of Mango Languages is that when you hover over a word in the language you’re learning, it will show you how to pronounce it phonetically. To put it in musical terms, trying to sight-read French, at my current level of understanding, is a train wreck. But I’m slowly learning the rules, and getting better every day.

This thread of language will forever be intertwined with my general curiosity in learning new things, which I get to do on a daily basis at the library. Whether I’m helping someone find information, or figuring out novel ways to accomplish work-related tasks, every day is interesting. Most of the knowledge I acquire is fleeting, maybe lasting long enough to be an interesting tidbit in a random conversation if I’m lucky, but it is always worthwhile. And I love that the library has a wide variety of resources to supplement each new curiosity, for me and our patrons.

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Home as Sanctuary

A Reading of Pam Houston’s Deep Creek

By Marcia Allen, Collection Services Manager

What a please it can be to discover a favorite new author!  For me, Pam Houston has been a tremendous new discovery, and I’ve enthusiastically recommended her books, especially her latest, to other readers.  Hopefully, these titles will appeal to you as well.

Cowboys Are My Weakness is a book of short stories that came out in 1992.  This collection, mostly written when Houston worked as a river and hunting guide, explores the differences in relationships between men and women.  Houston’s women characters have frequently made bad choices in men, choices that have resulted in dangerous situations or at least glaring misunderstandings.  In the title story, for example, a narrator who could well be Houston herself, stays at an isolated ranch house while her wildlife specialist boyfriend studies the behavior of whitetail deer and explores romances with other women.  When our narrator meets a cowboy who might offer her a more stable relationship, the two arrange to meet at a dance, and she contemplates how closely this new cowboy resembles the fantasy man of her dreams.  Other stories in this book offer equally flawed relationships, often in wickedly funny ways.

Contents May Have Shifted is a novel Houston published in 2012.   The story is a series of episodes taking place in various parts of the world. Tucked among those episodes are experiences on airline flights, some alarming, some reflections on natural beauty.  Throughout, the narrator (another Houston-like character) seems to be seeking a life worth meaning, one that she discovers only in the freedom of travel and new experiences. Some of the author’s short episodes are quite funny, but there is also the realization that life is not without pain and the unexpected.  A flying experience with a pilot named George in a plane held together with duct tape, for example, turns into a panicky situation when the plane runs out of fuel.  Turns out that George was just having a little fun and laughingly switched over to the other tank after a short glide above unbroken wilderness.

My favorite Houston title is her latest book.  Just published to rave reviews is her memoir entitled Deep Creek.   Within the pages of this lovely book, Houston tells of her many journeys to locate her perfect home.  It isn’t until she locates the town of Creede, Colorado that she discovers what home really is.  With little money, she makes a down payment on a 120-acre ranch and begins life in an old ranch house.  Within its walls, she realizes a peace she’d never experienced before.  And her views of the adjoining wilderness could not be better.

To be sure, she came to the ranch with little experience.  She knew she wanted horses, dogs and chickens, but she knew little about their care.  Fortunately, she was befriended by kind neighbors who quickly educate her about animal feeding and care, as well as extra steps to be taken before the arrival of a harsh winter.  And her learning experiences, sometimes painful as they are, make her a better rancher and a better conservationist.

Hers is not an idyllic life.  She faces the loss of beloved animals, and the discovery that she must leave responsible individuals in charge when her university teaching duties require her to return to California.  She comes to understand the terrible losses that an uncontrolled fire can bring.  She learns of the cruelty that others may bring, like the thoughtless slaughter of wild animals by poachers.

Interspersed with chapters describing ranching life, we read of flashbacks to Houston’s childhood.  It is there that we realize what created in her a restlessness and a terrible yearning for a special home.  Without sentimentality, she describes the horrible sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her father and the cold indifference she learned from her alcoholic mother.  We also read of the years of therapy she underwent during her recovery from the damages of bad parenting. 

Houston is a gifted writer.  She has managed to merge hauntingly beautiful descriptions of her wilderness home with horrendous childhood experiences that made her who she is.  You’ll find that a couple hours reading her memoir allows you a whole new perspective on home and healing.

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Jane Austen

Jane Austen

By Rhonna Hargett, Learning and Information Services Associate Director

Jane Austen probably would have been very surprised to find that her novels are still being read, analyzed, and reinterpreted over 200 years after their original publication. I sometimes hear them described as romance novels, but that’s not really what they are about. Austen was the master of observing her society and encouraging the reader to see things in a different light. On the surface her most famous novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” is the story of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet falling in love. When we focus in, though, we see a young woman that is learning the difference between manners and goodness, the limited options for women in 19th Century England, and a society that can be scathing in its punishment for any missteps.

This story contains so many facets that authors have analyzed it from all different angles of it throughout the years. The most recent attempt that I have encountered is “Mary B” by Katherine J. Chen. Chen shares the story from the perspective of Mary, the serious sister with a penchant for regularly displaying her limited musical talent. We get to read her thoughts about their awkward cousin Mr. Collins, her shame at the behavior of her sisters, and her true feelings about being the “plain” sister. The story really picks up where “Pride and Prejudice” ends, when Mary is invited for an extended visit with Elizabeth. At Pemberley she finds an unlikely path to a hopeful future and an unexpected ally.

I’m enjoying getting a glimpse into the context for some of Mary’s more obnoxious moments and her reflections on what is going on around her. Chen’s Mary is reminiscent of what we know of Jane Austen herself – always watching, able to observe unnoticed, able to analyze the workings of society, but powerless to change her place in it. She even has a wicked sense of humor like Austen – Mary just keeps it to herself. Her journey of finding her place in the world and gaining understanding makes for a rewarding read.

Longbourn” by Jo Baker has been around a few years but is a stand-out in the world of “Pride and Prejudice” spin-offs. Baker focuses on the Bennets’ pleasant maid, Sarah. Through her eyes we get the scoop on the lives below-stairs in the Bennet home. This novel illuminates the lives of the characters that make possible the ease that the family experiences. We get to experience their hopes and dreams, as well as the realities of their working existence. For instance, Elizabeth’s muddy petticoat is less charming to those that have to make it sparkling white again. The perspective of the servants is reminiscent of the appeal of “Downton Abbey,” making it clear that there is just as much intrigue, drama, and passion for those that are often forgotten.

I haven’t gotten ahold of it yet, but I’m looking forward to reading “Unmarriageable” by Soniah Kamal, a retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” set in modern-day Pakistan. As Library Journal describes it “Pride and Prejudice” in Pakistan may seem like an unusual pairing to some, but the rich cultural backdrop only enhances and breathes new life into Jane Austen’s classic.”

“Pride Prejudice and Other Flavors” by Sonali Dev coming out in May.

Jane Austen once famously said, “If a book is well written, I always find it too short.” Her many fans have also felt that her books were too few, but they have solved this dilemma by looking at her novels from different angles, setting them in different places and time periods, and using different media. Her timeless themes of dysfunctional families, self-discovery, humanity’s foibles, and of course love, will continue to intrigue readers for centuries to come.  

Whether you like Austen in print, digital, or movies – the original works or a reinterpretation, the staff at Manhattan Public Library will be sure to have something to satisfy.

by Luke Wahlmeier Luke Wahlmeier No Comments

Three Book Discussions Explore “A Woman’s Place”

Three Book Discussions Explore “A Woman’s Place.”

By Linda Henderson, Learning and Information Services Librarian

Image result for their eyes were watching god

Mark your spring calendars!  Join us at Manhattan Public Library for three afternoon BookTalk discussions.  The theme is A Woman’s Place.  What is a woman’s place, and who makes that decision?

The discussion of women’s roles in society has advanced rapidly in the last two hundred years, and the books in this series each reflect a different period’s perspective on that dialogue.  Each author explores how women have developed personal strength of character, while dealing with their society’s and their loved ones’ perceptions of who and what they ought to be.  The stories they tell dramatically reveal the constant tensions between mothers and daughters, wives and husbands, careers and family. Humanities Kansas’s Talk About Literature in Kansas book discussions draw on our diverse literatures to help us see more clearly who we are as people.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, an American classic by Zora Neal Hurston, is the luminous and haunting novel about Janie Crawford, a black woman of the 1930s’ South.  Her journey from free-spirited girl to independent woman of substance has inspired readers and authors ever since.  The story is a tribute to a black woman who made herself heard despite the strictures of the times. 

Michaeline Chance-Reay will lead the discussion on Thursday, March 28, at 2:00 p.m.  Dr. Reay taught courses in Women’s Studies and Education at Kansas State University, and holds a Ph.D. in Humanities Education and an MSW in Social Work from Ohio State University.  Her research resulted in a 1998 exhibition at the Riley County Historical Museum, with an accompanying book: Land Grant Ladies: Kansas State University Presidential Wives.  Her current research deals with the Harvey Girls, the independent young women who served as waitresses along the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1880s. 

The Joy Luck Club, a remarkably imaginative and moving book by Amy Tan, continues to speak to many women, mothers, and growing daughters about the persistent tensions and enduring bonds between generations and cultures.  The mothers, all Chinese immigrants, tell about grueling hardships, as well as the tyranny of family pride and the fear of losing “face.”  The daughters, in turn, must try to reconcile their personalities, shaped by American surroundings, with the discordant expectations of their mothers. 

Anne Hawkins will lead the discussion of The Joy Luck Club on Thursday, April 25, at 2:00 p.m.  Hawkins teaches American History at Washburn University, as well as U.S. and world history to homeschooled children across northeastern Kansas.  She received her M.A. in History from the University of Kansas.  She has published numerous historical articles and scripts, and also performs as pioneering women, like abolitionist Mary Jane Ritchie of Topeka and author Louisa May Alcott.  She has led discussions for the Kansas Humanities Council since 2012.

A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather, centers on Marian Forrester and her husband Captain Daniel Forrester.  Mostly told from the perspective of Niel Herbert, a young admirer of Marian, it recounts their lives in the small western town of Sweet Water on the Transcontinental Railroad.  As he describes the decline of both Marian and the old West in which they reside, a tale of the shift from pioneering spirit to corporate exploitation emerges.  Exploring themes of social class and modernization, A Lost Lady is considered to be a major influence on the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

The discussion of A Lost Lady will be led by Margy Stewart at Manhattan Public Library, May 23, 2019, at 2:00 p.m.  Dr. Stewart previously taught English at Washburn University, and is co-founder of the Prairie Heritage Institute, a non-profit corporation devoted to preservation of the tallgrass prairie and the culture of the Flint Hills.  She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin, and has published numerous essays on many topics, including Flint Hills history, prairie ecology, writing education, American literature, and the birds of Kansas.

All three books are now available to check out at the 2nd floor Reference Desk at Manhattan Public Library.  Take a look, and join us for these lively afternoon discussions, sponsored by Humanities Kansas and the Manhattan Library Association.