Thursday, December 25, 2008

I Syng of a Mayden

I first read this Middle English lyric over thirty years ago when I was taking a class in Medieval literature. I've always loved it and thought I would share it with you today. Merry Christmas!

I syng of a mayden
That is makeles;
King of alle kynges
To here sone she ches.

He cam also stylle
Ther his moder was
As dew in aprylle,
That fallyt on the gras.

He cam also stylle
To his moderes bowr
As dew in aprille
That fallyt on the flour.

He cam also stylle
Ther his moder lay
As dew in aprille,
That fallyt on the spray.

Moder and mayden
Was never non but sche;
Wel may swych a lady
Godes moder be.

I sing of a maiden
Who is matchless/mate-less;
The king of all kings for her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother's bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray (branch or twig).

Maiden and mother
None was but she;
Well may such a lady
God's mother be.

[Original from A Middle English Anthology, edited by Ann S. Haskell. The modern English "translation" is mine. I read this poem over thirty years ago in a Medieval literature class I took in college.]

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Library Kid Lit: 2 of 3

The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter

Subtitled A True Story from Iraq, this picture book recounts the amazing story of one librarian's attempt to save her library's collection from the ravages of war.

Alia Muhammad Bake, the librarian of Basra, is worried because she fears that her library's collection will soon become a casualty of war. She begs the governor for permission to move the books to a safer place, but he refuses. So every night she secretly fills her car with books and takes them home for safekeeping. When war reaches the city she enlists the help of the restaurant owner next door. Together, with other local people, they sneak the library's books into the restaurant. The library burns to the ground, but the books remain safely hidden. When the war moves to another location, all thirty thousand books are secretly removed to private homes until some future day when peace will return and a new library can be built.

This story is very sparely written. We don't know who is fighting or what they're fighting about. Or why the governor refuses to let Alia move the books to safer place. War is portrayed merely as a force, a roaming "beast." Politics as such don't really come into the story.

The focus of the narrative is the preservation of the books, some new -- some very old, which as a collection is "more precious . . . than mountains of gold." Although The Librarian of Basra will not be noted for its literary style, the rescue of the Basra's Central Library by Alia Muhammad Baker will inspire every bibliophile.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Library Kid Lit: 1 of 3

Though only a lowly aide, I really enjoy my new job at the public library. My only duty is to shelve books, which probably strikes most people as incredibly boring. But one of my few innate talents is being able to effortlessly put Dewey decimal numbers in order, so this is an easy, stress free job for me. And I stumble across so many interesting titles I might not otherwise discover.

This is particularly true when shelving children's picture books. Since I no longer have young children of my own, I haven't kept up with new titles. Now I'm discovering lots that I might like to buy for my grandchildren. (Naturally, I don't flip though enticing picture books while I'm on the job. I just set them on the bottom shelf of my book cart and check them out when I go off duty. Just so you know.)

Recently I came across three titles which caught my eye because they had to do with libraries. The first one was The Boy Who Was Raised by Librarians by Carla Morris. Isn't that an evocative title? The opening words are, "Melvin lived in the Livingston Public Library. Well . . . he didn't really live there. He just spent lots and lots of time there."

The book follows Melvin's library adventures from the days when he was so small he was barely able to peep over the top of the check-out counter. Every day he stops on his way home from school to visit the library, and he always makes sure to visit the reference librarians whom he loves because, "Whatever he was interested in, they were interested in too." And honestly, they are the most wonderful librarians in the world.

Whether Melvin's interested in snakes, bugs, or baseball cards, his three librarian friends are ready and eager to help him track down and organize information because, "That's how librarians are. They just can't help it." (I particularly liked the segment in which the librarians help Melvin practice for his part in his second grade class play. He's been cast as the Enormous Eggplant. While two of the librarians teach Melvin to memorize his lines and project his voice, the third reads aloud to him from Organic Gardening magazine "to help him find his motivation.")

Through the years Melvin attends all of the library's special programs. When he's in high school he even gets a part time job there. All three librarians proudly attend his graduation and miss him when he goes away to college, though he keeps in touch with them by letter and email.

And then, many years later, a new little boy comes into the Livingston Public Library where he is greeted by the same three librarians -- plus Livingston's newest librarian: Melvin himself!

Although some of the Amazon reviewers criticized this book for being unrealistic (i.e. that you'd never find that level of staffing or service in the children's department of any public library), I liked the book and I thought that although the portrayal of the librarians may have been a bit idealized, it did in fact capture the spirit that animates good librarians -- not just an interest in books and reading, but in gathering, organizing, and using information. And in helping others to do so. As the three librarians explain, after helping Melvin retrieve, identify, classify and catalog the inhabitants of his bug collection which escaped while he was in the library:

"That's how we are," explained Leeola.
"When we see chaos...," began Betty.
"...we organize and catalog," finished Marge. "It's in our nature."
Agents in the fight against entropy and chaos -- what a noble calling! In a small way, I share in it as I put away books, read the shelves, and reshelve the many books which kids have helpfully shoved backwards into the wrong places.

Friday, December 19, 2008

7 Quick Takes Friday

Every Friday Jennifer at Conversion Diary has been posting "7 Quick Takes" in which she blogs about about seven topics too slight to support individual posts of their own. Though I seem to have trouble posting even one topic (however slight) per week, I thought I would give "7 Quick Takes" a try. (I'd planned to add to this blog post all week long, but actually it's taken me more than a week to compose it.)

1) You see all kinds of odd things in the library. A couple of days ago, at the end of my shift, I noticed a pair of false teeth on one of the library tables. I can only assume that the old fellow ambling towards the magazines had just slipped his teeth out in order to get more comfortable. He must certainly feel at home in our library.

2)And you hear all kinds of things in the children's section of the library. As I was shelving picture books I overheard two very small children chatting as they played with the toys in the game corner. "That lady is my babysitter," the little girl explained to her companion. "My real mommy is in jail because she does drugs." Okay.

3) Mysteries are a genre in which I am not very well read because I've never been able to fathom the appeal of a story which requires that someone be murdered as a precondition of the action. However, now that I'm shelving at the public library, and a wider variety of books is passing through my hands, I've checked out a couple of them just to try. (I'd like to like them. They usually have such interesting titles.) My most recent attempt was Ash Wednesday by Ralph McInerny, a "Father Dowling Mystery."

I pulled it off the shelf because I'd previously read an article by McInerny, "On Being a Catholic Writer," and I was curious to see how he'd handle Catholicism in one of his own novels. I was further intrigued because, according to the dust jacket, the story involved an ethical question concerning life support and euthanasia.

But I was distinctly underwhelmed. To be honest, I had trouble keeping the characters straight. And Father Dowling was off-screen most of the time, so I really never got a feel for him. But since this novel is one of a series, perhaps it was written for an audience who already knows all of the continuing characters and doesn't require much in the way of characterization. Personally, I felt the book was pretty thin.

4) Actually, I do enjoy some mysteries -- older stuff such as Sherlock Holmes or G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories. And I also like Dorothy Sayers' books because they are actual novels which just happen to be mysteries. This past week I've also been enjoying a book of short stories, English Country House Murders edited by Thomas Godfrey. But again, the collection included a lot of older authors such as Wilkie Collins whose Woman in White I devoured a couple of years ago. And I really enjoyed the female protagonist in Baroness Orczy's "The Fordwych Castle Mystery." I'd never been able to get into her The Scarlet Pimpernel, so this delightful short story was a pleasant surprise.

5) I've just read Matilda by Roal Dahl. I'd recently seen the movie which I enjoyed very much. (Naturally -- since the young protagonist is a voracious reader! How often do you see that in a major motion picture?) So I decided to try the book. Ho-hum. The movie was better -- which is not my usual response to a movie vs. book comparison. I had the same reaction to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I much preferred the movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory which was delightfully zany, magical and bizarre. The book seemed flat by comparison.

Perhaps I should try reading The Witches (and watching the movie) to see if the pattern holds.

Why is Dahl so popular?

6) We got a catalog in the mail which had many book-related gift items. One of them was a Christmas tree ornament with the inscription, "She is too fond of books, and it has addled her brain." The quotation was attributed to Louisa May Alcott, but I have my doubts. It doesn't much sound like her. I've read all of Alcott's novels many times* and probably all of her short stories (including obscure ones such as "A Free Bed" which was printed as a chapbook by Friends of the Brigham Young University Library in 1978). But I do not remember this quote at all. Can anyone tell me if it is indeed Alcott, and if so, where it appears? I will admit that I've only read her letters and journals once since I don't own copies. Might it be in there? Or is the company that sells this item just faking everyone out?

*Well, now that I think of it, I've only read Moods once because I don't actually own a copy of it.

7) A rather more charming, book related gift would be either the Bibliovore or Bibliophibian tee shirts. I'd be tempted to buy them were I not so cheap. But library aides aren't allowed to wear tee shirts with pictures, slogans or logos, so I can't even justify their purchase as work related.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Saint Nicholas: A Saint for Everyman

Today is the feast of St. Nicholas. All the children are now gone and grown, no little shoes were lined up at the front door last night waiting to be filled with chocolate coins and other traditional treats. However Fillius and I still maintain the family tradition of reading aloud from The Twenty Miracles of Saint Nicolas by Bernarda Bryson. Usually we skip around in the book, hitting all of our favorites during the octave of the feast. But this year I decided to start reading at the very beginning of the book and to work our way through to the end. So last night, the vigil of the feast, I began by reading the opening words of the book:

"Here is the story of Saint Nicolas, Bishop of Myra, patron saint of mariners, moneylenders, thieves and children; protector of travelers, turners, dyers, coopers, boatmen, bootmakers, sawyers, seedmen, mercers, merchants, Greeks, cities, Jews, packers, spinsters, pirates, Russians, pickpockets, haberdashers, children, fishermen, pilgrims, pilgrims, prisoners, parish clerks, sailors and unwedded maids; defender of the Faith and maker of many true miracles." He really is the patron saint of everybody! (I love illustrations in this book. The one on the facing page shows a crowd of little figures -- examples of all the many groups of which St. Nicolas is a patron. But what is a centaur doing among them? I haven't quite figured that one out.)

The first story tells about the birth of Saint Nicolas and how the nurses who sought to bathe the infant saint were completely freaked out when he stood upright in the bath and spoke to them in Greek. Convinced that he was possessed by the devil, they fled the house. Then he grieved his mother by refusing to nurse on Tuesday or Friday.

"Oh my dear child, what is this curse that has fallen upon us? Am I made of poison that you refuse to take my milk?"

To her great surprise the baby replied to her, speaking clearly, 'Oh Mother, ' he said, 'do you not know that today is Friday and is a fasting day, and that Tuesdays are fasting days also, when the good and pious take no food?" Then the mother was full of joy, for she saw that the child would grow up to be a holy man, perhaps even a Saint, and that he was in no way possessed by the devil.

If you were not around to read it last year, you might like to click here to read one of the later stories in the book, "How Saint Nicolas Met and Overcame the Goddess Diana."

Or you could read this Irish story about St. Nicolas from from another book: The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope From Around the World, by Louise Carus.

Nicolas certainly did get around!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Advent Calendar for Little Bibliophiles

One of the things I like about my parish is that every so often they'll permit Catholic booksellers to display their wares outside the church for people to browse through after Mass. This makes Catholic Bibliophagist very happy because no matter how many mail order catalogs she receives in the mail, there is nothing like flipping through an actual copy of a book to help her decide whether or not to buy it. (This is especially true for children's books. Sometimes a nicely illustrated picture book is spoiled by a really lame rhyming text.)

Here is a picture of an Advent calendar which I bought for my grandchildren who already show signs of becoming bibliophibians. Inside are twenty-four tiny books (1.5 " x 1.5" -- Ooo, so cute!), one for each day before Christmas starting on December 1st. Each features a Bible story, prayer or song and has a gold cord attached so that they can also serve as Christmas tree ornaments.

I didn't want to rip the shrink wrap off before mailing it, so I haven't actually read the text. (Please don't let it be lame!) But it's got an imprimatur, so there's a sporting chance that at least the content will be okay.