Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: Book Club Choices

January 20, 2010

What are book clubs requesting from the Indiana Humanities Council’s collection? The Council makes sets of 8-25 copies of each title available to reading groups at public libraries, senior centers, and other venues, free of charge.

The following titles were requested most often in 2009. They reflect, it seems to me, the power of books to transport the reader to another time and place. Moreover, these are books that give depth and dimension to a topic for the group to think about and talk about, whether it be a moral dilemma or an occasion for reminiscing.

Historical Fiction:
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak – a recent novel, set in Hitler’s Germany
Follow the River by James Alexander Thom – a true story about a woman’s journey through the wilderness to escape Inidan captivity in the pre-revolutionary Ohio River Valley
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara – a fictionalized account of the Battle of Gettysburg
Riders of the Purple Sage – Zane Grey’s best-known novel depicting the Old West

Biography/Memoirs/Nonfiction:
First Ladies: An Intimate Group Portrait of White House Wives – portraits of several American First Ladies, from Martha Washington to Hillary Clinton, written by Margaret Truman, daughter of a President
A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel – a young girlhood in Henry County, Indiana
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin – inspiring account of an American who repaid a kindness by leading an effort to build schools in impoverished villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan

Indiana Authors:
Freckles – one of Gene Stratton-Porter’s novels set in the Limberlost Swamp
Home to Harmony – Philip Gulley’s humorous series about a mythical Indiana town and its long-suffering Quaker pastor
In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash – Hoosier Jean Shepherd’s book, which became material for the film, “A Christmas Story”
(Haven Kimmel and James Alexander Thom are also Indiana authors.)

General Fiction:
At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon – first of a nostalgic series set in small town North Carolina
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White – a beloved children’s classic
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns – small town Georgia at the beginning of the 20th century
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines – a story of prejudice, injustice, and humanity set on a Louisiana plantation
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – celebrated coming-of-age novel about society and racial inequality in the Deep South

Immigrants (an Indiana Humanities Council theme program):
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros – a young girl’s view of her Chicago barrio
My Antonia by Willa Cather – classic novel of a Bohemian immigrant family in 19th-century Nebraska
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri – contemporary novel about a professional family from India
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson – Japanese-Americans in Washington State and conflict in the wake of WWII

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: Best Food Lit of 2009

January 6, 2010

For this week’s What-are-you-reading-Wednesday, we invite you to check out Amazon’s list of the best Food Lit from 2009 (composed of editor picks and bestsellers) here. Which ones have you read? Which ones are you planning to read for 2010?

Coming in at Number 1 is Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman

Here’s the rest of the best:

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater byFrank Bruni

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg

Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen by David Sax

Sex, Death and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour by Robb Walsh

Far Flung and Well Fed: The Food Writing of R.W. Apple, Jr. by R. W. Apple

In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules by Stacy Perman

Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession by Julie Powell

Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York by William Grimes

Gourmet Rhapsody byMuriel Barbery

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: The Lost Symbol

December 10, 2009

I just read Dan Brown’s newest book, The Lost Symbol — even though it was published in September. Here’s why: I like to buy the editions of Brown’s books that come out after they make the movie, with all the gorgeous illustrations and photographs of locations like Rome and Paris. Knowing that I will eventually purchase such a volume for The Lost Symbol, I decided to get the first edition out of the library. I put my name on the reservation list, where I was number 749 in line, and I just got a copy. Loved it, love all his books, usually read them in a day or two (509 pages), and evidently so do a lot of other people.

Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times: “Brown has always written screenplays masquerading as novels.” Clearly, that’s the first type of appeal in Brown’s fast-paced, suspenseful stories. He has a knack of ending a chapter with one of his characters in such a predicament that you have to skip ahead and find out how they got out of it. The second attraction in Brown’s novels is provided by Robert Langdon, his Harvard professor hero (played by Tom Hanks), in the form of arcane but fascinating historical, cultural, and artistic trivia. This erudition did not impress Time Magazine’s Lou Grossman, who commented: “Brown’s scholarship reads like the work of a man who believes what he reads in Wikipedia.”

I, however, enjoy the places Brown takes you in his whirlwind tours of famous cities. In the case of The Lost Symbol, the story is set in Washington, D.C., a place whose treasures are far more valuable than whatever the villain and hero are chasing after in the novel. Behind the scenes at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the United States Capitol, there is a world of documents, artworks, and artifacts, amazing in its scope and depth. To meet the people who care for and know about them is a true pleasure. The book’s website includes a Reader’s Guide to Washington, D.C., with more about these national landmarks.

I also like Brown’s puzzles, codes, and encryptions, which are always entertaining. The key puzzle in The Lost Symbol is “a perfectly square grid of symbols from every tradition imaginable — alchemical, astrological, heraldic, angelic, magical, numeric, sigilic, Greek, Latin.” The 64 symbols in the 8 by 8 grid are somewhat familiar: a row of symbols for the planets, symbols of the great religions, astrological signs. (Mine is Gemini, which looks like the Roman numeral II.) You probably have access to many of these symbols — just open up Word and change your font to Symbols or Wingdings, and you may be able to recreate Brown’s code!

Anyway, I should stop here and return my copy to the library. There’s still a waiting list with 372 eager readers on it.

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Celebrate Indiana’s Statehood on Dec. 11

December 3, 2009

By Ray E. Boomhower, senior editor of the Indiana Historical Society Press

December 11 marks the 193rd anniversary of Indiana’s entry into the Union as the nineteenth state. The occasion will be marked by ceremonies at the Indiana Statehouse and the usual pomp and circumstance. The thoughts of those who attend the event may turn to seven years from now, when the Hoosier State celebrates its bicentennial. How will such an anniversary be commemorated? For ideas, perhaps we should go back to how the state celebrated its centennial in 1916.

The fall of 1914 was a bloody one in Europe. The British and German were winding down the First Battle of Ypres and would soon dig in to begin the long and futile period of trench warfare. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, however, it was an election year. On November 3, Hoosiers trooped to the polls and “for a time the war dropped into the background as all Indiana played the election game,” wrote Cedric C. Cummins in his book on public opinion during World War I.

In addition to the usual candidates on the ballot, voters had the chance to register their opinions on two special issues: a convention to alter the state’s constitution and whether to celebrate the state’s centennial in 1916 by appropriating two million dollars for the construction of a memorial building to house the state library and other historical agencies. Both measures suffered defeat at the polls.

Democratic governor Samuel M. Ralston, who would become a leading force behind the state’s eventual centennial observance, believed the memorial plan was rejected not because Hoosiers were against celebrating the event, but because they objected to the amount of money sought for the building.

Ralston was proven right; in just two years, backed by the efforts of the Indiana Historical Commission and thousands of volunteers, Indiana residents would see the creation of state parks, the beginnings of an improved statewide road system, the creation of permanent memorials in numerous communities, and an overall awakening of interest in the nineteenth state’s history.

At Governor Ralston’s request, the 1915 Indiana General Assembly agreed to appropriate $25,000 and create a nine-member Indiana Historical Commission to promote the centennial celebration. The legislature’s financial support of the commission marked the first notable state commitment of funds to history in Indiana. Of the $25,000, $20,000 was earmarked for the promotion of centennial activities, while the remaining amount went to collecting, editing, and publishing Indiana’s past.

The Indiana Historical Commission first met on April 23 and 24, 1915, in Governor Ralston’s Statehouse office. An illustrious group joined Ralston on the commission, including James Woodburn of Indiana University, Reverend John Cavanaugh of the University of Notre Dame, and Charity Dye, an Indianapolis schoolteacher. The commission employed Professor Walter C. Woodward of Earlham College to direct the centennial celebration.

The commission set out to educate the state’s citizens about the centennial. Special bulletins were sent to county school superintendents asking for their cooperation; direct appeals were made to teachers in the summer and fall of 1915; a weekly Indiana Historical Commission newsletter began publication; and commission members addressed various clubs, civic organizations, churches, and historical societies (Dye alone gave 152 talks).

The Indiana Historical Commission also turned to film to get its message across to the public. Realizing it had neither the necessary funds nor skills needed to undertake such an enterprise, the commission called upon the public for help. Citizens soon responded by forming the Inter-State Historical Pictures Corporation, which contracted with the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago to produce a movie titled Indiana. The seven-reel picture featured famed poet James Whitcomb Riley telling the story of the state’s development to a group of children.

To encourage former Indiana residents to return to the state for the centennial, the commission used the services of noted humorist and author George Ade. Honored, or “burdened,” Ade joked in speeches touting the centennial, with the chairmanship of the committee to “sound the call and bring all the wandering Hoosiers back into the fold,” he set about recruiting contributions from a veritable who’s who of Hoosiers for a book.

Titled An Invitation to You and Your Folks from Jim and Some More of the Home Folks, the book, published by Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis, contained messages from Governor Ralston, Vice President Thomas Marshall, Meredith Nicholson, and Booth Tarkington. Gene Stratton-Porter contributed the poem “A Limberlost Invitation,” and Riley the poem “The Hoosier in Exile.”

With the publicity campaign on its way to being a success, the commission had to turn its sights to how best to state the actual celebration; keeping in mind the lack of funds, it was clear that such events would have to be financed locally. The Indiana Historical Commission turned to staging historical pageants. These dramas appealed strongly to the commission because they could both focus attention on Indiana’s history and bring communities together.

The commission hired William Chauncy Langdon, former first president of the American Pageant Association, as the state pageant master. Langdon’s main duties were to write and direct three pageants, one at Indiana University, another at the old state capital of Corydon, and a final one at Indianapolis. Historical studies were made, music was especially composed, and costumes were designed “for the sole purpose of producing in the sequence of its various scenes a clear, beautiful and inspiring drama and a truthful impression of the development of the State of Indiana,” noted Langdon.

These same ideas were used by local communities in developing their own pageants. The commission gave what help it could, securing centennial chairmen in all but three of Indiana’s counties, with each responsible for selecting a county committee to plan the work. The plan worked. Director Woodward reported that forty-five county or local pageants presented in 1916 were seen by an estimated 250,000 people, and anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 Hoosiers participated in the performances.

Most counties used incidents from their past as the basis for the pageants. Miami County, for example, used the story of Frances Slocum, who was abducted at the age of five from her home in Pennsylvania by Delaware Indians. She was discovered by her family fifty years later in Miami County, Indiana, the wife of an Indian chief. Titled “Ma-con-a-quah,” the pageant opened with the following:

            Miami! What wealth of history

            This name suggests! Here in years

            A hundred past and more,

            The red forebears of your possessions

            Roamed the virgin wood, and called it Home.

            Here, in primal glory, ere white man’s craft

            Had fashioned this, your city, lived we, the Miamis.

Along with the week-long pageant in Indianapolis, capital residents had the chance to hear from President Woodrow Wilson as part of activities for Centennial Highway Day on October 12, 1916. Invited to speak by Governor Ralston, a vigorous supporter of roadway improvements, Wilson arrived in the city by presidential train (which was late). While in Indianapolis, the president reviewed an automobile parade before delivering a speech on the need for good roads to 10,000 people at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.

Perhaps the commission’s crowning achievement came with the development of Indiana’s first state parks. The movement began in April 1915 when Governor Ralston received a letter from Juliet V. Strauss, a nationally known writer living in Rockville, Indiana, appealing for help in saving the Turkey Run area in Parke County from being sold to timber interests. The commission created a special parks committee with Richard Lieber, who would become the first director of the Indiana Department of Conservation, as chairman.

While talks for purchasing the Turkey Run property for the state were under way, the commission learned of the opportunity to purchase the rugged area of McCormick’s Creek in Owen County. A total of $5,250 was raised, one-fourth of which by Owen County residents, and McCormick’s Creek became Indiana’s first state park. The commission later acquired the Turkey Run property.

When the last notes of music from the various pageants faded away and celebrants packed their costumes, the commission attempted to take advantage of the new opportunities presented by the centennial observance. Although a 1917 bill calling for the establishment of a permanent state agency for history failed, the commission was resurrected following World War I to organize a county-by-county war history. Since that time, Indiana has consistently funded a state historical agency.

The commission’s spirit is today kept alive by the activities of the Indiana Historical Bureau, but few may know of the lasting legacy of the nine-member body that pushed and prodded the state to at last take a real interest in its own past.

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: A History of the World in Six Glasses

December 2, 2009

By Kristen Fuhs Wells, communications director at the Indiana Humanities Council.

In A History Of The World In Six Glasses, Tom Standage boldly states that the history of the world can be told using six signature beverages (beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola). These drinks are intricately linked to six major periods in world history–from our nomadic brethren deciding to stay in one place to the current fascination with Coca-Cola.

He goes on to divide history much like archaeologists divide it based on different materials (stone, bronze, iron) only in the form of beverages. But not in a world history textbook kind of way (although I did find myself re-learning bits of world history that I had forgotten over the years). Instead, Standage summarizes great periods of history and concepts into just a few sentences, sprinkles in a few interesting factoids and connects both big picture thoughts and minute details to the development of these beverages, as well as their widespread adoption. Standage explains how these beverages extended life expectancies, fueled the enlightenment, contributed to wars, and divided cultures. For example:

Beer contributed to an increase in farming and decrease in hunting.
Wine divided classes and cultures, particularly in Greece and Rome. 
Spirits influenced slavery, the American Revolution, and contributed to the British Navy’s strength.
Tea improved and sustained life, and it was the “lubricant” for the industrial revolution.
Coffee (and coffeehouses) served as fuel for the enlightenment.
Coca-Cola, love it or hate it, is symbolic of America’s rise in dominance.

Some of those interesting tidbits include that the oldest known recipe is for beer; that Coca-Cola created a clear, un-branded bottle for a leader in the Soviet Union so that he wouldn’t be seen drinking Coke during the Cold War; and that rum significantly contributed to the dominance of the British navy because it kept scurvy at bay.

It’s a brisk read, and offers fascinating insights into our history, and into human nature.

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The humanities: It’s not about what they are; it’s what we do

November 16, 2009

Due to an overwelmingly positive response, we wanted to share the following article with you, which was published in a variety of newspapers throughout Indiana, including the Indianapolis Star on Nov. 4, under the headline “Get in touch with the humanities.”

By Keira Amstutz, president and CEO of the Indiana Humanities Council. 

Once, after a dance performance, Isadora Duncan was asked what the dance meant. Her response has become famous as a terse description of art’s purpose: “If I could tell you what it meant,” she said, “there would be no point in dancing it.”

In my role as president and CEO of the Indiana Humanities Council, I often find myself being asked, “What are the humanities?” And sometimes, like Isadora Duncan, I think it’d be easier to dance than answer the question.

Why? Because sometimes describing the humanities is like describing the wind – it’s easier to say what it does than what it is. It swirls leaves on an autumn sidewalk. It teases a little girl’s hair. It pulses through a wheat field like waves on a landlocked sea.

So, I thought I’d explain what the humanities are by explaining what you can do – and perhaps already do – in, through and with them every day.

I don’t pretend that this list is conclusive; I know it only scratches the surface. But I hope that it will, in its breadth and diversity, allow you to create – and, more important, put into action – your own definition of the humanities. So, let’s get started:

Read a novel. Read a poem. Read the directions on a shampoo bottle. Read the Declaration of Independence. Read a blog. Read an essay. Read a review of a book you’ll never read. Read a sacred text. Read your diary. Read to a kid. Read the liner notes to an old jazz album. Read the lyrics to a song you love. Read a libretto.

See a play with a friend. Go early. Wander through the theater. View the stage from different angles. Peruse the program. Learn about the actors. Watch the play. Study the set. Notice the lighting. Listen to reactions. Find a place to have coffee. Discuss the play. Go to another play. Repeat the process.

Visit a courtroom. Visit a classroom. Visit an old teacher. Visit a park. Visit a museum. Visit a library. Visit City Hall. Visit a college campus. Visit a craftsman’s workbench. Visit an artist’s studio.

Look at a piece of art. Study it. Step back. Look at the piece beside it. Ask yourself: Why are these pieces next to each other? Why is this art? Step back again. Ask yourself: Does the size of the room affect the way I look at the art? Step back again. How does seeing more change the way you see the art?

Listen to a band. Listen to a debate. Listen to a well-tuned machine. Listen to a podcast. Listen to a diner ordering dinner. Listen to a photographer describing a photo. Listen to an architect explaining a building’s design. 

Stop outside a building you pass every day; look at its design. Do you know the name for the architectural style? Do you like it? What appeals to you? What would you do differently? Get a book about architecture and learn about the style. Find other examples of that style and compare them. Find examples of other styles and compare them. Take a walk with a colleague and debate the architecture you see.

Attend a historic-home tour. Attend a lecture. Attend the symphony. Attend a gallery reception. Attend a festival. Attend a legislative session. Attend opening night (of anything). Attend a public forum.

Speak at a public forum. Sing in a choir. Yell “Bravo” at a concert. Ask a question. Tell someone your family’s history. Recite a poem. Describe a work of art. Say what you think.

Now, think about what you’ve done. You’ve examined, studied and reviewed something made by humans or something that makes us human. You’ve thought about it, pondered it and processed it. And you’ve talked about it, debated it and discussed it.

That’s what the humanities are.

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What-Are-You-Reading-Wednesday: A Year of Cats and Dogs

November 11, 2009

By Nila Nealy, principal and brand strategist of TwentyTwo, a brand consultancy specializing in brand strategy, identity and communications. This review was also posted on Nila’s blog, The Human Condition

I can’t say exactly what took me so long to read this book. It had been sent as an advance galley copy by the publisher on my request through LibraryThing. The offer description appealed to me with it’s promise of animal companions and the I Ching. Perhaps it was simply the timing. I received the book in July shortly after I’d left my job. And things rather suddenly became tumultuous in the life of someone very close to me. I was soul searching, supporting the same for someone else – and I didn’t quite want the distraction of escaping into someone’s fictional story.

About a week or so ago when the turmoil in my loved one’s life came to a conclusion of sorts, I was ready to read something besides blogs, articles and books on brand, business and health. So, I pulled my copy of A Year of Cats and Dogs by Margaret Hawkins from the shelf.

I very quickly connected with Maryanne, the main character who tells her story first person, memoir style. She brought a knowing smile to my face as she related how she just passed through a major transition in her life and then chose to go through another. What she discovers about herself and her immediate world reminded me to accept and believe. The book isn’t all lesson, however. In large part, it is simply enjoyable with language that paints word pictures I’m still holding in my mind, having laid the book to rest around 1:00 this morning.

The author uses a few devices to advance the book and add layers of understanding, the two most notable being those I mentioned earlier – animals and the I Ching. While the I Ching does show up in the text, it is mostly found as the chapter titles, corresponding to each of the 64 hexagrams in the Chinese divination system. The I Ching is also known as the Book of Changes, an apt parallel to the year Maryanne shares with readers. Her relationship with her cat Clement and several dogs, especially Bob, Gregoire and Harvey are key to the self-discovery Maryanne experiences as well as much of the action in the book.

I read A Year of Cats and Dogs over about five or six sessions, mostly as my evening relaxation reading. I’m not a particularly fast reader, with fiction especially, so you may find it faster for you. I find that I like to re-read a section or pause to take in the images or feelings of what I’ve read. As with all fiction (that I like), I had to force myself to call a break for sleep after an hour or so. I could have easily stayed up in to the wee hours reading it from cover to cover.

I’m neither a voracious fiction reader nor particularly critical of literary conventions. What I do want are books that offer glimpses into the human condition through character studies, relationships and symbolism. A Year of Cats and Dogs met my reading requirements nicely.