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In the Spotlight

Dancing with the Family Skeleton: Family Memoirs

I’ve come to believe that every family is like a country unto itself, each with its own culture and customs, each member of that family a citizen of a singular homeland. In all our interactions with “foreigners”—that is, anyone who is not a member of the family in which we were raised—we come as ambassadors and interpreters from our native land.

So it’s no surprise that someone seeking to better understand their own experiences might delve into their family’s history for insight, or that a well-written family memoir can make for extremely compelling reading. Playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote that “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” Here are a few examples of family memoirs that confront the skeletons in the closet and come out dancing: Read More..

Mourning Has Broken

I sit here and find myself feeling a similar apprehension to what author Matt Haig felt upon sending his book, Reasons to Stay Alive, to his publisher. My concern stems not from the subject of mental health, but rather the associated stigmas, because I am a suicide survivor— a label not outwardly worn, not due to shame or penance, but because it doesn’t define my life. It is a designation others use to describe an experience of part of my life.

I will admit, the stigma and other people’s discomfort keeps me discreet about sharing my experience, as well as keeping the person I lost close to my chest. This is in itself saddening, because that’s where the cycle of depression begins. The silence brought on by fear of stigma propagates the loneliness attributed with depression, when, in truth, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports, “6.9% of adults in the U.S.—16 million—had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.”

Reasons to Stay Alive reads part memoir, part self-help, but untraditionally so, as it lacks any interspersed clinical perspectives. Matt Haig pens an account of his personal experience with depression, suicidal thoughts, and his ability to overcome. Haig is forthcoming about his life at the time of the onset of depression, when he was residing with his girlfriend amongst a seemingly idyllic and party atmosphere on the island of Ibiza, Spain. However, despite these trappings, he became unknowingly immersed with nearly paralyzing depression.

Haig recounts, “Depression is an illness.Yet it doesn’t come with a rash or a cough. It is hard to see, as it is generally invisible. Even though it is a serious illness it is also surprisingly hard for many sufferers to recognize it at first. Not because it doesn’t feel bad—it does—but because that bad feeling seems unrecognizable, or can be confused with other things.”

yourarent

You Are Not Yourself by Barbara Kruger

Accompanying Haig’s depression were intense panic attacks, expressed in intricate detail, that involved going to the shops for errands or groceries. These tasks seemed banal to those not suffering, yet would send him into a downward spiral of anxiety. It was during the reading of these testaments I became concerned. Haig’s eloquence left me teetering, having suffered similar panic attacks following my loved one’s passing. However, it was all for naught, which was a surprise to me, but also confirmation that I am truly recovered.

It’s a popular misconception that depressive episodes can be brief; however, it’s not uncommon for them to last several months, or possibly years. In Haig’s experience, his illness was lengthy. Choosing to abstain from antidepressants, Haig instead found solace in running and reading: “I read and read and read with an intensity I’d never really known before. I mean, I’d always considered myself to be a person who liked books. But there is a difference between liking books and needing them. I needed books.” He continues, “Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest.”

Haig cleverly frames his thoughts as a temporal conversation between his recovered self: Now Me, and the pained version: Then Me. This brilliantly demonstrates his shift in perspective and articulates the change in language as he moves toward recovery.

To this, he states: “You know, before the age of twenty-four I hadn’t known how bad things could feel, but I hadn’t realized how good they could feel either. That shell might be protecting you, but it’s also stopping you feeling the full force of that good stuff. Depression might be a hell of a price to pay for waking up to life, and while it is on top of you it is one that could never seem worth paying. Clouds with silver linings are still clouds. But it is therapeutic to know that pleasure doesn’t just help compensate for pain, it can actually grow out of it.”

I personally encourage those untouched by depression, suicide, or the myriad of mental health issues to read this book, because within its pages you may learn ways to help someone who is suffering, or you might find a new perspective to enrich your life. And, for those coping or still recovering, perhaps one man’s story may be a treasure map on your own quest for new reasons to stay alive.

ilkastars From The Humans by Matt Haig; image created by Ilka Iwanczuk

-Ilka Iwanczuk is a Reader’s Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library

The Bite-Sized Sci-Fi Vignettes of From Now On

We’ve all heard the cautionary advice “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” And sure, there’s a lot of truth to that. On the other hand—being judged is totally what book covers are for. My resistance to this old adage has been validated time and again by impulse check-outs that turn out to be awesome, the most recent example being Malachi Ward’s graphic novel From Now On.

When I dove in, I had no idea what to expect; I just knew things were going to get weird. From Now On does not disappoint, with stories dealing with bizarre alien worlds and the peculiarities of time travel. The thirteen vignettes stand alone as brief glimpses into future worlds, replete with imaginative technology and creatures  like lime green aliens that appear to be half-mole, half-elephant

Despite the strangeness, though, Ward manages to evoke a deeply-human and reflective mood. Flipping through the stories of lonely, hopeful space colonists made me feel like I was reading the sparse, blue-collar oriented short stories of Raymond Carver, or the succinct and wistful comics of Adrian Tomine. The science fiction elements are posed skillfully against the emotions of the characters—Ward offers only minimal world-building to let the heart of each story shine.

“Top Five” follows the daily work of a lone explorer. While carrying out his labor—menial tasks that are never explained to the reader—he thinks about the five best Star Trek episodes that feature time travel. That’s it. Though it  may seem insignificant or uneventful, “Top Five” is actually a well-crafted portrait of regret, desire, and small victories—in other words, life itself. The unearthly backdrop makes it all the more compelling, too, adding a layer of the weird that demonstrates how universal these feelings can be. It’s subtly funny, too.

topfive

Ward’s art style is similarly restrained. Simple  illustration shows the wonder of alien landscapes, being suggestive rather than comprehensive. The result is a collection that showcases incredibly efficient and meaty story telling. Just because you don’t have time to read a doorstopper like Dune doesn’t mean you can’t go on an adventure to the stars. As much as I love the cover of From Now On, I have to admit the immersive and poignant stories within are even better.

-Eli Hoelscher is a Reader’s Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library

Exploring Trace

Take a few moments to trace your history. Now trace the history of the place you call home. Following threads of memory, you’ll discern more than one version of your past. You probably have had more than one home, each of which has different versions of its own history. You have changed, places have changed, and as you dig you see that history itself is based on perceptions changing. “The past is remembered and retold by desire,” says author and geologist Lauret Savoy in her sweeping new book Trace , in which she endeavors to discover untold parts of her heritage and, intriguingly, tie them to the American land.

A palimpsest of a colorful decaying leaf over a page of faded text on the cover drew me in, and the blurb by author Terry Tempest Williams clinched it. Likewise, discernable through the gritty questing of Savoy’s story, one can see Williams’s Refuge, one of my favorite books, and even Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me– for within Savoy runs the blood of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans, and she examines racial oppression in the American landscape.

She begins as a child on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the geologist she would later become describes the layers of the land, including those of its “discovery” and exploration by Europeans. Having stood on Point Sublime and being familiar with some of its history, I was immediately drawn in. Indeed, much of this small book rang familiar, for the author and I share more than a few places visited and books read. She even lives in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley (a name she has surely examined), right down the road from where I once lived.

Amos A. Lawrence, namesake of my current home, came from Massachusetts. Historian Jonathan Earle has said of the man, “He made tons of money – Bill Gates kind of money,” thanks to Lawrence’s father running the greatest mercantile house in the U.S., trading cotton goods.

A desire for a more complete history of this home, our city of Lawrence, must therefore recognize the hundreds of thousands of slaves of the American South whose lives and labor fueled the Lawrence family’s cotton fortune. Time and again, Lauret Savoy’s desire for re-remembering her own past teases apart neglected examples like this, from Washington D.C. and South Carolina to Wisconsin and Arizona.

As a child in California, she says, she never knew race, but once she hit the Grand Canyon on her family’s move east it couldn’t be avoided. She was ignored and then short-changed when buying post cards at the National Park gift shop. In school she read history books full of “savage Indians in the way of Manifest Destiny, and Africans who thrived as slaves and by nature want to serve.” On her adult “journey of and to perception” she learns that heads of Native Americans slaughtered at Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre ended up in the Smithsonian.

She follows her family history across North America, digging up more and more. Tribes relocated to what is now Oklahoma held enslaved African Americans. What we think are Native tribal names were sometimes made up by Europeans – Ojibway, for example, rather than Anishinaabe. Indeed, the very names on the land are fraught. She visits a South Carolina “Living History” plantation that essentially lives without the history of the slaves who worked it. In Arizona, where her mother served as an Army nurse, she peels apart shifting layers of Apache history, borderlands, and the Jim Crow experience of the U.S. Army’s Buffalo Soldiers.

It’s a stunning personal telling of what historian Patricia Nelson Limerick called the Legacy of Conquest, with another important layer: despite all she found, “one idea stood firm: The American land preceded hate.” The sublime Grand Canyon and an early exposure to the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac  informed this reality, and provided some guidance. “Only slowly did I come to see that I would remain complicit in my own diminishment unless I stepped out of the separate trap: me from you, us from them… relations among people from relations with the land.”

What refreshing words, with more than a trace of wisdom. I look forward to following more of Lauret Savoy’s explorations.

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

The library isn’t just for books anymore.

When my wife and I moved to Lawrence last August, one of the first places we visited was the library. It wowed us. We hadn’t yet sold our souls to an internet service provider so we were Netflixless, and LPL’s media collection came to our rescue. The video game collection in particular provided an endless supply of entertainment. I’ve been a gamer (but not a gamer gater) for as long as I can remember, and having free access to hundreds of games at once was a very pleasant surprise. My wallet has never been happier.

At LPL we have quite the game collection. We currently carry games for six systems (Wii, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Playstation 4, and Xbox One) and try to keep up with all the latest and greatest games out there, which can be pretty intimidating. A couple of decades ago when gaming was just getting started, people would have never guessed just how diverse the medium would become; these days there’s a game for everyone. Let’s take a look:                     Read More..

Four* Hoopla Faves!

I tend to have very strong and vocal opinions about things I dislike. This can be frustrating for my loved ones AND extremely embarrassing for myself when I realize just how wrong I was. I can think of three specific items which eventually  caused me to eat my words:

1.) Cottage cheese, 2.) Tom Waits, & 3.) Digital books. Read More..

Wild Adventures Grounded in the Historical Roots of Kansas

Lawrence author George Frazier celebrates the wilderness he finds in Kansas, lyrically linking the present with the past in his new book The Last Wild Places of Kansas: Journeys Into Hidden Landscapes. Read More..

Reading In Westeros

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a major obsession with Game of Thrones.  It means that when April comes around, I can’t stop speculating on what will happen in the new season along with beginning my annual reread of the epic 5,216 page series.

While I’m in a Game of Thrones induced frenzy, I often find myself pondering the following scenario: if characters from the show were to waltz into Lawrence Public Library today, what books would I suggest they read?  Although the following list is not exhaustive, or else we would be here until George R. R. Martin finally finishes The Winds of Winter, here are some Game of Thrones character book pairings featuring some of your favorite fictional personalities.

Read More..

Road Trip Idea: Haunted Locations in Kansas

Back when I worked in reference, the library received an envelope postmarked from Santa Rosa, California with our address scrawled across the lower left hand corner in untidy, barely legible print. Inside was a 20 page letter, written in the same hand, requesting information on the alleged paranormal activity at the Eldridge Hotel featured on an episode of My Ghost Story on A&E’s Biography Channel. Read More..

Cranky Kirkus

“It has come to this: werewolves on The Titanic.”

Favorite first lines of novels make great discussion fodder, but book reviews rarely begin with sentences as memorable as that one, which led off a review of Claudia Gray’s Fateful in the curmudgeon of professional book review journals, Kirkus Reviews.  Kirkus is so notoriously grouchy there is even a Tumblr blog dedicated to its crafty disses, Sick Burns: The Best of Kirkus Review’s Worst. Read More..