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In the Spotlight

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..

Kim Gordon: More than A Girl in a Band

OK, I’ll admit it. Up until about a month ago, I knew very little of musician Kim Gordon or her band, Sonic Youth. Yes, get your jaws off the floor. I know this makes me sound terribly old and decidedly unhip. Read More..

Time Travel, With and Without Machines

When I was a kid, I lived in a small town in eastern Missouri. Founded in the eighteen-teens, our little town was a goldmine of semi-abandoned artifacts in various states of disrepair: cemeteries (Daniel Boone was originally buried there!), a spooky old log house, a former general store.

I could spend hours digging  in my yard (I wouldn’t say that my parents were crazy about all the holes), searching for buried remnants of the past.

Whether it was an inherent predilection, or because of this early exposure to the mystery of old things, I found that I loved thinking about the past, wondering what it would have been like to be a different person living in a different time. So, it’s probably no surprise that I’ve spent some of my career working as a public historian, and it’s probably also no surprise that I am drawn to stories about time travel. Read More..

Ode of Time

“April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

                                                                       Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

                                                                         A little life with dried tubers.”

           These are the heralded opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” and words I oft revisit as Mother Nature makes the shift from the dreck of Winter into Spring awakening. At the very least, Eliot is frighteningly accurate about April being the cruelest month in regard to the weather conditions in Kansas. Or, perhaps, he would have altered his word choice if he had been privy to the information that April is National Poetry Month. The world will never know. Read More..

Fresh Cookbooks for Fresh Spring Veggies

For me, there’s no more-definite sign of Spring’s arrival: the return of the Lawrence Farmer’s Market. Beginning this Saturday, fresh, local fruits, vegetables, and more will once again be available to all. Read More..

Your Hungry Ear: Food Poetry @ LPL

Roses are red

Violets are blue

I like nutritious foods

And so should you.

- A poem by seventh graders Mykynzie Wright, Hailey Coon, and Rylie Stellwagon from Food Poetry by Topher Enneking & South Middle School Students

Did you know that April at LPL is both Healthy Food and Poetry month? I’m not kidding. We are lucky enough to celebrate in one month fuel for both body and soul. In fact, the poetry of food is ubiquitous, transcending time, space, culture, socio-economics, and more. Food is one of those universal connections that we have with every single living being on the planet. No wonder so many authors have chosen to write the lyrical praises of that which nourishes us all. Read More..

The Hidden Half of Nature: A Great Read About Microbes

While waiting for signs that winter is in fact waning and that it’s time to dig my hands in the dirt, pruning fruit trees is one of my favorite activities. As I thin and train branches, I ponder recent discoveries of tree health: how soil bacteria and fungi spread and exchange nutrients, how to encourage them, and how they even spread all the way up and around the outside surfaces of trees. Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard  has much more on this.

But now that spring has arrived, it’s time for veggies. A few years ago we moved our garden to a new spot and since then have added loads of mulch and compost to try to get the soil life thriving— only to see the amendments disappear. Where does it all go? There’s been a noticeable increase in the populations of earthworms, beetles, and bugs, and yet…

Well, I just unearthed the newest book by David Montgomery, co-authored by Anne Bikle. Montgomery is a geologist who I heard speak a few years ago about his previous book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations In his new one, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health he relates similar new-garden experiences and asks the same question. The answer, in a word, is microbes.Book cover of The Hidden Half of Nature

The Hidden Half of Nature is an enjoyable read, not at all too scientific, and Montgomery is a dexterous writer who’s not afraid of incorporating some real-life experiences and subtle word play to keep it lively. I really enjoyed this book, which continually surprised me by calling to mind old connections. His book Dirt could have been lifted from the sustainable agriculture curriculum I once studied. Some of the same ideas and actors reappear as he lays the groundwork at the start of his new book. The subsequent discussions of microbe-human interactions in The Hidden Half of Nature brought to mind Rob Dunn’s book, The Wild Life of Our Bodies, which I reviewed a few years ago.

But reading it took me much further back, to when I attended a big-deal conference on biodiversity that took place before most had even heard the term “biodiversity.” James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis of Gaia fame were there, and Margulis in particular plays a role in Montgomery’s new book. It was she who suggested that the cells we are made of started as the symbiotic union of different kinds of bacteria. I wasn’t the only one in the crowd who was fascinated by this notion – many scientists were, too, and not a few were skeptical. In the years since she has been proven right.

Montgomery does an admirable job of fleshing out the history of our knowledge of microbes that led to Margulis’s insights, from Anton van Leeuwenhoek and his rudimentary microscopes to Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin in the soil, and Jonas Salk.

Pasteur’s advances shined a new light on bacteria, but Montgomery points out that after Fleming and Salk’s successes, research tended to “isolate and destroy particular pathogenic microbes” with anti-bacterial drugs and vaccinations, rather than strive to understand the processes of the vast microbial world. Just as with the natural history of larger flora and fauna, description preceded ecological study. It took some time for us to realize, as Montgomery says, “I am not who I thought I was. And neither are you. We are all a collection of ecosystems for other creatures.”

Montgomery then moves to scientist Selman Waksman’s study of the collections of ecosystems in soil and considers industrial agriculture and the widespread use of pesticides. From there it’s a quick jump down the gullet and into the human microbiome, studies of which have exploded in just the last few years. The parallels are many– Montgomery talks of the “inner soil” of our guts affecting nutrient uptake, for example, how adding fiber to our diet is like adding organic matter to our gardens, and how antibiotics can, like herbicides in the soil, act against us in unpredictable ways.

Grab The Hidden Half of Nature and dig the latest dirt on the microbes that live within you and the earth. Dig your hands in the diverse ecosystems of your garden. Recalling Margulis’s point that your cells are symbiotic microbes, embrace some personal rewilding.

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

Author Spotlight: Juliet Marillier

There are only a few days left in Women’s History Month, and what better way to celebrate than to discuss one of my favorite authors of all time?

Juliet Marillier primarily writes adult fantasy, though she has also published two young adult fantasy series. Her work often combines fantasy with historical fiction, folklore, romance, and mystery in her most recent series. A New Zealander by birth, Marillier now lives in Western Australia, where, when she isn’t writing, she likes to spend her free time fostering elderly dogs for her local animal rescue group. This is a woman after my own heart. Read More..

New Month, New Genre with Gaslamp Fantasy

Gaslamp Fantasy was first coined by Kaja Foglio to describe her graphic novel series Girl Genius.  The term evolved as a response to the Steampunk movement to distinguish titles that share some of the same literary elements, but lack a focus on scientific technology and mechanization.  Read More..

Revisiting the Star Wars Radio Drama

Like William, I was lucky enough to be born into a good, Force sensitive, Star Wars loving household. As a kid, my brother and I watched Star Wars movies several times a month. My parents were fairly religious and had strong opinions about what media was “appropriate for the Sabbath.”

It may seem odd that laser swords, spaceships, and Death Stars made the cut off (along with The Sound of Music, The Princess Bride, and Disney movies), but they did, and watching the original trilogy became a regular Sunday activity. The fourth, fifth, and sixth Gospels. We were in deep.

Action figures, video games, and Legos (this was before Lego video games or we would’ve had those too) all branded Star Wars were an integral part of my childhood and teenage years. To be honest, Star Wars is a large part of my adulthood. For my 28th birthday and much to my spouse’s (and to a certain extent, my own) incredulity, I bought myself a Lego Star Wars set. An expensive one. I spent my birthday sitting on the ground in our living room watching The Clone Wars as I built it. You only live once, right?

All this started in 1977, when visions of a galaxy far far away completely mesmerized my 13 year old dad. The movie that later became known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was like nothing he’d ever seen. As one of ten kids getting by on my grandpa’s teacher’s salary, it wasn’t often that my dad got to go to the theater, but he was industrious. Scrimping and saving he managed to see A New Hope a couple of times in theaters thanks to his paper route earnings. Some of his friends saw it well over a dozen times and had every line memorized. They’d reenact the entire movie by heart. They’d talk about it in their radio club at school. No wonder I ended up so nerdy.

My newest Star Wars experience was something with which my dad was already well acquainted.  The Star Wars Radio Drama. I didn’t know this existed until my dad offhandedly mentioned listening to “the Star Wars tapes” back in the 80s.

Tapes? What tapes?

In 1981, George Lucas “sold” the rights to produce a radio serial version of A New Hope to KUSC-FM, UCS’s public radio station, for a dollar. Looking at it objectively, the idea seems a little preposterous; a large part of Star Wars’ appeal, especially when it first came out, is the sight of it—special effects, iconic spaceships, strange creatures, and foreign planets—it really does transport you to a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.

But thanks to some great performances from Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels who reprise their roles as Luke Skywalker and C-3PO, as well as a talented voice cast (who if I’m honest, sometimes ham it up a little too much), liberal use of the original sound effects, and access to John William’s iconic film score soon NPR was touting “you may think you’ve seen the movie; wait til’ you hear it!”

The radio drama is broken up into thirteen roughly thirty minute episodes and clocks in at just under 6 hours as a whole. That’s a lot of radio drama for a two hour movie. But it works. Brian Daley, who adapted the original screenplay, really wanted to add characterization, including some additional backstory, to the cast. That’s probably where this adaptation shines the most, adding to the movies some of us have seen hundreds of times. I particularly appreciate that Luke and Leia both have brief moments where they get to grieve their tremendous losses in the radio drama. Ben Kenobi’s fate gets some extra attention as well.

There are little additions like that, but there are also all new scenes. Obi Wan gets in a little more training with Luke. There are extra scenes with Han Solo showing more of his rascally side, as well as scenes elaborating Darth Vader’s cruelty. There’s an entire episode dedicated to Leia’s backstory. You also get to finally meet Luke’s friends at Toshi Station, and spoilers: they’re not great.

Add all that new material to compelling performances and great production value and you have a hit. When the Star Wars Radio Drama first aired it broke NPR records with over 750,000 listeners. One of them was my dad. I asked him how many times he relistened to the tapes once he got a hold of them. “We probably listened to it ten thousand times.”

And why not? It’s not perfect, but the Star Wars Radio Drama adds a new depth into a classic story that so many of us have come to love. And most importantly, it’s a lot of fun. And luckily for us, we don’t have to wait years between episode; the library’s copy comes with dramatizations of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. So get listening!

Oh yeah, and may the Force be with you.

—Ian Stepp is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.