Thursday, July 23, 2015

Southern History Book of the Month: Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee

Well, Harper Lee is back—though for millions of readers like me, she never left. Ever since my first reading of To Kill a Mockingbird I’ve daydreamed about what other work she might give us and could never quite resign myself to her status as a “one good novel” writer. When the news broke about Go Set a Watchman I cautiously filed it under the heading Too Good to Be True until the story was confirmed and a publication date was set.

Warning: I’ve tried to keep this post free of major spoilers, but if you want to read the novel without knowing anything in advance, then proceed at your own risk!

Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is on the train from New York, headed to Maycomb, Alabama, for her annual visit home. Not two pages into the novel, she manages to get herself folded into the wall inside the pull-down bed and has to be rescued by the porter—a scene that made me grin, but also kept resonating with me throughout the story as she returns to small-town society and tries to cope with its confinements and constraints. Some things remain the same, such as the continued pressure from her Aunt Alexandra to behave more like a “lady” and Scout’s iron-willed determination to do nothing of the sort: "Atticus raised his eyebrows in warning. He watched his daughter’s daemon rise and dominate her . . . When she looked thus, only God and Robert Browning knew what she was likely to say."

Other things, however, have shifted dramatically. This is the 1950s, the beginning of major social changes in the South, and even in rural Maycomb there are heated discussions about racial tensions, the NAACP, and the White Citizens’ Council. If Watchman was indeed an early treatment of Mockingbird, it’s easy to understand why a publisher would have been wary of it in the early 1960s and would have handled the manuscript like an unexploded bomb.

The point of view in Watchman is third person instead of first, so we are not so locked into Scout’s thoughts in this novel as in Mockingbird, but we are certainly near enough to feel her anguish as everything she had taken for granted seems to be changing—even her beloved father Atticus, who has always been the pole star for her conscience:
She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it . . . she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father . . . 
But since this is a novel by Harper Lee, Watchman has its share of humor as well. One thing that will stay with me from this first read is the sort of anecdotal wit and one-liners that I might hear at some of my own family gatherings:
The Finch doorbell was a mystical instrument; it was possible to tell the state of mind of whoever pushed it.

Reverend Moorehead was a tall sad man with a stoop and a tendency to give his sermons startling titles (Would You Speak to Jesus If You Met Him on the Street? Reverend Moorehead doubted that you could even if you wanted to, because Jesus probably spoke Aramaic.)

Alexandra declared that Aaron Stein was the greediest boy she had ever seen, that he ate fourteen ears of corn at his Menopause. 
In this story as in Mockingbird, Harper Lee has that gift for narrative that keeps you turning page after page to see what will happen next, even if what is happening takes place inside her protagonist’s mind. I look forward to re-reading Watchman after the dust has settled a bit to see how it will strike me then. But these are only my impressions from a first reading. To form your own impressions, visit your library and go place a hold for Go Set a Watchman.

Mary Anne Ellis
Southern History Department
Central Library

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Get Prizes for Something You're Already Doing!

After helping a patron locate a book she wanted, I asked if she’d like to sign up for Summer Reading for adults. “Oh, no! I’m too busy!” Other patrons have answered the same question with “Isn’t that just for children?” or “What books do I have to read?” I hope to clear up what Summer Reading is all about and why everybody should sign up at their local library!

Summer Reading encourages everyone to read. Babies can be signed up and have books read to them. Toddlers can read picture books. Older children can read chapter books. Teens and adults can choose anything they like to read (e-books and audiobooks count for everyone, too). Libraries want families to read, to be aware of all the materials and programs at their local libraries, and to become part of the library community.

That’s why librarians plan programs to entertain and inform patrons of all ages. For younger
readers there are goals to be met to qualify for prizes, and the more books they read, the more prizes they can win. For older readers, every book read increases their chances of winning a prize incentive. The books don’t have to be any specific title and they don’t even have to be library books—it can be anything you like. So, if you read at all, you should sign up for Summer Reading and put your name in the hat to win prizes for what you're already doing.

There are also programs, and most libraries offer door prizes for adult or teen attendees. The programs are all related to different themes so we don’t just offer the same things over and over. This year’s Adult Summer Reading theme is Escape the Ordinary and programs offered explore ways of escaping your routines. Teen Summer Reading’s theme is Unmask and, along with the children’s Every Hero Has a Story theme, the programs involve superheroes. You’ll have fun and learn something that you didn’t know before, meet new people, and find out what’s going on in your neighborhood. Best of all, these programs are FREE!

There’s lots going on all year round at your local library, so when you’re looking for something fun to do or you need to know the right answer to a question, or you’re bored or the kids need a change of scenery and you really don’t want to spend any money, check out your library. Every item checked out (including downloadables) strengthens your local library. Our collections are kind of like muscles—the more they’re used, the stronger they become—so please give them lots of exercise by taking some items home with you!

Although Summer Reading started in June and is well under way, some locations are still having programs through July. Take a look at Birmingham Public Library's list of activities on Birmingham365 to see what's scheduled through the summer and beyond. And children and teen participants in the summer reading program may continue reading and logging their books to win prizes through August 5. For the adult summer reading participants, keep reading as many books as you can because on August 7 and 14, grand prize winners will be drawn from all the summer reading entries. For more information on Summer Reading for all ages, visit our website and Birmingham Public Library's Adult Summer Reading's Facebook page.

Kelly Laney
Springville Road Regional Branch Library

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Some Library Services Never Close

As the weather has warmed up, I’ve noticed more and more patrons hanging out in the library’s parking lot after the building has closed for the day. They are on their phones and tablets, taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi service that each Birmingham Public Library branch offers. I’ve even seen people take out a lawn chair and get really comfortable while searching the Internet. It made me start to think about how Birmingham Public Library offers services to our patrons, even when we’re not open during business hours.

We have our catalog, which allows patrons to search for materials, put a hold request on them, and pick up that item at any location that they wish to. Have a paper that’s coming due tomorrow and you’re still looking for research? Enjoy access to one of our many databases available to you day or night as long as you have a library card. Got a new favorite song that you want to hear all the time? Download the song to your phone or device via Freegal. Your library card opens up a world of resources to you and most of these are available at any time that’s convenient to you.

Pamela Jessie
Woodlawn Branch Library

Friday, July 17, 2015

No Yard? No Problem! Container Gardening Is the Way to Go

Have you ever wanted beautiful plants in the summer but dislike the heat and outdoors? One solution is to begin your gardening journey by creating container gardens. They provide flowers, fresh vegetables, and herbs as well as providing an attractive landscape. Whether your space is tight, you don’t have time, or you’re new to gardening, container gardening is simple and will add an attractive feature to any environment.

Listed below are library resources and websites to assist you in planting your container garden.

Container Gardening: A Sunset Outdoor Design & Build Guide
Tips for Container Gardening: 300 Great Ideas for Growing Flowers, Vegetables & Herbs
Better Homes and Gardens Complete Guide to Container Gardening
Plant by Numbers: 50 Houseplant Combinations to Decorate Your Space
Continuous Container Gardens 

Better Homes and Gardens
Southern Living

Yolanda Hardy
Smithfield Branch Library

Pick Up Some Popcorn along with Your Entertainment at the Powderly Branch Library

What a great idea! Movie, book, and popcorn combo packs available for checkout
at the 
Powderly Library. 

There are a lot of good movies out this summer and the theaters are packed each and every night. But don't forget about the library when you're thinking about the evening's entertainment. The Birmingham Public Library is offering some of the hottest new DVD releases of the year. On the list are the extremely popular Fifty Shades of Grey to the humorous Hot Tub Time Machine 2. My personal favorites, though, are the action movies which include Kingsman: The Secret ServiceRun All Night, and The Equalizer.

If you’re out in the Powderly area and need a good movie/book combination and wouldn't mind a free pack of popcorn, please pay us a visit. Our combo packages are fantastic and will be well worth your time. Make it a movie night!

New and Upcoming DVD Releases
American Sniper
Black or White

Boy Next Door

Fifty Shades of Grey 
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Run All Night

Still Alice
Wedding Ringer
More new DVDs

Hugh Hardy
Powderly Branch Library

15th Annual Math and Science Day, July 25

The 15th Annual Math and Science Fun Day will be held Saturday, July 25, 2015, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., at the Five Points West Regional Branch Library. This year’s theme is Science Then! Science Now! which will trace how science concepts have changed over the centuries and how these changes affect our society and the world.

The program is free to all ages and allows youngsters to get involved in kid-friendly, scientifically based, hands-on activities. The event will feature knowledgeable and fun presenters. Parents are encouraged to remain with their children.

Families will explore household products with magical properties, examine the origin of motion pictures, view early telephones, trace how automobiles demanded the invention of the traffic light, and get the inside scoop on motorcycle engines. Participants will have the opportunity to weave a yarn craft and compare it with spun nylon products, design their own amazing Styrofoam millinery, examine why the Stetson hat was popular in the Wild West, and learn the value of the stethoscope in diagnosing pneumonia. Additional activities include constructing a dinosaur and mathematically planning a garden.

“Man’s first science was agriculture. Growing your food brought humans from being nomadic to being farmers” concludes Dr. Preston Scarber, an educator and respected Birmingham-area materials engineer. “Man’s second science was astronomy, which allowed study of the sun, moon and planets and their relationship to planting and weather.”

“We love to see our children learn and get involved. Nothing is more exciting than seeing the human mind enjoy learning,” according to retired educators and organizers of the event, Winfield and Elinor Burks. For more information, contact the Burks at 205-786-3731 (h) or 205-515-9462 (c) or

Meet Local Artist Matthew Mayes at the Opening Reception for Layers of Meaning Exhibit

The opening reception for Birmingham artist Matthews Mayes' exhibit, Layers of Meaning: Paintings by Matthew Mayes, will be held on Sunday, July 19, 2015, 2:30-5:00 p.m., in the Central Library's Boardroom adjacent to the Fourth Floor Gallery. The exhibit will be on display through September 4, 2015.

Born in Florence, Alabama, Matthew Mayes is self-taught with over 12 years of experience as a professional artist. He currently resides in Birmingham with his partner Brian and their son Noah. Mayes began painting as a child after watching the television program Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. Mayes experienced a number of stints with hospitalization and home schooling due to illness and needed an outlet for his creativity—art was his answer and it gave his life meaning

"Once, I believed that love, food, and music were the core passions that transcended all race, creed, and color. Now, I know that art encompasses all," he states. Regarding his creative process, Mayes observes, "I allow natural ability combined with a trained eye to create. Without both, my art could not exist."

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Back By Individual Demand

Now is a time when, not only is it hard to see many movies once, it’s hard to get through movie trailers. But there are rare movies that are worth seeing many times, movies that it’s hard, if not impossible, to exhaust. Here’s a few. The cast of dozens who follow this column will know, but if you’re new to this, each entry is followed by an estimate of how many times I’ve seen the movie. And roll…

Kwaidan (1965) - Not a movie, but four. Four short films on supernatural themes based on the Japanese folktales collected by Lafcadio Hearn. All are powerful and resonant, but the standout is Hoichi The Earless, in which a monk-musician is commanded by ghosts to sing of the deeds they committed when they were human. Hoichi’s fellow monks paint scriptures all over his body to protect him from ghostly harm, but fail to include his ears. The ghosts appear ritualistically and frequently, but they never lose their quality of otherness and strangeness. In A Cup Of Tea, a man drinks another person’s soul and lives to regret it. Masaki Koboyashi’s masterful direction of the tales ensures that their weird and disturbing nature is always realized in striking imagery which arises organically from the material. Here the supernatural is captured in ways that are never gratuitous and therefore highly effective. The supernatural has never been more beautiful than it is in Kwaidan. That is part of why it entraps its victims. 3 times.

Gandhi (1982) - Director Richard Attenborough spent most of his life trying to make a film about the founder of modern India. That he succeeded is almost miraculous. Almost no one wanted such a film, and he was assured by nearly everyone that it would be a money loser. It took him decades to raise the money. That it became a critical and commercial onslaught is one of the many ironies of Gandhi. Gandhi, the man who made MLK, and therefore modern Birmingham and America possible, thought of himself as a scoundrel. and that’s why he had such patience with British oppressors and unreliable fellow Indians. The film is part of a small handful of movies that limn spirituality in a credible manner, avoiding sentimentality, overreach and hagiography. When I saw it in its initial theatrical release, the audience—men, women, children—gasped and cried in near-unison. It was an extremely powerful and cathartic experience. Some militantly secular (or militantly cynical) critics have gone on record gainsaying Gandhi but it has outlasted them, quietly perching on British best movies lists. That Gandhi was played brilliantly by a half-British, half-Gujarati (Ben Kingsley) is something that I think Mohandas Gandhi, who appreciated irony, would have appreciated. Kingsley’s portrayal is, by turns, knowing, serene, cantankerous, and grounded; it’s always believable. One of the most indelible roles in film history, it really is one for the ages. It’s British epic filmmaking in the grand manner, but not lacking in intimacy. British epic film—now there’s an extinct category for you. About 10 times.

Mommie Dearest (1981) - From the sublime to the ridiculous. Well, sort of. Another biopic, but one that unwittingly became a camp cause celebre. Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford is hilarious and shocking, but after quite a few viewings, its darker moments do add a counterpoint to her Himalayan over-the-top lead performance. I’m not trying to give much gravitas to this shock-horror extravaganza, but fair is fair. John Waters, who knows a thing or two about camp, admits in the commentary track that Dunaway’s really is an amazing performance. Except for the rosebush scene (“Tina—bring me the axe!”). Though Dunaway-as-Crawford has been parodied by legions, there are a couple of scenes in Mommie Dearest that are so dark that they’d make even a jaded drag queen blink. Dunaway isn’t everything, though. Diana Scarwid as Crawford’s adopted daughter is the very picture of cowed codependency. A signal performance. The gestalt of Hollywood as fake, empty, and glitz-dead is very effectively, even damningly, conveyed. Cringe-worthiness never had it so good, but there’s more going on here than that. At least some of the time. Hamlet’s flaws make it stronger, and, though Mommie Dearest sure enough ain’t no Hamlet, it does have enough contradictions, odd resonances, and a dark sensibility that it is…No, not great. Not something that won’t embarrass you. Just compelling. And interesting. And reckless and potent and fun. How many movies can you say that about? It’s just too bad it destroyed Faye Dunaway’s career. No, she isn’t on the commentary track. Around 6 times.

Richard Grooms
Fiction/Government Documents Departments
Central Library

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Looking for the Watchman, the Book Event of the Year

Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee

Isaiah 21:6
For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, Set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

Nelle Harper Lee was born in 1926 in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama. She was reared by her attorney father who also published the local newspaper. From an early age she developed an appreciation for the written word and also became an astute observer of the good, the bad, and the ugly found in the small southern town of her era.

Thirty-four years later (1960), when her now famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird was first published, her editor warned her not to be disappointed if it only sold a modest amount. The print-run was only two thousand. It became an instant bestseller, and since its print debut, it has never run out of print with recent tallies showing more than 40 million copies sold in more than 40 languages. It regularly appears on many high school reading lists, yet oddly has been frequently challenged by many would-be censors. Perhaps the most prestigious award was the Pulitzer Prize which it garnered less than a year after its initial publication.

This southern gothic, coming-of-age story is so well known to most readers that a recanting of the plot and narrative would seem to be redundant. What is worth mentioning are the vast number of themes and topics woven together throughout the novel. These include, but are not limited to, racial inequality, racism, classism, sexism, local traditions, taboos, mental illness, alcoholism, gender, loss of innocence, justice, and the lack thereof, and courage.

Atticus (Gregory Peck) and Scout (Mary
Badham) on the front porch swing, where
Scout shared the events of her day and
Atticus answered her many questions.
In 1962, a film of the same title was released starring Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, and Phillip Alford. The film received eight Academy Award nominations and brought home three Oscar wins. A play was also spun from the novel and is performed annually in Monroeville.

After several years of enjoying, or at least tolerating, her new-found fame, Lee turned her back on it altogether, refusing interviews, audiences with fans, and suggestions that she should produce another novel. She also suffered the insults of those who publicly opined that she was not the author of Mockingbird. Many of these detractors suggested that her close friend Truman Capote wrote it entirely or that he edited it heavily. (Capote did write on the dust jacket for the first edition.) Some question, that if she were the true author of this bestselling, popular, modern masterpiece, why did she not publish another novel as so many years rolled by.

WHOA! . . . not so fast.

Today, July 14, 2015, a second novel by Harper Lee titled Go Set a Watchman is being published. This, simply put, serves as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird since it includes some characters from the 1960 novel and is set twenty years later in time. The truth is that Watchman was written in the 1950s, several years before Mockingbird was written. Lee originally submitted Watchman to her publisher and it was rejected. She was given the advice to write another novel by expanding on flashbacks found in Watchman to feature a much younger Scout as the narrator depicting life and episodes from a small southern town. While Mockingbird is fiction, it is plausible to think of the novel’s Maycomb as a fictional Monroeville. Other autobiographical influences seem evident as well, as Lee, like many novelists, was writing on that which she found personally familiar.

First edition, UK
Given what is now known about the development and time frame of Watchman, one cannot help but wonder what to expect from the sequel. Surely the characters and social mores will have necessarily changed over time. How will Watchman resonate with long-time fans of Mockingbird? Will major Mockingbird fans accept or reject Watchman? After reading Watchman, will some Mockingbird fans change how they think of and feel about Mockingbird? Will this publication, after more than 50 years of silence, make a significant change to Harper Lee’s legacy?

Anticipation is running high and pre-orders are shattering previous records. Don’t miss the book event of the year. Reserve your copy today online, or contact your favorite BPL location in person or by telephone to secure your place in line.

While you are waiting, you can get a sneak peek here. Or a sneak listen (with Reese Witherspoon) here.

David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

Monday, July 13, 2015

Serena Williams: Best of All Time?

Serena Williams Australian Open

Serena Williams, at thirty-three years old, has accomplished a feat that few professional tennis players have ever achieved.  Beginning with last year’s U.S. Open Championship, she has won all four of the Grand Slam tennis tournaments (U.S. Open, Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon).  The tennis world is calling it the Serena Slam.  If she wins this year’s U.S. Open Championship, she will complete a calendar-year grand slam, making her only the fourth woman ever to do so.
Serena Williams French Open

To appreciate how difficult an accomplishment this is in tennis, only 7 men and 10 women (including Serena) have won all four Grand Slam titles during their tennis career. Furthermore, of the men and women who have won all four titles over the course of their career, only 3 women and 2 men (one did it twice) have done it in the same calendar year.  Serena has managed to win four straight Grand Slam titles while playing on three different surfaces (hard courts, clay courts, and grass courts) in four different countries.

Serena Williams Wimbledon

As a tennis fan, I marvel at Serena’s ability to battle through match after match and find a way to win, even when she’s not playing her best tennis.  Whether you’re a fan of tennis or not, you can’t help but acknowledge that Serena is an outstanding athlete.  She has won 21 Grand Slam singles titles in 25 appearances.  Playing with her sister Venus, she has won 13 Grand Slam doubles titles and three Olympic gold medals in doubles.  Serena has also won two Grand Slam titles in mixed doubles along with a gold medal in singles tennis at the London Olympics.  Playing as well as she is at this point in her career, if she is not the best of all time, she will certainly be counted among them.