Monday, June 28, 2010


For some reason I really like prose written by poets. Ted Kooser was a Poet Laureate who won the Pulitzer Prize, and he writes beautiful, lyrical prose that never detracts from his subject matter.
Kooser describes and pays tribute to his ancestors and other relatives, most of whom settled in the Turkey Valley near Osterdock and Guttenberg. He brings them to life in a sweet little book that is so tiny it is hard to spot on the library shelf.
Do search for it: he has made me want to visit that area to see the terrain his ancestors from Switzerland chose to settle in because it reminded them of home.


Now here's a woman who is one of a kind! One of the joys of exploring books about Iowa is meeting memorable people. I'm so glad I read this book about Gladys Black. I only wish I could have met her in real life.
Gladys was a crusty, outspoken character--a lover and protector of wildlife, especially birds.
Among her many accomplishments, she lobbied to prevent Mourning Dove hunting and the use of DDT, and she helped establish the Chickadee Checkoff which allows taxpayers to designate funds for support of non-game wildlife programs.
In their discussion of her life, the authors quote many people whom Gladys influenced. She especially impressed school children with her walks and talks about birds. Some of them eventually pursued professions related to conservation of wildlife. And she tenderly rehabilitated injured birds--sometimes even in her house.
Although Gladys was self-taught, her knowledge was deep and accurate. She won many local, state, and national awards. I'd like to visit some of the memorial gardens and refuges which have been established in her name.
Gladys Black was her own person, unconcerned about the appearance of her house or her clothes.
I just wish I had the nerve to write to legislators as she did to whose who disagreed with her, beginning her letters: "Dear Knucklehead".

Saturday, June 26, 2010

driving the body back

driving the body back, poems by Mary Swander.

I thoroughly enjoyed this evocative book of narrative poems, which catalog the lives of "Jim, George, Julia, Phil, Nell, Maud, Doc, Ed, and Grandma," relatives (real, fictional?) of the poet. The poems portrayed the prickley personalities of these people, their relationships with others, and the rural/farm/small town landscape they lived in. The word portraits made me think of the Depression era and stories my grandparents told of life on the farm. I recommend this book, even if you're not a poetry fan, because the pictures it paints are so real.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Iowa's Poet Laureates

I know at the book discussion meetings this summer at the library, discussion guides Liz and Deb will be talking a bit about Iowa's Poet Laureates. We have had three, and I thought it might be useful to provide a little background information on each of them. If any of you has favorite poems or books by these poets, we would love to get your suggestions for library purchases, as our collections from each are woefully small.

Marvin Bell was the first Poet Laureate for the State of Iowa, serving two terms beginning in the year 2000. Here is a little additional information about him from

Robert Dana was Iowa's Poet Laureate from 2004-2008. You can learn more about him in his Wikipedia biography.

Mary Swander was appointed Poet Laureate by Governor Chet Culver in 2009. She has her own website where you can learn about her and her work.

We hope you enjoy these specially acclaimed Iowa voices!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

So many books to talk about!

Club Readers, I am not in the blog mode yet--Jo had to remind me to write something about our first Club Read discussion group meeting, a week ago Tuesday (June 15). We had a great turnout of 12 voracious readers, and it was fun and inspiring to hear what everyone has been reading.

Here's a partial list: A Christmas Blizzard and Life Among the Lutherans by Garrison Keillor (those were mine--I love Keillor's monologues on A Prairie Home Companion, and these two books "sounded" just like him); Miracle on the Hudson (about the passengers on the plane pilot Sully Sullenberger landed on the Hudson River); The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver; a mystery series (whose name I didn't get) set in Appalachia by Vicky Lane; Population 485 , Truck and Coop by Michael Perry; The Double Comfort Safari Club, the latest No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novel by Alexander McCall Smith (if you like "gentle" mysteries and are curious about Botswana, I recommend this series); Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools by Greg Mortensen; Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom; Too Much Happiness, a short story collection by Alice Munro; The Political Mind by George Lakeoff; and many more books! (I apologize for any misspellings of author names/titles--don't have time to blog and check my facts!)

I've been attending the Club Read discussion group since 2000, so this is my 10th anniversary discovering and discussing books with a group of lively and opinionated readers. But several of our members have been with us since Club Read started 20 years ago, and it's instructive to hear their perspective on classics, fiction, nonfiction, all the genres. When you love to read and can share that love with other passionate readers, you have the best of all worlds--and that's how I feel about Club Read at the Marion Public Library. We are blessed to live in a city that supports a great public library and wonderful outreach programs.

Our assignment for the next meeting on June 29 is to read books from "Reading in Our Own Backyard" list in the Club Read packet. I can't wait to hear what the group has to say about the books on this year's bibliographies. Check back and I'll share the highlights with you right here on ClubReadBlogger.


P.S. Please comment, so I know someone is reading this besides Liz and Jo!

Dewey the Cat

All you Iowa readers! This is a great summer to be reading about Iowa at the Marion Library -- we have several Iowa authors visiting! First on the list will be Vicki Myron, author of the Dewey the Library Cat books. The Friends of the Marion Library will host Ms Myron at a dessert reception on Tuesday, July 20 at 7 p.m. There is no charge for the program, and books will be available to purchase thanks to our event bookseller, Mystery Cat Books. Todd at Mystery Cat is giving 15% of the proceeds of book sales to the Friends to benefit the library! Please stop in at Mystery Cat (112 32nd Street Dr SE, Cedar Rapids) and thank Todd in person!

Dewey is the story of a kitten who was found, nearly frozen to death, in the book drop at the Spencer, Iowa public library and subsequently adopted by the library staff. He lived a long and happy life, touching the lives of many in Spencer and around the world. 

Ms Myron has written three books:
1) Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World (for adults)
2) Dewey: There's a Cat in the Library! (easy reader for young children)
3) Dewey the Library Cat (for children ages 9-12)

You can also purchase books in advance if you like -- all three of her titles are available at the Information Desk in the library. Buy now and be ready to meet one of our most famous Iowa authors and have her sign your books! Be sure to get July 20 on your calendars!

LITTLE HEATHENS by Mildred Kalish and GROWING UP COUNTRY by Carol Bodensteiner

These two books describe the authors' experiences as kids growing up on Iowa farms in two different eras. Mildred Kalish lived near Garrison in Benton County during the late 1920's and the 1030's. Carol Bodensteiner lived on a dairy farm near Spragueville (east of Maquoketa) in Jackson County during the 1950's.
The contrast was great. Mildred's family had no running water or electricity and traveled very few miles. Carol's family had a TV, a freezer, a car, and milking machines.
What impressed me about both lives was the incredible amount of work farm women did routinely: rising early to help milk 50 cows, cooking enormous quantities of food daily; raising, processing, and preserving most of the family's food; and sewing the family's clothes. In the farming neighborhood I grew up in, if a woman couldn't do all those things and keep a half-way decent house, she was considered shiftless!
Even ten-year-old girls took pride in preparing complete breakfasts, pancakes and all, just when morning chores were finished. And the necessary work all ages of children did that was fun and was valued.
In spite of hard work, both girls and siblings had a lot of fun: some scary moments, and some hilarious episodes. Both attended one-room rural elementary schools.
Each writer has a distinct voice and approach to her memoir: Carol is very much dialogue and present-action oriented. Mildred reminisces more and sees her family in perspective. Both absorbed the Mid-Western work ethic that netted them great results as adults. I loved each one for its individuality.
What I missed most in both books was a description of the the impact of WW II on farm family's lives, which is what I remember most vividly as a kid. Mildred was old enough by the time the war started to enlist in the WAVES. Carol's parents were married in 1942 and her father was in military service, but that was never mentioned. And of course Carol was born much later. I guess the book about farm life during WW II has yet to be written, unless someone can point us to such a book!

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Whitetail deer are now the bane of some urban dwellers' lives, but I had never seen a deer in the wild until we traveled to the Rocky Mountains when I was a teenager. Although they were extinct in Iowa in early 1900's, now they are plentiful.
Elkader native Larry Stone, who farms along the Turkey River, records the history of efforts to re-establish, protect, and now to manage Iowa's deer population through various forms of hunting and harvesting.
He discusses all aspects of their presence, from diseases and poaching, to damage they cause to crops, gardens, and vehicles. But they are potentially a financial advantage to farmers, merchants, and state coffers, not to mention an esthetic pleasure to many animal lovers.
Beautiful photographs by Roland resident Roger Hill enhance the text.


When I picked up former Iowa Poet Laureate Robert Dana's 2004 collection of poetry, I relaxed into magic moments caught and cherished for the beauty of their quietness: the play of light and dark, nature's sounds and sights, and neighborhood events.
This is indeed poetry to be read in your own backyard.
Dana relishes sensory pleasures, muses on mortality, ponders his place in life, and slips in a sly comment on the then President and our unwilling trudge to war.
The title poem, inspired by Red Admiral butterflies spiraling upward, reminds me of a moment many years ago when a butterfly landed on my finger to taste juice of weeds I had been pulling from a flower bed.
He even inspired me to write my own poem commemorating that moment.


Usually I don't like to read novels composed of letters, but Sandra Dallas pulled me right into this story with Alice's delightful, down-home narrative voice. Alice writes letters to her married sister Lizzie in Galena, IL., describing her life as a new bride on a farm in extreme southeastern Iowa.
After Alice and Charlie Bullock have been married only a year, the Civil War begins and Charlie volunteers, leaving pregnant Alice to cope with taciturn Mother Bullock. She survives by working hard and sewing quilts with other townswomen for Union solders.
The plot thickens when Lizzie has marital problems, unknown marauders raid the neighborhood, and Alice is suspected of murder after a body is found on their land.
Dallas carries the quilting motif by introducing each chapter with information about quilting designs and techniques of that era.
Of Dallas' books that I have read, TALLGRASS, ALICE'S TULIPS, or THE PERSIAN PICKLE CLUB, ALICE is my favorite.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Now for some fiction! THE OTHER ANNA by Barbara Esstman is an unusual, powerful novel whose spell , I would guess, will remain with readers for a long time. The story is set in New Marango, Iowa, a town between Storm Lake and Spirit Lake during 1920.
Sixteen-year-old Anna Berter recalls life from her childhood to the present, when a series of events causes her to question her identity and her relationship to her parents.
Anna's mother, whom she calls the Prussian, controls the entire family, even her physician husband, and wields great influence over other townspeople. When Edwina, the maid and granddaughter of the family's housekeeper, becomes pregnant out of wedlock, the Prussian banishes both of them from the household, insists on adopting the baby, and refuses to let the two see the child.
The consummate Victorian, the Prussian tries to protect Anna from unpleasant reality and chooses to ignore anything and anyone she considers objectionable. In spite of her mother's efforts, however, Anna sees or experiences many of the rites of passage to womanhood. And she bears guilty feelings for her role in Edwina's plight.
What I found both strange but intriguing is that the life of a Midwestern Victorian family is told within the framework of an ancient Celtic legend of the selchies (or selkies). They are seals with supernatural ability to shed their skins and fall in love with humans, mate, and live on dry land. But when longing for water grows too strong, they don their sealskins and return to the sea, eventually re-emerging to claim their children.
Author Barbara Esstman may live in Virginia, but she knows how a rippling Iowa cornfield can resemble the sea. Although this book was not wildly popular when it was published, Hallmark Hall of Fame chose to produce it as SECRETS, and I enjoyed Esstman's writing so much I want to read more of her work.


Jeffrey Zaslow, co-author of THE LAST LECTURE and "Sully" Sullenberger's story HIGHEST DUTY, received a packet of letters from a woman who had grown up in Ames. He soon realized the potential of a book that tells the story of a closely-knit group of eleven girls who have maintained their friendships to the present.
Zaslow describes the problems and pranks of this group's teen years, then follows them as they marry (or not) and have families and/or professions. He focuses on the interplay of relationships, the girls' honesty, loyalty, and support for one another during crises. Individual pictures as young girls, as teenagers, and now as adults help readers visualize them, and group pictures convey their fun-filled friendship.
Zaslow writes with great dexterity and clarity, combining facts, feelings, events, personalities and psychological observations, all in a sentence or two. And he is never stuffy. I wanted to keep reading to learn how each girl fared and what happened during their reunions. Moods ranged from hilarious to sentimental, to shocking, to grief and regret.
This may be primarily a woman's book, as Zaslow observes that women tend to have more long-lasting personal relationships than men, but male readers might enjoy THE GIRLS, too. I couldn't help thinking of my high school buddies who are still close friends.
Reading this book will be a trip down memory lane for women born in the early 1960's, a glimpse into social history for those younger, and a puzzlement for oldsters who might say, "Life was never like that when I went to high school!"

Friday, June 4, 2010

I've just finished another book from the Marion Public Library's Club Read Iowa-flavored list--Enchanted by Prairie (photographed by Bill Witt, essay by Osha Gray Davidson, published by the University of Iowa Press). Bill Witt has been photographing Iowa's wild places for more than 30 years, and in this lovely picture book he documents the remnants of Iowa's prairie. Landscapes and prairie flower and grass closeups--this book has them all, plus a thoughtful essay by Osha Gray Davidson comparing today's prairie remnants to yesterday's oceanic expanses, with a call to us to restore balance to our damaged landscape. If you love wildflowers, wild places, gorgeous photos, or Iowa's land, you will be "Enchanted by Prairie."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Who would have guessed that a foundling kitten would grow up to attract not only local Spencer, Iowa, residents, but become nationally and internationally famous? In DEWEY: THE SMALL-TOWN LIBRARY CAT WHO TOUCHED THE WORLD Vicki Myron describes the way little dirt-covered Dewey adapted to life in the Spencer public Library. He loved, or at least tolerated, attention from everyone, and seemed to know which people needed the special attention of his calm presence in their laps.
Myron narrates in easily-read conversational style not only Dewey's life, but adds glimpses of local history and opens the door to her own life, an inspiring story itself.
As a cat and library lover, I enjoyed this book immensely. Dewey's antics and curiosity were pure cat, especially his love of heights on the top of book stacks. His temperament, however, was rare. Even as an 8-week-old kitten he appreciated his rescue from near death and seem to know from the first that the library was his home.
Even readers who are not"cat people" will chuckle at his antics and find his growing fame fascinating. In a very good way, thousands of people now know where Iowa is, and many traveled great distances just to see and pet him.
The Marion Library is honored to host Vicki Myron on July 20 at 7:00. We'll have a chance to ask questions and learn more about Dewey and about Myron's life after retirement. Please join us for an evening of conversation and desserts.

Meanwhile, do add comments about your response to DEWEY and tell about your latest find as a reader exploring Iowa and Iowans.