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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance, by Ellen Gruber Garvey

In my previous blog I mentioned a brief history of scrapbooks, and several books on the
subject. Writing With Scissors is probably the most scholarly of these, focusing as it does on some of the most historically significant albums and collections.  

Hooked on the subject by the discovery of a farm woman’s scrapbook of clipped articles dedicated to the environment of the home that she discovered in a used book store, Garvey went on to explore the world of scrapbooks housed in libraries, archives, and historical societies. Scrapbooks are often extremely personal, miniature archives of daily life not meant for public consumption. “Every scrapbook is its own world,” she writes, “compelling and impossibly frustrating.” She quotes from James Tate’s poem “Horseshoe” to describe the experience of puzzling over these volumes, 

          I can’t read the small print in the scrapbook:
          does this say, Relinquishing all bats, feeling faint
          on the balcony? There is so much to be corrected here,
          so many scribbles and grumbles, blind premonitions.
          How does one interpret, on this late branch, the unexpected? 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Scrapbooks: Intimate Records of Everyday Life, and More

When I was in school (long, long ago) we were sometimes assigned a scrapbook project. I can remember doing one on Venezuela that included an essay on Simon Bolivar, agriculture, industry, history, maps, etc. with any illustrations I could find. (Wretched old textbooks and National Geographics from the thrift shops often helped with such projects.) Another was on Abraham Lincoln (I can still feel the coarseness of the construction paper – brown – that comprised the pages of that album. It was old paper, and had a distinctive dusty odor, too.)

Many young friends kept scrapbooks of movie stars, horses, cats, animals in general, the Dionne Quintuplets, Shirley Temple, flowers, and other subjects. Boys tended toward subjects such as aviation, radio, sports, heroes (Charles Lindberg, boxing champs) cars, comic strips, and other “manly” matters.  I think my first unprompted effort was on science, but then, I was always a weird child.  
Adults collected recipes, albums of family travels with photos and souvenir ephemera, records of military service or occupations. Mothers kept scrapbooks on their children’s progress through childhood. College students kept a record of the years in school, with photos, programs for plays and dances and sporting events; clippings, grades, class schedules, lectures, and other souvenirs. I once acquired a pre-WWI album compiled by a student at a vocational college in our state who was studying pharmacy. After much research and a visit to the pharmacy school archivist, we determined that the album maker was in the first graduating class of the pharmacy school and became the first instructor under the dean. A lot more was discovered about his career, including the fact that I had no doubt dealt with him numerous times in a local pharmacy years earlier. Since the school was celebrating its centenary, the album found a home in its archives.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

About the Birds: Poetry Month and Earth Day


Since I seem to be derelict (or busy) regarding this blog, and considering that April is National Poetry Month here in the USA, perhaps it is time to share a few of my poems. And since it is also Earth Day, poems about wild birds seems appropriate.  

Please note that these poems are all copyright in my name.

My young neighbor, years ago, was passionate about raptors and had permissions from National authorities to hold and treat wild species. At any given time you might find Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, and other birds of prey in his aviaries. Cornell flew experts out to perform surgeries in extreme cases. And sometimes he worked with local wildlife vets to rehabilitate some wild birds. He once stopped by my place to show me a pygmy owl that had bumped into a car windshield that he was asked to treat and was transporting to his home up the hill. It recovered quickly, mostly from shock. The heron he tried to save didn’t make it, but I watched while he made the attempt to force-feed it. (He has since become a nationally recognized wild bird specialist with “Dr.” in front of his name.)


Feeding the Heron
I remember how my neighbor’s boy
tried to save the blue heron --   
damaged, starving – entrusted
to his care; how he trussed its wings
against the bulky body, then forced
that long sharp bill apart
to dribble in warm brandy
while his dark and gentle hand
stroked the slender throat
from pharynx to crop. “You don’t
dare move your eyes,” he said,
then told how the stiletto beak
would strike in an instant
at a moist eye’s flash
as though it were a minnow under water.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

I Could Pee on This

Don’t shout at me: it’s the title of a book! More specifically, I Could Pee on This and Other Poems by Cats, by Franceso Marciuliano. Make a note: you may want to give copies to cat-loving friends as gifts!  

While it’s not great literature, this little book is full of charm, from Marciuliano’s humor to some great cat photos to the poems themselves. Of the poems the author says in his introduction, “…by the time you ‘ve finished reading this poetry anthology, you’ll not only completely understand everything your cat thinks and does but even applaud him for it. Maybe give him a medal. Or throw him a parade in your hallway, making sure to avoid staircases so all the tiny floats don’t tumble down. Or you can just sit your cat down, look him straight in the eyes and say, “I get it. I really do get it…..furry face.” 

You see, it’s all about catitude. The title poem says it all: 

                                             I COULD PEE ON THIS
                              Her new sweater doesn’t smell of me
                              I could pee on that
                              She’s gone out for the day and
                                    left her laptop on the counter
                              I could pee on that
                              Her new boyfriend just pushed
                                    my head away
                              I could pee on him
                              She’s ignoring me ignoring her
                              I could pee everywhere
                              She’s making up for it
                                   by putting me on her lap
                              I could pee on this
                              I could pee on this 

Notice that the cat only contemplates the threat, but that the threat is preeminent cat philosophy.  

Our cat, Fiona, approves this message. You can see her fur alongside the book photo, where she insisted on pressing herself against the scanner to watch the light move (next best thing to watching the printer, which is second only to watching the DVD changer slide in and out on the TV – her favorite pastime). 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Collecting Interests Change With the Times

Recently I have had several discussions with various antiques, ephemera, and book dealers about changes in collecting interests. Antiques dealers cite the loss of interest in Victoriana, carnival glass, pressed glass, china, and many of the 1970s-80s “collectibles” that were issued for “collectors.” Booksellers note flagging interest in Western Americana, reference books that have been digitized online, and a slump in the collectible children’s books market. The last generation’s nostalgia moves along with the generations. It’s a constant trend, and a sharp seller will not only note what is coming on, but will try to see what will be sought after in future. 

As a dealer in ephemera – including  postcards  -- I have, over the years, seen many changes in collecting interests involving  these little pasteboard artifacts. 40 years ago there was an earnest group of collectors seeking Pioneers (the earliest postal cards), “Gruss  Aus” (greetings from) as well as late 19th and early 20th Century artist-signed illustrated cards and cards on specific topics and holidays. Christmas, New Year, and scarcer holiday cards such as July 4th, President birthdays, Labor Day,  Groundhog Day, and Halloween were popular. In the 1940s, linen cards appeared and until the 1980s or so these were pretty much despised. The 1950s saw chrome (color cards with shiny surfaces) replace linen, and these are still mostly shunned.

There was little interest, coming into the 1970s era, in Easter or Thanksgiving cards although some of the best-collected illustrators designed many of them.  I had a personal interest in cards depicting poultry, and I bought a considerable number of Easter and Thanksgiving cards during the time when they were sold for 25 cents, or five for a dollar, or some few special ones were even a dollar or so. I favored cards with chickens and other barnyard fowl, which led to rabbits and hares and other offshoots, such as anthropomorphic versions of the same subjects – animals dressed in human clothing, playing human games, driving vehicles such as autos and trains. Another sidebar was animals pulling carts. (These were for my personal collection, which I still retain.) Beware that collecting postcards can lead to expanded interests! 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

How Many Fish in the Ocean?

40 years ago I was deeply involved in environmental action programs. In fact, my then-spouse was a student at the University or Oregon in the Honors program, part of which included an optional program called “Search.” Each student in Search prepared his or her own topic and, with the supervision of a faculty advisor, outlined a curriculum or project to satisfy academic requirements.

So was born a class titled “Can Man Survive?” Since the catalog for the term had already been issued, my husband (Zed) and his advisor (John) and I sat around our dining room table and made paper signs by hand. We hung these all over campus (an environmental irony I suppose) and planned for 30 students.

We were not far into registration day when one of the registrars called and said that the class had been filled – could it be enlarged? I checked and the answer was, “sure.” So larger room was assigned (150 capacity) but in a couple of hours there was another call. At that point the decision was, “leave it open.” Larger and larger rooms were assigned, until finally the only option was the basketball court. 4200 students signed up, and since the townfolk were also invited, 6300 people attended the first class. It made the Wall Street journal and CBS news.

For some people, it was the first time the word “ecology” entered their vocabulary. The idea of the class was for people to form “action groups” on a matter they felt strongly about, and to devise some methods for dealing with problems. Some opted merely to do research and write reports. Others dove into projects such as cleaning up our local rivers, saving a piece of virgin old growth forest from logging, creating a food co-op and a low-income medical clinic, and many others. Leading experts in various fields from education to environmental issues came to speak. A great deal more happened but my purpose in relating all this is that when we spoke of the loss of family farms, the environmental impact on food supplies from changing climate, drugs in feed, pesticides in produce, and the need to take action - many people blithely replied, “oh, whatever happens the scientists will fix it,” and “there will always be fish in the ocean.” As you know, neither has come to pass. Only now – 40 years later – are some of these issues being taken seriously. And clearly the fish have declined disastrously. When I was a child halibut was one of the cheapest foods you could buy. The last time I looked at it in the market, it was $22.99 a pound.

So it’s interesting that I have in hand a book that was withdrawn from the Smithsonian library, titled “Report on the Construction and Outfit of the United States Fish Commission Steamer Albatross. The first sentence of this book reads, “The alleged decrease of the food-fishes along the sea-coasts and in the lakes of the United States induced the passage by Congress, in 1871, an act authorizing the appointment ….”

 I didn’t make a typo there. That date really is 1871. The book was published c. 1885. (The book appears to be missing a title page, and the few online listings indicate 1884 and 1885, while the only WorldCat listings are for 1885.) It deals with the construction, outfitting, and voyage of a specially-built steamship for the purpose of studying the fish populations, with many wonderful fold-out plates.

But the book itself raises some questions... It has been recased in a library binding with Smithsonian endpapers and paste-downs, so at least they did this part of the repairs. My curiosity resides with some additional repairs, which seem very amateurish. So I’m wondering whether the Smithsonian could have been so fumble-handed as to perpetrate these atrocities and what the materials used might be. I know for a fact that this book was purchased directly from the Smithsonian when they were deacquisitioning, so perhaps they acquired the book already well used (which seems rather strange) and these repairs were done prior to their ownership.

The folding frontis is reinforced on the back with some kind of laminated or glued plasticky stuff (like cellophane tape, only it apparently came in a sheet.) There is strip of similar material down the front of the fold. Some of that has come loose and it obviously has discolored the paper badly. (The “half-title,” page, which is more like a subtitle or section title, has a reinforcing tape strip on the fore edge, but it appears to be more recent, and different. More like Magic Mending tape, and although yellowed, it seems not to have discolored the paper in the same way as the other stuff.) Man, somebody has really gummed up this rather valuable book!

However, the real question is: does anyone recognize this laminate type material? It doesn’t seem possible that it could be removed without further damage to the already fragile paper, nor could the effects of the adhesive stain be reversed. So I guess I’m just curious as to whether this is something that the Smithsonian would have done, and what this odd material might be.

(Inquiries welcome about purchase of this volume, if anyone is interested.)

Friday, August 10, 2012

More on The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

I have just finished reading another of Alexander McCall Smith’s charming novels about Mma Ramotswe and her detective agency, the one and only in Gaborone, Botswana. I keep wondering why I continue to feel refreshed after reading one of them. The stories are sweet and compelling, although not riveting. The characters have grown through the course of the novels, each with his or her quirks and motivations, until I feel as though I know them fairly well. (Actually, McCall does little in the way of description – a few character tags, and you fill in the rest for yourself.)

Precious Ramotswe has some weight, a condition she refers to as “traditionally built.” In fact, the title of this recently-read book is “Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.” (I am not reading these in sequence, but as they come along.)

But I come away from one of them feeling warm, relaxed, happy, and somehow elevated in my perceptions of human behavior. More forgiving, perhaps. More capable of allowing for human differences. And just as I was trying to figure out the exact reasons for this, I came across this passage, in which Mma Ramotswe’s recently-wed husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (the is how they address each other, in fact) reflects on his feeling for his wife:

“He looked away. He was not one for displays of emotion; he never had been, but it made his heart swell to be thanked by this woman who stood for so much in his eyes; who stood for kindness and generosity and understanding; for a country of which he was so proud; who stood for Africa and all the love that Africa contained.”

And that about says it. Precious worries at the loss of old traditions of respect, kindness, generosity, etc. as the newer generation adopts more selfish and unthinking ways, even as she upholds those traditions herself. She loves Africa in a way that I can understand in my heart, as common to those of us who feel our roots in a place run deep.

It is not a love that blinds: she knows the failings and failures of her beloved country. “”We were tiny creatures, really;” she thinks, “tiny and afraid, trying to hold our place on the little platform that was our earth. So while the world about us might seem so solid, so permanent, it was not really. We were all at the mercy of chance, no matter how confident we felt, hostages to our own human frailty. And that applied not only to people, but to countries too. Things could go wrong and entire nations could be led into a world of living nightmare; it had happened, and was happening still. Poor Africa, which could stand for love and happiness and joy, could also be a place of suffering and shame. But that suffering was not the only story, thought Mma Ramotswe. There was a story of courage and determination and goodness that could be told as well, and she was proud that her country, her Botswana, had been part of that.”

(Smith may, incidentally, be single-handedly responsible for reviving the semi-colon in literature.)

So in those quotations lie the answer to my questions. Deeply probing philosophy gently robed in kindness.