Maira's Books

In January of 2005 I started this blog as a record of books I’ve read as I was afraid I would forget what I have read. I have often referred back to my own blog to remember a book's contents or see what I have read by an author. I have enjoyed passing my books on to friends or recommending books to read. I know I have missed recording some, but in general I try to keep up with what I have read or listened to.

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Location: Kalamazoo, MI, United States

I am a librarian at Waldo Library at Western Michigan University.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lily and Sword and Crown by Katherine Burton (1958)

This is a history of the Sisters of St. Casimir, a Lithuanian congregation based in Chicago, that I visited as part of my research on places that might be useful to researchers of the Baltic countries and their people around the world. I also have a blog entry on my visit. Since there is only one reference to the library in this book, when someone is considering giving a book to the library as a gift, this hasn't really been helpful to the nuts and bolts of my research. But instead, it has given me a good glimpse into the Lithuanian community in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century. I actually know very little about the Latvian communities that were formed in the United states before my parents emigrated, and the Lithuanians settled in the U.S. in much greater numbers. I only knew that from Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle and that there was a large Lithuanian community in Chicago, that predated WWII. In my visit, Sister Theresa Papsis gave me a brief history, and explained, that it had all started in Scranton, PA, where a Lithuanian pastor had a congregation and invited his sister to come to America and help him out. The sister and friends started the Sisters of St. Casimir in Pennsylvania, but then were convinced to move to Chicago instead. She graciously gifted me this book, so I could learn more about them.

From that brief overview from Sister Theresa, I kept asking myself - why Scranton? So when I spent spring break visiting a few libraries, archives and museums on the East coast, I visited the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, where I learned about the numerous immigrant coal miners and textile workers. Lithuanians were mentioned among the immigrant groups, and churches were mentioned as important institutions for the communities. I also looked up the most recent census data, and got approximate numbers of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians for each state. The tables are at work right now, but I was surprised at the number of Lithuanians in Pennsylvania - and Illinois. After reading this book, I understand why.

This book educated me on various levels. I learned a lot about the practical work of the Catholic Church and congregations of sisters in particular. I think in my mind I had thought of it more as a monastery or cloister, devoted to quiet contemplation, though the little I saw of Sister Theresa convinced me that at least one of them was a very busy sister. I was surprised that their main focus was education. Over the fifty years described in the book, they grew from three teachers and under a hundred students to 53 institutions in 13 states and Argentina, with about 500 sisters teaching over 12,000 students. They built and managed the Holy Cross Hospital from 1928, and were asked to manage another failing hospital in Chicago some years later. They prepared teachers for Lithuanian communities around the country - and even reinvigorated the Catholic Church in Lithuania, after it gained its independence in 1919. All incredibly hard workers with the larger communities as their focus.

I have always been a bit skeptical of renouncing relationships with men, but I found a model that I saw as quite functional. First of all, the church setting and extensive training offered a way for women to be out in the world away from their families, to get an education, and have a fulfilling career, while not being totally out on their own without protection. There were plenty of men in their lives - the fathers, bishops, etc., without whose help they could not have done all the things they did. I can see this as a very functional system, with set roles and boundaries. I will stick with my belief in the good and keep the skeptic out of this situation. I am sure it is much harder to get people who want to commit to these roles now, as is seen with the diminished number of sisters at St. Casimir.

It seemed that there was no angst about remaining "purely Lithuanian," a conversation often heard in the Latvian community today. As Catholics, they had a structure in which to belong, and their accomplishments were largely due to support from American bishops, archbishops, fathers and mothers. Since I am not totally familiar with Lithuanian names, often I could not tell if they were dealing with a Lithuanian or not. Mother Cyril played a major role in the development and ongoing support of the Sisters of St. Casimir, and my sense was that she was not Lithuanian. During celebrations it was often noted that things happened in Latin, Lithuanian and English. Something to think about.

My last comment on this book, is that it was meticulously crafted (maybe edited a bit differently if written today) and seemed to know what everyone was thinking at any given moment. I believe this detail was possible because the people of those times communicated frequently with letters - often weekly or even daily. The book will at time directly quote from a letter, but often just say things like "Sister Maria was greatly disappointed..." We tend to put it all out there in emails, but who can even begin to archive all of those. My friend Inta sent long letters to my cousin about her philosophy of life. When she died I asked my cousin about them and he said he had deleted them all. Poof! Gone! I understand the Sisters continue to maintain a detailed archive of their history, which is good. They have done an amazing job over the last 100+ years.

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah (2009)

I did not realize this was another Kristin Hannah book, since I just read Home Front. I might have waited a bit longer before reading another one of these modern day sagas that I think realistically depicts relationships and situations, but gets pretty heavy.

Two very different girls briefly live across the street from each other on Firefly Lane. (Strangely it gets mentioned a few times that there are no fireflies in the Puget Sound area around Seattle, WA,which is a shame, as they are really neat creatures.) Kate comes from a loving family, but isn't very popular in school. Tully has a strung-out mom that leaves her to be raised by her grandmother, but knows how to be the center of attraction. They bond and become best friends for life. Here again I feel the need to add an aside. In one sense I envy those that have life-long best friends. I seem to have had a series of best friends throughout life - throughout childhood - high school - college - Ohio - Latvian Studies Center - and post LSC. I am still in contact with all of them, except from early childhood, and the ones that are no longer with us. But I can't say I have a best friend at the moment, and that elicits a certain sadness in me when reading about other best friends.

So... Kate and Tully dream of being news anchors together, go to U-Dub (University of Washington) together - a school I admire and enjoyed mentions of Suzzallo lLbrary. They get their first job together, but then Kate goes on to be a stay-at-home mom, while Tully becomes famous. I always enjoy learning about the way certain professions work, and since I have some interest in journalism, it was a nice look into that field. The book did seem to plod at times, as the author took us through the decades with these two women. But what I really enjoyed were the details from each time period. Since the women depicted are only about five years younger than me, I remember all the times they lived through. The music and songs of the times are always mentioned, but then there are toys (trolls), drinks (Tab), movies, books and numerous other cultural references that just bring a period back to me.

I don't know if it is a pattern for Hannah, but since Home Front addressed amputation and PTSD, this book too addressed a medical condition - breast cancer. Definitely a better way of learning about it than from a dry brochure, and it adds extra gravitas to the book, which I didn't really need at this busy time of the year. Worthwhile, but I think I will stay away from Kristin Hannah for a while.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay (1979)

We were discussing the David Macaulay books like Cathedral and Castle at the reference desk, after getting an email from a colleague about a project to build a medieval monastery using only 9th century tools and living in 9th century style. Greg mentioned this spoof of a book, written as if in the 41st century, after doing an archeological dig on a motel. It was amusing, describing the TV as an altar and the toilet as a sacred urn. Reminded me that I should read some more of the more serious Macaulay books.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

American Creation by Joseph Ellis (2007)

Subtitle: Triumphs and tragedies at the founding of the republic. Strange that I read two books starting with "American" back to back. They both involve love of our country, but could not be more different. One a super spy thriller of recent history, the other a non-fiction account of the first 30 years or so of our country. I have to admit that my mind wasn't always as focused as I would have liked it to be while listening to this story of our founding fathers, but I figured if I learned just a few things to fill in my understanding of history, it will be worth it. Many of the main players are familiar to me at least by name, and I have read more about Jefferson and Franklin, and Madison figured in the book about Dolly Madison, but there were many I didn't know about more than the bare basics. I realize how little I knew about even George Washington. When Jefferson was mentioned, I imagined Monticello that I visited about 5 years ago. As I said, much still went over my head, but here's a few things I found interesting:
  • The two things our founding fathers did not resolve were the issue of slavery and Native Americans
  • --But they did resolve a lot of other things - they were pretty smart
  • --The Native American issue was quite painful
  • The evolution of our two party system
  • --I think by the end of the book I did understand the difference between Federalists and Republicans
  • The whole Louisiana Purchase story 
  • --I never got why France sold it to US so cheaply
  • -----They had lost a lot of men in the Dominican Republic from the slave uprising (which I read about in Allende's Island Beneath the Sea 
  • --I didn't realize that Napoleon was the one to approve the purchase 
  • --Because communication was slow, the representative in Paris had to make this major decision (though it had to be approved by the congress)
  • --I finally get where Louis and Clark fit in to the big picture

American Assassin by Vince Flynn (2010)

This is the back story to Mitch Rapp, how he became the super agent - how he was recruited by Irene Kennedy (who I remember from other Rapp books as being supportive) why he chose the path, how he was trained by Stan Hurley (a real sweet guy - not sure if he appears in other books). Rapp ends up jumping right into a case and taking care of various terrorists in Istanbul, Hamburg and Beruit. Felt like Rapp. A good read for long road trips. My only complaint about Flynn is that he does tend to get too gruesome in his details.

Home Front by Kristin Hannah (2012)

This was an intense book about a woman soldier going off to the war in Iraq. I thought it was one of the most realistic portrayals of a relationship I had seen in a long time. I totally understood her husband's point of view - that he didn't support the war and had a hard time supporting her going there, though obviously she had no choice, and we both understand that our soldiers need support, respect and understanding. The other part that I was really glad to see discussed in detail was PTSD. I know my parent's generation was highly affected by WWII. Every war affects the people that have to face and see death in that situation. I was going to write a lot more about this book, as it is one of my favorites this year already, but I have now read too many in between to do a good job.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman (2011)

Whew! One of the toughest books I have read recently. History provides such rich stories, often more harrowing than any author could imagine. I had a hard time starting this book, as the introductory paragraphs already felt heavy. I remember starting the introduction five times, because my mind could not grasp that it was talking about the first century or 70 CE to be precise. Again I am filling in a few threads of understanding in my weave of human history. This time about Israel, the sacking of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire and Masada, one of the last strongholds of the Jews. I have always admired the Jews for their tenacity and ability to survive and thrive through amazing adversity.

This story is told by four amazing women. Yael is the daughter of an assassin and her brother is one of the warriors of Masada. She has amazing strength an courage and a way with animals. She has faced down a lion and birds will come to her. Revka, the wife of a baker, who is raising her two mute grandsons after her daughter is killed, is bitter, but strong and also finds joy. Aziza is the daughter or a warrior and raised as a boy. Shira, her mother knows the ways of magic and old medicine. All of them have their secrets, intense relationships with men - fathers, brothers, lovers. The only really sympathetic male in the story is a large light skinned blond slave from the land of the ice, that claimed that women in his land had red hair like Yael. I kept wondering if this was meant to be Ireland, Scotland or some other northern European country.

I learned quite a bit about the historical time and the Jewish beliefs, rituals, rules, celebrations. I realize that I have a very minimal understanding of the Roman Empire, other than it was huge and powerful. Supply lines for armies interest me. Maybe there is a good novel giving an overview of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire I can read some day.

The dessert was another fascinating aspect of this book. I just can't imagine living in the dessert and surviving, finding or growing food in that arid climate, waiting for seasonal rains that may not come. I thought it was ingenious how the people of Masada did manage to provide for themselves for so long, and what an important role was played by the doves, which provided eggs, fertilizer, and a bit of meat.

Highly recommend, if you have the stomach for tough history.