Tag Archives: Library

Top Ten Books 2021

My favorite books of 2021 took me from an African village to the streets of Harlem, two kingdoms and a distant galaxy. Here’s my Top Ten list along with other books I enjoyed (and some that disappointed me).

Are you a fellow reader? Please leave a comment with your own suggestions!

I’ll start with How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue’s powerful story of an African village destroyed by colonialism and corporate greed. An American oil company contaminates the village and buys off the local dictator. Children die. Families flee. A local woman leads a resistance movement. You know disaster is coming but can’t stop reading.

Between Two Kingdoms, Suleika Jaouad’s memoir of battling cancer, is compelling in a different way, and with a happier outcome. I’ve read other “illness memoirs” but none as raw and honest as this one. Jaouad, the long-time partner of musician Jon Batiste, takes us on a harrowing journey.

Cancer also plays a role in A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris, a tale about a middle-aged man who is deeply disappointed in life. The Great Recession and illness derail his American dream until fate gives him a second chance, with a big — and very surprising — assist from Ferris. 

The hero of Tom Lin’s The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is a Chinese assassin who joins a troupe of magical performers traveling across the Old West, dodging disasters and bounty hunters while searching for his lost love. It’s a Western unlike any you’ve seen with John Wayne.

I was looking forward to Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle since I loved both The Underground Railroad and Nickel Boys. Once again, he delivered. A combination of family saga and crime novel, Shuffle is a page-turner about a Harlem furniture salesman who is “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby features another African American man who is reluctantly drawn into crime. In this case it’s an ex-con who sets out to avenge the murder of his gay son, teaming up with the racist white father of his son’s partner. I enjoyed Cosby’s earlier Blacktop Wasteland and am now a fan.

Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division features a Japanese-American family that relocates to Chicago after being incarcerated in California during World War II. Something terrible happens when they arrive, which their daughter Ako struggles to understand and overcome.

Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot has a big twist at the end. I saw it coming but still enjoyed it and everything that led up to it. Her protagonist is a struggling novelist who unexpectedly publishes a huge best-seller, a book whose plot was actually devised by a former student. Will the book’s origins become public? The Plot reveals all with an engaging plot of its own.

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is part fiction, part fact and fully impressive. It presents a series of famous thinkers who changed history with discoveries that had profound moral consequences. Labatut combines a breathtaking sweep of science with vivid prose, translated from his original Spanish.

Last on my Top Ten list is Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, a science fiction tale about a school teacher who awakens on a space ship without knowing why he’s there or even who he is. He’s on a mission to save Earth but must team up with an alien whose planet is also threatened. The plot is somewhat ludicrous but always entertaining. I can’t wait for the forthcoming movie version.

All of these books were published this year. I have an even longer list of books from 2020 that I enjoyed but read too late to consider for my Top Ten from last year:

  • Three Hours in Paris, by Cara Black
  • Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick
  • The Guest List, by Lucy Foley
  • The Searcher, by Tana French
  • Writers & Lovers, by Lily King
  • The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova
  • The Secret Life of Groceries, by Benjamin Lorr
  • Monogamy, by Sue Miller
  • A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet
  • A Promised Land, by Barack Obama
  • Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Missing American, by Kwei Quartey
  • Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold, by C. Pam Zhang

(My favorite was the luminous Hamnet.)

I enjoyed some older books, too. Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me, Joan Silber’s Improvement and Scott Galloway’s The Four were all as compelling as when they appeared in 2017. Chuck Collins made me think harder about white privilege in Born on Third Base  (2016) and Tom Barbash entertained me by combining the Peace Corps and John Lennon in The Dakota Winters (2018).

With three other books, I was fortunate to meet the authors online through classes I took with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Duke. Sister Helen Prejean, who was portrayed by Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking, told her own story in River of Fire. Sam Quinones sounded the alarm in Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Osha Gray Davidson brought Durham history to life in The Best of Enemies, recently adapted in a Hollywood movie. Thank you, OLLI.

A different trio of books reprised characters or themes from previous work. Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! continued the story of Lucy Barton and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed updated his The Sympathizer. In The Premonition, Michael Lewis highlighted experts who foresaw the COVID-19 disaster, much as his The Big Short featured those who predicted the 2008 financial meltdown. I enjoyed all three of these new books, although not as much as the originals.

Other good reads included the Evan Osnos biography of Joe Biden, Simon Rich’s latest collection of humor essays (New Teeth) and the Laura Dave thriller, The Last Thing He Told Me. A guilty pleasure was The Cellist, the latest in Daniel Silva’s series about Gabriel Allon, the Israeli spymaster and art restorer. (This time he foils an evil plot by Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs.)

Memoirs? Yes, I enjoyed those, too, ranging from Saturday Night Live to the restaurant business, network news and standup comedy. Colin Jost, David Chang, Katie Couric and Jerry Seinfeld: Thanks for sharing your stories. Anderson Cooper: I wish you’d made Vanderbilt easier to follow.

I had personal connections to three excellent new books. My former Duke colleague, Ashley Yeager, profiled astronomer Vera Rubin in Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter, and Beyond. Dale DeGroff, a family friend and legendary bartender, updated his The New Craft of the Cocktail. Journalist Amanda Ridley featured my sister and her husband, among others, in High Conflict, an inspiring account of people breaking through the political and social barriers that separate us.

Then there were the year’s disappointments. Jonathan Franzen has written amazing novels, but Crossroads was not among them, at least for me. Cecily Strong is brilliant on Saturday Night Live but This Will All Be Over Soon is what I kept hoping as I read her pandemic memoir. I had high hopes for A Swim in the Pond by George Sanders, Blindness by José Saramago, Bath Haus by P.J. Vernon, Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee and The Overstory by Richard Powers. All were well-reviewed, but I couldn’t finish any of them. (Sorry.)

As always, thanks to the Durham County Library, through which I downloaded many of these books onto my Kindle.

If you’ve made it here to the end, I invite you again to leave a comment or suggestions for me and other readers. Happy reading for all of us in 2022!

Reconnected on TV

Moldovan national television just reconnected us to the city where we served in the Peace Corps.

On Thursday, it broadcast a story about North Carolinians who served in the Peace Corps, the latest in a series by TeleFilm Chişinǎu about the state’s partnership with Moldova.

Watch the story below or here on YouTube [at 13:14].

We were deeply moved when we saw our former host family, work partners and others on the screen, showing off the projects we pursued together. Most emotional was seeing our beloved Bunica, or Moldovan grandmother, talking to us from her bed.

Even if you don’t speak a word of Romanian, you should have no trouble following along. We think the producers did a great job and hope you enjoy the story, too. “Mulțumim frumos!” to everyone who made it happen.

Costume Coverage

The recent visit of the U.S. ambassador and Peace Corps guests to see the beautiful new costumes at Champa’s school was featured in a national television story, on a local news site and in the latest issue of Ialoveni’s monthly newspaper. (A translation of the newspaper article follows below; my previous post features a video about the event.)

TVR Molodova covered the costume event with this story (also available on YouTube):

The news site Ialoveni Online covered the events with the story excerpted below (in Romanian). You can use Google Translate to translate it online, if needed.

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The city’s monthly newspaper published two articles, both shown here. The first is about the ambassador’s discussions at the primăria, or city hall, which followed the costume event. The second, which I’ve translated below, is about the costume celebration and earlier library visit by Peace Corps guests, and about the work the two of us have been doing in Ialoveni.

Thank you again — vă mulțumim frumos! — to our extraordinary partners at the school and the library who made all of this possible and were so welcoming to their American guests.

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Translation of second article:

Interesting Achievements of Peace Corps Volunteers in Ialoveni

Theoretical High School Andrei Vartic in Ialoveni had a gala festival to launch a volunteer project by its students, parents and teachers with support from the U.S. Peace Corps and volunteer Champa Jarmul.

Attending the event was his Excellency James D. Pettit, the U.S. ambassador to Moldova. The project produced 43 costumes that can be used by actors in dramatic presentations. The event featured a series of short scenes in which student actors presented heroes from the works of Shaespeare, V. Alecsandri and I. Creangă.

The celebration honored the volunteers. Thanks were expressed by school director Valentina Sacara and project coordinator Ana Doschinescu to all those who contributed to making this dream a reality.

A delegation from Peace Corps Moldova led by director Tracey Hébert-Seck visited Ialoveni’s Petre Ștefănucă public library. Peace Corps Volunteer David Jarmul presented some of the library’s activities, such as its robotics club, “Bebeteca” children’s room and infographics. The guests were impressed by the many activities carried out in collaboration with the volunteers.

Library director Valentina Plamadeala thanked David and Champa Jarmul for their diverse cultural activities at the library and in the community, for the beautiful projects they brought to Ialoveni and for their hours of English language training at the library.

Weekly (No-)Book Club

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.14.18 AMYou May Want to Marry My Husband by Amy Krouse Rosenthal was one of the most widely read — and heartbreaking — essays ever to appear in the New York Times “Modern Love” column, which published it ten days before Rosenthal died of cancer this past March. The actress Debra Winger later recorded a podcast of the author describing her husband’s devotion and her desire for him to find new happiness after her impending death.

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.15.25 AMOn Tuesday afternoon, her words broke hearts again, this time among members of my weekly English conversation class. We read sections of the article aloud, listened to part of the podcast and then listened to another “Modern Love” podcast about how a woman dealt with her husband’s mid-life crisis.

This was a change of pace from some of the other articles I’ve assigned recently in my weekly class at the Ialoveni library for advanced English speakers who want to improve their reading and conversaton skills. Our previous selection was The School, a chilling 2007 article in which C.J. Chivers described a Chechan terrorist attack on a school in the Russian town of Beslan, which resulted in the deaths of at least 385 people.

Before that we read three essays by humorist David Sedaris, a Walter Isaacson article describing the science behind Mona Lisa’s smile and Atul Gawande’s article about how he and other physicians need to do more to help dying patients and their families. We’ve also discussed travel destinations, teenage anxiety and the linguistic implications of emojis.

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.15.49 AMI originally planned the class as a more conventional book club, where we might read Harry Potter novels or other full-length works likely to appeal to Moldovan readers. When I spoke with a Moldovan friend who runs an English-language center, however, he warned me students wouldn’t have enough time to read the books, which would also be expensive for them to buy. Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.17.08 AM
He suggested I choose long articles instead, which the students could download or read online.

It was great advice. My students, who range from a Moldovan online journalist to an art student, are generally able to handle even the longer articles, and they come ready to share reactions and opinions that often fascinate me. Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.16.25 AMOur discussion about the Gawande article, for instance, led to a great conversation about how our two cultures handle death, not only in medical settings but more generally.

For our class next Tuesday I’ve assigned an extraordinary Cincinnati Enquirer series on Seven Days of Heroin. If you’re in Ialoveni and would like to join the discussion, please come to the class. If you’re back in the States and want to participate, (16:30 locally; 9:30 a.m. Eastern time on Feb. 6), please let me know and I’ll try to include you online.

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‘Bebeteca’ for Families

Ialoveni’s library has something new for local families: “Bebeteca,” a colorful children’s room where kids can play while adults enjoy educational discussions with guest speakers.

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On Sunday, Jan. 28, Rusalina Russu will speak at 1 p.m. at Bebeteca about how she grew up in Ialoveni and became one of Moldova’s best-known television personalities, hosting a show about families. The program is free and the public is invited to attend. [ADDED: Here’s a short post about her talk along with several fun photos of the moms and kids.]

Last week, local doctor Diana Slivinschi, above, discussed children’s infectious diseases. Future speakers are scheduled to discuss topics ranging from dental care for children to planning trips with kids or how Ialoveni provides support to vulnerable families. At some programs, librarians will read stories aloud with the children. The library’s Facebook page will provide details.

 

Parents and grandparents can enjoy the discussions while their kids play with toys and books the library has bought along with children’s furniture and a wall-mounted TV. IMG_0869Students from Ialoveni’s School of Art, upstairs from the library, are painting the room with an original mural featuring characters from national children’s stories.

“We are excited to offer this new programs for families in Ialoveni,” Valentina Plamadeala, director of BPO “Petre Ştefănucă” said. IMG_0832“We want to offer mothers and families the chance to meet, have fun and learn something new. We also hope they will explore the library while they’re here and borrow some books or sign up for our free programs, from learning English to making simple animated movies.”

Plamadeala said story-telling programs at libraries are popular in many countries, including Romania, but a new idea in Moldova. She hopes the Ialoveni program may inspire other libraries in Moldova to launch similar efforts.

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Responding to information gathered in a community survey, BPO “Petre Ştefănucă” created the new space with the support of a U.S. Peace Corps grant and a small project Plamadeala implemented through the “Together for the Community” program of the Association of Librarians in the Republic of Moldova and the National Library of Moldova in partnership with the Novateca National Program.

Librarian Lidia Rusu and Peace Corps Volunteer David Jarmul developed the project, purchased the materials and worked with the rest of the library staff to create the room and organize the programs.

(A Romanian version of this article was posted by the library, which used the infographic below to describe its survey results showing wide community support for the project idea .)

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Story Time at the Library

Readers, I seek your assistance — the first and only time Champa or I will make such a request while we are serving in Moldova as Peace Corps Volunteers.

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The library where I work in Ialoveni has launched a project to create a “Story Time at the Library” program for toddlers along with educational programs for adults. They’ve already raised nearly $1,000 locally — a lot of money here — but need $2,303.94 more to create a kid-friendly room with small chairs, educational toys, art materials and the like.

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I’ve worked with the library and Peace Corps to launch a fundraiser through the Let Girls Learn program championed by Michelle Obama.

As you can see in the infographic, the librarians did a survey showing overwhelming community support for the idea, which is similar to the story times held at many public libraries in the States. Their target audience is kids a bit younger than those you see in the photo above of a school group recently visiting the library.

The project is just the latest example of how Ialoveni’s library is trying to redefine itself for the modern world and become a vital community resource. During the past year alone it has expanded beyond books to create programs for video animation, advocacy, computer coding and robotics, together with new services for special-needs users.

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You can learn more about the project and donate here. Your contribution is tax-deductible in the United States. You can donate in honor or memory of someone and, if you choose, share your contact information with me. You can also send words of encouragement to the project team. I will be administering the funds.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog, support what the Peace Corps is doing or just want to support a great cause for the holidays, I hope you will make a donation. On behalf of the mothers, children, families and librarians of Ialoveni: Mulțumesc (Thank you)!

 

 

Libraries Turn the Page

In both America and Moldova, libraries are racing to redefine themselves and remain relevant in an online world.

IMG_9072Back home, where people now routinely download books and find information on the internet, libraries are emphasizing their roles in providing expertise and bringing people together, whether with story times for kids, study spaces for students or programming for retirees.

IMG_9175Here in Moldova, the transition has been even more challenging. Library budgets and salaries are tiny. Many library buildings are old, with collections dating to Soviet times. There are no resources to buy books, much less comfy sofas or cappucino machines.

Last week, the library where I work in Ialoveni showed how some Moldovan libraries are moving forward despite these challenges. Together with the local Consiliul Raional, or county government, it organized a “library day” to showcase its recent innovations.

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Under the leadership of director Valentina Plamadeala, speaking above, the library now has a film animation class, a club that produces crafts from recycled materials, a robotics program and a workshop to teach modern advocacy techniques. It’s organizing a new weekly story time for toddlers that will also provide educational programming for parents and grandparents. It hopes to provide new programs for people with special needs, building on a Braille collection it recently added. The library is reaching out to its community in interesting ways, too, using videos, infographics and social media.

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Located near the city’s main traffic circle, Ialoveni’s library is named for Petre Ştefănucă, a folklorist and local hero who died in a Soviet gulag. At last Tuesday’s event, I was moved as librarian Larisa Petcu, above, showed off the small museum that honors his memory, telling local high school students about him. I was also impressed by the presentations from some other nearby libraries that participated in the event. Cătălina Russu, a reporter for TVR Moldova, also attended and produced the video shown at the beginning of this post (also available on YouTube; at 1:35, I speak briefly in English.)

Novateca, a program managed by the nonprofit organization IREX with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with USAID, has been a driving force behind the modernization of Moldova’s public libraries, building on similar programs in neighboring Romania and Ukraine. Since it began operations here five years ago, Novateca has provided thousands of computers and other resources, trained librarians across the country, increased public support for libraries and promoted a more expansive vision of their role in a civil society.

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I’ve become a big fan of Novateca’s work and was pleased to see its director, Evan Tracz — himself a former Peace Corps Volunteer, in Turkmenistan — at last Tuesday’s event. (He’s in the center of the photo below, awarding certificates to me and others with Tudor Grigoriță of the Consiliul Raional.) Evan and his team have had a transformative impact. Novateca is now winding down its activities as its funding comes to an end. Many of us hope Moldova’s libraries will continue making progress without them.

I have great respect for the people I work with at Ialoveni’s library. They are doing so much with so little, earning less in a year than some American librarians make in a couple of weeks. They keep looking for better ways to serve the community here without a coffee maker in sight, much less a cappucino machine.

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More Than Pretty Pictures

If you’re an American, you see infographics everywhere these days— on television and websites, in magazines, even with academic articles or corporate sales reports.

Not if you live in Moldova. Many institutions in this small former Soviet state are still learning to share information with their stakeholders, much less to present it attractively to engage ther interest.

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On Tuesday, the library in Ialoveni where I work as a Peace Corps volunteer held a workshop to train more than a dozen colleagues from area libraries in using infographics. Within a few hours, they all learned the basics of producing colorful posters or web posts to highlight their activities and community outreach.

IMG_6615My library colleague, Lidia Rusu (shown left, pointing at the computer), led the training with enthusiasm and patience. By the end of the session almost all of the participants, even those with limited computer skills, were producing infographics more than nice enough to use immediately.

They used the free version of Piktochart, an online software platform popular in the United States and elsewhere. Lidia also recently began using PowToon, a platform for making simple animated videos. Even though she doesn’t speak English, she’s able to figure out software packages quickly, apply them effectively and explain them to others.

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Ialoveni’s library, Biblioteca Publică Orășenească “Petre Ștefănucă,” hosted the workshop after being selected as one of the winners of a national infographic contest organized by Novateca, a nonprofit organization working to modernize libraries across Moldova. Ialoveni’s winning infographics, which I helped produce, are the two images on the left shown above.

Artiom Maister, an impact specialist with Novateca, shown below with Lidia, assisted her at the workshop, guiding the participants in how to modify templates, use icons, insert data and transfer their work to their websites, blogs or printed posters.

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The session was just the latest way Novateca has been encouraging this country’s  libraries — still viewed by some as dusty repositories of old Russian books — to embrace a new role as modern information centers and community resources. Through its five-year program, Novateca has provided hundreds of libraries here with thousands of computers and Internet access. It’s trained librarians on everything from how to find new funding sources to organizing robotics clubs or hackathons.IMG_6593

I’ve seen Novateca’s impact not only in Ialoveni but also in Bardar, where I lived during my Peace Corps training, and in other libraries. My best description is a word I don’t use lightly: transformative. As it approaches the end of its generous funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Novateca is now working to empower both local librarians and national institutions to carry on its mission. A representative from one of those institutions, Victoria Popa from the National Library, participated actively in Tuesday’s infographic session.

This kind of training is important not only to the libraries themselves, but also to the emergence of an open civil society in Moldova.  By learning to use infographics and other modern communications techniques, libraries and other public institutions become more able to explain to citizens what they are doing and how they can serve them. Infographics here have the potential to be so much more than pretty pictures.