“Only the things I didn’t do/crackle…” -Naomi Shihab Nye. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
In the poem “Burning the Old Year,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye muses as she gets rid of some old letters: “Only the things I didn’t do/crackle after the blazing dies.” It’s that time again: at the beginning of the new year, we assess. We take stock. We remember old goals and renew them. We break trail, inspired to take on new tasks and ways of being in the world. Our staff picks in January offer a look at a few library resources and books that celebrate new beginnings and growth.
Staff Picks: Online Resources
Create the life you have always wanted and start your own business! You’ll need to write a business plan as your roadmap and to show to potential funders. A great way to get started in writing a business plan is to look at samples of business plans from existing successful organizations…and PPL has you covered. The Small Business Resource Center provides thousands of in-depth business plans for a variety of industries. See our Business page for other helpful resources, and let our Business Librarian know if you need assistance.
“When people shine a little light on their monster, we find out how similar most of our monsters are. The secrecy, the obfuscation, the fact that these monsters can only be hinted at, gives us the sense that they must be very bad indeed. But when people let their monsters out for a little onstage interview, it turns out that we’ve all done or thought the same things, that this is our lot, our condition. We don’t end up with a brand on our forehead. Instead, we compare notes.” –Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
I don’t usually make resolutions in January (I’m still stuck in an academic calendar mindset where the new year begins in September), but this year felt different. I closed the door on 2015 with both heart and mind focused on the pursuit of writing to which, despite identifying as a writer for the better part of my life, I have devoted little energy in recent years. I spent New Year’s Day reading Anne Lamott’s celebrated manual/pep-talk hybrid and gearing up for a long overdue return to the writing life.
In late 1989, before the days of cell phones and GPS, never mind smart phones that do everything, we two country folk moved to the great State o’ Maine with no jobs and these pooled resources: one graduate degree (his), two cats (ours), and a dogged determination to be shed of Boston (mine). NH had been home before our stint in Boston, but employment would more likely be found around Portland. Enter The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, the Delorme bible that would ease me into our chosen Promised Land after having not driven EVER, ANYWHERE for three and a half years. From the big picture to city streets and gravel roads, it had it all and showed the way to job interviews and the laundromat. Even better, it brought me home again every time. I am happy to say that our New Beginning worked out just fine. I still consult my Maine Atlas, albeit a newer edition, in lieu of more modern contrivances. It always gets me home, where my heart is.
Lynsey Addario’s memoir is a straightforward, perceptive, and harrowing account of her work as a war photographer in the 21st century. It’s also a vivid portrait of the world in conflict and of the lives of others. In It’s What I Do, Addario is a thoughtful recorder of the harsh realities and complex experiences of journalists, the many different people they write about, photograph, film, and record, and all those who help the media along the way and who are put at risk. Recounting her experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, the Congo, and Libya, Addario writes about lives changed, damaged, and lost. She writes about compassion, fear, hospitality, censorship, courage, love, and “the privilege of witnessing things that others do not; an idealistic belief that a photograph might affect people’s souls.” How does her account of her life and the lives of others help me grow? It does make me want to pick up my camera (though here in Maine and elsewhere, I’ll only ever be taking pictures of friends and family). More complexly, her work urges me to continue to grow towards care, towards thoughtfulness, and towards always learning, questioning, and paying attention.
Here are some other ideas for nonfiction titles at PPL that explore different themes of growth and new beginnings:
This book is a perfect prelude to the First Folio event at PPL that will dominate conversation in the Portland cultural community for the month of March. The first chapters focus on the fascinating history behind the creation and publication of the First Folio. Later chapters flesh out the story of Henry Folger’s mania for finding and collecting these prized documents. Mays presents a compelling and accessible tale, and one that provides an excellent context for the First Folio’s anticipated visit to Portland and its only visit to Maine.
I recently listened to and was inspired by a Ted Talk with Ann Morgan. She considered herself well-read until she discovered the “massive blind spot” on her bookshelf. Like Ann, I thought I read diversely, but I wasn’t stepping outside of my comfort zone (for me that’s mostly English and Spanish speaking countries). Ann created a goal for herself: to read one book from every country in the world over the course of a year. I don’t have time for that, but I have decided to read 12 books from 12 countries that I don’t normally visit. I have asked friends to join in on the challenge: we’ll meet once a month to discuss the books we read. This month we’re reading The 40 Rules of Love by Elif Şafak, a French born Turkish writer. The novel consists of two parallel narratives. The contemporary one is about an unhappily married Jewish housewife in Massachusetts. The second narrative is “Sweet Blasphemy,” about a wandering dervish and Rumi, the poet. It’s interesting to see how these worlds intersect, and it makes me look forward to reading my way around the world this year. Our next book is set in Iceland: Stone Tree by Gyrðir Elíasson.
The Gathering Storm turned me into a writer. Back in 2009 when the book was published, I was living in Massachusetts and had the privilege to meet Sanderson at a book signing, where I asked him about the writing process and how he managed to write such rich and engrossing fantasy universes while still managing to have a life. His advice was simple: “If you have a story to tell, then tell it. If you have a universe to share, then share it. If you write just three pages a day — just three a day, even skipping some weekends — you’ll have a book in 6 months.” Well, it took me almost 4 years, but my first fantasy novel was done, and I’ve continued to grow as a writer since! All thanks to Sanderson and The Gathering Storm.
It used to be that sexual harassment of female employees was the privilege of bosses everywhere. Even when there were laws on the books, complaints were rarely filed, and even more rarely heard in court. Women who complained were likely to lose their jobs, and so they mostly suffered in silence.
It was the testimony of Anita Hill in 1991 before a Senate Judiciary Committee that broke the silence and brought the issue to national attention. For nine hours, Hill described the indignities to which she had been subjected by her former employer, Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas, when she worked for him at the EEOC.
For those who have forgotten, or those who are just now hearing about it, this film demonstrates, through footage of the hearings, the determination of the all-white, all-male Committee to disregard or deny the unpleasant truth.
After compelling Hill to appear before them and testify truthfully, the Committee proceeded to put her on trial, questioning her “motives” and her character, attempting to discredit and humiliate her, forcing her to repeat again and again the details of her harassment. Clarence Thomas denied everything, declaring the investigation “a national disgrace” and “a high-tech lynching.”
What’s most remarkable about all this, aside from the obvious malice of the Committee, is the grace and dignity that Hill maintained throughout her testimony and its aftermath, a grace and dignity she maintains to this day.
Directed by Academy Award winner Frieda Mock (“Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” 1995) this film is well worth 77 minutes of your time.
In February of 2010, a senior animal trainer named Dawn Brancheau was killed at Florida’s SeaWorld by a whale named Tilikum. SeaWorld presented this as an isolated incident caused by “trainer error,” but in fact Brancheau was the third person to be killed by Tilikum since he’d been taken into captivity in 1983.
Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite interviews a number of orca experts and former SeaWorld trainers–SeaWorld did not respond to requests for interviews with current employees–who expose the fact that many of SeaWorld’s public statements could charitably be described as erroneous, including their claims that whales in captivity live longer, healthier lives than those in the wild. The fact is, in the wild, they live longer, and they don’t kill people.
This film demonstrates what a good documentary can do: It educates and entertains, even as it exposes the truth and changes the way we think about its subject. By some accounts, SeaWorld has lost over $25 million in revenue since this film came out, and rumor has it that they are now, by popular demand, looking into creating more suitable habitats for their animals.
The Epic of Everest
The British Film Institute recently restored this footage of George Mallory’s final, fatal attempt to summit Mount Everest in 1924. Filmed by Captain John Noel using equipment he had specially made for the expedition, this film includes some stunning images of both the mountain and the local people. Silent, with a new soundtrack composed especially for this edition.
In the Tarot deck there’s a card called The Fool, and it is usually pictured as a young person prancing along the edge of a cliff with a little dog, oblivious to the fact that one misstep could be fatal. It’s the kind of clueless person that God is said to watch out for, and I think of it every time I see Grizzly Man, director Werner Herzog’s film about bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell.
Treadwell, who was no biologist or animal behavior expert, spent thirteen summers living among grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness, and while the fact that he was finally killed by a bear might seem inevitable to some, it does not negate the fact that for over a decade he was not killed by bears. He lived in their territory, alongside them, with no weapons and nothing to defend himself except his own faith that the bears understood the purity of his love for them. One man interviewed in the film speculates that the bears tolerated Treadwell and left him alone because they sensed there was something wrong with him.
That may be true, or it may be that Treadwell was right to think the bears knew him and accepted him as a friend–it’s worth noting that the bear that killed him was a stranger to him, not one of the regulars.
Over the years Treadwell recorded nearly a hundred hours of film, mostly of the bears, up close and personal, and it is some of the most spectacular nature footage you’ll ever see. How it fell into the hands of Werner Herzog I do not know, but it is an excellent pairing of filmmaker and material. Herzog has made a career out of documenting other people’s obsessions, and this film is one of his most fascinating.
This is a 2015 documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. It cites some disturbing statistics from multiple studies, and, through interviews with students and administrators (and some former administrators) it goes on to provide anecdotal evidence of how these crimes happen, and how institutions handle them.
Spoiler alert: Most institutions do not handle them well. In too many cases, reports of rape are treated not as human rights violations but as public relations problems. Administrators are often more concerned with keeping up the appearance of a safe environment than with actually providing one. Students are discouraged from pressing charges and subjected to a lot of hemming and hawing about how difficult it is to know what really happened in these he-said/she-said situations. In fact–and this is a long-standing statistic, not particular to this film–the likelihood of a rape or sexual assault report’s being false is no higher or lower than for any other crime.
It’s a bleak picture, but the good news is that student victims are organizing. They are going public with their experiences and supporting each other in seeking recourse through Title IX.
The dvd contains extras that answer questions about sexual assault and direct victims to help and support.
The filmmakers, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, also made the film The Invisible War, about rape in the military.
In the Realms of the Unreal
For roughly forty years, Henry Darger was a custodian at a Catholic hospital in Chicago. A quiet man, he might go days without speaking to anyone, but when he was alone in his rented room, he expressed himself freely. When he passed away in 1973, he left behind his life’s work: two volumes of autobiography, a novel titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, and hundreds of paintings illustrating the novel.
Darger has become a prime example of an outsider artist, and this film not only introduces us to his seemingly ordinary life and the bizarre world of his imagination, but also invites us to consider how many of the seemingly ordinary people around us might be harboring extraordinary inner lives.
This is the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee born in captivity in 1973 and taken from his mother a few days later to be used in an experiment by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace.
The purpose of the experiment was to determine whether a chimp raised as a human would acquire and use language. How successful the experiment was, and how reliable the results, remain matters of controversy to this day.
Through archival footage and reenactments, director James Marsh (Man on Wire) examines the methodology of the experiment and explores the ethical issues it raises as well as the emotional aftermath for all the sentient beings involved.
You don’t have to have an interest in boxing to be captivated by this film, filled as it is with music, suspense, and larger than life personalities.
In 1974, an unknown promoter named Don King offered Muhammad Ali and then-heavy-weight-champion-of-the-world George Foreman five million dollars each to fight each other. Having secured contracts from both fighters, King went looking for the ten million dollars. It was put up by Mobutu Sese Seko, President of Zaire (formerly the Belgian Congo) who thought it would generate good public relations for his country.
And so the Rumble in the Jungle came to be. It was an international spectacle, prolonged by the postponement of the fight when Foreman was injured during sparring. It also became an international celebration of culture, and created an awareness of and an interest in African-American roots in Africa.
Featuring James Brown, B.B. King, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, and Spike Lee. Dvd extras include an interview with director Leon Gast.
In 1979, eleven years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Senator Edward Brooke (R-Massachusetts) introduced the first bill in Congress to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. The bill failed to pass by five votes. Arguments against the holiday included the fact that King was a private citizen, never elected to any office, and that the federal government could not afford to give its employees another paid holiday.
The bill came up again in 1983. Those of you who remember North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms will not be surprised to learn that he filibustered against it, alleging that King was unpatriotic–King had opposed the war in Vietnam–that King was a Marxist with Communist ties, and that King was simply not important enough to merit the honor of a federal holiday.
Despite all of Helms’s efforts, the bill passed the House of Representatives with a vote of 338-90, and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law on November 2, 1983. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was first celebrated on January 20th, 1986.
Several states refused to honor Dr. King, and got around it by calling their holiday Civil Rights Day, or Human Rights Day; in the deep South, some states combined the new holiday with existing Confederate holidays, giving citizens the option to celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday, Stonewall Jackson’s, and/or Martin Luther King’s.
As recently as 1993, the people of Arizona voted down proposals to make MLK Day a paid state holiday. This decision cost them the chance to host Superbowl XVII, as the NFL moved the game to Pasadena in protest.
The last state to make MLK Day an official state holiday was South Carolina, in 2000, and today Dr. King’s memory is honored in all fifty states, as well as in Toronto, Canada, and Hiroshima, Japan. The day has become a Day of Service, during which people volunteer to help others in their community.
You can kill the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream.
Here at the Portland Public Library, we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy with the Civil Rights Film Series. Each Thursday in January we show a film from our California Newsreel Collection documenting the people and events of the Civil Rights Movement. On January 14, 2016, at 6:30 pm in the Rines Auditorium, we’ll be showing At the River I Stand, an account of the sanitation workers’ strike that led up to King’s fateful visit to Memphis.
For a list of the Library’s California Newsreel holdings, click here.