Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thoughts on 'Summer Reading'

The back-to-school season is ramping up.

There may only be about three weeks remaining before it's back to the classroom.

So I've been thinking a bit more than usual about "Summer Reading." Not in the sense of the fun beach reads I blogged about earlier this summer, but in the assigned-list-from-school sense.

There's some debate about the value.

Some people (that I am related to) say students shouldn't have summer reading. That they should enjoy the break from classwork and "be kids." That school is too year-round.

I say hogwash. (Actually I don't say that, but I am thinking it.)

I am a fan of summer reading assignments. And, for the record, building dioramas and creating tri-fold boards and conducting science experiments.

There are studies that talk about the "summer slide." That point to greater summer learning losses among low-income students. And that this summer learning loss contributes to the gap between in reading performance between low- and middle-income students.

Reason enough to have students reading over the summer, I say.

Added bonus: Actual education can begin on the first day of classes because students (ideally) come prepared to discuss a work.

Back in my day (no age jokes, Jason, please), Sister Angele would lay that stack of books on you on the last day of class in June and expect them all to be read in August. I don't recall the exact number, but I'd guess it was about five or so.

Some books we never discussed in class, some we discussed extensively, one we wrote an essay on on the first day of school.

Good times. And, I'm not being sarcastic.

I will admit I'm a little jealous that my kids have some choice in their reading assignments for the summer and that some of the books they have to choose among were written after 2000. Do you need someone to tell you you have to read "The Kite Runner" or "The Lovely Bones"? I don't think so.

And I'm a little baffled that reading is reduced for some to drudgery, a "have to" homework assignment. When to me is so, well, not that.

What do you think?

- Tricia Ambrose

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is poetry boring?

Elisa Gabbert of The French Exit asks a much better question than, “Is poetry dead?”

She asks, “Is poetry boring?

Her answer:
“Is poetry boring? Yes, of course it is. Life is boring. Writing of all kinds (novels, movie reviews, the news) is boring, museums are boring, TV and movies and the Internet are mostly boring, exercise is boring, work is boring, school is boring, even sex can be boring. Most of modern life is an elaborate exercise in killing time, since there is little doubt we’ll all live into our nineties, if not eternally. Anything novel is a temporary cure for boredom (a new hobby, being pregnant for the first time, drugs) but things become boring again eventually (even money).”

Gabbert’s being glib, but she is also raising a worthwhile point.

First, let’s clarify the obvious. Not all poetry is boring. Gabbert is a poet. No one needs to tell her this.

But poetry can seem boring, especially when you’re inundated with mediocre examples. If somebody told me that they thought music was boring, I’d laugh them off. If somebody told me that they thought reading was boring, I’d tell them they were reading the wrong stuff.

But if somebody called poetry boring, I might let their point slide.

I’ll admit that this says something about me. I haven’t worked hard to find new poets that excite me (unless you count Skyzoo.) Poetry is no more boring than any other form of entertainment. If you’re only aware of the mediocre examples; then, yes, you’ll think it’s boring.

But the academia in poetry have also (inadvertently) cultivated this perception of stuffiness.

Poets are aware of this perception. That’s why Gabbert writes a post titled Is Poetry Boring? That’s why Clay Banes had a blog called POETRY IS SO BORING. That’s why Amiri Baraka wrote an essay headlined Why Most Poetry is Boring, Again (page eight of the PDF.)

Baraka writes, “One wonders, is it still called “high art?” Now too high to deal with the angst and pain and ignorance of the real world – though certainly an obtuse registry of it. Content with the masturbatory inoffensiveness of an actual loyal opposition, inferred loudly as “deep” intellectualism. Childish feints at surrealism, useless abstraction, jokey pop art, inside jokes for the uncognoscenti, all pass as, wow, poetry!”

Baraka’s not expressing anything new here either. Joseph Joubert already said, “How many people make themselves abstract to appear profound? The great part of abstract terms are shadows that hide a vacuum.”

So how does poetry stop being boring? How does anything stop being boring? It needs to ditch the abstraction and navel-gazing and say something worthwhile. In the words of Pharcyde (last hip-hop reference today), they need to kick something that means something.

Until poets and any other artists do, they will remain boring.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Gabbert later clarifies in her comments that “The subtext of this post is that I think there’s value in boredom. Running is a lot more boring than watching TV, which is why I think a lot more when I’m running than when I’m watching TV. The only escape from boredom is your own thoughts.”

She is taking a different tact than me. She is finding value in the boredom, which is admirable. Sadly, I can't do that. Boredom bores me.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Wylie v. Amazon v. Random House Part I

It’s been forever since we’ve had a decent slapfight between publishing powerhouses.

I mean, it feels like years have passed since Macmillan and Amazon had their superpowered staring contest. (Apparently, it was only February.)

Well, we’ve got fresh blood, and the melee involves Amazon, Random House and the Wylie Agency. For those who don’t know, the Wylie Agency is one of the most powerful literary agencies in the business. It represents authors like Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and the estates of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer.

Random House is the largest trade book publisher. By far.

And Amazon is Amazon.

So we’re pretty much talking Muhammad Ali v. Superman v. Andre the Giant.

It began when the Wylie Agency made a deal with Amazon. Twenty of the most famous titles they represent — including Lolita, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and John Updike’s Rabbit series — will only be available on e-book through Kindle. (Wylie Agency functions as the agent and the publishing house in this agreement. Amazon is simply the distributor.)

Random House, which (wrongly) feels like it has claim to the digital rights to some of these titles, has stated they will no longer do business with any Wylie Agency authors until this issue is resolved.

“The Wylie Agency’s decision to sell e-books exclusively to Amazon for titles which are subject to active Random House agreements undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors, and it establishes this agency as our direct competitor,” said Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said in a
news release.

Wylie declined to discuss Random House’s reaction with The New York Times and said he would have to think about it. (How novel, someone thinking before they comment.)

The Writers Guild has weighed in on several facets of the fracas. I tend to agree with their stances.

One, digital rights are not retroactively awarded to those who have the print rights, despite what Random House claims. New media, new income stream — new contract. It is that simple.

Two, does Amazon really need more power?

“Moreover, Amazon’s power in the book publishing industry grows daily,” the guild writes. “Few publishers have the clout to stand up to the online giant, which dominates every significant growth sector of the book industry: e-books, online new books, online used books, downloadable audio, and on-demand books. (That Random House, by far the largest trade book publisher, has retaliated against the powerful Wylie Agency but not against Amazon, which must be equally culpable in Random House’s view, tells you all you need to know about where power truly lies in today’s publishing industry.) Adding to Amazon’s strength may yield short-run benefits, but it’s not in the interests of a healthy, competitive book publishing market.”

Finally, the guild asserts, “publishers have brought this on themselves.”

“This storm has long been gathering. Literary agencies have refused to sign e-rights deals for countless backlist books with traditional publishers, even though they and their clients, no doubt, see real benefits in having a single publisher handle the print and electronic rights to a book ... Bargain-basement e-book royalty rates will not last. Low e-book royalty rates will, as e-book sales become increasingly important, emerge as a dealbreaker for authors with negotiating leverage. Publishers will, inevitably, agree to reasonable royalties rather than lose their bestselling authors to more generous rivals and startups. We suspect publishers are well aware of this and are postponing the unavoidable because it seems to make sense in the short run. We believe this is short-sighted.”

The fight has just begun. I await the next body blow.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. By the way, Tricia, I loved the point Flora Dempsey's mother makes. Many grieving parents, siblings and friends have talked to me about "the myth of closure."

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Monday, July 26, 2010

No such thing as a Perfect Reader

Maggie Pouncey's debut novel, "Perfect Reader," is a delight.

The story centers on Flora Dempsey, recently named literary executor of her late father's work. She's quit her job to return to the small town of her youth, home to the college he was once president of.

It's time for Flora to come to terms with events of her childhood and her relationship with her divorced parents.

But it's not the typical coming-to-terms.

As her mother says, "This culture of forgiveness, of acceptance, of living in the present - who needs it? Isn't the very thing that makes us human the fact that we need not live only in the present? That we straddle time with our minds? That we hold on? If there were one word I could strike from the English language it would be closure."

Don't you read that, pause, and say, How true?

(See, I'm not just a hoarder of things, but of experiences and moments and conversations, most wonderful, some less so.)

There are a lot of those pauses in this novel.

And there's much for a reader to chew on.

In Flora's quest to decide what to do with her father's works, she who had thought herself his perfect reader leaves much for us non-perfect readers to think about.

What is the author's relationship to the reader? Can we as readers see something in a work that no others have seen before us?


- Tricia Ambrose

And P.S. to Cheryl and Danielle, I think I have some Sweet Valley High books for you!

Sweet Valley Confidential: 10 Years Later

Ladies and gentlemen (well, mostly ladies), the Wakefield twins are back.

If you don't know who Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are, you probably didn't grow up as a girl in the '90s -- like NH copy editors Cheryl Sadler and Danielle Capriato. Liz and Jess were the stars of the Sweet Valley books by Francine Pascal, a series with multiple spin-offs following the twins from about second grade through college. St Martins press recently announced the release of a new book, called "Sweet Valley Confidential" to be released in March of 2011. The new book will feature the Wakefield twins about 10 years after the original high school series as the girls adjust to life in their late 20s, early 30s. Here, Cheryl and Danielle discuss their epic excitement for the release and their plans to revisit some of their favorite books in the Sweet Valley series.

Cheryl: My initial reaction to the news was OMG!!!! I so fondly remember reading all about Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield throughout elementary and middle school and had several of the "Sweet Valley Twins" books on my bookshelf (and even some from the "Unicorn Club" series). I remember the characters and their characteristics almost as much as I remember my own classmates. So I am preeeeetty excited about diving back into the world of Sweet Valley "10 years later" to see what's happening with my favorite twins.

Danielle: My initial reaction? "I. HAVE. TO. READ. THAT. NOW!" Of course, since "NOW" was not an option, I instead opted for a massive Google search for all things Sweet Valley. I had intended to refresh my memory about the Wakefield twins, their friends and love interests so that I could get properly psyched for "Confidential." The Internet, as it usually does, hosted a wealth of information regarding developments in the fictional town of Sweet Valley. For example, in 2008, 15 years after the initial release of the Sweet Valley High series, Francine Pascal approved an "update" to the original texts. The books were given a modern look, and were infused with current cultural contexts to appeal to today's reader. Changes included giving the girls a red Jeep in lieu of the red Fiat featured throughout the series, and apparently putting the girls on a diet and slimming them down from "a perfect size 6" to "a perfect size 4." I also discovered that Diablo Cody (of "Juno" fame) is working on a movie adaptation based on the Sweet Valley High books. Of course, this just made me that much more intrigued to read the new book.

Cheryl: As Danielle and I were walking down memory lane, I realized that I might not have ever read the "Sweet Valley High" series books. Although I'm sure I made my way through most of the "Twins" and "Kids" spin-offs, I don't know if I read about the girls' high school adventures. So from now until March 29, 2011, I am going to be reading as many of the high school books as I can. It might not be the best literature I could be consuming in my free time, but I'm looking forward to revisiting a couple of the girls I grew up with.

Danielle: Cheryl and I have made a list of all the Sweet Valley High books and intend to check as many of them out from the library as possible (even if we are totally embarrassed to be checking them out) over the next few months. Of course we will continue to update here as we go, so you can follow along with us as we reacquaint ourselves with all things Sweet Valley.

Cheryl: You can request the first chapter of "Sweet Valley Confidential" here for free, which I did. They send you the pdf via e-mail, and it took me only a few minutes to read. Danielle didn't want to see it, and I can understand why, because now I'm pretty eager to know why Elizabeth and Jessica are in the positions they are in.

Danielle: I couldn't bring myself to read the free first chapter, because I knew that I'd be freaking out over the next 245 days to get the rest of the book. That's right--there are 245 days left in the Countdown to Sweet Valley Confidential. You can check back here periodically for updates on our journey.

Are you as excited as we are for the release of Sweet Valley Confidential? Let us know!

-Cheryl Sadler and Danielle Capriato


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Odds and Book Ends (July 26-Aug. 1)

Odds and Book Ends features activities and events in the area related to libraries, books and authors. Send your events to, and check back to The Book Club every week for upcoming events and activities at your local library.

A National Alliance on Mental Illness Family Support Group will meet at 7 p.m. July 27 at Middlefield Public Library, 16167 East High St., Middlefield. The group provides support for persons diagnosed with serious mental illness and their families. Registration is not necessary and the program is free. For details, call Geauga MHA at 440-285-3945.

The Friends of the Bainbridge Library will host a Books & More Sale Galore event July 28-31. Books, puzzles, games, flashcard sets, summer workbooks and more will be available. All items are new and marked down at least 50 percent off original retail prices. The Bainbridge Library is at 17222 Snyder Road in Bainbridge Township. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For details, call 440-543-8221.

The Geauga County Library Foundation is seeking nominations for the annual Chapman Award, which is given to the person who best exemplifies the mission of supporting the Geauga County Public Library and promoting reading through financial support, expanding the visibility of the library and providing needed human and other resources to improve library services.
Nominations forms can be found at any Geauga County Public Library or send an e-mail to to request a copy. The recipient is honored at an annual event in October and is presented with an original work of art in glass by noted local artist Mary Kay Simoni. Deadline for nominations is July 30.

“A Century of Dolls” lunchtime program at Burton Public Library will be at noon July 31. Burton resident Pat Dutchman -- avid doll collector, doll historian and president of the Cleveland Doll Club -- will present the program. She will show dolls from each decade the Burton Public Library has been in existence (1910-2010) and explain the history behind changes in dolls over the past century.
Bring a bag lunch, and the library will provide the beverage. Call the library at 440-834-4466 to register for this program.

--Cheryl Sadler

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A little education with your entertainment

Who says reading fiction isn't educational.

OK, so I don't know that anyone actually says that. But if there are people saying it,they're wrong.

There's much to learn from reading fiction, if only just to learn more about ourselves.

But there were actual facts to be gleaned from "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer.

The book unfolds as a series of letters written after World War II and focuses on the wartime experiences of folks on Guernsey island. It's located in the English Channel and was occupied by the Germans during WWII. Cut off from most communication with the outside world during the war, islanders knew nothing of what became of the children they sent off or of those folks arrested and sent away.

The love story aspects of the book were not nearly as interesting to me as the recollections of the islanders.

I was fascinated by the ability of people to relate the most horrific events in the most matter-of-fact way. (Yes, I know they're not real people.)

This book seems ripe for book club discussion about everything from the creation of the literary society, to island culture, to coping with adversity, to the idea of living in so isolated a place, to the characters themselves.

Listen to the author discuss the novel and get ideas for your own discussion here.

-Tricia Ambrose

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A farewell letter to two friends

I’m warning you right now. This post is not about books or authors. It doesn’t discuss the impending death of poetry, the novel or physical books.

There will be no mentions of iPads, Amazon or vampires.

It will not insult Charles Dickens, James Joyce or my city editor John Bertosa.

This post is about the south of Sudan and two friends who made me care about it.
Let’s start with a link. That’s as good a beginning as any.

Dave Eggers and John Prendergast — not the two friends I’m talking about — wrote a column in The New York Times in which they explain the importance of America and Obama’s administration to Sudan.

I won’t restate their entire argument. That’s what links are for. I will do my best to summarize.

The southern portion of Sudan has had a contentious relationship with its capital, Khartoum, since the country became independent in 1956. This contentiousness (an insufficient term) has often become violent. From 1983 to 2005, more than 2 million people died in a war between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

The U.S. under President Bush helped broker peace between Khartoum and south. One of the promises made in the truce was that the south of Sudan could have a secession vote in January. However, there are indications that the government will stall or undermine the secession vote.

Eggers and Prendergast explain:

If January comes and goes without a referendum, or if the results are manipulated, then fighting will break out. Both sides have been arming themselves since the peace agreement, so this iteration of north-south violence will be far worse than ever before. And if war resumes in the south, the conflict in Darfur, in western Sudan, will surely explode again.

To allow this triumph of international diplomacy to collapse and leave the people of southern Sudan vulnerable is unconscionable. But the questions are stark: what can the United States do to help prevent a war that could cost millions of lives? How can the United States once again influence the behavior of a government willing to commit crimes against humanity to maintain power?

But, now, you ask, why is he telling us this? Because we should care about international peace? Yes, but it’s more specific than that.

In about two weeks, I have two friends, Seth and Sarah Trudeau, who are moving to Nimule in the deep south of Sudan. They will not be overseeing any peace or secession talks. (At least, I don’t think are.) They’re going for the children.

Seth has been visiting and volunteering the Cornerstone Children’s Home for years. Sarah, his wife, made her first trip there more recently.

Cornerstone Children’s Home provides a safe haven to 65 children who have been orphaned, abandoned, severely neglected or abused. Some were orphaned during Sudan’s civil war, while others lost their parents in ruthless attacks by a Ugandan rebel group, Lord’s Resistance Army.

Seth and Sarah will live at and work for Cornerstone. They have started Cornerstone Friends, an organization that provides services to empower the children of Cornerstone and the residents of Nimule to live fruitful lives. (I took that explanation from the foundation’s web site. I figure they can explain it better than me.) They want to help create community-run, community-centered, sustainable, educational and economic opportunities that will benefit Cornerstone’s kids and those living in Nimule.

I don’t want to oversell this, but it takes special people to leave a comfortable life and relocate to the south of Sudan. Yes, we all feel bad for African orphans but how many of us are willing to commit our lives to it?

Well, I’m not asking anyone to commit their life to it. (That would be hypocritical of me.) I’m not even asking you to donate to Cornerstone Children’s Home or Cornerstone Friends. (Not that I would mind if you did.) I’m just asking you to read up a little about the cause. Here are the links for Cornerstone Friends’ web site, blog and Facebook page. For good measure, here is the link to Cornerstone Children’s Home’s blog.

The more you learn about these children and the people trying to help them, the more difficult it will be for you to be indifferent. If you want to give, that’s cool. If you’re the praying kind, I’m sure Seth and Sarah would appreciate that type of support, also.

But it means something if you just talk about it with someone else. People often talk about “raising awareness.” That phrase means nothing. You’re already aware that there are orphans in Africa, that an oil spill happened in the Gulf Coast, and that fatty food is bad for you.

What people are actually saying when they are “raising awareness” is that they want to make you care. I want to make you care about the children at Cornerstone. Moreover, I want you to care about something that matters as much as Seth and Sarah do.

There are millions of important causes. No, really, millions. I have one friend who is trying to establish a nonprofit in the culturally Tibetan region of China, another who works with reformed child soldiers in Uganda. I have friends who volunteer at Project Hope and the Salvation Army in Painesville.

You don’t have to move to Nimule to make a positive difference. You don’t have to quit your job and live an ascetic lifestyle. But you do have to care.

Thank you for hearing me out. I’ll put my soapbox away, now, and we’ll be back to talking about books tomorrow.

-Jason Lea,

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Focus on the 'sweet things'

"Remember the Sweet Things" is Ellen Greene's account of her marriage to Marsh.

She made a commitment early on to focus on the small sweet things he did, rather than to keep rehashing the bad. This relationship was a second marriage for both and she wanted to be certain not to repeat past lapses. She didn't hide these remembrances either, instead sharing her jottings with her husband every Valentine's Day.

While I loved the idea of putting so much focus on the positive in the marital relationship, I was not so fascinated by reading her musings.

This is one of the actual lists she made.

The book chronicles their relationship, with chapters separated by some of her tributes to those small sweet things.

A lot of those happenings are (I'm sure) precious to the two of them, but to an outsider, not so much. When I think of the most treasured "small" things my husband has done over the course of our marriage, it does bring a smile to my face. You, however, would likely be puzzled by some of them. That's the nature of an intimate relationship.

That being said, the story of their marriage is told well and honestly. Their relationship an inspiration to the reader.

"But I was the one being unfair. Nancy Reagan, someone I wasn't normally given to quoting, had it right when she described a good marriage as one in which the partners didn't expect a constant fifty-fifty arrangement.
'It's often ninety-ten,' she said. 'But if you're the ten, you know you will eventually get your chance to be the ninety.'
I didn't have the generosity to let Marsh enjoy his turn at ninety, at least for the first year when he was adjusting to a new, higher level of responsibility."

Could I be so honest about my key relationships? Doubtful.

I also appreciated her suggestions at the end for starting a list of your own.

How much would relationships be improved if instead of committing the smallest detail of the things that go wrong to our memories we instead cherished the everyday kindnesses and moments of our days?

I'd like to try, but Greene has set the bar pretty high.

- Tricia Ambrose


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Odds and Book Ends (July 19-25)

Odds and Book Ends features activities and events in the area related to libraries, books and authors. Send your events to, and check back to The Book Club every week for upcoming events and activities at your local library.

Author John Gorman will visit the Mentor Main Library to speak about his memoir “The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio” at 7 p.m. July 20.
Attendees will be able to hear the behind-the-scenes stories of how Gorman turned a struggling station into the nation’s top broadcaster during FM’s glory days, 1973 to 1986.
Discounted books will be available for purchase and signing after the talk. Register online at or call the library at 440-255-8811.

The Friends of the Mentor Public Library is inviting the public to explore the highlights of the Cleveland Museum of Art and tour the newly renovated Ancient, Egyptian, Early Christian, Medieval and African galleries.
The bus and museum tour July 22 will accommodate 25 participants. Reservations will be taken at the library reference desk. Payment of $10 per person is required at the time of reservation. The bus will leave promptly at noon from the library parking lot and will return at 5 p.m. Lunch is not included, but the museum offers cafeteria refreshments. For more information, call Technical Services Manager Barbara Hauer at 440-255-8811, ext. 210, or e-mail

“Three Women in the Woods: Words and Images,” a touring exhibit of nature photography and framed, poster-sized poetry, will be displayed July 23 through Aug. 27 at The Holden Arboretum, 9500 Sperry Road in Kirtland.
The artists opening reception will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. July 23 in the visitor center. There is no admission charge for visitors attending the reception. Regular Arboretum admission will be charged for the duration of the exhibit: $6 for ages 13 and older; $3 for ages 6 through 12.
The exhibit features images taken by Akron resident Jane Rogers, photographer, educator and wildflower expert. Rogers has participated in many plant rescues that have saved native wildflowers from soon-to-be developed construction sites. The plants and their descendents have found new homes in public parks, arboretums and other gardens across Ohio.
Sagamore Hills Township resident Jill Sell is a nature poet and journalist whose writing has appeared in many local, regional and national publications. Sell was named 2009 Best Freelance Writer in Ohio by the Press Club of Cleveland. She was also recognized last year by the Society for Professional Journalists for her environmental poetry.
For more information, call Holden Arboretum at 440-946-4400 or Jill Sell at 330-467-3533 or send an e-mail to

Mentor Public Library will host a Star Wars Party for all ages at the main library, 8215 Mentor Ave., Mentor, noon to 2 p.m. July 24. Some Star Wars characters will come by to visit and help out with the many activities planned for the family. Families will have the opportunity to become a Jedi Knight by completing four tasks, including doing an obstacle course, making a light saber and participating in a light saber training course. The Star Wars characters will judge a Wookie Howling Contest for children ages 7 and younger, 8 to 12 years and ages 13 and older.
For details call 440-255-8811.

The Perry Public Library is planning a summer reading celebration 1 to 3 p.m. July 24.
Flower Clown will be on hand to make amazing balloon sculptures for children and Suz-E-QT will be creating wearable art with her face painting. Those interested can visit with service dogs, play games, make crafts, enter the 50/50 raffle, and more. This event is open to everyone and no registration is needed. Call the library at 440-259-3300 for more information.

Cuyahoga County’s Summer Reading Program “Books Ahoy!” will continue through Aug. 7. Children and family members of all ages may sign up for this program. There will be a drawing at the end of the program for grand prizes, which include a Great Lakes Science Center family membership, a Lake Erie Monsters suite night, a Cleveland Indians batting practice experience, one year of free kid's meals at Eat’n Park, a birthday party package at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and more. For details, call 216-831-6868.

--Cheryl Sadler

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Suspense and family crisis! Can't miss

I plugged a couple of past posts into the I Write Like link Jason posted.

Turns out a book review of mine was in the style of Stephen King and an essay was like James Fenimore Cooper.

I've no idea what factors are taken into consideration since the analysis is done in a matter of seconds regardless of how much text you post in the window, but it's fun nonetheless.

I'm so far behind in sharing what I've been reading. I've either got to start reading less or writing more.

"The Things That Keep Us Here" by Carla Buckley combines the suspense of a worldwide flu pandemic with the intimate portrait of a family unraveling.

After this past winter's swine flu scare, it was especially intriguing to read about the quick spread of avian flu.

At the heart of the story are Ann and Peter Brooks. He's a veterinarian researcher; she's mother to his children. As a couple they've grown apart since the death of their son a decade earlier.

Their personal struggle unfolds - how will they adapt as divorced parents, will they come to terms with their grief, what were the circumstances of their son's death - as the world around them grapples with the deadly H5N1 virus.

When everyone becomes isolated to halt the disease spread, the two are forced to examine their circumstances.

Buckley does a great job of keeping the reader wondering on all fronts.

Check out an excerpt for yourself.

You'll find yourself thinking about what you would do to protect your children.

- Tricia Ambrose

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Playing with Words on the Web

Remember the hack test?

Well, it was supposed to be a program that assessed the quality of your writing through a series of objective criteria.

But it had a fatal flaw? Reading is, was, will always be a subjective sport. It’s like ice dancing or rhythmic gymnastics. You can hit all the technical elements, but you still need that artistic flair.

So I abandoned the hack test, but someone else had a similar idea and created the textalyser.

The textalyser measures “readability,” not quality, per se. It does this by measuring word and sentence length, repetition and variation. For fun, I textalysed Tricia’s review of What is Left the Daughter and my post about books and booze. No surprise — Tricia’s posts are deemed more readable than mine. The textalyser said her posts were slightly easier than the optimal and mine were more difficult.

Speaking of web sites that assess text, I Write Like tells writers of which authors their text reminds them. I’m not sure what I Write Like’s criteria is (and I couldn’t find any explanation on the site;) but it compared my Harvey Pekar post with Arthur C. Clarke. Then, it said Big Boi’s lyrics to "Shutterbug" were similar to the work of Agatha Christie.

Finally, I listed a bunch of Indians players’ names — nothing else, just names — and the site told me I write like David Foster Wallace.

So I wouldn't take any comparisons too seriously.

While we’re playing games on the net, try the Interactive Proust Questionnaire from Vanity Fair. Apparently, my answers to the questionnaire were very similar to Brian Wilson’s and Hugh Hefner’s. (I want to put that on my business card. Jason Lea — half Beach Boy, half Playboy.)

Unrelated note: On the 50th anniversary of the release of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Rumpus asks if the book is overrated.

One word answer: No.

-Jason Lea,

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Books & Booze

The aforementioned post about pens and pints:

A lot of my favorite book bloggers have booze on the brain.

The Book Examiner is writing a series of columns about the alliance of alcohol and the written word. She had titled it Book Lush.

“The marriage of literature and alcohol is the most harmonious and prolific union of all time. From them have sprung, as from the head of Zeus, the novels, ideas, and poetry that have moved civilizations,” she says.

In her first column, she uses Beowulf as an excuse to talk about mead.

She promises her second entry will mix up the medicine with Chaucer and sex.

Meanwhile, Richard Francis explains why utopias and novels are similar to pubs.

First, utopias:
All my life I’ve loved pubs. My non-fiction is concerned with utopian theories and experiments, and pubs can be seen in the same light – they are communities devised to make people feel happy, though of course they don’t necessarily succeed. Neither do utopian communities, and my guess is that pubs have a higher success rate.

Then, novels:
You open the pub door, walk in, and there are a set of characters with their own stories to tell you. Exactly the same thing happens when you open a novel.

Francis has written a novel in England, The Old Spring, about a day in the life of a pub. He is also working on a nonfiction book about transcendentalists.

As an addendum to Francis’s blog post, he listed the top 10 literary pubs in The Guardian.

Carolyn Kellogg, of Jacket Copy, replied by noting the lack of American watering hole in Francis’s list and asked if there are any decent American-penned pubs?

-Jason Lea,


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Harvey Pekar and his City

I prepared a post about the symbiotic relationship between writers and alcohol.

It’s written. Sites to be linked are listed in my browser’s favorites.

Then, Harvey Pekar died.

Pekar wrote American Splendor. If you don’t know it, Google it. Better yet, borrow a collection from your library.

R. Crumb, another Cleveland comics legend and one of the many artists which with Pekar worked, said, “He’s the soul of Cleveland. He’s passionate and articulate. He’s grim. He’s Jewish. I appreciate the way he embraces all that darkness.”

I’ve already said that Pekar is the closest thing Cleveland has to a laureate. If you hear the words used to describe the man, they could be talking about the city itself.

For example, Crumb called Pekar’s work “so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic.”

That’s not an insult to call Pekar or Cleveland “staggeringly mundane.” If there is joy in repetition, then there is beauty and truth in the 99 percent of our life that we don’t bother to tell our friends at the bar after work.

Anthony Bourdain — who featured Pekar on No Reservations when he visited Cleveland — has written the best eulogy I’ve seen for him so far.

He was famed as a “curmudgeon”, a “crank” and a “misanthrope” yet found beauty and heroism where few others even bothered to look. In a post-ironic and post-Seinfeldian universe he was the last romantic--his work sincere, heartfelt, alternately dead serious and wryly affectionate. The last man standing to wonder out loud, “what happened here?” ...

As Joseph Mitchell once owned New York and Zola owned Paris, Harvey Pekar owned not just Cleveland but all those places in the American Heartland where people wake up every day, go to work, do the best they can--and in spite of the vast and overwhelming forces that conspire to disappoint them--go on, try as best as possible to do right by the people around them, to attain that most difficult of ideals: to be “good” people.

And Pekar was the epitome of those “good people.” After the Letterman appearances, after the fame, he still worked as a clerk for a veteran’s hospital until he retired.

Tony Mazur, a local sportswriter and blogger, tweeted, “First it’s LeBron, yesterday it was Harvey Pekar, and today it’s George Steinbrenner Certainly not a good week for (former) Clevelanders.”

I don’t want to make this about LeBron or Steinbrenner. I just want to point out the differences. All three of them are local boys. All of them made good. But only one of them is the quintessential Clevelander.

And being quintessentially Cleveland isn’t always a blessing. Pekar’s art, like our city, thrives on a mixture of optimism and masochism.

Pekar once said, “I wake up every morning in a cold sweat, regardless of how well things went the day before.”

What a Cleveland thing to say. We live in a city in which we expect bad weather and heartbreak from our sports teams.

When we did lose LeBron, (once again, this is not about him) I received a text from my friend that read, “Well, this will keep us busy until the next heartbreak.”

Well, the next heartbreak is on us. We have lost the man who understood us best.

Rest well, Pekar. You’ve earned a bit of peace.

-Jason Lea,


Donation can help RIF - and save you $

My two favorite things combined - shopping and reading!

Donate $3 to the Reading is Fundamental program at Macy's now through July 31 and receive a $10 off a $50 purchase coupon.

Macy's will donate your $3 to RIF, which provides free books to underserved children in the community as part of its mission to promote literacy.

Learn more about RIF here.

- Tricia Ambrose

Monday, July 12, 2010

Not THAT 'The Way We Were'

Of late my reading hasn't included a lot of works by authors found at the tail end of the alphabet - unless it's been a new release.

The way the stacks are arranged at Euclid Public Library leaves me with a tendency to stop looking in the Ss.

But last week I was headed toward nonfiction and remembered those other letters.

So it was I stumbled upon Marcia Willett. The reviews on the back of "The Way We Were" (I love that movie, though it has nothing whatsoever to do with this novel) compared her to Maeve Binchy and Rosamunde Pilcher (I've read and enjoyed their works).

Sounded like a winner.

And it was.

TWWW actually was a bit more suspenseful than I recall the works of the other authors being.

It's the story of Tiggy and Julia, young women living on the moors.

Julia is married mom to three toddlers; Tiggy is "widowed" and pregnant. Julia has an idyllic family; Tiggy is alone in the world. But they are the best of friends.

But a secret kept for 30 years threatens to come out and destroy an innocent.

I was enthralled.

Nothing like an afternoon spent imagining myself in the English countryside!

Definitely an author to recommend to my mom (who pointed me in the direction of Binchy and Pilcher years ago.)

- Tricia Ambrose

RIP Harvey Pekar

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Odds and Book Ends (July 12-18)

Odds and Book Ends features activities and events in the area related to libraries, books and authors. Send your events to, and check back to The Book Club every week for upcoming events and activities at your local library.

Beginning today, Mentor Public Library's main library will be extending Sunday open hours to 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. This is in response to high traffic and increased demand for computers.

The Friends of Morley Library are in need of books for upcoming sales. VHS tapes, DVDs, music cassettes, compact discs, framed and unframed prints also are welcome. Donations may be dropped off at Morley Library, 184 Phelps St., in Painesville during library hours.

--Cheryl Sadler

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Friday, July 9, 2010

A father's confession

Howard Norman's latest "What is Left the Daughter" is one of two books I've just finished that are constructed as letters. The other is "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" by Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows. (Both also are set during World War II.)

Today's focus is on Norman's work, a missive composed by a father to the daughter he's never known.

Wyatt Hillyer is writing in 1967, but begins his story when he was 19 in 1942 with his parents' suicides.

He moves in with his aunt and uncle and begins to learn his uncle's trade.

It's a beautiful novel, full of lines I wanted to remember.

Like this from his uncle: "Two, three, four months earlier? I couldn't found a day like that on the map. And now that hellish day's my permanent address."

Don't you love it?

Or this from Wyatt to his daughter: "Your mother was the love of my life. I was not the love of hers. You became the love of both of ours."

Or this from the woman involved with his parents at the time of their deaths: "We spoke about the impossibility of a person fitting a secret life within the life they already have."

How true.

Wyatt's confession to his daughter is so moving. For one who's been dealt such a bad hand, it's startling that he feels he has so much to atone for.

Norman has crafted characters that will linger.

Click here for Reading Questions (with a spoiler alert).

Listen to Norman discuss his work on NPR.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Visiting Brideshead Revisited

I argued with Evelyn Waugh this weekend.

It took three days, including a chunk of my Independence Day, but I think I won.

You see, Waugh grew to dislike his novel, Brideshead Revisited. Meanwhile, I grew to love it.

The argument began in 1959 when Waugh wrote the preface for the revised edition of Brideshead. He said, “(T)he book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful.”

Brideshead is a gluttonous book — on second thought, “gluttonous” is the wrong word. It is vomitous. It throws up references to art, architecture, food, wine and history at a bulimic pace. Also, I had to read with a dictionary nearby to check the definitions of “prurient,” “obdurate,” “jejune,” “atavism” and other examples of ornamental language.

I’ve raged against unnecessary verbiage when talking about Melville and Dickens; and I’ll admit that most of the erudite references and language are not necessary for the story. However, they are vital to the theme.

Before I talk about Brideshead anymore, I should try to summarize the plot:

Charles Ryder narrates the slow self-destruction of the aristocratic Marchmain family.

Ryder, who begins the story as a weary WWII soldier coincidentally returning to the family’s historical home, meets the family’s youngest son, Sebastian Flyte, while at Oxford. Sebastian drinks too much and treats his teddy bear, Aloysius, like a wingman.

Ryder is immediately charmed by Sebastian and loves him in a way that may be romantic. It’s implied repeatedly, but not explicitly stated. It doesn’t need to be. Their friendship is the best thing about the book.

Sebastian tries to avoid the inevitable introduction of Ryder to his family.

“I’m not going to have you get mixed up with my family,” Sebastian explains. “They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend, not mine, and I won’t let them.”

Sebastian is correct. Charles meets his family and is charmed, especially by his aloof sister, Julia, and delicately ironic mother, Teresa.

Charles eventually finds himself as the rope in a tug-of-war between the increasingly alcoholic Sebastian and his concerned family.

Years later, after Sebastian has devolved beyond his help, Charles bumps into Julia on a cruise ship. Even though both are married, the two begin a relationship.

Obviously, a lot more happens than I can condense into a few paragraphs. There are subplots involving Catholicism, homosexuality, the decay of aristocracy, the worthlessness of charm, and the many types of adultery.

As I said before, I like Brideshead.

I initially bristled at the excessiveness of Waugh’s text. It comes with a 15-page prologue that only serves to establish the story will be a flashback. Waugh’s vocabulary seems to have been sponsored by Roget’s Thesaurus. Ryder spends an inordinate amount of time narrating the meals he eats, the wine he pairs with his meals and the decor of the rooms in which he eats and drinks.

But it makes sense in context of the story. Brideshead is a tale of excess and charm, and the ruin these two traits can bring.

Characters spend beyond their already excessive means. When they flunk out of university, they spend a year in France or Greece — studying art or drinking. They abandon their attractive, rich spouses because someone else attractive and rich comes along.

These characters would all be repulsive if they weren’t so damn charming. And that’s where Waugh’s criticism of his own work misses the mark. He makes his characters so appealing that we can’t hate them, even when he warns us that this will all end badly.

“Charm is the great English blight,” one of the characters says. “It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

That is why, despite my prejudices and the author’s well-reasoned criticism, I still enjoyed Brideshead.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Though I would never advise someone to read a novel online, follow the link to the complete text.

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Soundtrack Game

I was readying a post about Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but Tricia blew it up with the idea of character soundtracks.

Like it, love it, want to play.

For the characters in Rebecca:

Rebecca — "Poison" by Bell Biv Devoe. "Cold Hard Bitch" by Jet would be fun theme music, also.

Maxim — "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails (or Johnny Cash, if you prefer); "Beast of Burden" by The Rolling Stones.

Mrs. deWinter — "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga. Kidding, kidding... then again... eh, never mind. Let’s say "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" by Poison.

Mrs. Danvers — I appreciate Tricia’s suggestion of "Evil Woman," but I’ll take a more sympathetic tact and suggest Billie Holiday’s "Left Alone."

All right, Tricia, what would be the soundtracks for Anna Fitzgerald, Lucie Manette and Edward Rochester?

Bonus points if you can make an unnecessary Wu-Tang Clan reference.

By the way, Tricia, we now have another preferred author in common. I been loved me some Stewart O’Nan.

In my review of Snow Angels, I wrote, “O’Nan is Monet with a pen. He has the eye. He sees (and writes) little details that make every scene real. Nerdy girls do not become beauty queens when they take off their glasses. Children cry when they spill milk and cry harder when told to stop. People slowly destroy themselves and can’t change even when they realize what they are doing.”

(Yes, I know it’s overwrought. I wrote it in 2008. It was a different time.)

-Jason Lea,

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Author joins list of favorites

I gave Stewart O'Nan another try over the weekend.

I had some issues with "Songs for the Missing." All mine, not his.

So I picked up "The Good Wife," admittedly because I am a big fan of the TV series by that name.

He's now on my list of favored authors.

From the opening line, O'Nan has the reader hooked on the story of Patty Dickerson.

His description of the moments before this pregnant woman receives the phone call that will change her life is phenomenal. The idea that if she had just left the phone off the hook perhaps things would have been different ... who hasn't played that game in their mind? "If only I had done X, Y would not have happened."

But the phone does ring. And so begins the saga of her husband's 28-year incarceration. And the 28 years she struggles to raise their son and remain a good wife.

So much wasted time.

Even while I wanted to shaker her silly, I felt I understood why she waited. That's an author developing a character well.

- Tricia Ambrose

P.S. Last night, the Friends of the Library in Euclid kicked off its summer concert in the gardens series. I'm sorry we couldn't stay longer to listen to the Rockfile Band. The folks gathered on the lawn certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Every Tuesday in July a different style of music will be featured. Next week, it's the Erie Heights Brass Ensemble, followed by J Blues on July 20 and the Swinging Bavarian Band on the 27th.

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Get lost in Space

Another weekend of travel is a wonderful thing. Not only did I get to visit with family, I also got 10 hours of reading time in the car and a page of recommendations from my mom and sisters.

Talk about a win-win.

Some of those hours were spent with "The Space Between Before and After" (ISBN 9780061452185) by Jean Reynolds Page.

A rare book that exceeded the expectations I'd formed based on reading the jacket.

I've not read any of Page's books before (I plan to now), but I imagine she's very popular with book clubs.

In my imaginary book club, participants discuss not just the writing of the book but also weigh in on the actions of the characters and discuss their choices as if they were real people. But maybe that's just me.

So, in any case, the characters in Space are ripe for evaluation.

At the heart of the story in Holli Templeton, a divorced mom whose son has dropped out of college to move back to her native Texas with his chronically ill girlfriend. When she goes to check on him and her aging grandmother, issues surrounding her mother's death and father's remarriage surface.

Every relationship is called into question. Secrets are revealed, and the reader wonders how much would have been different for everyone if those secrets had never been held?

As Holli herself wonders, "What would I have done if my desire and love had been split between two different beings? Even understanding didn't bring any fuller forgiveness. I just knew that I was lucky. My passions never destroyed the people I loved. I never had to answer to whether or not they would have, if circumstances had been different."

What would you do?

There's lots to think about.

But what I found so intriguing was in the author's insights, extras and more.

The author has included a soundtrack for the characters. Songs she said inspired her creations.

For Holli she lists The Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road," James Taylor's "You can Close Your Eyes," Sheryl Crow's "Strong Enough" and R.E.M.'s "The Great Beyond."

Got me to thinking about soundtracks for other novels.

For example, one of my all-time favs, "Rebecca:"

For Mrs deWinter: Norah Jones' "One Flight Down." This song has always made me think of someone admitting to themselves that they've known something all along, much like I imagine she had doubts about Maxim.

For Maxim: "I Started Something" by the Smiths. Its upbeat rhythms remind me of his polish, and its pretty depressing lyrics evoke his guilt.

And for Mrs. Danvers: ELO's "Evil Woman." Need I say more.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Odds and Book Ends (July 5-11)

Odds and Book Ends features activities and events in the area related to libraries, books and authors. Send your events to, and check back to The Book Club every week for upcoming events and activities at your local library.

At the regular meeting of the East Cuyahoga County Genealogical Society, Gladys Haddad, professor of American studies at Case Western Reserve University and author of several books, will present a program on “Samuel and Flora Stone Mather: Partners in Philanthropy." Her book on the subject won the 2008 OGS William H. and Benjamin Harrison Award for an Ohio-related family history. There will also be a potluck dinner, and attendees are asked to bring a side dish or desert to share.
The event will be at 7 p.m. July 5 at the Ross C. DeJohn Community Center, 6306 Marsol Road, Mayfield Heights, which is handicap accessible. The usual guest fee is waived for this meeting. For more information, contact Stacie at 216-851-7768 or Mac at

The Euclid Landmark Commission and its consultants will present a summary of the Ohio Historic Inventory and Euclid Project during a public meeting at 7 p.m. July 8 at the Euclid Public Library, 631 E. 222nd St.
The program will include some of the selected sites and their importance to Euclid’s history. The presentation will answer the questions "What is a reconnaissance survey?"; "Why a historic inventory?"; "What will it mean to Euclid?"; and "How can we use the inventory?"
This will be another chance to learn about some of the historic properties in Euclid and their effect on our city’s development.
Early Euclid founders and settlers originally owned some of these properties.
A question-and-answer session with the consultants and members of the commission is expected after the presentation.

Morley Library in Painesville will have a used book sale from 5 to 8 p.m. July 8 (Friends Preview Night) and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 9 and 10.
The sale will take place in the lower level of the library at the corner of Phelps and State streets.

Bill Wynne, author of “Yorkie Doodle Dandy,” will autograph his book at 2 p.m. July 10 at Woodland Dog Park on Lake Shore Boulevard just east of Route 91 in Eastlake. The park is home to the War Dog Memorial, honoring “Smoky,” the war dog and the subject of Wynne’s book. For details, call Jim Strand at 440-946-3567.

And if you didn't see today's News-Herald, check out this article by Jason Lea and Cassandra Shofar about local libraries using technology. Accompanying the article are four videos.

--Cheryl Sadler

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Merwin gets appointed, Hitchens gets cancer, and Shakespeare gets dark

The Library of Congress appointed W.S. Merwin the new poet laureate. I voted for Nas.

Say Queensbridge! It’s the melange.

Short biography of Merwin: He won the National Book Award and a pair of Pulitzers for poetry, the most recent of which was in 2009.

Merwin was born in New York City in 1927 but moved to Hawaii in 1976 to study Zen Buddhism. (That will be my excuse to move to a tropical clime, also.) Now, he lives on a former pineapple plantation on Maui.

He gave the best writing advice ever in his poem, “Berryman:”

you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

If you want a longer biography or more poems from Merwin, click the link.

Want to watch a free Shakespeare performance? Of course, you want do. You’re reading a book blog.

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival is offering free performances of Titus Andronicus and The Merry Wives of Windsor Saturday and Sunday, respectively, at James A. Garfield’s home, Lawnfield, in Mentor. The performances start at 6 p.m.

If you can’t make the performances this weekend, don’t fret. The CSF will be performing throughout the Cleveland area all summer.

Just so you know, Titus Andronicus is the wrong play to bring children to. I’m serious. One character gets raped. Then, the rapists cut off her hands and tongue, so she can’t tell anyone.

Seriously, let the kids watch fireworks, instead.

Speaking of Shakespeare, the blog Everyday Shakespeare hypothesizes how some of the bard’s characters would explain childbirth to their children.

One more thing, Christopher Hitchens has cancer of the esophagus.

In 2008. Hitchens released God is Not Great, which criticized many major religions. God has since denied that this was a retaliatory strike.

In all seriousness, we hope Hitchens gets better. Hell may be other people, but it is also esophageal cancer.

-Jason Lea,

Finally, this is not about books, but it’s about basketball and Cleveland. Close enough for me.

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Library extends hours

For those of you library lovers who may have missed the item in today's News-Herald...

Beginning July 11, the main branch of the Mentor Public Library will be extending its Sunday hours to 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The addition is in response to high traffic and increased demand for computers.

- Tricia Ambrose