Tag Archives: book reviews

The Inner Circle, an Archivist’s Tale

For those of you who follow this blog (thanks for that, by the way), apologies for disappearing. You all probably thought I was dead (except you, Mom- you knew I wasn’t). But I’m not. I just haven’t been doing a lot of history/genealogy-related stuff in my free time that would result in a blog post here.

So what have I been doing, then? Well, it’s not quilting up a storm, not this year. This year, I’ve been reading tons of books, as I try to complete this Pop Sugar Reading Challenge that I learned about from a friend. I’m actually doing pretty well; it’s not even halfway through the year and I’m about 2/3 done. I’ve read almost 40 books already this year! I don’t know how much or how quickly any of the rest of you read, but I am not a fast reader, so 40 is a ton for me.

Anyway, getting back to the point of this post, one of the items on the reading challenge is “a book with a protagonist who has your occupation.” So: archivist. I had to find a book where the main character was an archivist.

In the course of looking for this, I came across a number of interesting twists on the idea of “archivists” and “archiving” which involved fantasy or dystopia or some other genre where the “archivists” and I share the same occupation in name only and not in the actuality of our day-to-day activities. Some of these included The Archived by Victoria Schwab and Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace, both which I have marked “Want To Read” on Goodreads and saved for later but which did not fit the spirit of this challenge item.

What I actually did read was The Inner Circle by Brad Meltzer. In this book, the main character Beecher and his colleague Tot are both archivists at the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration (NARA).

Now, I’m not here to write a book review (oh how I hate writing those), to give a plot summary, or to criticize. And there won’t be any spoilers, or at least nothing that I would consider a spoiler.

But I thought it would be fun to record — and share with you all — some snippets from the book that gave me a chuckle, seemed wise, or that I thought my fellow archivists would appreciate. These are things I would have “highlighted” if I had been reading it on my Kindle — which, I wish I had been, because it would have made writing this post a lot simpler. I had both the physical hardcover book and the audiobook, both borrowed from the library. I actually read it as an audiobook – I don’t know why I got the hardcover too – but then I had to go back with my post-it notes and find all the things I wanted to write about here. I mean, look at this:

So many post-it notes!

So many post-it notes!

Most of these won’t require much commentary, so it’s not as bad as it looks. OK I’ve written two of these and had to come back here and revise: I was totally lying; it’s exactly as bad as it looks. But it will be fun. Page citations refer to this first edition hardcover. And on that note, let’s dive in, shall we?

     “…I go on adventures everyday.”
“No, you read about adventures every day. You put your nose in books every day. You’re like Indiana Jones, but just the professor part.”

“Indiana Jones is still cool.”
“No, Indiana Jones was cool. But only when he was out experiencing life. You need to get outta your head and outta your comfort zone.”

“…The past may not hurt you…but it won’t challenge you either…” (pp. 8-9)

I think the scene has been set for an archivist to have a “real” adventure. On the flip-side, I liked the archivist’s allusion that he does go on adventures (through the collections he works with). There’s a lot of life to be lived through the archives, people!

As they told me when I first started as an archivist…, the Archives is our nation’s attic. A ten-billion-document scrapbook with nearly every vital file, record, and report that the government produces.
No question, that means this is a building full of secrets. Some big, some small. But every single day, I get to unearth another one. (p. 19)

As a group, don’t we archivists hate it when people call the archives an “attic”? It’s not just me, right? That reference likening us to something hot and stuffy and dusty? Maybe we’re (I’m) too sensitive. Maybe they just mean it in the sweet, nostalgic sense, like that’s where Grandma keeps all the “cool old stuff” (because an archivist never told her the attic is a terrible place to keep the family heirlooms and photographs).

And scrapbooks…those are just the bane of our existence, aren’t they? They’re a preservation nightmare, with all those different kinds of things affixed to acidic paper? I mean, photographs smashed face-to-face with acidic news clippings for who knows how many years, until we got hold of them and stuck a sheet of Permalife paper in between every set of pages, because that’s about the most we can do? And I think in most cases the National Archives is going to be much better than “a scrapbook” (though they probably have some scrapbooks too, just like the rest of us: there is no escape!).

And when I first read this (again, remember I was listening to an audiobook so some words slipped by), I remember taking issue with the use of the word “every” but now I see that it is qualified by the word “vital”. No, the archives isn’t going to have EVERY document produced, but they certainly should have all the VITAL ones. For any of my non-archivist friends (and Mom): the term “vital records” is an actual specific term in records management. It means, in short, any records that would be vital to keeping your organization running in the event of a disaster. (NARA even has a whole huge long page about vital records.)

“He even answers the questions that get emailed through the…website, which no one likes answering because when you email someone back, well, now you’ve got a pen pal…” (p. 48)

I think this one was my favorite, because it’s absolutely true that you often obtain a “pen pal” when responding to research requests – particularly ones from genealogists who are likely to have cause to contact your archives again later for something else. Often times, they will email you directly – not the web site, not the archives’ generic email – YOU. And who could really blame them? You were so helpful the first time and clearly know what you’re doing, and who knows who they might get if they submit their next question using the generic method?

…I start every morning with the obituaries… (p. 70)

It’s not just me! OK I don’t do this now – for two reasons: I don’t subscribe to the local newspapers, and I don’t know (and more importantly am not related to) very many people (well proportionate to how many people there actually are) in the area where I currently live. But I used to do this all the time as a teenager in my hometown, when I was doing a lot more genealogy than I do now, and when I lived in a place where I was related to…well, let’s face it, just about everyone, if you go back far enough. Sundays were a special treat because that newspaper had the wedding and engagement announcements too!

Forever an archivist, he knows the value of collecting information first… (p. 77)

This one actually requires no real commentary. I just liked it.

“…Don’t hide in those Archives… Live that life.” (p. 90)

But why not? But I love my wood shavings! You mean I should go outside and do things and talk to people? But I’d rather have my nose in a book! Or a letter from the 1830s… FINE.

     “…y’know what the best part of this job is? For me, it’s this sheet of paper… On any given day, this sheet is just another sheet in our collection, right? But then, one day–9/11 happens–and suddenly this sheet of paper becomes the most vital document in the U.S. government… That’s what we’re here to witness… We witness it and we protect it. We’re the caretakers of those sheets of paper that’ll someday define the writing of history…” (p. 96)

YASSSSS. THIS. We take care of ALL THE THINGS so they are there when they are needed and so that folks can use them to tell the world’s story. Every grain of sand is part of the beach. Every individual person’s story is part of the world’s story.

“…History isn’t written by the winners–it’s written by everyone–it’s a jigsaw of facts from contradictory sources…” (p. 255)

Again, every piece is a piece of the story. If you want to get crazy and convoluted about it, even the inaccurate documents are still a piece of the story. There’s a reason that document is wrong

I don’t have any more quotations to share (which is just as well, both for you and for me; hopefully I’m not past the limits of copyright fair use as it is!), but there were a few more interesting scenarios I wanted to note:

In the prologue (pp. 3-5), one character must deal with a situation in which a researcher (and a VIP one at that) is trying to remove (steal) a valuable document from the archives. Boo. That’s a situation no archivist ever wants to have to deal with, whether it’s Joe-Schmoe-you-wouldn’t-know-from-Adam or a high-ranking government official, whether it’s an ancestor’s naturalization record or the correspondence of a dead president. I think we can all agree that’s a scene right out of an archivist’s nightmares.

It is mentioned that the archivists are ranked monthly “in order of how many people we’ve helped” (p. 47). Is that the number of unique researchers or the number of questions answered? (One researcher might reply several times with multiple questions; see earlier commentary about getting a “pen pal.”) Either way, I thought this was interesting. I have no idea if that is something that NARA actually does. The segment says “it helps justify our jobs, but it also adds unnecessary competition.” True dat! I am glad we don’t do this at the archives where I work! For one thing, though, most of the reference questions (where I work) are answered by the reference manager, and we only have one of those. I suppose this could be more of a “thing” someplace huge like NARA where there are likely to be many reference archivists. But again, I have no idea if this is a scenario based in reality.

And finally, at one point, there is mention of a place called “Copper Mountain.” Ah, delightful; that gave me a chuckle. I suppose “Iron Mountain” must be trademarked. Iron Mountain is, according to their web site, is “a global business dedicated to storing, protecting and managing, information and assets.” Part of their storage network literally involves underground caves.

Now then, I really haven’t told you anything at all about the actual plot of the book (as promised, no spoilers), and I don’t plan to. I just wanted to share some of the particular snippets that were fun to read, as an archivist myself. I enjoyed the book well enough, and I would recommend it if the description (which you can read for yourself on Goodreads or Amazon or wherever else) sounds like the sort of thing you enjoy.

With any luck, it won’t be 4 months before I see you again!

Book Un-Review: Intimacy and Italian Migration

I hate book reviews. I hate writing them. I don’t really like reading them. But I recently finished reading a history book I picked up at the library (with my fancy new Wright State University staff library card!) several weeks ago, and I wanted to tell you a little bit about it. So…whatever you want to call that.

A few years ago (it must have been pre-2011 because I wrote about it), I decided I finally wanted to get down to business on trying to understand more about my Italian American history: really specific stuff about Italian immigration, legal hoops they had to jump through, typical family life, etc., etc. And in the course of that, I read two books that were extremely helpful and interesting: Coming to America (1990) by Roger Daniels and Italy’s Many Diasporas (2000) by Donna Gabaccia.

So when I saw a new book with Donna Gabaccia’s name attached to it on the library’s “New Books List” in December, I decided to check it out (literally – I know, haha, library humor). The book is called Intimacy and Italian Migration: Gender and Domestic Lives in a Mobile World (2011) and is edited by Gabaccia, as well as Loretta Baldassar.

I have to say, it wasn’t what I was “hoping” for or what I expected—but that’s my own fault, honestly. If I had investigated a book review (sigh) or even the back cover or the table of contents, I might have realized it probably wasn’t going to include what I was hoping for (more on that in a minute). But I it was like an “impulse buy” (er, impulse borrow) based solely on my existing positive (and, I emphasize, still positive) opinion of Gabaccia. Kind of like if you checked out J. K. Rowling’s new book simply because it was Rowling and then acted all surprised when it wasn’t like Harry Potter, but if you’d read the description, you would have known that. (I have not read Rowling’s new book, just FYI.)


The book includes many interesting articles on Italianness and gender roles, motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. I think my two favorite chapters were “Calculating Babies: Changing Accounts of Fertility Decisions among Italians in Melbourne, Australia” (by Pavla Miller) and “Love Crossing Borders: Changing Patterns of Courtship and Gender Relations among Italian Migrants in Germany” (by Yvonne Rieker), both of which included a lot of oral history and interviews, not to mention subject matter that I found particularly intriguing.

I was also pleased to read in general about “chain migration” — which may have been mentioned in those two previous books but I had perhaps forgotten — and there was talk about “campanilismo,” a term I know I’ve read about before and find positively delightful. (That must sound like an insane way to describe how I feel about those words, but I suppose it comes from having observed something in your own family history over and over again and then finally finding out there’s an actual TERM for it: what joy at finally putting a name to something!)

Intimacy and Italian Migration was a very interesting, informative, and well-written book, but as I said, not what I was hoping for — which could be somethin that simply not exist. If, after I’ve described it, anyone can give me a recommendation for something that may cover what I seek, I’d be glad to have it!

My grandfather Renato was born in Italy. He came to America on the eve of his 21st birthday (that’s a whole other thrilling tale) in 1934. His mother Pia and younger brother Vasco had already immigrated to America in 1933. But his father Quinto came to America in 1920, when Grandpa was 6. To the best of my knowledge, based on the records I’ve found and the story I was always told, Quinto stayed in America for years — like a decade — before returning to Italy to (basically – though it involved a lot of hoops – again, a tale for another time) bring his wife and two sons to the U.S.A.

I remember the first time I heard — from my parents, many years ago — that that’s how it went down, thinking, “What the hell? That seems kind of weird. To just leave your family for years?” Now that I’m older, learned a lot more history, and read the aforementioned books, I realize it wasn’t weird at all for that to be the way with Italian immigrations. Apparently, it was downright common. But my initial knee-jerk reaction of “My god, that must have sucked!” still seems pretty valid. I’m sure it did suck. On many levels.

And so, I’ve wondered from time to time, about a lot of different aspects of how that…worked (or, didn’t work?), particularly with regard to my great-grandparents’ relationship. How do you go from being married with two kids to just not seeing each other for 10 years? Did they write letters? Did they even know how to read/write? I honestly have no idea; it’s probably more likely for him than her, but I really don’t even know. Even if they knew how? Could they afford it? It can’t have been cheap to send international letters, not to mention the time lapse of sending them trans-Atlantic by boat. This is all assuming, of course, that they…well, liked each other. I mean, part of me wants to make the terrible joke about the stereotypical Italian couple that drives each other crazy—(cue movie reference to that scene in Under the Tuscan Sun where Chiara’s mother says of her husband, “I hate him half of the time”!)—but I mean, hey, with all I just learned about semi-arranged or downright arranged marriages in Italy back in the Day (or, quite a long time after what one would really consider “The Day” – scary recent), it’s entirely possible that…hell, maybe they never liked each other to start with? I’m just saying…I have no idea. (They look relatively content in this pic from 1938, though, don’t they?)

Quinto and Pia, 1938

Quinto and Pia, 1938

But that’s some of what I was kind of hoping to read about when I picked up Intimacy and Italian Migration…something “older,” I guess, than what most of the chapters actually discussed. And perhaps it simply doesn’t exist, for the simple truth of the circumstances under which those relationships were forced to take place. If you were a highly educated and filthy rich 1920s Italian, you weren’t going to be in that situation because you either (a) didn’t need to go to America for a “better life,” because yours was pretty darn good already; or (b) if you did need/want to go to America, maybe you had the money to plunk down for all those passenger fares right from the get go (all U.S. anti-immigrant laws and quotas aside, of course- again, a thrilling tale for another time); or (c) at the very least, you could probably go home to visit more often or afford to send lots of letters, and your probably-also-higher-society wife could probably read them and write them (I’m guessing?). But poorer immigrant husbands and wives were probably too busy working, taking care of themselves and (in the wives’ case) the children (to whatever extent possible), without a lot of time (much less knowledge or resources – I don’t know if the particular two in question had it or not) to write or keep letters or diaries that I so wish I could read.

I’ll probably wonder forever. Because some things just don’t exist. I’m pretty sure that if Pia and Quinto had left letters or diaries that I could read, I’ve have them in my hands by this point. But if there’s anything out there along the same lines (but from different people), I’d be interested in reading that.

I suppose my interest in history has (almost) always come back around to being interested in people “I know” — or have seen pictures of in the family photo album or their names on my family tree — or have held their handwritten documents in my hands. This is just another instance of that. I hear (true) stories, and I want to fill in the blanks.

Okay, not a great way to end a book un-review, but… I’ve run out of steam. Honestly, that’s not quite true, but if I don’t cut it off here, I could ramble for hours (pages) about these people. And I’m sure nobody wants that. Or, if you do, ask me questions, and I’ll write more. 🙂

Recent reading: Codex by Lev Grossman

“What’s that you’re reading?”
“Yes, I can see that…what’s the title?”
“I already told you: Codex.”

How could any librarian not be drawn to a book whose title is Codex? It’s so meta! (For those who may never have taken a History of Books class, “codex” is simply a fancy word for what we would just call a “book” today – gatherings of pages bound together within a cover. But in ye olden dayes, the word “codex” distinguished that familiar format from a much earlier book format: the scroll.)

I had recently read a review for Grossman’s newer books — The Magicians and The Magician King — which are supposed to be like fresh meat for adults lamenting the end of Harry Potter. Anyway, I was browsing the Fiction section at the library, and of course the Magician books were all checked out, but the title of one of Grossman’s earlier books, Codex: A Novel (2004) book caught my eye.

Here’s the book’s official description, since quite frankly it seems silly to reinvent the wheel in that respect:

About to depart on his first vacation in years, Edward Wozny, a hotshot young investment banker, is sent to help one of his firm’s most important and mysterious clients. His task is to search their library stacks for a precious medieval codex, a treasure kept sealed away for many years and for many reasons. Enlisting the help of passionate medievalist Margaret Napier, Edward is determined to solve the mystery of the codex-to understand its significance to his wealthy clients, and to decipher the seeming parallels between the legend of the codex and an obsessive role-playing computer game that has absorbed him in the dark hours of the night. [From the entry on Amazon.]

I was still interested after reading the description, and so I decided to take it home with me — er, checking it out first, of course.

I was not disappointed. Similar to how Grossman’s The Magicians is being compared to Harry Potter, I would compare Codex to The Da Vinci Code. As in, if you liked The Da Vinci Code, I think you’d probably like Codex. If you enjoy a good mystery/thriller that is going to have its characters talking about history, books, and traipsing through an archives or two, then I think Codex is probably for you.

I was delighted any time the narrative described an archives or a bunch of old books — which was often — so I frequently found myself nodding and chuckling, as Grossman clearly knows what he’s writing about.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from the book — no spoilers — with page numbers from the 2004 Harcourt hardcover edition:

It was at the bottom of a tall stack of books, but before he could offer to help she picked them up and shifted them to the floor in one practiced motion. The books left a ladder of dusty smudges up the front of her dress, but she didn’t seem to notice. (pg. 109)

(Yep. Been there.)

“Do you know what happens to books like these once they’re sold?… They’re disbound. Dealers dismantle them, cut them up and sell them off page by page because they’re worth more money that way. Do you understand? They’ll be gone forever. Dead. They’ll never be reassembled.” (pg. 123)

(Sad but true. However, I was reminded of Micah Erwin’s presentation at the Preserving our Cultural Heritage conference in March, in which he described a project aimed at virtually reassembling medieval leaf collections, using social technologies such as Flickr. It was extremely intriguing.)

“…he imagined another life for himself as one of these silent scholars, buried in his research like a guinea pig in its wood shavings, nibbling away steadily after some arcane piece of knowledge in the hope of making an addition, however imperceptible, to the collective pile.” (pp. 205-206)

(I had to chuckle at this, recalling the massive pile of research I had assembled when trying to figure out my “little Quaker love story” a few weeks ago. And you should see all the papers I have piled up on my book cart as I do background research for the entire Forrer-Peirce-Wood collection. I am completely guilty of the guinea-pig-buried-in-its-wood-shavings syndrome, but I’m happy when I’m in there.)

At one point, a litany of book conservation supplies are described, and I just couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear as I read, thinking, I actually know what most of that is for!

I won’t spoil the ending for you. No spoilers here. But I will say that I was surprised at the ending and not quite sure how I feel about it. 

Nevertheless, it was an awesome book, and part of me wants to read it again, just to catch all the things I’m sure I missed the first time around. I might save it in the back of my mind for a re-read again soon, but for now I have other books that need reading. And I need to return my copy of Codex to the library, so someone else can enjoy it.

Review: American Dreams: The United States since 1945 by H. W. Brands

My husband playfully teases me for being a “history geek,” in that I still occasionally pick up a history book and read it for fun, long after the BA and MA days of “you must read Book X by Date Y and perform related Test/Assignment Z.” It doesn’t help my geekitude any that I work in a library and have pretty easy access to all kinds of books.

 A few weeks ago, American Dreams: The United States since 1945 by H. W. Brands (New York: Penguin Press, 2010; 420 pages) caught my eye on the New Books shelf at the library. I’ve become one of those people who flips to the back of the book to read the “About the Author” section of a history before I even consider taking a book home. Satisfied in seeing that author H. W. Brands is a history professor at the University of Texas, I decided to check the book out. Literally. (Ah, library humor.)

Brands covers most of the major political, domestic, and popular events and trends. He hits all the things you would expect to find in a history book discussing this era and several things you might not: how the invention of air conditioning contributed to the growth of the Sunbelt; how the “CNN effect” changed news media; and the impacts of companies like McDonald’s, Nike, Microsoft, Dell, and Apple on American life.

I very much enjoyed this book. I found it a pleasant, leisurely stroll through the most recent 65 years of American history. But it is just that: pleasant and leisurely. Brands sticks to a non-controversial presentation of virtually indisputable facts. Yes, after 6 years of college study in the field of history, I realize that few books are completely unbiased or contain only “facts,” so take that statement with a grain of salt, obviously. In any event, it would be difficult to find fault with Brands’s argument, since there seems to be no “argument” to speak of.

I would recommend this book to those with a casual interest in history or to undergraduate students. (I suspect Brands’s undergraduate students were among his intended audience.) As a source for a serious history student, I think it is a bit lacking, partially in the absence of any kind of argument, but mostly in the inadequacy of its source citations. Brands cites only direct quotations—of which there are several, and I give him credit for that, because they definitely add interest. But there are no general source citations, nor even a bibliographic essay or “for further reading” section. (Yes, I’ve become one of those people who actually looks at the footnotes/ end notes also.)

I am curious what others thought of American Dreams. I did not find any reviews of it on JSTOR, which I suppose could be because it was not published at a university press. I did find a review by Charles Kaiser from the Washington Post, which was less than laudatory.

Nevertheless, I found American Dreams to be a pleasant read. When I picked it up, I was looking for a concise, easy-to-read narrative of the main events in American history from 1945 to 2010. And that’s exactly what I got. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the same.