Belle’s library

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When some people think of paradise, they picture golden sand beaches and calm blue waves. My idea of paradise has always been something like this:

World’s coolest libraries

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As I said on Monday, libraries have been some of the world’s greatest treasures. No wonder, then, that they are often so beautiful you might think you were inside a palace (sometimes there’s no differentiation). Here are a couple old-world libraries that are visually stunning:

Abbey Library St. Gallen Switzerland

Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Canada

Real Gabinete Portugues De Leitura in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Sansovino Library in Venice, Italy

Library of the Benedictine Monastery of Admont, Austria

Biblioteca Geral University of Coimbra in Coimbra, Portugal

Modern architects have created some very beautiful, if quite different, libraries as well. Alexandria, Egypt, which once held the world’s most important library, now has an updated version that is anything but ordinary. Here are a few contemporary library designs:

Exterior of library in Alexandria, Egypt

Interior of library in Alexandria, Egypt

Central library in Seattle, USA

National library of Belarus

Aaaaand my own hometown library in Minneapolis, USA


Madam Librarian

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With all that talk yesterday of my heroine Marian (why didn’t Harold use that rhyme?!) I thought I might as well share the video. Delightful!

How to be a librarian

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What you’ll need: thousands of books, organizational skills

Songlist: Wrapped Up In Books by Belle and Sebastian, Marian the Librarian from The Music Man

Further reading: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland

Last weekend I went to see my friend star in a production of The Music Man, which happens to be my favorite musical. When I was a kid, I watched this movie approximately 1,402,927 times at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather would sing the ridiculous number “Shipoopi” poolside, and we would all chime in on “Trouble, which starts with a T, that rhymes with P, and that stands for pool!” But my favorite character, the one that my friend played last weekend, was always Marian. Marian the librarian.

I don’t know if my desire to be a librarian was prior to seeing Marian waltz through her library or not, but I do remember “playing librarian” at a very young age. This included putting on a pair of my mother’s dizzying glasses, gathering all my books, and running a pen (capped, of course) across the back of my books as I’d seen my local librarians do. I longed desperately for a special pen like they had that could scan barcodes, and I longed for my books to sport those barcodes.

Dartmouth Library's front desk, where I worked

When I went to college, my dream finally came true. I got a job, during freshman orientation, at the circulation desk of Baker/Berry Library. It was my first real job, which is to say, the first job which supplied me with W-2 forms. And I loved being a librarian just as much as I’d always thought I would. I loved checking in vast stacks of books and organizing them on shelves. I loved helping fellow students find their way around the library (my favorite question came from a friend of mine in the spring of our freshman year–he approached tentatively then said, “Um, like, where are the books?” A more legitimate question than you might think, since Dartmouth’s stacks are somewhat strangely organized). And I loved that all of my friends were completely jealous of this job–when I wasn’t checking books in or out, I could just do my homework. A nice perk.

A year and a half after graduating, I found myself working at a library once more. This was an Americorps job, for which I organized activities in the children’s section for young visiting guests. The point was to connect literacy with games and crafts so the kids would associate reading with fun. And my co-corps members and I came with some pretty awesome ideas: a pirate-themed day complete with a scavenger hunt for the letters P-I-R-A-T-E and pirate books, reading books about masks and making our own from paper plates and tissue paper, writing stories about seahorses (I don’t remember what this was related to), and on and on.

Marian, cutting a rug in her library

There’s a conception of the librarian as a stodgy elderly lady who are sticklers for quiet studiousness. This is not necessarily a misconception, as it certainly is a career that draws women in greater numbers that men, and sometimes attracts odd characters (a St. Paul woman and library employee was recently charged with theft of almost $40,000 in library materials…her life story is rather sad).

Yet, historically, libraries have been some of the greatest treasures of civilization, creating centers of knowledge for which learned people would travel great distances to reach. Before Gutenberg came up with a way to print books efficiently, scholars would have to memorize the contents of the books they read in libraries and carry this information with them. So, if there’s anyone out there who doesn’t appreciate libraries, let me tell you: libraries are damn cool. And I am clearly very cool for having always idolized Marian, and having made my librarian dreams come true, if only for a few years.

As Harold Hill sings, “What can I say, my dear, to make it clear, I need you badly, badly, Madam Librarian…Marian.”

Boggis and Bunce and Bean

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Mr. Fox, looking fantastic

On my way to the neighbors’ house yesterday, thinking of myself as a chicken farmer, a rhyme arose spontaneously in my head: Boggis and Bunce and Bean/One fat, one short, one lean/These horrible crooks/So different in looks/Were nonetheless equally mean.

This, of course, is limerick from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which happens not only to be my favorite childhood book, but also the book I used while tutoring the neighbors’ youngest son in reading. He and I both knew the story well, and loved the descriptions of the three farmers scheming to kill Mr. Fox. There’s Boggis, the fat chicken and duck farmer; Bunce, the pot-bellied dwarf who only eats donuts filled with goose liver paste; and Bean, the turkey farmer who is thin as a whip from ingesting nothing beyond apple cider. These three unmarried and unhappy farmers are excellent villains, yet one can’t help feeling a little bad for them. Their only purpose in life is to raise poultry, and they are bedeviled in this by the thieving Mr. Fox. I can only imagine how upset I would be if some of my neighbors’ chickens were murdered on my watch by a cunning predator. Of course, Mr. Fox is only trying to provide for his young family and is remarkably charming (even for a fox). Still, the final scene in which the three farmers sit outside the fox hole in the rain, waiting endlessly for the fox family to emerge, is utterly pathetic. Perhaps they should consider starting CSAs instead–Mr. Fox wouldn’t be at all interested in the produce and the farmers would probably see an improvement in their outlook on life with a change in diet. After all, donuts filled with goose-liver paste are bound to put anyone in a perpetually bad mood.

Heat waves and CSAs

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It’s going to be a sad Thanksgiving. I read today in Minneapolis’s newspaper, The Star Tribune, that the recent heat wave boiling over the United States has led to the deaths of over 100,000 turkeys in Minnesota alone.

Luckily, my neighbors’ chickens that I’ve been caring for this week have all survived. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for some of the vegetables left out on my neighbors’ porch by their CSA.

Fresh vegetables from a CSA

CSAs, farms that supply Community Supported Agriculture, are all the rage here in the Twin Cities, where we are both surrounded by farmland yet separated from it by snaking highways and suburban developments. With membership in a CSA, you are guaranteed local produce on a weekly basis that evolves with the season and is delivered by the farmers who grew it.

My neighbors’ house is a drop site for a local CSA, and I was pleased to see that one of the subscribing families hadn’t picked up their box yesterday, which meant the veggies were free for the taking. I dragged the heavy box home. I unpacked luscious green Swiss chard, hearty cucumbers and zucchinis, and brilliant purple onions. Then things took a turn for the worse. Underneath these lovely vegetables was a giant head of cauliflower that should’ve been white but was quickly turning brown and slimy from being left all day in the heat. Fennel fronds just below had wilted to inedibility. A bag of green beans at the bottom of the box had started to sprout fuzz.

It’s terrible to waste food, but even more difficult to throw out produce grown on a nearby farm by a man whose face you recognize. It feels sacrilegious, even. Yet there was nothing else to be done–onto the compost heap this food went.

The heat wave will have many negative consequences for people across the country, and especially for the farmers among us. Thus, it feels all the more important to support small farms as much as possible, and CSAs are the most delicious way to do it. It may be too late in the season to sign up, but see if you can find a farm near you for next year!

Susan Orlean and the rise of the urban chicken

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Chickens chillin' in the backyard

A year and a half ago, on my birthday, I went to a program called “Wits.” The featured guest was Susan Orlean and the topic was chickens. The hosts seemed to assume that chickens are such an inherently funny topic, they wouldn’t need to prepare much. Luckily, Orlean had plenty to say on the subject.

Orlean published an article in The New Yorker two years ago called, “The It Bird,” which details the recent exponential increase of urban chicken owners. As Orlean notes, chicken-owning was quite common until the 1950s, since the animals are so hardy, easy to care for, and productive (a hen in her laying years provides an egg every 1-2 days). Yet, in the 1950s, everyone wanted to be modern and anything hinting of agriculture was antithetical to modernity.

And now everyone wants chickens again. The word locavore became popular in 2007, along with its way of life: eating food that comes from a 100-mile radius from where you live. Many people interpret this by growing their own small garden of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, but what better way to complete the meal with eggs from your backyard?

My neighbors were on the cutting edge of the chicken-trend, and built a decidedly elegant coop and run several years ago when remodeling their garage. Fifteen chickens now call this coop home. I was anxious about providing daily care for the hens while my neighbors are on vacation, but I find myself already enjoying the domesticity of collecting eggs, putting out feed, and shooing the girls inside at night. It’s probably a long leap from taking care of a few pretty hens to the harsh realities of the farming life, but maybe I wouldn’t be so bad at it after all.

Here’s Susan Orlean at Wits, reading from her article The It Bird:

How to be a farmer

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What you’ll need: a pitchfork, a plot of land

Songlist: Maggie’s Farm by Bob Dylan, Sting’s Fields of Gold

Further reading: My Antonia by Willa Cather, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

The American dream...sort of

For anyone who thinks Minnesota is some arctic wasteland, let me tell you, it gets hot. Today the heat index was around 115 F, and is only supposed to be worse tomorrow. Experts at escaping the weather, many Minnesotans flocked yesterday to movie theaters, chilled-out coffee shops, air-conditioned malls. I went to the Walker Art Center for a screening of Sweet Land, a wonderful film set in Minnesota and directed by my mom’s friend, Ali Selim.

There is nothing quite so quintessentially American as a scene of a farmhouse behind rolling fields of wheat (throw in a bald eagle and a bison and you’ve got prime presidential campaign material). Yet the independent American farmer is a disappearing breed, in part because corporate farms are buying up the land, and because it’s too expensive for most people to start a farm from scratch, between buying acres of land and necessary equipment. Thus farming also has an air of romanticized nostalgia.

The two main characters of Sweet Land, falling in love with each other and the land

Sweet Land, which focuses on a small farming community in Minnesota just after WWI has ended, trades heavily on this nostalgia and romance. One slow-motion scene shows the two main characters separating the wheat from the chaff in golden light–no wonder these two characters fall in love.

Having grown up in the midwest, I visited farms on school field trips and devoured Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accounts of the prairie from which my cities rose. I suspect I am thus even more susceptible to the romance of farming, and, as a girl, often imagined myself waking early to milk cows and collect eggs and going to sleep with the setting of the sun. Besides literary references and field trips, my only real experience of farms was secondhand through the weary gazes of girls my age at the Minnesota State Fair. Though their hair was tied in french braids, just the way I imagined mine would be, their boots were covered in grime, their hands of the flanks of the animals they were showing. It was not quite the same romance as I pictured.

These next two weeks I have a chance to see if I’m cut out for the farming life. While my neighbors are away in France, I’m keeper of their urban menagerie: a cat, a parrot, and more than a dozen chickens (they also have three dogs and a lizard, all of which have found other temporary homes). The hens are lovely and chatty, but after spending a half-hour just figuring out how to change their water gives me the initial impression that I won’t be starting up a farm any time soon. Stay tuned, though…perhaps I’ll be whistling a different tune after bringing home the delicious eggs these girls lay.

Male models

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Gabriel Aubry

Since I’ve devoted so much space to female supermodels this week, I thought I’d dedicate a post to the males in the business. Then I realized I only know two male models by name: Tyson Beckford and Gabriel Aubry (and the latter I only know due to his well-publicized relationship with Halle Berry). My very unscientific reasoning for the lack of famous male supermodels amounts to this: men are probably less interested in modeling as a career given that historically men have relied on power more than beauty; society is less interested in male models because male beauty is valued less than female beauty; and more men fit the physical requirements for modeling than women (being tall and thin) so male supermodels are less recherché than their female counterparts. Maybe?

Apparently, there are some men who have made a name for themselves. has listings of the top 50 male modelstop 10 icons (including Aubry), and the 25 men making the most modeling money. Time to start paying attention.

The supermodel meet-cute

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People love stories of how supermodels got discovered like they love a good romantic comedy. Serendipity and romance prevail in both stories, but there are slight differences. In Hollywood you see boy-meets-girl, while in modelworld the boy happens to be a dashing French talent scout and the girl is freakishly tall and breathtakingly beautiful (ok, Hollywood has probably made that movie already). In both cases, the audience is led to wonder What would have happened if he hadn’t dropped his napkin at that EXACT TIME?! and smile about how the stars were perfectly aligned.

Here are a few stories of how some of world’s most famous faces got found:

Gisele, McDonald's happiest customer

Kate Moss was discovered by a modeling agent at New York’s JFK airport while flying home from a vacation in the Bahamas. She was 14.

Cindy Crawford spent her childhood summers working on a farm to make extra money for her family. A newspaper photographer took a picture of her while she was detasseling corn at the age of 16, and there was so much positive feedback about the picture that she decided to take up modeling.

Continuing in the food trend, Natalia Vodianova helped her mother sell fruit on the streets of Gorky, USSR. A talent scout saw her on the street and convinced her to learn English so as to pursue modeling. At 17 she moved to Paris and signed with an agency.

And, of course, there’s Gisele Bündchen, the highest paid model in the world. She was found while eating at a McDonald’s in Sao Paulo at the age of 14. Bet she’s glad she ate that burger.

The lesson is clear: if you want to be a supermodel, work for menial wages in rural towns and frequent fast food joints. You’ll be discovered in no time.

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