By REBECCA WEBSTER
Recorder News Staff
Standing at a podium in the Amsterdam Free Library Thursday stood an Amsterdam native sharing tales of a far-away culture.
And surrounding him were friends, family, and interested new faces, eager to learn more about the culture he researched for four years and eventually wrote about.
It was an Amsterdam Free Library book discussion from Lee Miller, author of "Kali Sunset," a historical nonfiction story about an elderly Bengali woman, living her last days in India, remembering the stories that marked special moments in her life.
"It's actually the second book. The first book was a project for a family, a real biography about a matriarchal family from Calcutta, India," Miller said. "I was commissioned by the family to piece it all together."
Miller went to college with the matriarch's granddaughter who told him that her family was having a hard time gathering the stories from the grandmother's life.
But soon into the project, the grandmother died of throat cancer and Miller spent about four years -- including three month-long trips to India -- interviewing family members and writing the woman's story.
"Eventually, it all started to make sense and I put together this massive piece for their family," Miller said. "But it was a lot of family details and specific things, so for the average reader it was too much to be an engaging book.
"So I thought, wow, I learned so much from this project and I thought I would streamline it into a fictional story so it would be accessible."
Thursday evening, Miller read pieces of "Kali Sunset" to the crowd at the library, and when he was finished, he signed books -- sold for donations to the library -- and chatted with readers as they dabbled in authentic Indian treats.
Friends of the Library members Gloria Martuscello and Terrie Jackson sat in the library after the reading chatting about the book and the turnout.
"It was very interesting. I've read the book," Jackson said, adding that Miller, a friend of the family and former student of hers, gave her the book. "He writes very poetically and very descriptively and you can really see everything, so I really enjoyed listening to him tonight.
"It's nice to have a local author."
It was a good program, Martuscello said, and she is looking forward to reading the book.
Martuscello said the cultural book discussion was a part of the many programs that have been going on at the library lately with new library director Nicole Hemsley.
"I have to give Nicole a lot of credit," Martuscello said. "She is trying to really make this library a focal point of the city, which I absolutely love."
Following the book discussion, Hemsley and library trustee Thom Georgia stood in Hemsley's office remarking on the success of the programs they have been bringing to the library.
"The Friends of the Library spear-headed this one, and it was just so cool because it tied in with the whole cultural theme that we're going with this year," Hemsley said, adding that she was happy to bring in the local author.
Georgia said he had read Miller's book and Friends members who knew Miller asked him to come.
Events, like Miller's book discussion, happen each week at the library, and Hemsley, said, it's what she wanted from the get-go.
Georgia said part of it came from strategic planning for the library when Hemsley first began.
"When we were going back and forth addressing the community discussion about well we don't have a community center or a civic center proper, our collective response to that was, well, we do. It's the library," Georgia said. "Our focus all around from director to staff to board to our members was how do we make the library fit that model and it's been a push ever since."
When given the position, it was Hemsley's hope to hear from community members that if something was going on in the community, they would automatically point to the library as the place the event would be held.
"That's what I wanted it to be," Hemsley said. "And with (Georgia's) help and the help of the board and Friends, we're actually doing that."
"We want to keep that pace up."
Scheduling more programming is always on Hemsley's agenda now.
One of the newer programs is something they will call a "Travel Log," where people can come in Monday and Thursday evenings and discuss their travels, all centered around culture.
"It's taking on a life of its own and that tells me that this is something that the community really wants," she said. "And if I keep having all of this support from my Friends and from my board and just members of the community, I can just see us developing more and more special programming like this."
The next cultural library event will be a Pysanky (Ukrainian Easter Egg) creation workshop, held at the library on Saturday, taught by members of Amsterdam's Ukrainian community.