Year: 2009

Welcome to Organizers Anonymous

Not everyone arranges their spices in alphabetical order, I’m told.  I do, but not owing to OCD or having too much time on my hands.  Quite the contrary.  When you’re in the throes of cooking, knowing exactly where to reach for that ingredient saves both moments and frustration. 

Organizing is cheaper than therapy, too.  Unable to establish world peace or forecast the economy, I can at least gain mastery of small household domains.  Holiday decoration storage?  Suffice it to say that descriptive labeling and color coding are involved.  More than organizational tools, these devices are coping strategies to counter end-of-year anxiety.

Reading choices accomplish the same goal.  As 2010 approaches with employment insecurity and the inevitable Questions about Life, I’m armed with empowering selections that also happen to be compelling narratives.  The first two, Edward Rutherfurd’s just-published New York: The Novel and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, encompass multiple generations, demonstrating the wisdom of the big picture and affording an immense panoramic view.

The third book features a different but equally comforting chronological scope:  Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

Friends, Romans, moviegoers…

It’s not the ultimate movie–no car chases or dialogue about playing a song again or wearing badges (stinking or otherwise).  However, when I saw Me and Orson Welles this week, I thought it came close.  The film offers a stellar ensemble cast, evocative period (1937) sets and costumes, and a charming premise.  It’s based on Robert Kaplow’s novel of the same name (available from the library).  The story follows a week in the life of a teenager who chances upon Orson Welles’ modern-dress staging of Julius Caesar just before its New York debut at the now-famous Mercury Theatre.

The screenplay parallels Welles, poised on the brink of acclaim, with Richard, simultaneously initiated into two new worlds–adulthood and the theatre milieu.   The coming-of-age theme extends to the stage production, enduring its own overwrought adolescence right up until the opening curtain.  By that point, I’d been privy to enough behind the scenes insights and intrigue to believe that I, like the actors, was absolutely dependent upon the play-going audience’s response. 

I expect to enjoy post-movie possibilities, too:  for example, watching Christian McKay, who played Welles, accept his Oscar.  Real critics have also responded extravagantly to McKay’s portrayal.  You can sample their comments on the film’s Internet Movie Database page.

If you’d like to know more about the enigmatic Orson Welles, consider these offerings from the library shelves:  In My Father’s Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Wells by Chris Welles Feder, or actor Simon Callow’s well-regarded biographical volumes:  Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu and Orson Welles: Hello Americans.  You’ll also find some of Welles’ many films (acting and/or directing), including Citizen Kane, The Long Hot Summer, A Man for All Seasons, The Stranger, A Touch of Evil, and The Third Man in the library’s DVD area.

The best cinema about the theatre world demonstrates that what happens on stage is nothing, entertainment-wise, compared to the goings-on backstage.   These are some favorites that you may want to try (or watch yet again):  My Favorite Year, Topsy-Turvy, Shakespeare in Love.

Somewhere under the radar

I shouldn’t be telling you this.  Now there’ll be more of you with whom to share.  But it’s only fair to alert you that Booklist recently published its list of Top 10 First Novels: 2009. 

When rankings like this appear in the journals, I scurry to check our catalog, hoping that we purchased all of the titles.  We did.  Then, enlightened self-interest kicks in, and I briefly entertain the impulse to go online and place requests for all of them.  But I don’t.  That would be wrong.  Instead, I’m tipping off those of you who haven’t yet heard about these debut novels or who may have bypassed them on the New Fiction shelf because you didn’t recognize the authors.

You’ll find thematic variety in this select group–exotic locales, social issues, history, and more.  Add to that a guarantee of  excellence: the choices were determined by Brad Hooper, editor and top reviewer, who demonstrates both unerring taste and an engaging approach to fiction critique.  If book reviewers had groupies; I’d join his following.

I am already basking in the glow of unselfish information sharing.  When I get my hands on Grace Hammer (one request is OK) I will also unashamedly savor my role in supporting literary talent in the pre-prize-winning and pre-bestseller stages.  It’s an experience that Booklist recommends.

Visa, Discover, or library card?

You may have stowed your shopping bags in the car before entering the library, but we know where you’ve been.  The signs are evident: posture wilted from hauling around your purchases, eyes glazed by an overabundance of merchandise.  And your countenance clearly registers second-guessing on some of those gift choices. 

The library could be the perfect venue in which to regain your equilibrium.  After the rush and dazzle of Retail Land, we represent relative calm.  If you re-think your selections afterward, the consequences don’t involve credit adjustments.  We furnish options that are either just-right-sized or even limited, but for the best of reasons (the obvious one being that our stuff is free!).  You’ll find thoughtfully focused displays throughout the library; these less-is-more offerings seem especially timely:

The “New Fiction” area upstairs:  If someone else snagged your preferred bestseller, use your RRPL card to place a hold on it (think of this as no-cost layaway).  Then, scan the shelf for something a little different to entertain you while you wait–perhaps a new author or a type of book you don’t usually gravitate towards.  A peek at the shelf just now included

these finds: The Time it Snowed in Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen, and Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, among many others.

Abridged audiobooks:  A condensed format enables you to try a title you wouldn’t otherwise have time for.  By listening to an abridgment of, say, Kathy Griffin’s Official Book Club Selection, or Tony Dungy’s Uncommon: Finding Your Own Path to Significance during your commute, you could garner some new insights for holiday party conversation.

Christmas Family Night:  Definitely one to a customer, this free annual holiday treat is yours to enjoy on Friday, December 11.  The library will present puppet shows, a craft “make it and take it” workshop, and more.  No cash, no credit card, no confusion!


‘Twas the month before Christmas..

…and my brain’s in a fog,

Just pondering topics

For the library blog.

Actually, a few tense moments spent wrestling a bulky wreath onto my banister last night reminded me how many opportunities we have to regard December as an ordeal.  Regardless of one’s religious orientation, festivals and commemorations in the next few weeks occupy our attention.  Holiday tasks can provoke either delight or misery, and most of us have acquired traditions guaranteed to sustain us in the proper spirit.  Here are a few for starters; I hope you’ll send in comments to pass along yours:

  • Parodies of “The Night Before Christmas” (original title, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”).  Has any other literary entity been re-worked or imitated as much?  As an English major, I love the adaptation that begins “‘Twas the nocturnal segment of the diurnal period preceding the annual Yuletide celebration…”, but you’re certain to glimpse your own pick.  For “The Biker’s Christmas”, “A Mom’s Christmas”, “A NASCAR Christmas”, “A Genealogists’s Christmas”, and many, many others, see’s With Apologies to Clement C. Moore.

  •  Choosing a seasonal book to share with friends and loved ones.  Last year, we purchased copies of Lemony Snicket’s The Lump of Coal for our book group.  It’s like “Bullwinkle” cartoons–written for children but most appreciated by adults.  

  • Watching our family’s designated version of A Christmas Carol.  At our house, only the George C. Scott edition will do.  What is your favorite?


Don’t say we didn’t warn you

Library patrons who are placing holds on popular, checked-out titles tend to comment, “I’ll bet this comes in either when I don’t have time to read it, or when all my other requests do.”  And we both laugh, recognizing this to be prophecy, pure and simple. 

When my reserved copy of Diana Gabaldon’s seventh Voyager title (An Echo in the Bone) materialized on the Holds shelf, the timing couldn’t have been worse:  Thanksgiving houseguests due in a few days, pies to be baked, meals to be planned and shopped for, house to be tidied, another hefty book to be read for December discussion.  Add to this the weekly forty hours working at the library, which, I have to say, really cuts into my free time.  Can you relate?

Why not pass on this copy and re-reserve it for later?  For one thing, it would just arrive the week before Christmas and the next round of visitors and pies, but the real reason is that Gabaldon’s Voyager series is most enjoyable when viewed as a challenge.  832 pages?  Bring it on. Complex plot featuring the convoluted genealogy of a Scottish clan, some of whom time-shift back and forth in a 300-year time span?  Yes, thanks!

Before Voyager, time travel was on my “don’t bother” list, along with impossibly hunky romance protagonists and their impossibly spunky love interests.  Still, I picked up Dragonfly in Amber years ago when the Scottish clan element and raves of Gabaldon enthusiasts aroused my curiosity.  Now I’m a convert.  Yes, Jamie Fraser is amazingly handsome and endearing.  He and Claire, the love of his life, achieve more clever and resourceful deeds than is humanly possible, but I’m OK with that.  Observing historical events (in Echo, the Battle of Saratoga) as experienced by Frasers is oh-so-entertaining.  Gabaldon’s inclusion of medical lore and pioneer craft details is adept; at times, the text almost reads like a mashup of adventure, romance, and the Foxfire books–in a good way.

So, if Claire can brew her own penicillin on a windowsill and captivate men with hair that hasn’t been washed in weeks, I could work in an 800-page novel in an overscheduled week.  I did and don’t regret it; sleep is overrated.  But, speaking of decisions, I am not stocking my guest room with any Gabaldon books.  I pick up nice hardback copies of popular fiction at the library book sale and stash them away for houseguests.  Anyone who starts a novel and hasn’t finished by departure time may keep it.  Should my visitors get their hands on an installment of Voyager, they’ll never come downstairs.  

Food for thought

We 21st-century Americans celebrate our capacity for assimilating new ideas and techniques.  We upgrade phones at the drop of a hat, endlessly tweak our Facebook pages, and investigate any number of eco-friendly home improvements.  Adaptability, flexibility, innovation–these are our watchwords.  Just don’t go switching raspberries for strawberries in Aunt Bertha’s Thanksgiving jello salad, and God forbid you should try to have a festive extended-family meal without (fill in the blank with your clan’s most time-honored dish)!

During the holidays, food signifies fulfillment of two needs–affection and stability.  That’s a fact, as is the realization that all those modern technologies encroach on time formerly spent planning and executing the Significant Seasonal Meal.  Each approaching Thanksgiving or Christmas finds me a little more desperate for rock-solid yet inspired culinary advice.

So, I turned to my fellow library staffers for recommendations.  What, I asked, is your #1 cookbook?  The nominees:

  • Betty Crocker Cookbook:  named multiple times, this classic offers “favorite comfort foods”, instructions for novices: cuts of meat, freezing, etc, convenient looseleaf format, and lots and lots of color illustrations
  • Six Spices: A Simple Concept of Indian Cooking by Neeta Saluja: “helps you master the basics”
  • Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course:  “my cooking bible at home in England”
  • America’s Test Kitchen books and DVDs:  “everything about cooking from the best appliances and cookware to improving recipes”
  • The Joy of Cooking:  “I like the older version more than the current one”; also named by more than one respondent
  • New Best Recipe:  “old favorites that have been tested for taste, texture, dependability”
  • Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food by Jessica Seinfeld
  • The Food Network website
  • The “small holiday recipe brochure–I think from Borden–that I picked up at the grocery checkout several years ago”:  “I’ve even preserved each page in a plastic sleeve”.

As in our other pursuits, when it comes to cooking we retain our appreciation for the traditional sources as we test-drive evolving ones.  No wonder our celebrative repasts carry so much emotional weight; they are microcosms for the challenge we face in navigating a changing world while preserving our identities.

With apologies to The Serenity Prayer, here’s what guided my choice of menu items for this Thanksgiving:  courage to adapt a couple of family favorites to slightly more healthful versions, and wisdom to not monkey around with the buttermilk pie recipe.


New York minutes

Just back from my second-ever visit to New York City, I am suffering from mass-transit withdrawal and humming “Avenue Q” and “Billy Elliot” tunes.  We are blessed to have my husband’s brother and sister-in-law (they’d attract hordes of visitors even if they lived somewhere uninteresting) situated just a couple of blocks from Times Square.  Not only that, they dispense kind advice on NYC navigation without making us feel like complete yokels. 

Still, I boned up on some local attractions and customs before this trip.  Checking out the usual suspects from the library–Fodor’s, Insight, Blue Guide–was a good move; they effectively guided my selection of our what-to-see short list.  I’ve forgotten which book provided the Essential Cab Advice, but here it is because you should know:  tell cab drivers cross streets rather than addresses, and never select a cab driver who approaches you in the airport.

Sometimes, the best feature of a planned destination is the discoveries you make en route.  Propelled by rush-hour sidewalk traffic, I was seeking out a garment district address when the “Sposabella” sign caught my eye.  I’d read about it in The Curious Shopper’s Guide to New York City: Inside Manhattan’s Shopping Districts by Pamela Keech.  The store specializes in wedding veils and related finery, and celebrities patronize it.  Since (despite evidence to the contrary) I still consider NYC a mythical concept–not unlike flying First Class–spotting “Sposabella” and several other wonderfully specific shops that I’d first viewed in print was a treat.

Another can’t-keep-to-ourselves discovery from this excursion is something you won’t find in the library; it’s more like a deck of cards than a book.  City Walks: New York: 50 Adventures on Foot by Martha Fay was offered in museum gift shops in NYC, but you can also purchase it at Barnes and Noble and other local bookstores.  Handy-sized cards map out walking tours for various interests and different parts of the city.  Notes on the back spotlight features you might otherwise miss. 

I recommend City Walks for your own next trip or for a traveler’s gift.  I also feel compelled to plug Pete Hamill’s Forever (which is available at the library) as possibly the ultimate fiction choice about New York City.  And, with photos of Central Park and the Naked Cowboy on my phone and a Mood Designer Fabrics shopping bag on my arm, I am qualified to judge, don’t you think?

Studying the T chromosome

The KUT news story about Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum’s upcoming oral/visual history project caught my attention this morning.   By way of accounting for Texans’ deep and abiding interest in their state and in its stories, the spokesperson mentioned a book that’s familiar here in Round Rock:  Tweed Scott’s Texas in Her Own Words. 

We know a good thing when we read it.  This unusual collection of why-I-love-Texas essays was voted the official Round Rock Reads! selection a couple of years ago; the blog provides further details.  Author Scott theorizes that a special element–he calls it the T chromosome–must explain why even transplanted Texans develop such intense affection for the Lone State State.

I enjoyed presenting signed copies to a couple of favorite Texans currently residing in States That Aren’t Texas.  If you’re considering this book as a potential Christmas gift or just want it for yourself, check the library catalog.  Round Rock Public Library owns multiple copies. 



Defining moments

Reading first novels isn’t just rewarding; it’s practical.  Unless the author inspires a media frenzy on his/her debut, you’re certain to snag a copy of that as yet undiscovered gem.  And consider the joy of recommending someone whom your friends haven’t read yet.  As with dispensing choice gossip, you’re enlightening an eager audience–only this time, it’s a good thing!

I’d been watching for Emily Arsenault’s The Broken Teaglass since pre-publication reviews appeared, especially after hearing it likened to the “clues from the archives” scenario of A.S. Byatt’s Possession.  What surprised me was that as I read on, Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End more frequently invited comparison.

Here’s the premise of Teaglass:  amiable twenty-something fresh from college accepts position as editor (one of many) at the Samuelson Company, “the oldest and most revered name in American dictionaries”.  Protagonist/narrator Billy elicits your sympathy early on, though you’ll sense a story he’s not divulging yet.  Working alongside a female colleague (she’s another plot thread all by herself) he discovers that Samuelson’s vast citation files harbor clues to a disturbing and potentially criminal episode.

The story offers an intriguing mystery and charmingly interwoven romantic tension.  However, for me the highlight was Samuelson’s workplace culture, portrayed as both typical (some “types”, generational quirks) and unique (not everyone can handle lexicography as a career).  As Ferris does in his tale, Arsenault lends immediacy and humor to an unconventional workplace and those who labor in it.

The pace of the story is nearly halted at times by the odd, noir-ish notes excavated from the word files.  At times they suggest Edward Gorey’s amusingly unconnected narratives or science fiction bits from Margaret Atwood’s wonderful The Blind Assassin.  Characterizing The Broken Teaglass as Then We Came to the End meets Possession meets Edward Gorey meets The Blind Assassin would be fun–but not fair.  You’d want to try Arsenault’s first novel on its own account.