Year: 2009

What not to miss at the festival

What would induce someone to give up a day off to volunteer for Texas Book Festival?  Probably not the official volunteer T-shirt.  TBF uniforms feature a different classy color each year, along with, alas, the customary tubelike fit.  Those of us who fall between the intended-for-guys sizes can select one of two silhouettes: “shrink wrap” or “rectangle”.  If Stacy and Clinton from What Not to Wear ever spot me in my festival knitwear, they’re sure to follow up with a WNTW Volunteer Edition.

On the plus side, volunteer shirts qualify you for impressive perks.  The wearer is immediately identified with one of the nation’s top literary events–instant prestige.  Even if you haven’t published a novel, discovered the next new voice in fiction, or escorted a famous author around the Capitol grounds yet, your apparel proclaims that you are Part of It All.  To avoid getting an important writer lost en route to the book signing tent, I have elected not to escort. Selling logo merchandise in the tents has been fun in previous years, but this time I went for my dream job:  Capitol Monitor.

CMs basically consult their festival schedules to confirm program times; point out restrooms; check for open beverages; record attendance; and watch the doors once seating capacity has been attained.  I’m not sure which aspect of Capitol Monitoring I appreciated most.  For one thing, being a CM means that you are in the capitol, and I am a major fan of that gorgeous edifice.  Opening the House Chamber portal to let in latecomers, I turned the same doorknob that generations of legendary Texans reached for in their own comings and goings.

The “monitor” part is also rewarding, though, because CMs remain on hand throughout the program.  Thus, I witnessed former Rolling Stone writer Jancee Dunn’s response to a delightful panel discussion question.  To an audience member’s inquiry of which musical mega-star was the nicest, Ms. Dunn instantly named Barry White.  A chorus of “Ohhhhh, Barry White!” erupted from attendees and panelists, and the briefest of Barry White love-fests played out before the session could resume. 

Later, during Taylor Branch’s Clinton Tapes program in the House Chamber, I managed to stop gaping at those vintage star-shaped chandeliers long enough to enjoy both the author’s commentary and the range of Q&A topics posed by listeners.  One gentleman was two spaces too far back in the question queue; the author had to leave in order to keep his appointment at the autograph tent.  Graciously accepting that his queries would go unasked for the present, the young man told me what he’d wanted to say.  Both points were excellent, and now I’m curious about them, as well. 


I need to check out Branch’s new book, hoping that the answers are within–and also pencil in Texas Book Festival on my 2010 calendar.  The T-shirt is inevitable, but at least I can wear cute shoes.       

The accidental book blurb

I can’t be the only librarian who fears acting like a stereotype and so downplays my zeal for literature to avoid excessive conversational references to you-know-what.  I suspect others do, too.  No one wants to be a cliche, and we do have other interests.  Besides all that, we were raised right.

Good manners dictate that we not continually accost folks with forthcoming reviews and author updates, but be warned:  enthusiasm bubbles just beneath the polite surface of the average librarian, and should you inquire whether we’ve read any good books lately, we never interpret the question as rhetorical.

Arriving early for a meeting last week, I sneaked in a chapter of Cathy Marie Buchanan’s new The Day the Falls Stood Still, only to be caught in the act of stashing it back into my huge handbag.  From the seat behind me came, “Sorry, but I just have to know what you’re reading!”  With seconds to spare before the presider reached the platform,  I whisked the book up into face-forward position and reeled off a few hasty comments explaining (I hope) my absorption in it.

If the inquirer loves historical fiction (especially American and early 20th century), Buchanan’s book would be perfect for her, better still if the reader is concerned about environmental issues.  Niagara Falls is very much a character in the story, as the debate over how to appropriately harness the rapids for hydroelectric power plays out amid one family’s reversal of fortunes, Canada’s role in World War I, and more than one young romance.  Central characters Bess, with her privileged upbringing, and Tom, grandson of a heroic river man of near-mythic reputation, are a magnetic couple.

Halfway through my instant book blurb, I suddenly recalled that Lauren Belfer’s City of Light, published a few years ago, offers similar appeal: the Falls/hydroelectric power element, compelling narration, nicely integrated historical details.

This appropriate thought was quickly succeeded by a superficial one: what if I hadn’t brought a well-written, lovely volume straight from the library’s “New Fiction” display and instead had to explain to a stranger a grimy, tattered edition of mediocre prose?   Doesn’t this scenario harken back to your mother’s classic admonition to wear your best underwear in case you’re in an accident?   If you remember that one, it’s a sure sign that you were raised right.



Drinking Coffee with the Stars

Having moved back to Texas and to Round Rock in 2005, I don’t qualify as a newcomer.  Still, I only recently managed to discover the Round Rock New Neighbors book group.

Yesterday’s wonderful discussion featuring guest author Amanda Eyre Ward prompted me to get the word out: you, too, new resident or not, can get in on this prime reading/discussion opportunity.

RRNN began as a private newcomers group meeting in members’ homes but is now open to the public.  The current venue–Barnes & Noble at La Frontera–is easy to locate.  B&N public relations manager Frank Campbell hosts the event and even provides fresh Starbucks coffee and straight-from-the-oven cookies.  Sessions start at 1:00 on the third Monday of each month (but November will be an exception; check out upcoming events on the RRNN blog:

Novelist (Sleep Toward Heaven, Forgive Me, How to Be Lost) and short story writer (Love Stories in This Town) Ward was a definite hit yesterday.  With her warm and chatty responses, the Q&A exchange shifted into conversational mode, touching a variety of topics related to the writer’s life and books.  Among other items, Ward divulged that her office is actually her son’s closet (which displays her Violet Crown Book Award); that those who create children’s books must possess special word crafting skills akin to poetry; and that at a young age she read both Nancy Drew books and John Updike!

RRNN doesn’t promise visits from critically acclaimed authors every month, but the discussions are first-rate.  And you never know who might drop in….

Name that tome

Tidying my personal bookshelves last weekend, I encountered a favorite: The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes.  It’s a bulky green volume labeled for its publisher rather than physical traits.  Alongside it stands The Big Book of Irony, trim and lightweight as the name might lead you to suppose.

Another is-that-really-the-title moment occurred on a visit to the UK years ago.  Standing in a queue to purchase something, I had sneaked my London on $49 a Day paperback out of my bag to discreetly study our next destination.  My aim was to avoid looking desperately touristy.  Nice try.  The business-attired English gentleman waiting behind me indicated the handbook and inquired: “Found that in the fiction section, did you?”

Sure, nonfiction titles can represent more hope than fact, but they do frequently advertise content that is precisely targeted and even reassuringly practical.  Cruising the nonfiction aisles on second floor recently, I spied these examples:

  • The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It: The Complete Back-to-Basics Guide

  • How to Build a Small Budget Recording Studio from Scratch

  • First-time Landlord: Your Guide to Renting Out a Single-family Home

  • How to Bury a Goldfish and 113 Other Family Rituals for Everyday Life

Why was I so tempted to check them out, though neither a recording studio or tenants have any place in my future?  The notion of possessing the key to unanticipated sorts of expertise must justify the attraction.  Those guides are either timely, or pleasantly arcane, or both, and the library shelves can furnish hundreds more.

That said, I admit to scratching my head over this oxymoronic title:  How to Develop Spontaneity and Style. 

Check, please

Don’t you admire those who can cleverly answer the “which three famous people, living or dead, you’d choose to have dinner with” question?  Perhaps you have a boffo response yourself, but I’ve been stumped by the scope of potential invitees (i.e., everyone who’s ever lived, out of whom I can pick only three!)

Also, for no good reason, I’ve always pictured the event in a vast formal Victorian dining room complete with an army of waiters, unidentifiable eating implements, and the obligation to chat in a sparkling manner to strangers on both sides and another one across the table.

A breakthrough occurred when I realized that anyone capable of breaking bread with the non-living also has these options:

  • Limit the roster to three writers, and I don’t have to entertain them simultaneously
  • Ditch the formal scene
  • Offer each author his/her choice of any Round Rock eatery (because, for all its variety, our city offers no palatial 19th- century dining venues)

Did I also mention that I can select another famous trio any time I wish?  Now that the pressure’s off and comfort food is an option, I’m naming the first three lucky dinner companions:

Rick Bragg:  I can discover whether his real voice sounds like the one I hear when I’m reading his artfully simple prose.  He could give me the scoop on his forthcoming book, and I bet he’d choose a place with fried okra, cornbread, and cobbler on the menu.

William Dean Howells:  He could relate insider anecdotes about Twain, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.  Also, I suspect that he shares his character Silas Lapham’s discomfiture with too-elegant settings and would appreciate barbecue.

Barbara Ehrenreich:  I’d schedule our dinner for tonight in order to afford me a week-early preview of her latest:  Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.  I’m unfamiliar with Ms. Ehrenreich’s dining preferences, but, knowing her previous book, I’m prepared to leave a very generous tip!


V is for…

Vampire lit is fashionable (and marketable) these days–not just Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, but all sorts of standalone titles, paranormal romance series, mysteries, and even humorous romance fiction.  A quick survey of the library catalog–I entered “vampires” in the Quick Search box–yielded 587 results.  Titles range from Christine Feehan’s bestselling Dark Slayer to David Wellington’s 23 Hours: A Vengeful Vampire Tale to Michelle Rowen’s Tall Dark & Fangsome.

Plots run the gamut from traditional scenarios to the whimsical concept of a small-town Oklahoma vampire single dad (Michele Bardsley’s Wait Til Your Vampire Gets Home).  Clearly, this theme offers something for everyone.  Amanda Grange has melded the occult trend with the Jane Austen franchise in Mr. Darcy, Vampyre.

So, what’s not to like?  I should be delighted that classic cape-wearers are proving to be modern page-turners.  Instead, I’m feeling a little disillusioned.

Years ago, a former Miss America confided during a TV interview that, thirty years after her reign, she refused to even take out the trash without applying makeup, styling her hair, and donning a becoming outfit.  She didn’t want to destroy the public’s fantasy of the woman who could always look good!

I don’t care to see a domesticated vampire any more than I hope to spy a beauty queen in a mud mask and sweatpants.  Readers may all enjoy their favorite takes on the legendary phantom, but some of those clever adaptations are bound to take the edge off the vampire’s mystique.

 Do you agree?

What do you predict will be the next big trend in fictional characters? 


Readin’ westerns now

Western novels don’t rank high on my to-read list.  They’re too reliable.  I can seek out the glamour of fiction debuts, bestsellers, etc,. knowing that Westerns (at least the ones that aren’t checked out by more appreciative readers) will always be there for me.  I’ve largely taken for granted the traits that characterize these novels–strong narration, sense of place, elemental struggles.

But now Steve Hockensmith has roped me in as a Reader of Westerns.  Reviews of his Western/mystery series (“hilarious”, “vivid images”, “filled with historical atmosphere”) lured me to search for the first one.  The library didn’t have Holmes on the Range (nominated for an Edgar Award) but it has now been ordered and should arrive soon.  Book #2, On the Wrong Track, was checked out by a discerning library patron, so I located #3, The Black Dove

Here’s the premise: It’s the 1890s, and brothers Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer (alias “Old Red” and “Big Red”) are vainly attempting to get themselves hired on as detectives.  They’ve worked as cowboys/drovers; then that gig with the Southern Pacific Railroad didn’t turn out well–but that’s another story.  When they are unexpectedly reunited with a mysterious–not to mention beautiful–lady from their past and their old friend Dr. Chan starts behaving peculiarly, they are obliged to employ “deducifying” skills they didn’t even know they possessed.

Did I mention that Gus and Otto are avid fans of Sherlock Holmes and have personas that mirror Holmes and Watson?  The San Francisco/Chinatown setting contributes lots of local color, quirky characters, and some truly comic situations.  The most memorable feature in this enjoyable yarn is the Otto’s folksy play-by-play narration.  Candid to a fault, he alternates between short-sightedness and surprising emotional sensitivity.  The contrast between his gossipy extroversion and Gus’ uncommunicative reserve (obviously signifying hidden depths) enlivens the story even more than the quest for the Black Dove. 

So, I’ve been totin’ around The Black Dove for several days now.  But I’m on my way to check it in so that you can have a turn.  Hockensmith’s #4, The Crack in the Lens, was recently purchased for the library’s collection, but it’s checked out.  No surprise there.  


Since You Asked…

What other six books would I recommend to President Obama?

Imagining the Leader of the Free World strolling from the Oval Office to the family residence at the end of the day, probably encumbered with treatises on the economy and briefs on world events, here’s what I suggest.  These titles provide context for the current political climate but also have the capacity to nourish the President’s curiosity about regional diversity and bestow moments of relaxation and enjoyment.  I can picture him reading poetry aloud to his family:

  • The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand: reminds us that ideas do have the power to change the course of history and that “intellectual” isn’t a bad word
  • A biography of LBJ (Robert Dallek, Robert Caro, and Doris Kearns Goodwin have authored good ones); lessons from the life of a master politician
  • The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop: title says it all
  • The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis:  classic, very entertaining exploration of human motivation
  • Ava’s Man or, All Over But the Shoutin’ or The Most They Ever Had (due out in October) by Rick Bragg:  plain-spoken but powerfully eloquent prose offering insights into the Southern working man’s experience
  • Sailing Alone Around the Room or another poetry collection by Billy Collins:  Humorous and warmhearted riffs on topics that are mostly everyday themes but always satisfying.  Other Poet Laureates of the United States would be excellent choices for the President and for the rest of us.

And here’s a bonus selection:  If President Obama can also work in Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson, he could join us for one of the Round Rock Reads! events.  I promise to buy a round of lattes at both Star Co. and Friar Tuck’s Pantry if he does!

Reading is a capital idea

President Obama’s widely reported “vacation reading list” has provoked me to wonder why there is no position for Presidential Librarian.   This office, not to be confused with management of a Presidential library, would advise the Chief Executive in selecting titles for personal reading, those most representative of social trends, economic theory, creative expression of evolving American values, and so forth.  

Imagining myself (what a surprise!) in this role, I then envisioned the following conversation:

Me: “Mr. President, may I recommend this list of six books, all of which chronicle individual experiences in pursuit of the American dream?”

President Obama (efficiently check-marking items as he peruses the titles):  “Hmmm.  Already read it.  That one, too.  Yep.  Ditto.  Wrote that one….”

So, while admitting that the First Reader appears perfectly able to discern good literature unaided, I contend that someone still has to paw through all those advance reading copies sent in by publishers, draft encouraging replies to schoolchildren who want to know if the President enjoyed Harry Potter, and assist the White House staff in mobilizing the very best summer reading campaign ever.  

Vote for me!

Balzac and the Little Book Group

If you’re a book clubber, you’ve probably noticed this, too:  the most satisfying discussions result when some of the group didn’t care for the chosen title and, in airing their grievances, point out facets the rest of us missed or perhaps even incite a spirited debate. 

Everyone who attended this week’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress event apparently liked the book, but the conversation flowed nicely despite universal approval.  As discussion leader, I claim no credit; Dai Sijie’s first novel is pretty much a can’t-miss selection, either for individual pleasure reading or for group consideration.  The narrative showcases the author’s cinematic eye, personal experience in “re-education” during China’s Cultural Revolution, and use of imagery and touches of the fairy tale and the fable to incorporate plot elements into a surprisingly compact tale.     

Nine attendees contributed insightful comments, and as the conversation progressed, I realized that the majority of the group has actually traveled in China.  Hearing others recount anecdotes from their visits and place their trips into the context of recent Chinese history added another dimension to the story. 

Relaxing around a table and sipping a latte in the comfort of Star Co.’s back room enhanced my enjoyment of the Balzac exchange.  I missed July’s Three Cups of Tea event but heard compliments about Friar Tuck’s Pantry, another prime location for treating oneself to snacks, beverages, and good talk about books.  Of course I love the library, but I could easily get accustomed to more off-site discussions at these great downtown Round Rock venues.