Year: 2009

Book of virtue?

I don’t own any of the “So Many Books, So Little Time” paraphernalia marketed to librarians and other book lovers.  I’m not sure whether it’s because those items are so common as to be no longer fun or because they sound a little boastful.

A love of reading belongs in the same tag as being a natural early riser (an oxymoron, in my opinion) or preferring broccoli over brownies–preferences often mistaken for virtues, which they clearly are not.  In each case, the individual behaves in the manner most comfortable to him/her.  Also, in each instance the reader, early bird, or vegetable aficionado is rewarded–with entertainment and knowledge, the appearance of a great work ethic, and nutrition.  Isn’t virtue supposed to be its own reward?

My husband presented my daughter and me with tickets to last night’s performance of Wicked.  We set out for the event quite early, wishing to avoid any anxiety associated with traffic or parking.  Arriving well ahead of time, we settled into our seats with knitting (daughter) and a just-published novel (me).  During intermission, the novel came out again, and I immersed myself almost instantly in a pivotal middle chapter–so much so that, when the curtain began to rise again, signaling the continuation of the wonderfully entertaining production, I admit that my first instinctive reaction was “Awwww, guess I’ll have to finish this later.”  At least I didn’t say it aloud.

 Love reading?  Yes.  Proud of it?  Sometimes, not so much! 

The art of book reviewing

I’ve been reading on the job this week–not current fiction of my choice, alas, but dozens and dozens of book reviews.  Distilling a useful critique into a brief paragraph represents such an admirable skill set; I rarely tire of scanning those little gems.  Some phrases seem particularly useful for conveying literary merit.

Lengthy novels, for example, are frequently promoted as “a sweeping tale of…”  I like a good sweeper as much as the next reader but have learned to note who makes that assertion.  When a reviewer elects the description, it generally signifies an ambitious but ultimately satisfying scope.  The identical claim from a publisher may indicate that the writer’s reach has exceeded his/her grasp.

Some books “take you into the world of…”  This verbiage prompts me to examine the review more closely: is that setting/premise unique or revelatory–or just obscure?

When a review charitably observes that “the author does manage to….” I anticipate a “but” or “however” a few lines further down the page.

And then there’s “unrelentingly”, a term that bodes more favorably for comic book heroes than for novelists.  If I ever create a work of fiction, it will likely be deemed “a sweeping tale of unrelentingly inept literary ambition that takes you into the world of first-time publication (in which the author does manage to…”)

Everything in moderation, especially cats

You can spot library staffers by their official City of Round Rock badges.  Otherwise, we’re not easily identifiable for anyone expecting a crew of cardigan and sensible shoe-clad ladies of a certain age.  Some library folks are male, many are young, and no one wears a bun (you’re more likely to spy the occasional tattoo).  We’ll admit to some stereotypical behavior: a few in our midst require the classic librarian bifocals; we often try to work in a couple of chapters during lunch breaks; and we discuss and consume considerably more literature than the average work group.

But that’s where we draw the line.  No one owns a dozen-plus cats or spends much time alphabetizing our home bookshelves.  A typical day, evening, or weekend off for us is likely to involve hiking, bicycyling, marathon running, playing soccer, serving on museum boards and committees, planning weddings, writing a dissertation, keeping up with children’s or grandchildren’s activities, or undertaking ambitious DIY projects–for starters.  So, when we carve out time to read, we read fast, and we choose well!

These titles have earned places in our busy lives this week:

  • Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine trilogy

  • The Gardner Heist: The Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrlich Boser

  • Magician: Apprentice by Raymond Feist

  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

  • Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy McDonough

  • The Facilitative Leader in City Hall by James Savra

  • The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Raising Children for Fun and Profit

  • The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper

  • The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan

  • Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless

  • The Alchemist by Paul Coelho

  • I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms from Around the World by Jag Bhalla

  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

  • John Dillinger: Public Enemy #1

  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

  • Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

  • Sam Bass and Gang by Rick Miller

  • The Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality by Barbara Bradley




When nothing but second best will do

We’re frequently asked for reading advice–which author to try if you’ve finished everything by your favorite writer, which book comes first in a series (and whether that matters)–but almost never queried for listening suggestions.   Most readers have assessed their needs in this case, whether it’s suspenseful fiction to prevent drowsiness or an assigned classic to facilitate multi-tasking.  My requirement is even more practical.  

Audiobooks usually correlate with navigation–road trips, commuting, fitness walking.  If you are as directionally challenged as I, you are obliged to devote extra attention to the goal of reaching your destination on the first try.  When walking a familiar route, I may safely choose any sort of audio literature, secure in the knowledge that muscle memory will deliver me back home after I become completely absorbed in the story.  Driving is another matter. 

While I prefer KUT or music for local driving, nothing but audiobooks will suffice for longer trips–excursions that demand awareness of imminent turns, distances between points, and the voice of the GPS (where have those been all my life?).  So, for highway consumption I seek out thrillers that are only moderately suspenseful, nonfiction that is reasonably interesting but not enthralling, and–above all–humor that isn’t too funny.

David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day (read by the author, no less) has been deleted from my “approved for driving” list for all time.  Enjoying this fine production during a Kansas-to-Texas run, my husband and I were caught off guard by an especially riotous passage.  We found ourselves literally doubled over and snorting with laughter in the midst of city traffic.  Thank goodness I married a natural navigator; if I’d been alone I would surely have ended up in Arkansas.   

Relatively cheap thrills

With regard to personal book collections, librarians fall into two camps: the “Need to own because I love them” faction and the “I work at a library, for heaven’s sake!” cadre–that’s my group.  A veteran of numerous relocations, I mentally calculate weight and space requirements for every volume I encounter.

Still, I make exceptions to the borrow-not-buy policy without regret.  Owning copies that you can lend is wonderfully empowering.  You can deliver something fabulous to another reader without having gone to all the trouble of writing or publishing.  I recently loaned out my copies of Nick Bantock’s original Griffin and Sabine trilogy to a co-worker and am enjoying his appreciation of those elaborate letters, stamps, and postcards far more than I deserve to.  

Penny Vincenzi’s Spoils of Time trilogy further demonstrated to me that acquiring a whole set of something is a fundamental human need (also that investing in books pays off in the long run).  I sent the first book, No Angel, home with my mother after her Christmas visit, figuring that she would revel in the gossipy family saga with British historical setting as much as I did.  It’s a lengthy tome, and I planned to offer the other two if that prediction proved correct.  I neglected to follow up, though, and later Mom mentioned that she’d gone to great lengths to find and purchase them.  I inherited the Thrift Gene from the previous generation so view that move as the ultimate compliment for Ms. Vincenzi. 

In the future, then, I will always package sets together.  At present, I am contemplating the thrill of buying Richard Russo’s new book.  The “I don’t want to rush so someone else can check it out” impulse and the Thrift Gene are deadlocked over this one.

Random acts of foolishness

Does this happen to you?  You choose a book or movie on a whim, then right away you encounter another one with oddly similar characteristics.  Suddenly, you’re theme-reading when you just meant to be spontaneous.

I pounced on Christopher Moore’s Fool as soon as it hit the library, because the premise (it’s a send-up of King Lear) sounded amusing.  And it was.  Though perhaps too bawdy for some readers, the adventures of Pocket, the king’s jester, and his accomplice Drool compelled me to laugh out loud.  Moore’s allusion-ridden text also helps to justify anyone’s ever wanting to be an English major.

A. J. Hartley’s Act of Will beckoned from the New Fiction shelves soon afterward.  This fantasy-tinged escapade is narrated by recently unemployed teen actor Will Hawthorne.  The quasi-England, Shakespeare-ish setting allows plenty of scope for theatrical rivalries, a band of supernaturally evil raiders, and Will’s amazing capacity for improvisation.

While it’s true that the Shakespearean devices first attracted me, another factor underscored my delight in these tales.  If, like me, you are employed in a public service position requiring thoughtful and diplomatic behavior at all times, you will understand.  It’s therapeutic to experience the vicarious thrill of being unjustifiably overconfident, not to mention a complete smart-aleck.

My fitness partner is a prizewinner

The digital age offers so many tempting reasons to hunker down in front of the computer.  Blogging and updating one’s Facebook profile don’t burn many calories, however, and neither does that equally fun and sedentary activity–reading.  

Enter the MP3 player with downloadable audiobooks, proof that 21st century devices promote virtue along with entertainment.  I’m a couch potato by nature, but the combined lure of a great book and a first-rate narrator motivates me to break out the walking shoes.  I can cover one or two chapters and two or three miles simultaneously.  The best part is that the book distracts me from the realization that I’m (ugh) exercising

My current choice is Polio: An American Story by UT professor David Oshinsky.  Intrigued by a library patron’s enthusiastic review, I now agree that this winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for History falls into the reads-like-fiction tag. 

Oshinsky’s depiction of the decades-long campaign to discover causes, preventive measures, and rehabilitation techniques for polio is compelling.  Professional rivalries, politics, changing attitudes toward immigration, racial prejudice, Hollywood, and the emerging field of public relations all play major roles.  As with the best social histories, the subject offers a focus to help us better understand how American society is evolving.

How did the concept of “poster child” originate?  Why is FDR’s face on the dime?  How were human subjects endangered by primitive vaccine tests?  These answers and other historical footnotes are revealing themselves to me as I log more miles, especially grateful just now to have the ability to do so.




Movies better than books? Not inconceivable

A couple of expert movie watchers have shared their views (see comments for If Film Viewing is Wrong…), even raising this question:  Are we allowed to believe that some movies are better than books?  I hope so, because a couple instantly came to mind.     

Surpassing the quality of an excellent book is a challenge, but, at least for this viewer, Gettysburg did that.  Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, the novel behind it, is a top-notch narrative.  However, the film version seemed even more effective in relating military decisions to the experiences and personalities of the leaders responsible for them.

To Kill a Mockingbird comes as close to perfect as a book gets, but the casting and sensory impressions of Southern culture in the movie trumped even that.  And then there was Gregory Peck, about whom no further comment is required.

Sound, movement, and costumes don’t constitute an unfair advantage over print when you consider how many poor choices they make possible.  We’ve all seen productions so laden with inappropriate period details (think Western heroines sporting bouffant hairstyles and zippers, or World War I movies with equipment not invented until World War II) that even a masterful plot lost credibility early on.  And, given that we all picture the characters in precise detail while we read, the casting director’s picks are guaranteed to alienate at least some viewers. 

So, book vs. movie is probably a fair fight.  One of the rules in that contest should be that a movie inspired by the book should retain the same title as the book.  Fans intrigued by a screen version and wishing to follow up with the novel could proceed so much more happily if they weren’t presented with a riddle to solve on the way to the bookshelf.  

In some instances, a film actually flatters the book, either by taking a slight but interesting premise and developing it more fully or by editing the contents beautifully.  The Princess Bride comes to mind…


If film viewing is wrong, I don’t wanna be right

Shannon’s question (who is the better on-screen Sherlock Holmes:  Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett?) may prove controversial, but here’s my vote: Jeremy Brett.

Rathbone’s portrayal is intriguing and suggestive of hidden depths, but Brett’s depiction offers even more of the arbitrariness (sometimes downright hostility) that hints at smoldering emotions and something repressed. 

On a scale of 1-10 in casting appropriateness (1 is “disastrous”, e.g., Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind“; 10 is “ideal”, e.g., Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Zachary Quinto as young Spock in Star Trek), I rate Basil Rathbone an 8 as Sherlock Holmes, compared to Jeremy Brett’s 9.  The Holmes character is so difficult that both ratings are sincere compliments; a 10 may not be possible.  There, those opinions should stir up an argument or two!

At least we can agree that enjoying movies doesn’t hinder our literacy and doesn’t constitute cheating on the books.  I have finally gotten past feeling unprofessional whenever a great novel-related movie comes to mind and I’m compelled to mention it.  Surely it’s OK to share that, for example, Gillian Anderson was wonderful as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, or that Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is available on DVD.  After all, who’s to say which literary format speaks more eloquently to the individual?

In praise of Watson, Bess & George, and the ghost of Elvis

Kimberly’s July 17 comment reminds me what I can miss by not reading mysteries more frequently.

Well-crafted mystery novels are not just plot-driven; they also exhibit great character studies.  These stories portray the main character facing romantic upheaval/potential financial ruin/family issue du jour at the same time he or she investigates the crime.  Crisis-juggling not only imitates life, it also furnishes opportunities for the character to evolve–or crumble.  Hitherto undisclosed background or personality traits come to light, suggesting that the character may be just as much a riddle as the murder in question.  At least, that’s what I like to see. 

As Kimberly observes, an investigator’s spouse, otherworldly second banana, or other sort of companion does enhance the lead character.   The associate continually elicits some sort of response.   We enjoy the give-and-take and monitor those exchanges for clues about the relationship–also perhaps for encouragement or even insights.  Collaboration is a concept emphasized so frequently in the workplace these days.  It’s heartening to witness scenarios in which patience and cooperation are rewarded with success.   It’s also fun–nothing wrong with that!

I haven’t seen that Sherlock Holmes film yet.  The action emphasis sounds risky, but sometimes those artistic gambles pay off.  Years ago, I was hooked by a mystery titled Henry James’ Midnight Song by Carol DeChellis Hill.  Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, it featured Sigmund Freud, Henry James, and Edith Wharton as primary characters.  And it worked!