Year: 2010

If you can’t be honest, hope you’re photogenic

If Sam Bass had resolved to change his ways on New Year’s Day back in 1878, giving up his bank- and train-robbing habit, he might have lived past his 27th birthday.  Then, Round Rock probably wouldn’t have been elected as his final destination.

 Perhaps it was already too late for Sam.  A couple of years earlier, he and a partner had gambled away the $8,000 due the owner of the cattle they’d just herded and sold.  If the raids on stagecoaches initially seemed a strategy for recouping those funds, it’s fairly clear that robbery became an end in itself and a career of sorts.  

Spotting some Sam Bass-oriented western novels on the shelf last week reminded me of the outlaw’s enduring popularity as a subject.  Deputy Alijah W. Grimes, attempting to disarm Bass and his gang, was gunned down in the process; A.W. Grimes Boulevard was named for him.  Sam Bass, the wanted desperado, inspired not only a street name but also a theatre, a baseball league, a statue at Madam Tussaud’s, several film characterizations, at least one ballad, and scores of books.   A search of the library catalog will yield several biographies and three works of fiction devoted to Bass.  Deputy Sheriff Grimes has none.

Say what you will about who deserves what, the fact is that lawbreakers fascinate us.  The only controversy regarding Deputy Grimes’ actions has to do with the practicality of challenging Bass at that precise juncture.  Just about everyone values bravery and devotion; those attributes we understand.  It’s rashness, greed, and cruelty that don’t compute so easily.  No wonder readers can’t seem to get enough of true crime stories.

And if it’s Texas-based, enigmatic, legendary bad guys you seek to comprehend, look no further than Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.  The winning selection for the 2011 Round Rock Reads! campaign, Jeff Guinn’s Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie & Clyde, sets the focus for events beginning January 4.  If you can buy, check out, or borrow a copy to read, you’ll be rewarded with a stranger-than-fiction tale of the first order.  If you haven’t finished (or even started) the book by next week, you’ll still enjoy the activities.  We hope you’ll come to one or more.  As history demonstrates, starting out the New Year right does make a difference!   

Trash talk about overachievers

Driving to work today, I smilingly observed my subdivision’s latest décor upgrade.  Even amid the holiday displays, my gaze was drawn to the symmetry, precision, and pleasing arrangement of–the trash cans.  It’s not just that they all match now; City of Round Rock crews replace those brown containers at consistent proximity to the curb, facing exactly the same angle, with lids identically posed. 

Proceeding through on the way to 620, I had to appreciate the orderly pattern of these outsized bins.  I suspect that my home isn’t the only one harboring evidence of ongoing holiday fuss and not-quite-there-yet readiness for the coming weekend.  But you’d never suspect disarray when viewing our waste receptacles; they’re channeling the Rockettes. 

Round Rock Refuse is clearly operating in top form.   As a fellow City employee (though one who’s contributed nothing whatever to the efficiency of trash pickup), I appreciate their success unreservedly. 

If only I felt the same way about all high achievers.  Some merely inspire jealousy.

Steve Martin, for example, recently published another great fiction title, An Object of Beauty, to critical praise; it’s in Amazon’s Top 100.  Apparently, Martin needed to fill the deep void left by successful careers in comedy, music, and acting.  Perhaps hoping to avoid typecasting as merely a renowned singer, movie actress, and stage performer, Barbra Streisand authored My Passion for Design.  It, too, is in Amazon’s Top 100, along with Amy Sedaris’ wacky sendup of craft/better living guides, Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People.   

Actor James Franco (Spiderman) is attracting attention with Palo Alto, a short story collection.  Celebrities Nichole Ritchie and Lisa Rinna both have new novels out, as does William Whitbeck.  When he’s not authoring titles like To Account for Murder (which the New York Journal of Books terms “a stunning debut”) Whitbeck has a day job as Chief Judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals.   

As one who has yet to achieve either celebrity or authorship, I am relieved to know that the list of multitasking literary show-offs is short, unless you count National Book Award winner Patti Smith, Barack Obama, Tony Hawk, Andre Agassi, Tom Brokaw, Keith Richards, Jon Stewart…

Thinking beyond our two front teeth

For enduring satisfaction (on both sides), few gift options match the perfect book.  However, after recently purchasing for this holiday season, I know how difficult it can be to find the right choice among thousands of offerings. 

So, I asked library co-workers for ideas, suggesting that they confide what they’ll be giving–or perhaps drop a hint about something they’d love to receive.   These staff-approved selections may help you focus:

  • For those who’d appreciate an amusingly different take on Christmas: The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir by Ken Harmon

  • For movie fans who, even if they love Internet Movie Database, would still find a print reference handy: Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide

  • For biography aficionados, these titles have been mentioned by patrons: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow and Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

  • For cat lovers and the “I Can Has Cheezburger?” /LOL Cat crowd, there’s The Itteh Bitteh Book of Kittehs

  • Not sure whether this suggestion was a gift wish or an inspired selection for lucky recipient, but it’s a winner: Marilyn Monroe: Fragments

  • For children, these perennial favorites offer “fun, a great life message, and great readability over many years”: Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

  • For “classy girl power”, try this modern classic by a multiple Newbery winner: The King’s Equal by Katherine Paterson

  • Potentially for both adults and children–actually anyone who’s grateful for a low-tech respite from the digital world and e-anything: It’s a Book by Lane Smith

  • For admirers of David McCullough, history buffs, and those who cherish a bit of nostalgia during the holidays: In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story (comes with DVD of McCullough’s 2009 performance at the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert)

  • For “parents, parents-to-be, those who work in education, mentors, therapists, and anyone else interested in what it means to be a relational mammal living in a human body”:  A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon

  • For readers with full bookshelves who prefer a more practical way to reflect their interests: calendars, e.g. Audubon Society‘s beautiful publications

And what are staffers wishing for?  In one case, the “what I would really like” item is not of the print realm; it’s “a Kindle or a Nook”.  I am no doubt expected to want a Dewey the library cat book, but I’m not a cat person and I work in a library, for heaven’s sake.  Mad Men: The Illustrated World would be my preference

Finally, one co-worker offered this long-shot wish, commenting that “I would positively freak out if someone ever gave me this as a gift”:  J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard Collector’s Edition.   Are you listening, Santa?

Want some fries with that book?

We’ve just added a new magazine subscription:  Living Without.  It’s designed for those with special dietary needs and provides gluten-free, diary-free, and allergy-appropriate recipes and advice. 

The food-sensitive demographic has only recently merited significant concern from publishers, at least to the extent that everyone–personally affected or not–now sees popular books and websites confirming their existence and suggesting how we can assist our loved ones to manage their nutritional issues.   

The larger concept of living without (often in the guise of simplifying or re-prioritizing) has ebbed and flowed but persisted in literature for decades.  Think Walden, Simplify Your Life, Not Buying It, Toxic Success–How to Stop Striving and Start ThrivingOur library catalog even has a subject heading for “simplicity”.  Currently, the second-floor book display towers are spotlighting books on eco-friendly living, another facet of the purposeful living mindset.

Even popular novels echo the theme.  In Helen Fielding’s bestselling Bridget Jones’ Diary from a few years back, Bridget’s real problem wasn’t poor choices in romance–it was the lack of a true aim in life, along with lots of social clutter.  Believing that happiness=weight loss, she daily noted her efforts to limit smoking and fat intake with ratings: “exc.”, “v.g.”, etc.

At least this venture helped Bridget to clarify which pursuits ultimately weren’t life-enhancing.   Readers can sympathize with Bridget’s attempts to resist the daily slate of complicated and sometimes unhealthful add-ons.   Fast food outlets invite us to upgrade, top, supplement, and garnish our selections; electronics vendors offer “must-have” apps and gadgets faster than we can learn or finance them.  No wonder we sometimes relish opportunities to limit our choices.   Glance over our book towers or search “simplicity” and see if you aren’t prompted to exclaim “V.G.!”

You’d be surprised who reads steamy novels

It’s not the Nook’s fault.  At my house, we’re creatures of habit; enjoyment of print books is a long-standing practice.  Offered a chance to play with the trendy new e-book reader that I have on loan, we’ve thus far responded with a hearty “isn’t that nice!”, after which we peer at the opening screen, venture into a few menu options, then gingerly put the device aside in favor of our printed volume-in-progress.

So I was determined to generate a more enthusiastic buy-in from our mothers during their Thanksgiving visit.  After lunch, I downloaded three tempting new fiction titles: one drama, one frothy and humorous title, and Edward Rutherfurd’s latest historical tome.  The tryout began well: my mother-in-law gamely experimented with the navigation screen and chose Rutherfurd’s New York: The Novel.

But, as it turns out, print is not the Nook’s toughest competition.  My daughter’s appearance with her spinning wheel supplanted 21st-century gadgetry with traditional charm.  Once she’d demonstrated how to transform a clump of wool into a sleek run of yarn, suddenly that was the cooler technology to try.   Hundreds of pages downloaded and available within seconds are no match for a flywheel, a treadle, and (shades of Sleeping Beauty) the spindle.   So, exactly half of the intended audience sampled the e-reader experience.  My mother-in-law did claim to have enjoyed the session and sounded even more sold on New York.

I’ve certainly acquired new appreciation for the subject of spinning.  I select fiction, so fiber arts books aren’t in my territory, but I checked the catalog to see what the library offers.   Choose the “advanced” menu search and look up “spinning” as “any word in subject”: you’ll get a nice list including Respect the Spindle, Spin Control…, The Intentional Spinner, and Teach Yourself Visually Handspinning, among others.   

An epiphany that’s very much fiction-oriented also occurred.  The fascinating juxtaposition of historic sensibilities and modern/future technology–isn’t that what steampunk is all about?  That science fiction/fantasy genre is one I don’t often read (though I love definitions such as Caitlin Kittredge’s assertion on that “It’s sort of Victorian-industrial, but with more whimsy and fewer orphans.”)  Now the relevance of steampunk is becoming clearer.  For a starter list, you could try a suggestion from Hennepin County Library.   

Ever been entertained and didn’t know it?

Since out-of-towners are coming to our place for Thanksgiving, we can safely state that we’re having company.  That potential assertion–that we’ll be “entertaining” for the holiday–is sadly not a sure thing.  We might overcook the vegetables, or choose activities for which our visitors are not in the mood, or (Heaven forbid) fail to notice that a plumbing catastrophe of the sort that only transpires when guests are present might be developing at this very moment.

So, our houseguests will be hosted; whether they deem themselves “entertained” is really their decision, isn’t it?  It’s the same sort of judgment call that advertisers frequently fail to acknowledge in their use of another e-word.  “Enjoy” is often used in preference to “eat”, “wear”, “use” and similar consumer-ish verbs in a manner that strikes me as either amusingly overconfident or bossy.

As you take possession of that steaming cup of liquid and prepare to exit the counter, you’ll likely spot a caution that the “beverage you are about to enjoy” is hot.   And while it’s a safe bet that you will in fact drink or consume said liquid, I submit that the purchase price entitles the consumer to determine what if any level of enjoyment has been attained.    

Last week, library staffers viewed an online tutorial preparing us to technically support a new database product (coming soon).  Not only will your library patrons love this service, we were assured, but it’s easy!  All you have to do is click, download, and enjoy!  This command sequence ignores a crucial step: how about simply listening or viewing?   

In the past few days, I’ve been amused and enlightened on occasions such as these:

  • A patron requested a detailed map of the Chisholm Trail. She needed to know whether the route included Rising Star, Texas. Not only do I now know there’s a town with this wonderful name, but the conversation also included a real Texas ghost town: Thurber.

  • Thanks to a brief free-channel opportunity, I finally saw Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. Now I want the soundtrack and am anticipating a great performance by Bridges in True Grit. I noticed that the library copy of Crazy Heart (novel by Thomas Cobb) is no longer with us so have re-ordered.

  • A fellow librarian recommended a fabulous Indian cookbook featuring loads of helpful photos and less emphasis on curry: Pure and Simple: Homemade Indian Vegetarian Cuisine.

Let’s go ahead and use the e-word:  I enjoyed all three.

It’s a makeover, Charlie Brown!

It was just like the little tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas, except with furniture.
In pursuit of a low-cost item for the living room, I’d exhausted my usual shabby chic sources in Round Rock and on Craigslist.  Determined to locate a downtrodden but sturdy fixer-upper, I tried Austin Furniture Consignment.  Amid the amazing variety on offer there, my hopes once again dimmed.  These were not desperately needy furnishings; they frankly looked too nice for my purposes and budget.
Except for that poor little 40s-era dresser.  With drawers missing their hardware and chips, gouges, and evidence of years of ill treatment registering on the top surface, it seemed forlorn and resentful to be caught looking so terrible.  Clearly meant for better things, it still emitted a faint snazzy vibe. And it was the perfect size.
For $27.00 I acquired a useful piece with good proportions and solid, all-wood construction.  Paint, sandpaper, and a few tools are helping me recapture the charm of this vintage find—a makeover which now has me reconsidering a thriller I read recently.  

Taylor Stevens’ The Informationist:  the advance copy (it’s due out in March) was my airport reading choice on a cross-country trip, and I appreciated having something suspenseful to while away the miles.  What didn’t excite me was the protagonist’s similarity to that other popular heroine—the brilliant, ultra-resourceful loner possessed of edgy attractiveness and a tragic adolescence.  Unique skills, damaged personality, and fearless resolve are traits shared by Stevens’ Vanessa Munroe and Lisbeth Salander of Millennium Trilogy fame.

Now, my furniture re-do reminds me how relevant this brand of investigator/expert can be for many readers.  She’s a more complex, more real version of the plucky, peppy type who’s starred in scores of plots over the decades.  The can-do spirit is still there and still speaks to readers, but we’re now seeing more of that element that elicits a universal response–something (in this case a psyche) in sad need of first repair, then transformation.  Most of us value the opportunity to recognize and salvage that which is worthwhile.  The challenge is to see beyond the damaged “before” and envision the ”after”. 

Yet another approach to smart eating

I’m savvy enough to know two important things about zombies:  (1) They don’t specifically feast on gray matter or shuffle around chanting, “Brains! Braaaaaains!”.  That’s an unfair (and fun) stereotype based on one of those ….Living Dead films.  (2) Zombies have now officially topped vampires on the Trend-o-Meter.
That reality was confirmed yesterday.  Sure, we’ve all noted zombies creeping up on the vampires (in prominence, that is), but here’s how you can tell they’ve won.  Paging through book reviews, I encountered this title in a trade journal:  Vampire Knits: Projects to Keep You Knitting from Twilight to Dawn.  Spotlighting such items as the Werewolf Hat, Bellisima Mittens, and Blood Bottle Cozies, this imaginative guide surely represents the final stage of vampire domestication.   As the product description observes, “Black capes are so 1897.” And vampires are so last month.  
The same magazine that prompted me to once again regret my lack of knitting expertise devoted a two-page feature on zombie fiction.  My favorite title:  Paul is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion.  It’s by Alan Goldsher, and the library has it, along with “Harrison Geillor”‘s The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten, also The Book of the Living Dead.  On order and coming soon to the library are Ben Tripp’s Rise Again: A Zombie Thriller and Kevin Anderson and Sam Stall’s Night of the Living Trekkies.  Searching the library catalog with the subject heading “zombies–fiction”, you’ll discover 69 entries. 
I’ll be avoiding some of them.  Recognizing my need to counterbalance the drooling, droning, Halloweenish caricature that has constituted my zombie reading/viewing up to now, I sought a promising literary antidote.  Joan Frances Turner’s Dust merited a starred review in Booklist, which extolled its representation of “a new zombie mythology that is smart, scary, and viscerally real”.  And now, having read it, I admit my preference for zombie lore that is generic, unthreatening, and frivolous.
Perhaps if Ms. Turner wrote less effective prose, I wouldn’t have mapped the limits of my open-mindedness toward zombies.  But, thanks to the author’s thoroughly realized characters, evocative descriptions, and heart-wrenching dialogue, I found it possible to imagine an existence I really didn’t care to contemplate.  It’s exactly my sort of novel–if the premise weren’t so ghastly.
Dust undoubtedly has the potential to impress and delight other readers.  Perhaps you should consider it; I think this writer has a future–not to mention braaaaaains!

Opting for the bare bones approach

In a neighborhood festooned with 8-foot inflatable jack-o-lanterns, tree-borne fabric ghosts, and polystyrene tombstones, our house looks like the abode of the Halloween Grinch.  Our yard is unadorned, bereft of its customary display, a life-sized bendable skeleton who would normally lounge on our front yard bench, to the delight of youngsters in our cul-de-sac.
This year, Skel has taken up residence in the library’s glass case on first floor.  He’s advertising our new Playaway collection and prompting double-takes among entering library patrons.  If you stroll by the display, I guarantee he’ll have a big grin for you. 
Because we have customers of all ages, we styled Skel in a non-frightening manner.  To complement the black hood and scythe befitting his Grim Reaper persona, Skel is sporting Hawaiian print shorts and flip-flops.  When we set up the display earlier this week, we surrounded him with all sorts of domestic items.  A Reaper who does laundry and has demonstrably signed on for too many chores is an approachable Reaper.
As much as I enjoy working on marketing schemes like that one, promoting library resources is only the second-favorite facet of my job.  The undisputed best one is getting the opportunity to read new fiction before it’s published.  And this past weekend I finished a wonderful example:  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.
McLain’s fictional narrative, told from the viewpoint of Hadley Richardson (wife #1 of Ernest Hemingway) suggests insights into Hemingway favorites: The Sun Also Rises, A Moveable Feast , A Farewell to Arms (and I suspect “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” as well) along with at least one I haven’t read–Hemingway’s first book:  Three Stories and Ten Poems. Now I want to go back and read or re-read everything.  Hadley’s casual referencing of Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, etc. as factors in the couple’s daily lives, along with vignettes of the Paris cafe scene in the 1920s, adds dimension to what is essentially the history of a marriage–a brief one.
During coffee hour at church this past weekend, I attempted to convey my enthusiasm for Paris Wife to a friend whom I know would also appreciate McLain’s style.  As frequently happens when my own enjoyment of a book is too fresh, I found myself burbling on about it.  Then, this weird description emerged, “It’s definitely a woman’s book, but, on the other hand, it’s not a chick book.  Does that make any sense?”
The friend nodded and said, “Absolutely.  I know just what you mean.”

How scary it that?

TBF or not TBF?

Last weekend’s Texas Book Festival was, in the words of local Barnes & Noble public relations manager Frank Campbell, “the perfect storm”.  Owing to ideal weather, immediate follow-up to ACL, and over 200 notable authors on site, TBF 2010 was pleasantly swarming.   I’ve heard that events predicted to be minor draws brought in overflow audiences, while top attractions generally surpassed those high expectations.    

Attendees are resolving to show up earlier for events next year; competition for most any seat now appears to be a given.  And the wait is worth it.  The prospect of hobnobbing with fellow booklovers and acclaimed authors–for free!–on the Capitol grounds offers unique value.  

For the best possible TBF experience, you would enjoy volunteering, as I did.  Volunteers can get closer to the action; some festival-goers will even covet your free T-shirt!  Second, do your homework.  TBF is a vast undertaking, offering more options than you can manage.  Study the schedule beforehand on the TBF website or in the Statesman‘s festival guide and do some prioritizing, factoring in wait times and distances between venues.

And there’s a third strategy:  share your insights with others.  You can catch de-briefings on speakers you missed, follow up online, and acquire reading suggestions (not to mention gift-giving ideas).

Some of the best bits I heard at or about the festival:

  • Attendees at chef Alton Brown’s packed Central Market session raved about Brown’s contagious enthusiasm and consideration (obliging everyone with autographs and scooting parents with young children to the head of line).

  • Amanda Hesser (Essential New York Times Cookbook and sold us on the NYT compilation, which I hadn’t realized is not just a Craig Claiborne update; it includes significant historical and reader-contributed content. Ms. Hesser didn’t miss a beat when asked (probably for the millionth time) how she stays “rail-thin” even though she bakes constantly.

  • Leila Meacham (author of Roses) referring to the tradition of Southerners sacrificing all for one’s property or plantation: “Back then, you were your land. Today, some ladies are their handbags.”

  • Jane Roberts Wood (author of the Lucy Richards trilogy and the recent Out the Summerhill Road), delightedly acknowledging this note from a reader: “I think your characters drink too much!”

  • And the author escort for Doug Chernack and Mike Bender, creators of Awkward Family Photos, claimed that she has never laughed so much or so hard in her entire life.