Year: 2010

The most exclusive book club ever

If and when I write my novel (did you know that November is National Novel Writing Month?) I’ll be thrilled if even one person deems it a “page-turner”.  Speed reading, however, isn’t the sole indicator of reader involvement.   Call me eccentric, but I can suggest a more significant benchmark.

Here’s what happens: you’ve already passed the “continue or abandon in favor of next book” stage; the story has earned your approval. Then, you know you are truly committed when you imagine a friend or acquaintance reading along and enjoying, commenting upon, or even disdaining the book.  The point is, you’re already sharing the book and prompting a response to it–and you haven’t even finished it.  Notice how I attribute all this to “you” in the hopes that I’m not the only person who does this?

This very process played out during preparation for yesterday’s Baca Center book discussion.  The particularly vibrant Great Conversations selection was “Hekabe” by Euripides, a dramatist who can condense more pathos and ethical dilemmas into a few dozen pages than anyone else you could name.  As Hekabe (Hecuba) grieved, argued, and plotted her way through the multi-layered tragedy, some of her assertions evoked speculation:  what would group members say about that?   By “say”, I mean not merely comment but also document opinions with passages brought along or reviewed in advance of the meeting.  Yes, it’s that kind of group.  

Nothing like that occurred during my perusal of a title I couldn’t resist: Target Underwear and a Vera Wang Gown.   Adena  Halpern’s contemporary dilemmas, e.g., whether to ditch her stylist, registered as so much less compelling than Hekabe’s ancient but ageless ones.  Without relating myself, it’s no surprise that I couldn’t channel anyone else’s participation.

Already sold my on my current read, Cristina Garcia’s wonderful The Lady Matador’s Hotel, I found a particularly sensual passage provoking this vividly imagined scenario: my mom has chosen this book for a a group of her contemporaries.  They’re sitting in her living room, reading it aloud.  Suddenly, eyes widen, lips purse, the room goes silent.  Finally, one ventures, “Well, I guess we don’t know Jean as well as we thought we did!”

You’ll find The Lady Matador’s Hotel among the titles offered as Book Club Carryouts.  All Carryout selections will delight some book clubs, and overall they represent a range of reading tastes.  I hope you’ll share them, whether your fellow readers are actual or imaginary!  

How green was my novel

Those of you waiting for a library copy of Jonathan Franzen’s new Freedom should know that I finished and returned it early.  Nice though it would be to attribute this haste to virtue/consideration, credit goes to the author.  As with The Corrections, Franzen’s contemporary family epic delivers both astute prose inviting one to linger on the page and a compelling story that spurs the reader forward.  The library purchased multiple copies, so chances are excellent that your turn will happen sooner than anticipated.

Walter Berglund is my favorite character (though not the one I understood best, so what does that say about me?)  He is ultra-dependable, amazingly well read, and–most importantly–ecologically minded.  Whatever else Walter may be doing, his brain continually registers rates of deforestation, overpopulation, and so forth.  Examples from Walter’s calculating but green thoughts:

  • Page 545:  “…low-end estimate of songbirds daily murdered by cats in the United States was one million, i.e., 365,000,000 per year.” 

  •  Page 313: “in the two and a half weeks since his meeting in Manhattan with Richard, the world population had increased by 7,000,000. ” 

Walter would approve of the reusable shopping bags I now carry around, but my internal calculator tallies other sorts of things.  Examples from my less green but still life-enriching totals:

  • 0:  Number of months until Genealogy After Hours. It’s coming up on October 22.

  • 2:  Number of service desks on second floor.  During most hours the library is open, patrons can get guest passes, library cards, and circulation help at the large counter; reference librarians provide assistance at the new temporary reference desk (which looks exactly like two folding tables).  A real counter is on order.  

  • 22:  Titles available for book clubs in the forthcoming (later this month) Book Club Carryout program.   RRPL cardholders will be able to check out a snazzy Ikea tote bag containing 10 copies of a highly discuss-able title.  Both fiction and nonfiction titles are offered; many are just-released hardcover editions.  Freedom is among them!

Read ’til you drop

In hindsight, I view the inspiration as a convergence.  That would technically be defined as a concurrence of ideas leading to a conclusion; however, personal experience teaches that it’s really just the ability to recognize that notions I stumble across are better than the ones I’m trying for.

When we were applying all those RFID tags a few months back, I encountered some intriguing nonfiction books, titles that suggested fiction-worthy appeal and extremely relevant topics.  A couple that I’d enjoyed in the past–Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy and The Call of the Mall–were among the group also including I Want That!  How We All Become Shoppers; Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What; Macy’s: The Store, The Star, The Story; The Towering World of Jimmy Choo; The Making of a Name: The Inside Story of the Brands We Buy; Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, and so forth. 

Driving home that day, I was still musing about these highly readable opportunities to consider social history, consumer behavior, and the economy from such a user-friendly angle.  That’s when I noticed several souvenir shopping containers from our visit to Manhattan still residing in the back seat of my car.  Soon after, I came across Round Rock’s “Shop the Rock” promotion online.  Finally, when I heard about a gap in the display schedule for the big glass case on first floor, realization dawned: someone ought to put together a shopping theme!

That concept is now labeled “It’s in the Bag: Shoppers and Shopping” and you can see it next time you come in.  You’ll immediately spy the shopping bags–lots and lots of them–so many, in fact, that I suspect co-workers are eyeing me pityingly and concluding that all my off-duty time must be spent on the prowl for designer togs and home accessories, not to mention credit counseling sessions.  I’m happy to report that all those sacks aren’t mine (and sad to say that among the “not mine” items are the Tiffany bags).   

Amid the riot of shopping totes and tissue paper you can also discern many books, the titles mentioned earlier and numerous others.  Books and reading are, after all, pretty much the reason for any library feature.  I may have over-accessorized, though.  Quite a few co-workers and library patrons have commented, and they all say the same thing:  “Great display!  It makes me want to go shopping!”

Desert island essentials

We couldn’t afford the kind of publicity that famed film director Werner Herzog offered for free a couple of days ago.  In an NPR interview I heard while driving to work, Herzog advocated “Read, read, read.”  He further pronounced that “Those who watch television or are too much on the internet, they lose the world.  And those who read, they win it”.  Music to a librarian’s/teacher’s/parent’s ears!

I exulted in the fact that this vital message came from an eminence who’s not a librarian, teacher, or parent.  If only I could report further insights on this theme, but at that point Herzog segued back into Cinemaland. 

You have to admire a man who has immersed himself in the craft of film yet can, on cue, enumerate only three essentials out of the hundreds he must have encountered.   Challenged with the mental exercise of “Quick: name THE three films everyone should see”, I demonstrated why Herzog is an expert and I’m not.  Not only can I not narrow the list to three–or even ten–I fail to appreciate some of the award-winners that everyone is supposed to revere: Some Like It Hot, West Side Story, and Norma Rae.  But why should my lack of precision (not to mention total absence of film credits) stand in my way? 

Much like the three books you’d theoretically hope to discover if you were stranded on a desert island, we all know what film shortlist we’d choose if marooned on that same bit of palm-infested real estate with a DVD player.  These are movies that improve with each viewing–and no fair naming To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the WindRocky, or The African Queen, which are probably on everyone else’s lists.  Along with the special tag of “Films Starring Gregory Peck, Robert Redford, Daniel Day-Lewis, or Colin Firth”, here are my picks:

  • It Happened One Night (1934)

  • The Thin Man (1934)

  • Modern Times (1936

  • The Lady Eve (1941)

  • The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

  • The Verdict (1982)

  • Tender Mercies (1983)

  • Ghostbusters (1984)

  • Amadeus (1984)

  • The Princess Bride (1987)

  • The Full Monty (1997)

  • Shakespeare in Love (1998)

  • Gosford Park (2001)

  • Chicago (2002)

  • Seabiscuit (2003)

Please pass the popcorn–and share what’s on your desert island list.

A genealogist, a rector, and a killer walk into a plot…

You’ve surely heard those “what was I thinking?” confessions from publishers:  the agent who rejected Gone With the Wind, the editor who judged Harry Potter too derivative, etc.  I have one of those stories, and I’m not even in the publishing biz.

Not long into my assignment as fiction selector, the (favorable) reviews for book #1 in British novelist Fay Sampson’s new mystery series appeared in the journals last year.  Here are the facts as I saw them:
·         RRPL patrons adore mysteries, whether cozy, hard-boiled, or procedural; set in exotic locales; featuring oddball investigators or starring dead celebrities; highlighting historical eras–you name it.
·         Fay Sampson is an established author of both fiction and nonfiction, an editor, a writing teacher, and a prizewinner.
·         The main character of In the Blood is a family history researcher who becomes embroiled in a murder investigation.

Seriously?  Who exactly would be the audience for this story?  Other genealogists? 

The initial logic is there.  Who better to appreciate what Publishers Weekly deemed “a cerebral yet exciting tale of guilt, innocence, and circumstance” than folks who spend months delving into historical details?   But isn’t that the problem?  Doesn’t all that tracking down of obscure records take up the time one would normally devote to reading?

Apparently not.   Genealogists are the ultimate multi-taskers, somehow managing to raise families, develop careers, and traipse all over the country and the internet in search of esoteric facts.  Working in a novel or two would just represent one more triumph of list-checking for them.

It’s also true that family history research relates to life today as much as to long-ago ancestors.  Shifting fortunes, changing times, and misadventures either overwhelmed or elevated our forebears, and they still confront us today.   Once you learn that your predecessors endured situations rivaling the most overblown soap opera plots, you’re hooked as a family history hobbyist.  For those as yet not bitten by the genealogical research bug, In the Blood still presents a scenario of interest: Suzie Fewings uncovers evidence that the ancestor for whom she named her son committed a heinous act.  Now, her teenaged child is drawing suspicion in a murder investigation.

Are the two crimes part of a hereditary pattern?  How is it that Suzie suddenly realizes she is clueless about her teen’s sexual activity?  How does that young, good-looking rector figure into Suzie’s life these days?

And aren’t you glad I went ahead and ordered In the Blood?  The library also has Sampson’s next one, A Malignant House.  Book #3, Those in Peril, has just been added to the library’s fiction order.   

The ones that got away

Sometimes it’s easy to predict Future Success Stories–like the determined teen scanning the shelves for AP reading list titles a couple of days ago.  She was heading out with only one; I asked whether she wouldn’t like to consider taking another choice or two.  That way, she’d have a backup plan in the unlikely event that she didn’t bond with book #1.

“That’s OK”, she said.  “This one is under 300 pages, so I know I can force myself to read it whether I’m enjoying it or not.”

She will likely congratulate herself on having picked The Life of Pi, but the encounter got me thinking about other mandated titles that failed to score with individuals. 

I spend my days among library staffers and book club members–exactly the sort of folks who would have appreciated Julius Caesar, Silas Marner, Beowulf, David Copperfield, The Scarlet Letter, and all the other greats commonly assigned in high school.  Even these readers, I suspected, harbored a grudge or two about that rare volume of literary canon fodder that left them cold or that they just couldn’t finish.    

So I asked.   Predictably, the extremely literate types I polled unanimously reported overall enjoyment of those high school standbys.   Our English teachers obviously knew what they were about–with a few notable misses.    Because the mini-rants listed below were contributed by literature lovers who view most classics as life-enriching and wonderful, they are all the more amusing:

  • “I hated Charles Dickens. I thought Great Expectations was extremely boring (8th grade). A Tale of Two Cities was incomprehensible.”

  • “It can be charming to dig through all that Victorian-speak to find something likable, but in the case of Great Expectations--more like opening thoroughly wrapped birthday presents to find them filled with fire ants.”

  • “I think the entire Jane Austen body of work is a snore.”

  • The Grapes of Wrath: “dustily depressing”, “pretty tedious”

  • Don Quixote: “Meh.”

  • Catcher in the Rye: “I must be missing something. Does anyone else think this book is highly overrated?”

  • “Totally agree about Catcher in the Rye. Dialog was horrible. Plot okay by standards back then. Characters had little or no appeal and were certainly nothing like anyone I knew even before their ‘situation’ appeared.”

  • The Old Man and the Sea: “BORING.”

  • Little Women: “Stupid.”

  • “I was never able to get through Moby Dick.”

  • A Separate Peace: “The sub-plots were a muddle to my mind, and I had no interest in the coming of age of snotty, preppy teenage boys–a sentiment I carry to this day.”

  • “The book I liked the least (actually hated) was The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne. I found it boring and too detailed.”

  • Silas Marner: “…very depressing.”

I’m a fan of ornate prose, myself.  I love Henry James and consider George Eliot’s Middlemarch to be a page-turner.  The title that I alone seem to loathe is The Hobbit, and you can forget about Lord of the Rings.  Thinking that the first LOTR movie might change my mind, I accompanied my family to the film.  Listening to my mutterings in the vein of “couldn’t someone just buy them a ring?”, they must have wished they’d left me at home with a large volume of Dickens.

Do you hear what I hear?

Like other large structures, the library represents a unique climate, with a couple of zones occasionally defying thermostatic control.   When the admin. reception area develops tropical tendencies, Dora sets up a nostalgic corrective measure.  The gently whirring blades of her fan restore a pleasant feel, while the drone of the motor recalls those low-tech, high-temperature days not many decades back when Texas homes were not so likely to be air-conditioned.

Other library sounds remind us that back-to-school season has not changed as drastically as our standards for summertime comfort.  With older children in class, thus not accompanying Mom or Dad and the toddlers sleeping in their strollers, parents may note the squeak of a wobbly wheel or even–what is that strange sensation?–quiet.   Family routine locks into academic mode, and stacks of books for summertime pleasure reading get hauled back to the library.  A repetitive thunk! as they hit the book drop becomes the circulation crew’s theme song.

Today, managers and selectors riffle pages and clack keyboards in their efforts to fine-tune spending before the fiscal year ends.  With patrons exploiting their expertise on shelf-checks, that weird Darth Vader-ish sound generated when we open the units to add receipt paper enhances the auditory landscape. 

Something I didn’t expect to hear:  after David Mitchell’s interview on NPR, my husband wished he’d requested the author’s new book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  I placed a hold on the checked-out copy, thinking, “Don’t hold your breath,” and was startled to learn that Jacob came back in the very next day.

I suppose other potential readers were temporarily distracted by student-nurturing duties, and they’ll log in their requests before long.  The lesson here is that–much like the New Year–fall is a season of great opportunity for library users.  Some examples to contemplate:

  • The adult New Fiction shelf offers lots of newly arrived items.  I snagged Karen Essex’s Dracula in Love.

  • For students and everyone else, our databases can be lifesavers. Cardholders may access most of them from home.

  • October is Family History Month, featuring two popular programs co-sponsored by the library and Williamson County Genealogical Society,  Genealogy from Scratch on the 16th and Genealogy After Hours on the 22nd.

Better than comfort food: comfort information

We knew the risks when we picked up that puppy from the Scottie rescue place four years ago.   She’d been found wandering the streets of Fort Worth with no collar or tag.  On the ride home, she licked all the sunscreen off my face, ran several figure-eight laps inside the car, and claimed our hearts–as she would any dog toy ever brought into our house (and she wasn’t an only dog).   For a few years of charm and companionship delivered in a wonderfully photogenic short-legged package, we’re now paying the price of heartache after her sudden death from a rare blood condition.

And we’d do it again, but our house is dismal just now.   Friends and co-workers who’ve similarly loved and lost offer sympathy, appreciated almost as much as distraction.  Last night, our TV’s screening of Moonstruck lightened the gloom.

 We answer all sorts of questions at the reference desk, and here’s a difficult one:  Having once experienced bereavement of a cherished animal, why do people voluntarily adopt another pet?

As usual, the library offers multiple-choice answers to what only seems like a rhetorical question.  Books like Animal Rescuers: A Chapter Book and Where the Trail Grows Faint: A Year in the Life of a Therapy Dog Team document dogs’ capacity for enhancing human lives in very practical ways.  Jon Katz, author of The Dogs of Bedlam Farm and other popular titles, offers ample evidence of meaningful dog-human interaction.’s Lodging Guide for Travelers with Dogs and Pads for Pets: Fabulous Projects for Your Furry, Feathered, and ‘Phibious Friends, along with internet resources like denote another factor–our need to reward companion animals by promoting their quality of life.

Thankfully, some books even capture the sheer glee that canine characters inspire.  James Thurber, New Yorker founder and columnist (and associate of multiple Scottish Terriers) frequently wrote about the dogs in his life.  I’ve just checked out The Dog Department: James Thurber on Hounds, Scotties, and Talking Poodles.  Thurber’s hilarious anecdotes and cartoons will cheer our household.  Dog Department even features tiny sketches on the page corners that you can flip to produce an animated cartoon.  As much as I recommend all dog lovers borrowing this book someday, I really need it now–and hope you don’t.

Love that book? Keep it to yourself!

I volunteered to be “nominator” for the Barnes & Noble (RRNN) book group next week.  The job description:  bring in three promising books for consideration, after which one is voted in as the October selection.  No pressure, right?  Well, advising this gang on reading is rather like offering the Car Talk guys tips on tire rotation–they already know so much more.

And I can’t depend on my favorite go-to resource to rescue me this time. 

On so many occasions, the library has saved me money and equipped me to decide wisely.  Before we remodeled our kitchen and bath a couple of years back, I lugged home armloads of books on tile, color, and cabinetry.  From all those ideas I compiled a scrapbook to show our contractor what we wanted, hoping he wouldn’t find the notebook silly or intrusive.  His reaction?  “I wish everybody would do that.”  All that decorating advice inspired me to put together an artsy granite and tile combination that I love but have secretly felt might be a little “out there”–until one of HGTV’s Design Star teams came up with that exact look last week.  

Those of us who work at the library and benefit daily from its print and digital wisdom find it particularly gratifying to observe (and assist) others doing likewise:  

  • Is that snake you found in the yard one of the worrisome kind?  We don’t just have snake identification guides–we have Texas snake identification guides. 

  • What exactly is that strange yet charming antique you just inherited?  Secretary, étagère, or something else entirely?  Miller’s International Antiques Price Guide probably has a photo of something similar.

  • Have technical service bulletins or recalls been issued for your car?  You can access the library’s subscription to Ebsco’s Auto Repair Reference Center from home with your library card.

You can also finally figure out what a “third cousin once removed” is.  (Sounds bad, doesn’t it?)  Our resources can explain why the Mediterranean diet might be likely to work for you, what yarn you should try for your first knitting project, and how to avoid purchasing an unreliable refrigerator or SUV.

But I digress.  My point was that the library has proven, in this instance, not at all helpful.  I’m obliged to shorten my list to only three books, and everywhere I look, more possibilities suggest themselves.  I’ve finally had to avert my eyes from the shelves, carts, and book bags of our patrons, resolving to stick with my current three titles no matter what.  If you must tell me about something you’ve read before next Monday, please do me a favor and say you hated it!

When it’s OK to cook the books

This week’s insightful Online Recipe Finders post from Betsey reminded me that generations can be bridged by shared inadequacies.   Years of culinary advice directed my way have failed to cultivate a cookery style inspired by anything more than luck and necessity.

Oh, I can successfully replicate most recipes.  However, any grocery shopping experience still borders on overwhelming, and I dare not attempt anything spontaneous like flinging together a tasty omelet or pasta dish derived solely from random contents of my refrigerator and a lavishly priced bottle of olive oil.  My family will attest to the frequently monochromatic repasts I’ve offered them, the most notable being beige (fish, cauliflower, rolls, …).   You don’t even want to know what, in desperation, I’ve tried to pass off as a last-minute “garnish”.

The one element of meal planning in which I demonstrate any real confidence is dessert (my Yummly login is “iheartpie”).  Last weekend’s book group discussion/dinner at our house proved to be the perfect showcase for my selective kitchen skills.  Who could a resist a menu consisting of pie and cake?

This month’s title, Diane Mott Davidson’s Sweet Revenge, was chosen from her popular culinary mystery series.  The story’s disappointing level of character development (group consensus) elevated the meal to Highlight of the Evening status before it was even served.  And, because the murder in question occurred in a library, I exploited the setting, picking the entrée recipe from Sweet Revenge and the salad and dessert recipes from library staff cookbooks.

Evidently, Davidson’s “Unorthodox Shepherd’s Pie” recipe was precisely what everyone felt like eating that day.  The two Scottish terriers roaming the living room finally gave up any expectation of remnants on guests’ dishes.  And, after the salad and comfort food, the Chocolate Zucchini Cake from the Round Rock Public Library’s Recipes to Check Out fueled us for an evening of conversation–though not, sadly, about Sweet Revenge.    

For witty and learned observations from an expert “foodie”, I’d recommend the charming Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser.  She can explain why tapas are socially relevant and how personal relationships can evolve, one menu at a time.  My expertise is more practical: you know that dinner went well if nothing remains to scrape or rinse before the plates go into the dishwasher.