Year: 2010

Mr. Reliable he isn’t

After I’ve invested time reading a book for group discussion, the conversation had better include more than just plot.   That’s why the La Frontera Barnes & Noble literary bunch (Round Rock New Neighbors) merits regular attendance.

Our latest meet centered on Jim Thompson’s now-classic crime novels.  Amid all the noir-ish activity, suspense, and gore, one topic highlighted the session for me–the unreliable narrator.  This point of view can infuse more impact than any deed the character perpetrates.

The realization that this narrator can’t be trusted–because he/she is biased, error-prone, ignorant, fronting an agenda (or some devilish mixture of these) sets up just the sort of challenge that lovers of character-driven fiction relish.

Take Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (which, by the way, you should read before you see the film, if only to determine whether it’s really the movie for you.  Obviously, the story is still haunting me).   In Killer, your vantage point consists solely of the reporting and perceptions of Lou Ford, a small-town sheriff with big-time psychopathological issues.  On the one hand, Lou holds back no detail, however incriminating.  On the other hand, the mere fact that he appears to savor this blow-by-blow (literally) commentary calls his veracity into question.  He’s authentic, but is he truthful?  He’s certainly unforgettable.

All this is not to suggest that reliable narrators are less than engrossing.  I just finished Karin Muller’s Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa.  Muller is a sympathetic, trustworthy reporter, and not just because Japanland is non-fiction.   The author’s self-confessed cultural missteps unwrap social complexities to thwart the sincerest of intentions.  As Muller soldiered on, collecting documentary footage and delving into hidden realms of Japanese culture, I was both empowered by her emotional stamina and entertained by her wry observations. 

Japanland invites comparison to Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling Eat, Pray, Love, but I preferred Japanland.   If you’re intrigued, come to one of the library’s adult book club sessions on August 3 and share your thoughts.  You’ll also want to check out the library’s copy of the Japanland DVD.  You’re too late for this role, Julia Roberts!  

What do you mean, the library promotes ADULT reading?

In my previous job, I never figured out how to suitably explain my duties.  People understood the “reference librarian” part, but their eyes would narrow ever so slightly when I added that other responsibilities included “selecting adult DVDs”.  See?  Whatever you just thought, they did, too.

Portraying that task as “choosing non-children’s DVDs” was similarly unhelpful, but at least it didn’t conjure visions of me lounging in a back room scarfing down popcorn and viewing films of questionable taste/morals. (Of course, librarians don’t have time to watch the films we select;  we rely on reviews.)

Lately, I’m working with Round Rock Public Library’s grownup version of the summer reading program.  Yes, we encourage adult reading!  No lurid intentions; we just hope to parallel what our children’s summer programs have so brilliantly achieved over the years by prompting patrons to capitalize on books from the library’s adult fiction and nonfiction collections.  Naturally, we’re marketing our own no-cost-to-borrow wares, but we’re so serious about rewarding our adult readers that we even count books that didn’t come from the library.  If you’re one of our cardholders and aren’t already submitting reading logs for the prize drawing, you still have until August 9 to join in.

This morning, I couldn’t resist peeking at the reading logs we’ve already collected.  Along with the great actual prizes, I mentally bestowed some theoretical awards.  “Most Dedicated Parent” honors would go to the sort of entry listing (out of five required titles) four devoted to teaching/disciplining/encouraging children and one on training the new puppy.  “Most Varied Fiction Reading” distinction would reward a log beginning with Henry V and ending with Leave it to Cleavage.

As you’d expect–particularly for summer reading– many patrons indulge their preferences for a favorite author; they list three to five entries by the same writer (and I say to them, “Go for it!”)  The usual suspects are well represented:  Sandra Brown, Janet Evanovich, J. R. Ward, Piers Anthony, James Rollins, Brodie & Brock Thoene, Charlaine Harris, M. C. Beaton, Francine Rivers, Anne Rice, Greg Iles, Frank Peretti, and so forth. 

A few names who aren’t as well known or who are relative newcomers to publishing also drew multiple- entry mention:  Donna Andrews, Beth Kendrick, Carrie Bebris, Tori Spelling. 

Library employees aren’t eligible to enter the prize drawing.  Our reward will be the smiles on the winners’ faces.  We’ll be content with that, because we’re mature (and by “mature”, I don’t mean R-rated…)

Where have all the phone booths gone?

Belonging to four different book clubs isn’t a sane lifestyle choice for everyone, but I find it empowering.  Along with obvious socialization benefits comes the potential for quadruple rewards in the “wouldn’t have picked it on my own” department.  Completing all the assigned books and some personal selections enhances my sense of balance.  When, in addition to the reading, I achieve a certain degree of house/garden maintenance (beyond minimal but short of Martha Stewart), I feel practically superhuman.

Of course, that means I’m susceptible to Literary Kryptonite.  You are, too, and you probably know what that is: an element, passage, or scene that doesn’t work for you at all, brings your mood waaaay down, ruins your day, prompts you to wish you’d spent that time in a more beneficial activity, say, eating M&Ms while watching Project Runway reruns.

For some, the debilitating effects of LK attack in the form of lengthy descriptive passages detailing what characters wear, what passers-by are doing, etc.  The substance that enervates other readers may be inconclusive conclusions, endings that leave them to ponder what may or may not have happened to the characters, since the author isn’t saying.   I actually happen to enjoy that sort of thing.

But here’s what knocked the wind out of my psyche this week:  two skillfully composed passages in different books (perhaps too expertly conveyed) in which a killer has mortally wounded his prey and then remains beside the victim, entirely aware of that person’s agony and wishing for his own convenience that the individual would go and ahead cease his/her efforts to survive.   When I realized that I was encountering, in the space of three days, a second instance in which a dying character’s quivering hand desperately stretched toward the only possible rescuer–the cold-blood killer–I felt victimized myself.

I won’t ruin the first book for you by revealing the name; the second was a Jim Thompson title–The Killer Inside Me–so, no worries about spoiler alerts.  Both feature masterful prose and riveting plots.  Nevertheless, along with M&Ms, I immediately sought an unassigned novel to restore my equilibrium.   Though Yukio Mishima never managed to achieve his own personal balance, his lovely The Sound of Waves proved the perfect antidote for the dreaded LK.  The person who recommended it to me is decidedly a superhero.

Safety in numbers for Tiger pursuit

Today is adult book club day for July (The White Tiger).   We’ll have to see how the 7:00 discussion at the library goes, but the 2:00 Star Co. session could be accurately rated as a love fest for Aravind Adiga’s memorable story of modern India.  I first encountered the Tiger back in 2008 and have been agitating for others to read it ever since–because I almost didn’t. 

When choosing novels by Indian authors, I gravitate toward gentler historical novels or family sagas (David Davidar’s House of Blue Mangoes, Padma Viswanathan’s The Toss of a Lemon, anything by Jhumpa Lahiri).  White Tiger‘s edgy premise and violent protagonist should have landed it squarely in Not My Kind of Book territory.  Actually, that’s why I selected it, and rarely has a reader been so amply rewarded for venturing beyond the comfort zone.

Fellow librarian blogger Nick DiMartino’s characterization of The White Tiger as “a banquet of moral complexity that keeps the reader laughing and thinking long after it’s finished” neatly sums up the book’s appeal for me.  Add to that Adiga’s sly turns of phrase, as when he juxtaposes dissimilar elements, thus layering commentary over narration:  “Lots of dust and policemen came into the village next morning.”

Its book club duty done, my library copy of The White Tiger will be delivered back home so my husband can finish it; he was a little disconcerted to find it missing from his nightstand.  Place a request on one of the library’s volumes (they’re all checked out today) or treat yourself to a purchase, and you’ll understand why.  Though you probably don’t possess an over-the-top chandelier like the one illuminating the Tiger‘s narrator, you’ll still be most reluctant to turn out your light before his tale is finished.

Shortlisted in the stacks

Following up on last week’s admission that not all my book advice is golden, I resorted to my favorite source of literary expertise:  co-workers.

I polled library staffers, requesting names of books they’ve recommended and later heard described as someone’s new favorite, “best book ever”, or “wonderful”.

The list of supremely well-received suggestions:

  • David Whyte’s The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship

  • The Sea by John Banville

  • Martin Millar: The Good Fairies of New York

  • William Goldman’s The Princess Bride

  • Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (and sequel Catching Fire; Mockingjay is due out in August)

  • Michael Kort’s The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb

  • Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

  • L.M. Montgomery’s Emily series: Emily of New Moon; Emily Climbs; Emily’s Quest

If you try one of these or have advice for a can’t-miss read, we hope you’ll comment.

Gambling on the perfect book

For someone who’s not a big risk-taker, I venture possible rejection and failure on a daily basis.  I can’t decide which is the more serious gamble–recommending books to total strangers, or assuring friends and family that I have just the title for them.

People near and dear to you generally won’t pretend that they liked something if they didn’t.  That’s why a recent chat with dinner guests was so gratifying.  My husband praised Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh as “the finest book ever written”, and guess who suggested he try it?  Actually, when I read it I was so distracted by the anticipation of how delightful he’d find it that I probably missed entire passages. 

Not all my literary advice merits rapturous feedback.  After handing The Swan Thieves to a friend with “loved it and think you will, too” certification, I awaited a glowing response.  The actual verdict?  “Not bad; I’d give it a B.”  Not what I’d hoped, but you should know that a second-tier score from such a discerning critic is still admirable.

Our daughter’s utter rejection of a children’s classic documents my worst misfire, destined to live on in family lore.   Back when purchasing a brand-new item from a bookstore was a rare treat, we presented her with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.  We did notice that she never picked it for the bedtime story but just figured that Little Black, A Pony was enjoying an extra-long interval of favor.

Realization dawned (finally) during setup for our garage sale.  Wild Things repeatedly and mysteriously appeared on the “three for a dollar” table. My husband and I discovered it and restored it to the house multiple times.  Finally, our five-year-old stomped out to the garage, deposited the offending volume amidst the other offerings and announced, “I think it’s time to let this book fire some other child’s imagination.” 

Undeterred by that fiasco, I offer this guidance:  if you’re seeking a Sendak classic for a youngster’s gift,  The Nutshell Library might be a safer choice.

Technological scene-stealing at the library

Here’s one for the life-is-unjust archive.  Library staffers devoted an entire week (and then some) to applying thousands of RFID tags in our books, DVDs, and CDs–and what is our reward?  We are constantly upstaged by four square devices with touch screens, flashing lights, and multiple-item checkout capacity.  

Our patrons love the new RFID stations.  They can achieve one-stop shopping by paying fines and checking out in the same session.   They delight in stacking up books, watching mesmerized as the titles materialize on the screen and change colors.  We have even overheard patrons claim that “I just paid a fine, and it was fun!”  No one ever told me that.

We’re not bitter.  Jealous perhaps, but we’ll get over it.  After all, we enjoy the self-checks, too, and we never, ever tire of hearing evidence that our patrons are pleased.  Those of us who don’t light up, emit tech-y sounds, or produce automatic receipts will content ourselves with doing what self-checks machines don’t–which is everything else. 

Streamlined checkout encourages our patrons to choose more materials, leading to increased check-in responsibilities and more items to be shelved, all manually.   Summer reading campaigns–and even more great programming by our talented youth librarians–not only incentivize checkouts but also generate greater numbers of reference questions and what-to-read inquiries at the desks, by telephone, or via email. 

Knowing this, I was surprised when a self-check patron innocently asked, “So, what do you do with all your free time, now that machines are doing your work?”  I glanced up from an in-person reference question, an email question, the June fiction order, and the first draft of an article, all open on my computer, with what must have been a mystified look.  It was difficult to communicate just then, with a couple of heavily laden book carts trundling by on their way back to the shelves.

Crying fowl at the box office

Do we agree that “cult classic film” is frequently euphemistic for “awful movie”?  And that dreadful flicks can be wonderfully entertaining?  Take Plan Nine from Outer Space, so uproariously unfortunate that my family felt we had to own it on DVD.  If you haven’t added that one to your personal collection, you likely know someone who has.

Now there’s Birdemic (full name, Birdemic: Shock and Terror).  A “viral cult hit”, this four-years-in-the-making production has inspired accolades such as The New York Times’ “A Turkey Flies High” (or, as puts it, “Run For Your Lives!”)  Reviews suggest that every single dollar of the $10,000 budget is evident on the screen–if you get my drift.

Cheesy special effects are my idea of a good time.  And, of course, half the joy of witnessing risky film ventures occurs afterward.  Surely, the ticket price entitles one to scoff at the film’s shortcomings, and I do.

Double standard alert:  So, why am I not similarly willing to scorn books that are near-misses, disappointments, or just disasters?  I’ll gladly tell library patrons that I thought “X” movie represented two misspent hours I’ll never get back, or some equally candid report.  However, when asked to assess a book or series that I hated, I’ll offer something tepid like, “I suppose it just isn’t my kind of book,” or “I haven’t gotten beyond the first title yet” (meaning “and I never will…”)

It’s not that books are library territory and movies aren’t; our collection includes hundreds of DVDs.  Perhaps I suspect that my views might occasionally carry some weight with patrons for whom I’ve recommended books they enjoyed.  My lack of film-reviewing credentials, on the other hand, is obvious!

Here–possibly proving that point–are two films in from my personal “worst ever” list:  Penny Serenade and Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.  Your thoughts?

Sense and Similarities

Certain phrases always catch my eye as I’m scanning book reviews: “debut author”, “projected series”, “only die-hard fans”, “shortlisted”, for example. This spring, “beach read” has been much in evidence.

That’s a loaded term, isn’t it? Sure, it conjures visions of striped tote bags with paperbacks spilling out onto the sand (promising ample time to soak up a good story), but it also denotes a certain lightness in, er, intellectual content. Problem?  Not for me; I maintain that some well-crafted froth is essential for a happy reading life.  Besides, “light” and “clever” are not mutually exclusive terms. The only truly unfortunate application of the BR label that I can envision is this scenario: you’re an author, you’ve poured months of your life into a novel that is eagerly received as a beach read–only you didn’t think that’s what you were writing. Ouch!

Cathleen Schine needn’t worry. Her latest, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, captures the BR spirit with its endearing family dynamics, but its homage-to-the-classic structure and sprightly dialogue deserve extra points for literary appeal.

See if this sounds familiar: elderly patriarch exits, thus depriving mother and two daughters access to his financial assets. Decamping to free lodgings offered by a cousin with an expansive personality, the three women resort to a life of reduced circumstances in–that’s right–a cottage. Did I mention that one sister is impulsive, while the other counterbalances that rashness with decorum and grace?  Retaining Austen’s essence–the sense of devotion to ideals underscored with a witty wariness–Schine updates the script with daytime TV actors, commuting, Palm Beach, and Central Park West.

Guess the outcome if you wish, but be prepared to remain, along with Betty, Miranda, and Annie, happily involved and alive to all the possibilities.

Poolside books: the other economic indicator

Our vacation is just winding down.  During this time, my husband and I have been hauling around two sorts of baggage.  There’s the bulky but uncomplicated variety encompassing scuba equipment (his) and heels for Formal Night (mine), also the cumbersome should-we-be-taking-a-vacation-in-this-economy? stigma.

Everyone knows that this season is a buyer’s market for cruises and other vacation packages, so why have we felt compelled to extol the fabulousness of the cruise deal we found, rehearsing the fact that “you couldn’t get entertainment, transportation, and food for this price anywhere else”, blah, blah?  Our friends and co-workers are aware that we both work for nonprofit entities and further know that we’re too cheap to pay any interest on our one credit card, so obviously this trip was a bargain.  

Apparently, our fellow vacationers also remain mindful of the economy (except, possibly, the folks with the balconied suites overlooking prime cruising vistas).  The subject arose frequently over dinner, and not just because it’s a safe but guaranteed conversation starter for a group of strangers.  Further evidence of concern was detected by my anecdotal and highly unscientific survey: Data for Reading Inventoried at Poolside (DRIP).

I adopted a simple but foolproof data collection method:  I asked my husband to help me keep an eye out for book titles/authors observed at poolside.  (A book chosen for noisy and distracting aquatic venues is, I feel, particularly reflective of the reader’s interests.)  You can probably guess what we observed during the exhaustive ten-minute canvass: lots of the usual suspects.  James Patterson, Daniel Silva, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Lynsay Sands, Charlaine Harris, Eckhart Tolle, and other heavy hitters were much in evidence.  A bit of variety was provided by my husband’s choice–my copy of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto–and my own pick, Jacqueline Winspear’s Birds of a Feather.

This part was interesting, however: while these books were all (unsurprisingly) paperbacks, in no case did they represent the author’s most recent title available in paperback.  Contrary to the trend I’ve seen previously, backlists were the order of the day, suggesting that more folks are now doing as we do–planning way ahead to ensure a plentiful, low-cost, low-risk vacation library.  Each selection must meet these guidelines:

  • It’s gotta be cheap: copies for which you spend $2.00 or less don’t upset you when an on-flight beverage or chlorine splash engulfs them.

  • Current bestsellers are out–too expensive for travel.  Besides, choosing something not on the top ten list requires more imagination.

  • It’s gotta look good.  Even when I’m rummaging through a garage sale box or a clearance bin, I demand smooth pages, stainless condition, and a pretty cover.  Call me shallow.

For this journey, I purchased our supply from Half Price Books’ clearance section and the Friends of the Round Rock Public Library book sale.  I knew that I’d collected an acceptable number when my daughter inquired whether I planned to do anything besides read the entire week.

Like us, our fellow vacationers are finding small but numerous ways to economize.  And, because everyone is affected in one way or another, it’s helpful to buy even bargain books on home turf in order to support libraries and local vendors.  One last tip:  did you know that, if you contract one of those nasty shipboard viruses and are quarantined to your cabin, your cruise line will probably offer to give you a prorated credit for that time?  Don’t ask why I know that.