Year: 2010

When less really is more

Recent experience emphasizes that, while insufficient preparation for a meeting is risky, over-preparation is a similarly poor strategy. One should particularly avoid hauling in a pile of evidence to document one’s overkill.

I meant well.  Everyone else at the discussion of upcoming adult book club titles offered an excellent book recommendation; I had an entire concept:  Why not capitalize  on the “Scandinavian Invasion”?  Stieg Larsson’s books (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and the upcoming The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) have made a big splash with American readers.  Our library shelves are all set to supply lots of other fine mysteries from Icelandic, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian authors.  So, to prove just how abundant the selection is, I plunked down a generous stack representing Amaldur Indridason, Henning Mankell, Kjell Eriksson, Ake Edwardson, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo, and others onto the conference table.

Thus, when a consensus (to avoid moody or potentially depressing titles in this round) quickly formed, my leaning tower of brooding black-and-gray covered volumes looked decidedly out of step.

I do agree that balancing recent serious books with upcoming lighter-toned ones makes sense; book groups thrive on variety.  And you can bet that I reshelved those wonderful Scandinavian mysteries post-haste.  Now you know where to find them whenever you crave something similar to Larsson’s well-received editions.

Lightning bolts and sirens and snakes: oh, my!

Driving to work yesterday, I caught an NPR review of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.  When a respected film critic disapproves as that one did, I can proceed in one of two ways:  relegate the selection to “Netflix but not big screen” status–possibly even the dreaded “don’t bother” tag–or view that judgment as a challenge to buy a ticket and prove him wrong. 

Lightning Thief certainly delivers an appealing premise.  Based on Rick Riordan’s popular series of children’s books, the movie chronicles a young demigod’s dealings with a host of figures from classical mythology, including Medusa (Uma Thurman) and Chiron (Pierce Brosnan). 

In the grownup book world, few classical scenarios offer greater scope for godly intervention (interference) than Homer’s Odyssey.  Everyone can relate to some aspect of Odysseus’ situation, be it his supreme ill luck in attracting divine attention or his list of true yet unbelievable excuses for returning several years late (“Honest, honey, it was Calypso’s fault.”)  If you’re a fan, look for this modern update in the library catalog: Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey.  Kirkus Reviews calls this creation of New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award finalist Mason a “paean to the power or storytelling”.

Another “coming soon to the library” selection:  Ioanna Karystiani’s Swell.  Described by Library Journal as “a retelling of The Odyssey for the cell-phone age”, Swell (since translated into English) won the National Award for Best Greek Novel of 2007.  Literary fiction fans will want to monitor our online catalog in a few weeks to request this tale of an aging sea captain who’s been at sea for twelve years and cagily reports that “the sea won’t give me back”.  Talk about classic excuses!

Good news: no recalls for reading acceleration

I’m living on the edge these days.  And I’m not referring to the 2009 Toyota that awaits me in the library parking lot.  The book bag on the front seat bulging with selections from five different reading discussions–that’s what triggers my panic attacks.


  • Yesterday, for example, I showed up right on time for the 1:00 Baca Center book discussion on George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, hoping that the pages of the book weren’t somehow smoking from the laserlike intensity that propelled me through the final thirty pages during my 12:00 lunch hour. That was a close one.

  • Another group I attend chose Rembrandt’s Jews for their meeting later this month; it’s more of a challenge for interlibrary loan than I’d expected. My husband and I both need that copy, so the book’s last-minute arrival will likely instigate a marital share/read/who-has-it-now routine rivaling anything ever scripted on I Love Lucy.

  • Thanks to some speedy readers ahead of me in the queue for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, my turn came up several days in advance of next week’s Round Rock New Neighbors group meeting at Barnes and Noble. I’ll return the favor and check the volume back in promptly.

  • A library colleague and I challenge each other to read work-related nonfiction titles, and we’re finishing up Paco Underhill’s Call of the Mall and Why We Buy before our discussion date next week.

  • I’m familiar with W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (it inspired the movie Field of Dreams) but need to re-enjoy it before the library’s adult book club discussion on March 2.

To complicate matters, I’m compelled to indulge in non-discussion books, probably to sustain the illusion of being in control.  Though currently engrossed in Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves, I had reluctantly bypassed it for several weeks in favor of assigned reading.  Swan Thieves is wonderful, and I regret not giving in and picking it up sooner.  Here’s just one reason why: the book is an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) intended to be perused and remarked upon prior to publication. 

What sort of infraction does one commit by reading an ARC when the final version is now available?  Will be a citation be involved, or does a subtle shift in the space-time continuum occur?  I’m reminded of Steven Wright’s announcement that “I put instant coffee in a microwave oven and nearly went back in time.”

Are cupcakes on the food pyramid?

My colleague had the new display of cookery books and food writing well under way this morning.  At some point, two different labels suggested themselves:  “Just Desserts” or “Getting Your Just desserts”.  I concurred that “Just Desserts” was the less risky option.  What if someone who loves sweets and is perfectly cognizant of their dismal calorie-to-vitamin ratio reads the sign and takes offense?  He or she might view the phrase as implying that dessert fanciers will get what they have coming (e.g., weight gain and guilt) if they follow through with the lusciously illustrated titles on offer.

Surely we all recognize the morality factor associated with food: you’re an admirable human being if you choose whole grains and count fat grams but frivolous and self-indulgent if you veer toward pies and frosting.  (Those of us who both relish whole grains and mentally count fat grams in the layer cake we’re ecstatically consuming belong in a special tag.)  Because food is elemental for us, we have to discuss it; we just require less controversial and more entertaining outlets for our obsession.

Mystery authors figured this out long ago and have successfully marketed hundreds of volumes featuring caterers (Diane Mott Davidson), herbalists (Susan Whittig Albert), Pennsylvania Dutch recipes (Tamar Myers)–even a White House chef (Julie Hyzy), along with many other culinary connections.  Entering this popular field must be a daunting venture, necessitating not only literary imagination but also a fresh angle and an eye on culture and trends.

Enter Sandra Balzo and Cleo Coyle.  Observers of contemporary caffeine- and latte-driven society, they’ve authored clever coffeehouse mysteries.  Beginning in 2003, Coyle has produced eight titles, including Espresso Shot, French Pressed, and Holiday Grind.  The next installment–Roast Mortem–is due out in August.  Sandra Balzo’s Maggie Thorsen series debuted in 2004 with Uncommon Grounds, followed by Grounds for Murder; Bean There, Done That; and Brewed, Crude, and Tattooed

You could also watch for an upcoming bakery treat to accompany your beverage mysteries.  A reviewer of Jenn McKinlay’s Sprinkle With Murder deemed it a “tasty concoction”.  Combining popular themes–cupcakes and the Big Wedding (think Bridezillas or Say Yes to the Dress)–McKinlay’s story is set in a specialized bakery, Fairy Tale Cupcakes.  I could tell you more, but it’s after 5:00 and I need to go home and bake something.

The thrill of victory…

If you immediately added “…and the agony of defeat”, you’re dating yourself.  You’re in good company, however. Olympic Games spectatorship has evolved from grainy black-and-white to glorious panoramic digital color, but no one has encapsulated TV viewers’ perception of the experience more wonderfully than ABC’s vintage “Wide World of Sports” slogan.

When the first broadcast event–ski jumping–airs on February 12, my DVR will capture it for me.  That and other wintery, photogenic activities offer scenarios in which to imagine myself performing feats not within the “possible” range, since remaining upright on a treadmill pushes the upper limit of my coordination.  When checking the online events calendar, I can resist opportunities to purchase a relay torch replica or collect all four limited edition Coke cans.  But what I would enjoy seeing on www.vancouver2010 is a suggestion for readers like me who hope to catch all the best competitions and still manage some quality time with books. 

Here’s one possibility: short story collections.  I am a fan of this genre at any time of the year but especially appreciate being able to fit a complete story in at the end of a sports footage-laden evening.  Sometimes, I choose a selection to fill in the intervals presented by less thrilling events.  I can read one or two stories during lunch and virtuously settle in front of the tube for hours of figure skating that night, secure in the knowledge that I’ve forestalled brain rot for yet another day.  

The short-story/screen combination has also succeeded in another sort of venture.  Did you know that these acclaimed movies were inspired by short stories:  Brokeback Mountain, The Shawshank Redemption (the story was “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”), and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The random sampling of short story editions below could enable you to stay in literary trim without missing a single goal or triple jump. 

New/contemporary:  Kevin Brockmeier’s The View from the Seventh Layer; Wells Towers’ Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned; Amy Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out

Collections by one favorite author:  The Vampire Stories: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Collected Stories of Louis L’Amour; Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg; Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Works

Classics or Modern Classics:   Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery; James Thurber’s Further Fables for our Time

Anthologies:  Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing; The Best American Mystery Stories; Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops; New Stories from the South

Our stormy relationship: it’s over

We knew it couldn’t last.  A library and its community-wide reading choice eventually have to part ways.  Isaac’s Storm: a Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History is a thing of the past.  I’m on the Round Rock Reads! committee and will admit that we have a roving eye; we’ll soon be seeking a relationship with another exceptional book.

But this was fun while it lasted.  Last night’s final Isaac’s Storm program was a hit with the audience, which numbered over sixty.  KEYE meteorologist Troy Kimmel’s appearance highlighted the evening, and just about everyone stayed on to view the History Channel documentary Great Disasters: Galveston Hurricane 1900: Isaac’s Storm.

I was intrigued (not to mention entertained) by Mr. Kimmel’s overview of some milestones in storm forecasting, along with user-friendly explanations of key hurricane concepts, e.g., “storm surge”.  I also appreciated his sharing passages from an account of the Galveston hurricane; it was published shortly after the disaster. 

The audience proved to be worthy company, as well, and not just because they shared my preferences for film-watching treats:  popcorn and ice cream.  Some obviously well-read attendees asked insightful questions that were expertly fielded by our Meteorologist for the Evening. 

Yes, the program was great, and so was the book.  And we have more than memories to document the fourth annual Round Rock Reads!.  The 1900 Storm Photo Exhibit on loan from the Galveston County Historical Museum continues on display in the library for the entire month of January.  Also, the Round Rock Reads! Nominees Book Club will be discussing Nick Arvin’s Articles of War in February and W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams) in March. 

So–no regrets on the library’s part.  We’ll find another book to love.  Do you have suggestions?  Why not send us a comment? 

And now, a word from the football game…

Super Bowl XLIV doesn’t happen until February this year, but it already registers on the household radar screen.  My husband, an old school Cowboys fan, entertains the dare-I-hope possibility that this really might be Dallas’ year.  My thoughts center on more practical matters, such as not touching the lucky team logo mug.  Someone else can transfer it from dishwasher to cupboard until after February 7.  Should I drop this symbolic item (and my track record is not good), Dallas will lose, and I’ll feel responsible. 

Several volumes and websites could store what I haven’t learned about football, yet I am not deterred from enjoying the game.  Done correctly, Super Bowl spectatorship represents equal parts of sport, food, and advertising; I’m at least more conversant on the latter two. 

Enlightenment about all three abounds in the library.  John Eisenberg’s Cotton Bowl Days: Growing Up with Dallas and the Cowboys in the 1960s, published a few years back, will delight Cowboys aficionados, particularly those who recall the team’s inception and who miss seeing the gentleman in the trademark hat and suit.  Viewers who relish creating, consuming, or thinking about game day cuisine might appreciate these: Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home, The Tailgater’s Cookbook, and (for the adventurous) The World of Street Food: Easy Quick Meals to Cook at Home.  In New Nonfiction I spotted Alton Brown’s Good Eats: The Early Years.  Its large, colorful, graphically quirky format tempted me, but I resisted checking it out so you can.

As for advertising–don’t you sometimes feel that the game is being sandwiched in among all the high-priced commercials?  Of course, some of us find that innovative promotions rival the game for entertainment value.  For the like-minded, I suggest James B. Twichell’s Twenty Ads That Shook the World: The Century’s Most Groundbreaking Advertising and How it Changed Us All.  James P. Othmer’s Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet provides an insider view of that strangely fascinating world; it’s currently on the New Nonfiction shelf.

One last advertising-themed treat:  the library has Season One of Mad Men on DVD; Season Two is on order.

Star-crossed and blindsided

Describing Romeo and Juliet’s attraction as “star-crossed” sounds romantic, but Shakespeare was just calling the situation as he saw it.  If you check the origins of the word “disaster”, you’ll find that it amounts to something like “against the stars or fate”.   

Attendees at Saturday’s Round Rock Reads! event at the La Frontera Barnes and Noble heard Mike Cox (author of Texas Disasters: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival) recount numerous instances in which fortune, chemistry, or meteorology produced catastrophic milestones in the state’s history.  Cox’s chronology dates all the way back to a lost Spanish fleet in 1554 and includes the 1900 Galveston flood, the 1916 Paris fire, the 1937 New London school explosion, and the 1953 Waco tornado, among many others.

These accounts offer the kind of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction spectacle that guarantees a riveting read.  And the incidents aren’t merely fascinating and sad.  In some cases, they are also tragic in the Shakespearean sense: a fatal flaw in character, judgment, or priorities shapes decisions contributing to the worst possible outcome.  The 1900 Galveston flood (also chronicled in this year’s Round Rock Reads! selection, Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History) presents just such an example.  True, forecasting technology back then didn’t generate the wealth of data we have today, but bureau politics and self-interest prevented the utilization of vital climatological data that was available. 

Some disasters have left a legacy of progress and innovation, e.g., the use of radar detection following the Waco tornado.  As a consequence of the New London explosion, a sulphur-scented additive now instantly signals the presence of natural gas.  And speaking of legacies, Cox notes the presence of a young reporter named Walter Cronkite at the New London site. 

I found both abovementioned books fascinating, and here’s a third title to intrigue you:  Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.  It’s not about Texas, but it is true.  I can only imagine what Shakespeare would have thought of that one.


Families! Can’t live with ’em…

Leila Meacham’s well-publicized new novel comes out later this week.  If you’ve already heard that it’s primarily set on an East Texas cotton plantation, the title may surprise you–Roses. 

Explained early on, the flowers symbolize a unique tradition among the community founders. For me, this device adds little to the story, unlike the locale and the multi-generational characters, which are inspired choices.  The fictional small town founded by the Tolivers, Dumonts, and the Warwicks, neither in the Old South nor in the West, can supply elements of both regions: social caste and frontier growth potential.  Mary Toliver (who channels Scarlett O’Hara, green eyes and all) is thus granted more scope in which to aspire and, consequently, to invoke new manifestations of the “Toliver curse”.

I am finishing (and enjoying) an Advance Reading Copy and predict that some distracting figures of speech and expressions noted there won’t appear in the final version.  San Antonio resident Meacham is at her best when narrating the interplay of relatives and old friends unwilling to trust one another, justifiably or not.  Roses’ 600+ pages and nearly century-long span have already invited comparison with The Thorn Birds, Giant, and Gone With the Wind.  

Does that juxtaposition sound accurate–or flattering?  You decide.  I’m reserving my opinion but will say that Roses calls to mind two other nicely written sagas that have worn well.  Helen Hooven Santmyers’ And Ladies of the Club memorably follows generations of small-town Ohio families from the Civil War well into the 20th century.   Jane Roberts Woods’ trilogy (beginning with The Train to Estelline) originates in northeast Texas.  The novels chronicle Lucinda Richards’ life for two decades–a span of years that forges her character and documents the changing nature of Texas, as well.  As in Roses, we learn that East Texas women named Lucy should not be taken lightly!