Year: 2011

The advantages of being two-faced

The second day after Christmas–time for two annual post-Yule pursuits: eating cookies and confronting my holiday hypocrisy.  I have no qualms about scooping up epic post-season markdowns mere hours after The Day, yet I choose to be deeply offended by the sight of a discarded tree consigned to the curb after the same brief interval.   

So much for graceful transitions.  Faced with returning to work and gearing up for a new year after a long festive weekend, we’d do well to consider Janus’ approach.  According to Oxford Dictionaries Online, Janus (namesake for the month ahead) figured in Roman mythology as the guardian of doorways and gates and is typically shown with two faces, one looking forward and one backward. 

And I’ve just encountered two authors who neatly represent Janus’ visual field: William Dean Howells and James Hornfischer

Amid last week’s Christmas lore and holiday staff picks, I rediscovered Howell’s story, “Christmas Every Day“.  The library has a print copy, but you can read it online.  Not only will Howells’ droll tale likely echo your own views (about ending celebrations while they are still celebrative),  it samples an American literary legend whose significance would be difficult to exaggerate. 

Though Howell’s language can sound a bit dated, he was ahead of his time in terms of style, editorial influence, and fostering rising talents.  His short story “Editha”, also accessible in print and online, is one of my favorites and vividly conveys the timeless consequences of romanticizing war.

Janus would appreciate this pairing:  Howells’ forward-looking fiction of past eras and James Hornfischer’s contemporary nonfiction looking backward to history.  Naval historian and literary agent Hornfischer has published The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour;  Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors; and Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal.

Not only has Mr. Hornfischer appeared on the The History Channel and C-SPAN’s Book TV and other venues, he’ll be live and in person at the January 16, 2012 discussion meeting for the Round Rock New Neighbors book group (check out their blog).

You don’t have to be a new resident to attend this lively group, which convenes on the third Monday of each month at 1:00 P.M. at the La Frontera Barnes & Noble.  You aren’t required to possess a prior attendance record to enjoy Mr. Hornfischer’s appearance.  Group members have been invited to read any or all of Hornfischer’s titles–all available at Barnes & Noble– in order to gain maximum benefit from this exciting author event, but come anyway if you haven’t finished (or even started) your reading yet. 

Those cookies won’t last through 2011, but 2012 evidently has treats in store.

We believe Yule love these

Our family’s new holiday ritual:  If the Christmas lights are on when you pull into the driveway, proceed to the row of aging candle lights outlining the flower bed.  Twist the bulb on the fifth candle from the end.  It will come back on, which means that its neighbor will stop flickering, thus encouraging its neighbor to blink.  Should you be the one who switches on the lights, wait about an hour; then go outside and proceed…

Fortunately, I’ve found a new set of identical lights for next year.  I didn’t even consider another variety.   The current outdoor scheme suits the house perfectly and coordinates with our neighbors’ outdoor decor.  In such situations, surely it’s permissible to employ the “if it ain’t broke…” approach?  

Yet, it’s only fair to acknowledge how favorably other Christmas traditions have evolved over time.  Had our ancestors continually resisted innovation, we might still anticipate visits from a bishop (possibly accompanied by a turban-wearing sidekick) instead of a benevolent, red-suited grandfatherly type of Santa.  “Mincemeat” would still denote exactly that instead of a spicy (and potentially spiked) fruit and nut mixture.  Being granted Christmas day off work would be deemed a very special favor.  And so forth.

From our library resources on holidays, I’ve been boning up on Christmas history with these two:  Inventing Christmas: How Our Holiday Came to Be by Jock Elliott and Christmas: A Candid History by Bruce David Forbes.  I just now returned them so that you, too, can learn about surprising origins of holiday traditions, the banning of Christmas celebrations, and why we owe a debt to Washington Irving, Thomas Nast, Queen Victoria, and FDR. 

For a faster but equally rewarding read, check out the list below: all-time Christmas favorite books, selected by staffers at Round Rock Public Library.  These will delight children and adults alike.  A shiny new copy could also be the ideal gift for a host or hostess or just about anyone on your shopping list.

I’m grateful to the discerning co-workers who recommended these wonderful stories:  Andrea, Candy, Chip, Chris, Janette, Linda C., Elaine T., Mary, Pat M., Pat B., Regina, Shara, Tricia, Virginia. 

The Classics

  • The Night Before Christmas (A Visit from St. Nicholas) by Clement Clark Moore

  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

  • The Dick and Jane books learn-to-read books

  • The Bible:  especially Matthew, Luke, Isaiah

  • A  Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens

Newer treasures

  • Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera

  • Peter Claus and the Naughty List  by Lawrence David & Delphine Durand

  • Too Many Tamales  by Gary Soto

  • The Polar Express  by Chris Van Allsburg

  • Olive, the Other Reindeer  by J.otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh

  • Jan Brett books, e.g., The Wild Christmas Reindeer

  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever  by Barbara Robinson

  • Must Be Santa (based on the song) by Tim Moore

Especially appropriate for older children and adults for read-aloud:  Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo

Featuring a woodcutter theme:  The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski and Elijah’s Angel : A Story for Chanukah and Christmas by Michael J. Rosen

Serving up an extra bit of whimsy and humor:  The Night before Christmas, in Texas, That Is by Leon A. Harris and The Lump of Coal  by Lemony Snicket

Mary had a little stereotype

At our house, It’s a Wonderful Life is only the third most popular Christmas movie, after the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol and Love Actually.  It’s a very solid #3, though, and we happily anticipate the 2011 viewing.  My husband and daughter never miss an opportunity to laugh and point in my direction during a certain incident.

You know the scene: it’s been established that, because George Bailey was not born, his destined wife Mary obviously would have been denied any other other chance at marriage (despite the fact that she is charming, intelligent, and beautiful).  Therefore, after the makeup crew has done its best to render Donna Reed ugly and pathetic, we are presented with the most dread-inspiring fate imaginable (even worse than being single) for any woman.  Mary has become a–gasp of horror–librarian !  Noooooooo!

Not surprisingly, we female librarians prefer the cinematic role models of Katharine Hepburn (Desk Set) or Parker Posey (Party Girl).  Marian the Librarian in The Music Man has an enviable wardrobe, a fabulous voice, and a whole lotta spunk, but she doesn’t appear to enjoy her work, does she?

Of course, since then we’ve profited from a variety of dynamic representations, including blogs like LibrarianinBlack and Days and Nights of the Lipstick Librarian.

Fictional characters now avoid the stern and the hapless, as well.  Jess Lourey’s character Mira James is a part-time librarian and part-time reporter; Richelle Mead and Michele Bardsley have created vampire librarian characters.   Speaking for myself, I believe we’d rather be associated with a paranormal type than a pitiful one.

It’s a Wonderful Life has aged remarkably well given that some other foundational tropes have, like the concept of library careers for unmarriagables, gone out of style.  You could view Mr. Potter, the misanthropic financier, as a case in point.  Meryl Streep’s turn as the evil magazine editor in the movie based on Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada demonstrates that nowadays fashion and women can challenge banking and men for power-grabbing any time.

As for the seediness of boarding houses as portrayed in Clarence’s what-if scenario, it’s been supplanted by the entertaining bed & breakfast scene in series like those written by Mary Daheim
 And what about the notion that the college degree so envied by George Bailey guarantees a significant post-graduation job offer and future success in life?  Books like Boomerang Kids:  A Revealing Look at Why So Many of Our Children Are Failing on Their Own, and How Parents Can Help, along with a plethora of fiction featuring educated slackers, can dispel that expectation once and for all.

Of course, it’s only fair to mention that two themes–angelic intervention and the romantic power of the high school reunion party–have definitely retained their fascination for readers and moviegoers over the decades. 

And Mary’s librarian chapeau?  It would be the height of fashion right now.

…And a squirrel in a live oak tree

I have elected not to heed the holiday gift suggestions from major advertisers (i.e., buy everyone on your shopping list a car, big-screen TV, or smartphone.) 

But here’s a prime reading tip for you or for a guest who arrives at your house having already finished all his/her bestsellers while languishing in airports.  Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves is a wonderful find.  Penney’s forthcoming The Invisible Ones is due out in January.  When reviewers find an author’s second novel “mesmerizing” but still harken fondly back to the first novel, you know you have to get your hands on the earlier one–now.

The Tenderness of Wolves–Costa Award winner for 2006–represents wide appeal: a crime to solve, a historical, adventurous setting (1867 in Canada’s Northern Territory); and the sort of accomplished prose and characterization that prompts you to pester your true love with “let me just read you a couple of lines.”

And speaking of your true love, please consider my local interpretation of a classic holiday song.  For each traditional gift, I spotted a modern equivalent in our library catalog.  The Twelve Days of Christmas don’t begin until December 25, but don’t wait to come by or log on to enjoy your library:   

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Twelve drummers drumming
CD: Global Drum Project

Eleven pipers piping
Nonfiction book:  Highlander: The History of the Legendary Highland Soldier (or, Ultimate Guide to Plumbing: Complete Projects for the Home)

Ten lords a-leaping
DVD:  BBC Series The Tudors

Nine ladies dancing
Nonfiction book:  American Rose…The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee

Eight maids a-milking
Fiction book:  Moo: A Novel by Jane Smiley

Seven swans a-swimming
Fiction book or CD audio:  The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Six geese a-laying
Children’s book: Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children

Five golden rings
Nonfiction:  The Green Bride Guide: How to Create an Earth-Friendly Wedding on any Budget

Four calling birds
Children’s book:  Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus

Three French hens
Nonfiction:  Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes

Two turtle doves
Fiction book:  Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

And a partridge in a pear tree
Library database:  Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia

Writing for amateurs, bowling for vampires

Should I go with the classic “You like me, you really like me!” or the even more classic “Thank you, thank you very much”?  Of course, my novel will deservedly never see the light of day, so my National Book Award acceptance speech is not a major concern.  (However, if I ever need a book jacket photo it’ll be black and white and include my Scottie dogs).  

I’m nevertheless thrilled to have reached the 50,000 word goal for National Novel Writing Month–three days early.  I was spurred on to completion by the artistically motivated realization that the Christmas lights won’t put themselves up.

Responding to my description of the story line, a couple of colleagues have said, “That really does sound like an interesting premise” and “I’d read that book!”  All of which proves an important point: I have wonderful colleagues.  But I already knew that.

Here’s what I did learn:  apparently journal-keeping really is as vital as all those professional writers have claimed.   I never progressed beyond good intentions to start a writer’s journal and realized in the course of creating my novel–many times–how useful a collection of impressions and details could have proven to be.   

I did, however, collect enough thoughts about the novel-in-a-month scheme to compose several new slogans for NaNoWriMo; these definitely reflect the ups and down of the sometimes exhilarating, occasionally despairing experience: 

  • “Sleep is overrated.”

  • “The caffeine deficient need not apply.”

  • “Just make it stop.”

That said, I’ll try NaNoWriMo again.  I enjoyed inventing characters and developed a deeper understanding of novel construction.   Also, repeat participation would bring me closer to other would-be and published authors.  The writing community can be a powerful source of support, and not just for other novelists.

This November 2011 article from Library Journal provides a great illustration from Bouchercon, the annual world mystery convention.  Teams of authors and related participants (including Charlaine Harris’ Bowling for Vampires team) competed and auctioned their autographed shirts to raise $29,000 for a local library foundation. 

The authors’ good works didn’t end there.   Attendees voted on and presented the annual Anthony Awards for mystery writing; check out the 2011 winners here.   If you’re on the lookout for the very best new mysteries, bear in mind that awards highlight up-and-comers along with established stars, so readers will also get great leads by consulting the Shamus and Macavity Awards lists.   Finally, for a comprehensive overview of the mystery genre, don’t miss Anthony Award winner (for best website/blog)

My own valuable prizes include a colorful certificate proclaiming me to be a “Winner” in NaNoWriMo 2011–and an opportunity to catch up on my sleep. 

Book groups are like snake oil

Both sound tempting and address issues other than the one you intended.

Of course, snake oil only answers the question of what to do with a portion of your money.  The right book club can update you as efficiently as the internet (but with no ads and no Kardashian stories).

As menu planner/cook/host for a November book club meeting, I was grateful that the assigned book featured so many food options: brunch, country club snacks, hamburger combo, Midwestern comfort foods, even Indian pudding.  I’d always wanted to try that; if you’re curious as well (Is a long-baked blend of milk, molasses, and cornmeal as great as it’s been cracked up to be?) here’s a hint.  Serve this dessert with ice cream; those who don’t love it can claim that they filled up on the topping.  At least I thought it was tasty.

You’d have to read the book–William McPherson’s Testing the Current–to understand how the centerpiece (large hurricane globe filled with Beanie Babies) illustrated one of the novel’s metaphors and elicited a chortle from the group.

And you should read it, particularly if you favor nostalgic glimpses into bygone eras; autobiographical detail and humor figure prominently, too.  I recently described it to someone as Red Sky at Morning meets Proust.  That was intended as a compliment all around.  Sadly, Testing the Current is out of print; it’s available via interlibrary loan and worth the wait.

Actually, not everyone in the group approved this choice, but disagreement always generates a livelier discussion.  Yet even for those who prefer another writing style, Testing obviously drew out many connections to individual personal experience.

That’s really what book groups are about.  Those who attend regularly discover that such involvement enhances their connections in general:

  • Everyone in our group has either renovated a kitchen or built a house in the past few years.  Thus, we’ve viewed multiple “reveals”, not to mention gotten the lowdown on tile vs. laminate.

  • Book clubbers also tend to be indie film fans; you can hear live reviews from people you trust.

  • Previously read titles promote great follow-ups.  Because one of our recent titles was a biography of Gertrude Bell, someone just emailed me the news that Angelina Jolie has signed on to play Bell in the planned biopic.

  • With an assigned book on your radar screen, you focus your information intake; our next one is Julian Barnes’ Talking It OverBarnes just published The Sense of an Ending, and I won’t have been the only one who made a point of catching his NPR interview, knowing that other groupies would be listening.  That kind of peer pressure is good.

  • But it’s still OK not to finish your Indian pudding.

All the good ones are taken

And what’s worse, the most popular and compelling ones have been matched up numerous times with others who are more glamorous and successful, so what hope is there for me?

I’m referring to fiction plots, naturally.  You’ve probably heard the argument that only seven plots can describe the entire spectrum of fiction/storytelling–unless it’s three or twenty or thirty-six plots, depending upon your source.  Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories theorizes that these scenarios can account for the entire world of stories throughout the centuries:

  1. Overcoming the monster

  2. Rags to riches

  3. The guest

  4. Voyage and return

  5. Comedy

  6. Tragedy

  7. Rebirth

    Of course, once you undertake to categorize the tales humans tell, you’re also obliged to justify why we need to invent them in the first place, not to mention explaining how these archetypes have evolved in conjunction with their historical contexts.  And Booker does all of that.  At least, that’s what the critics have said.  I personally don’t have time to peruse Seven Basic Plots or indeed anything else this month.

    No, I’ll return the Booker volume to the shelf so that you may enjoy it.  I will nobly forge ahead with my resolve to finish that 50,000-word novel by November 30.  I have miraculously stayed on pace and so have reached 24,154 words. 

    What has delighted me in this second week of the National Novel Writing Month challenge is how much I enjoy writing dialogue.  I’m not a big talker.  Terrible in social situations that call for mingling and chatting, I can somehow produce characters who converse incidentally and fearlessly about all manner of things on cue.    The lesson here is that I should have been born fictional.

    The other lesson is that plotting is every bit as daunting as you’d imagine.  Latching on to some first-try advice from experienced novelists, I decided to (a) borrow from a proven structure and (b) exploit settings/ situations in which I am well versed. Thus, you won’t be shocked to learn that a library is featured on more than a few pages.

    The plot so far features elements inspired by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl, and the Jim Carrey movie The Mask.  And if you think that mashup sounds unlikely, I may as well mention that one of the characters is not a person but a thing—an antique item. 

    When I’m recruiting minor characters, I recall my good fortune to have grown up in a small town:  lots of wonderful Characters (capital “C” intentional) there, in a good way.  Still, I endeavor to merely use them as starting points to extrapolate other wonderful beings.  And don’t worry: the names have been changed to protect the interesting.

An immovable feast

At the library, we’re accustomed to folks looking less confused after we provide an answer.  Last Wednesday, however, our response seemed to generate more questions. 

We’d publicized our annual City employees’ lunch in the usual ways, but a number of customers were still caught off guard.  “You’re closing in the middle of the day why?” was heard several times as we made the rounds of internet stations and study rooms.   Assuring everyone that we’d resume operations at 1:30, we explained that we had a lunch date with all the other City employees. 

Called Spirit Lunch, this once-a-year mass meal has happened for, I’m told, over thirty years, dating back to a simpler time when all the City employees could fit under a park pavilion.  Well, the spirit of camaraderie lives on; it’s just more organized.  Choosing the venue is simple, as Clay Madsen Recreation Center is the only affordable location that can shelter hundreds of City workers.

The buffet meal is catered now (imagine organizing, heating, and serving hundreds of random pot luck offerings).  The Spirit Lunch committee always manages to come through with a tasty meal on their budget.  Granted, it’s not as fancy as dinners I recall from my days in for-profit employ. 

But Spirit Lunch is only nominally about the food, anyway.  Just one time every 365 days, workers from Parks and Recreation, Administration, Communications, and all the other City divisions can associate faces with the names they’ve seen on emails and work orders.  

As a Round Rock taxpayer and employee, I have two opportunities to take my co-workers for granted.  When customer service is a priority, as it is for the City, usually things get done smoothly and without much fuss.  At least, that’s what we hope for.  But when we’re sitting across from each other having barbecue, we’re reminded that real individuals doing hundreds of tasks keep the water flowing and the streets navigable and the website timely.  In terms of motivation and example, Spirit Lunch proves a worthy use of our time.

And speaking of proof: I have concrete evidence that I’ll always need a day job.  For my first week of participation in National Novel Writing Month, I have achieved the goal so far–11,965 words. 

The quality of the plot–pedestrian at best (with no discernible “arc” yet)–is what I expected.  Here’s the surprise:  characters actually do, as many professional authors have claimed, sort of materialize as you write.  More than one noted writer has asserted that they simply “walk onto the page”. 

In my case, they are more apt to stumble over the threshold or perhaps be dragged in by another character, but I’m still awfully glad they showed up.

You can never have too much candy–or knowledge

I awoke today in a state of terror, which, given that it’s October 31, sounds appropriate.

Potential visitation by hordes of zombies, ghouls, and sparkly princesses doesn’t frighten me.  (Running of out treats would be ghastly, but I always overstock.)  No, it’s National Novel Writing Month–starting tomorrow–that gives me the fantods.

I said I’d participate and I will; I even have a plot, more or less.   My hope is that, after ingesting vats of caffeine, I’ll be miraculously swept along on a surge of inspiration and somehow crank out the required 50,000 words by the end of the month.   However, as any writer knows, nothing generates panic like an empty to-be-completed screen or pristine sheet of paper, especially when it’s accessorized with a deadline.  

Today, the last day before NaNoWriMo,  I’m preoccupied with not tripping up the library stairs or snagging the trailing hem of my Halloween costume on the wheels of office chairs.  Re-using the elaborate gown that I made for my daughter’s Renaissance festival visit seemed like such a practical idea, too.  Imagine wearing this sort of thing back in the day, ascending slippery castle steps or navigating around open fires.  Truly horrifying.   

But modern navigation offers spine-tingling moments, too.

One morning last week, I was heading east into downtown on 620 when I detected a siren approaching from behind.   Several of us immediately pulled over as far right as we could and stopped.  A number of others did not; in fact, a few drivers accelerated directly in front of the ambulance, presumably to gain position in the traffic queue.  Those who simply proceeded as usual may not have heard due to radio volume, phones, etc.

We were lucky: no collision transpired, and the ambulance wove past without incident.  But afterward, I panicked a bit, wondering whether I had in fact made the wrong move.  Given the number of drivers not moving right and stopping, I began to question whether this was actually the correct practice.   

A couple of internet searches led me to the Texas Transportation Code online, specifically Sec. 545.156: Vehicle Approached by Authorized Emergency Vehicle.  Resources like Findlaw, the Texas Department of Public Safety (did you know that the driver’s handbooks are online?),, and the Round Rock Public Library’s Government and Legal databases can be quickly accessed.  They furnish a reliable knowledge base for everyday questions like this one.

And, if your legal concerns are city-oriented, it’s nice to know that Round Rock’s Code of Ordinances is handily online and updated on a monthly basis.  That’s one more issue not to worry about.   Now, if the City could only do something about those 175 blank pages…

What’s highly visible but transparent?

Browning lawns, fuel price locators, and political debates are signs of the times.  I encountered another one last Friday.   

Registering for the district Texas Library Association meeting in Georgetown, I was startled to spy many, many empty chairs–and I’d arrived just in the nick of time.  Skimpy attendance, as it happens, didn’t denote lack of interest in the organization or new advances in librarianship.  Practical considerations had intervened:  tight staffing due to increased customer traffic and budget cuts, reduced travel funds, and competing responsibilities.  Last-minute issues also factored in.  One librarian slated to present a report had to cancel; even the minimal staffing level for her library couldn’t be met with two employees out ill.  

Fortunately, my drive cost very little.  I could even make it back to the reference desk for afternoon duty so could attend the morning half of the meeting. 

And a worthwhile gathering it was, too.  TLA is already envisioning resourceful strategies (including “virtual library districts”) so that librarians aren’t obliged to choose between serving the immediate customer and enhancing their skills to assist all our customers more knowledgably. 

I would have hated to miss the morning’s first presentation.  This eye-opener came from none other than the State Comptroller’s Office.   If you think that “comptroller” sounds either quaint or vague (or possibly both), don’t let the moniker fool you.   This agency offers informational resources you don’t want to be without.   Did you know:

  • One in four Texans has unclaimed property (funds, not real estate)?

  • The Comptroller’s office handles all purchasing for the State of Texas?

  • You can generate customized reports with Texas EDGE and track key economic indicators with TexasAhead?

  • You can learn more about green building or see if you qualify for rebates?

  • Every Chance funds support training and scholarships for high-demand occupations?

Oh, and you can view every check written by every state agency to every vendor paid by the state (Where the Money Goes) or sign up to receive email alerts when new data in your tag of choice becomes available. 

We often bemoan the dearth of reliable, practical offerings on the internet–at least, that is our impression when we’re inundated by ads, personal opinions, and trivia.  Window on Texas Government is a textbook example of modern information provision that librarians love:  it’s guaranteed to relate something of interest to you, it’s updated frequently, and, like TLA, it’s engineered to adapt to less favorable times while increasing the likelihood of better ones.

A note for you local folks:  if you find your name on the Unclaimed Property list, remember: please Shop the Rock!