Year: 2012

Keeping up with the prizewinners

Following up Sunday night’s round of thank-you’s to the Academy, here’s a note of personal appreciation.  To National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen, for his entertaining essay about three of my favorite classics, published it in a favorite magazine:  I liked it; I really liked it.

Not everyone did.  After you access Franzen’s  “A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the problem of sympathy” in The New Yorker’s Feb. 20 issue via the library’s print copy or Academic Search Complete, you could find plenty of disagreement online.  Still, readers only acquainted with Wharton via the oft-assigned Ethan Frome may be compelled to pick up The House of Mirth.  (Then, see the wonderful film version starring Gillian Anderson).

Pulitzer winner The Age of Innocence could prove even more tempting.  For someone of her extremely privileged upbringing (the term “keeping up with the Joneses” is thought by many to refer to Edith Newbold Jones Wharton’s father’s clan) Wharton exhibits a sharp eye for class consciousness and a gift for delicately snarky observations.  I also recommend that movie–Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder.

But the Wharton novel you simply can’t miss is The Custom of the CountryWhen “A Rooting Interest” appeared, I’d just finished “reading” (listening to MP3 during walks) it for the third time.  I found myself nodding vigorously at Franzen’s assessment of Custom as “the earliest novel to portray an American I recognize as fully modern, the first fictional rendering of a culture to which the Kardashians…would come as no surprise.”

Custom‘s heroine (?), the dazzlingly beautiful but utterly empathy-challenged Undine Spragg, radiates such persistence (not to mention ruthlessness) in the pursuit of what she imagines to be happiness that Franzen compares her to Wile E. Coyote.  You’d be hard pressed to follow Undine’s adventures without discerning a few over-the-top or reality show vibes from an author you probably imagined to be prim and starchy.

Reinforcing Franzen’s assertion that Wharton is “a vital link” in a literary progression including, among others, Sinclair Lewis, Undine’s character embodies qualities–vitality, ingenuity, self-confidence–highly  valued in American business and political circles.  Undine fails to perceive that entitlement is a bad thing, and if she finds that she has missed a point of complexity, she faults the other party’s failure to promote his/her interests with the dedication Undine applies to her own.

Clearly, Undine can take care of herself, and does.  Yet, readers will inevitably find themselves mentally cheering her on even while aghast at her presumption.   Undine’s charm combines the single-mindedness of Scarlett O’Hara and the fish-out-of-water appeal represented by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. 

If she only had a heart…

Mad Men and Englishmen

Julian Fellowes has a lot to answer for.  Why did he introduce us to the infuriatingly indecisive Lady Mary and Matthew and convince us of Sir Richard’s capacity for revenge–let alone raise the question of who dispatched the evil Mrs. Bates–if he didn’t intend to provide a new episode of Downton Abbey every single Sunday into perpetuity?

Following last Sunday’s courtroom suspense and faux snowflake-enhanced marriage proposal, to what can we now look forward until DA3?  The answer:  MM5.

Mad Men, that is.  You still have time to watch or re-view Seasons 1-4 (available from the library) before March 25.  You should know why Pete and Peggy still exchange meaningful glances and how Don’s shoebox full of photos and locked drawer of documents shed light on his brilliantly erratic behavior.   

Also, don’t overlook the historical content, whether you’re already a Downton or Mad Men addict or a potential buyer-in.  If you’re not comfortable admitting to investment in the characters and the soap-opera storylines, you can legitimately claim appreciation for portrayals of America in the 60s and England during the trials that would forever alter its expectations and its role in the world. 

With Mad Men, however, I’m also hoping for practical advice.  Even more than the campy sets and costumes, the brainstorming sessions for ad campaigns fascinate me.   Perhaps a Season Five discussion will offer the solution to the library’s current advertising dilemma: the Database Snooze.

Here’s what we’d tell Don and Peggy: Round Rock Public Library offers cardholders free access to dozens of databases, most of them available from home.  And they’re amazing!  With Masterfile or Academic Search Complete, for example, you can find articles for your research paper or other pursuits–on a huge range of topics!   With Heritage Quest, family history researchers can search thousands of genealogical sources–24/7!  in the comfort of their own homes!

And that’s just a sample! we’d enthuse; Reference USA allows you to customize searches: all the businesses of a certain type in a specified area–city, county, zip code, etc., and even get competitor listings!  And there are children’s databases, literature, hobbies and crafts!!!

At this point, our Mad Men friends might recommend that we switch to decaf and/or ask us to clarify the problem, which obviously is not product quality.

Declining the offered cigarette, we’d explain:  It’s the name.  No matter how relevant we know the products to be or how fervently we promote them, we see patrons’ eyes begin to glaze over when they hear “database”.   “Digital resources”, “e-learning”, “electronic research”–not exciting, either.

Will Season Five inspire a new brand for our wide array of fabulous online resources?  Will we be the first library to invent a term that does justice to these wonderful tools?  Stay tuned, or sample some of this great stuff yourself.  Databases (there, I said it) will be there for you even when your favorite series goes on hiatus.

Scooping the relocation market

Call me a concerned citizen: this issue has been on my mind ever since its mention on the Colbert Report.  It touches on two subjects close to my heart: ice cream and Round Rock.

Stephen Colbert boasts of his own Ben & Jerry’s ice cream variety:  AmeriCone Dream–vanilla with fudge-covered waffle cone pieces and caramel.  Jimmy Fallon has his own blend: Late Night Snack– fair trade vanilla, fudge-covered potato chip clusters, salty caramel swirl.   Shouldn’t someone market an ice cream flavor for Round Rock?

Ben & Jerry’s, noted for delicious and witty combinations (e.g., Economic Crunch), many of which honor other influential personalities, deserves credit for a winning concept.  But shouldn’t this distinction also be conferred upon a historic place, a vibrant community affording shelter and employment to thousands?

Not that Texas doesn’t offer many other attractive locales: anyone contemplating relocation can easily utilize websites like Homefair to call up side-by-side data views for various towns.  You can select similar cities or even compare one zip code in the same city to another zip code area.  The list of factors you can survey includes educational attainment among citizens, school test scores, property values, commute times, pollution, and many other points. 

I couldn’t help noticing, however, that the “discernment and creativity quotient” is not represented.  Round Rock should score well there.  Don’t outsiders need to know that, in addition to the inducements of Dell, Ikea, a picturesque downtown, inviting parks and trails, a baseball team, and a huge stone resembling a flattened toadstool, our citizenry exhibits good taste to the point of actually packaging it?

And what better way to exemplify our zest for fun and dairy products?  With all due respect to Ben & Jerry’s, though, we’d want someone closer to home vending our signature flavor nationwide. 

Blue Bell’s Homemade Vanilla, admittedly perfect as is, would serve as the sweet foil for a quirky slate of ingredients, say cinnamon pecans and bits of Round Rock doughnuts ribboned with red pepper jelly.  We could call it Round Rock Revel.  (I suppose that another thriving suburb to the north would just go with Plano Vanilla.) 

While this concept is still theoretical, there’s plenty of time for others to lobby their favorite ice cream producers with your own distinctive combinations.  Just think of it:  Round Rocky Road, Espresso Swirl Express, Brushy Creek Brickle….

Across a crowded room

Rebound relationships are best avoided, but I think Destiny steered me into this one.

It was springtime 2011, New York City.  I’d left the convention floor of Book Expo America to lug a bunch more free prepublication books down to the mailing center.  I piled my treasures into my designated shipping box and was making for the escalator when a random glance propelled me the opposite way.

The object of my interest languished forlornly on the “free for the taking” table–that sad collection point for items that other attendees had picked up but ultimately ditched as their own containers overflowed.

The stylish 30s black-and-white Conde Nast cover art sported an intriguing title: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  I scooped it off the table and gladly afforded it space in my Round Rock-bound parcel.  That castoff copy of a first novel proved to be a favorite of the past year.

Your loss, jilter of Rules of Civility!  Thanks to you, I attained double rewards:  a top-notch novel and the satisfaction of recognizing a prize discarded by another. 

Not that Rules of Civility needs me anymore; the reviews are admirable (as evidenced in the author’s snazzy website).  It’s also a preferred choice of book groups, currently No. 14 on The List in Book Movement.

Bestsellers are wonderful in their glitzy way, but breakout books and underappreciated gems offer you the joy of discovering something fabulous before all your friends do. 

Perfect matches can lurk right under our noses in editor’s choice and reviewers’ “best of” lists.  One feature you’ll really enjoy (cover graphics for all titles!) is Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2011 spotlight; In Best Fiction, you’ll spy bestsellers like 11/22/63 and The Night Circus right alongside lesser-knowns like This Burns My Heart and We the Animals.

To fine-tune selections to your very specialized tastes, don’t miss the lists displayed on the left after you select a tab: dozens of tags including Nonfiction, Debut Fiction, Pulse-PoundersIndie Contemplative Fiction, Book Apps for the Very Youngest Readers, and much more.

Like me, you’ll know a good thing when you see it.

No applications, just send money

I was that close–nearly made it out the back door before Elaine spotted me and inquired where I was headed.

“The retirement system/457 plan seminar over at the McConico Building,” I admitted, hastening to add, “but I’m only going to learn about investments, NOT because I’m about to retire.  Even if I were old enough any time soon, I couldn’t in the foreseeable future.”  With the door swinging shut, I called back, “You know, not until I’m eighty or ninety…” 

OK, the last part was probably exaggerated; time and the economy will tell, won’t they?   But retirement systems work best for those who remain in place for many years.  As a clergy spouse who’s relocated often enough to miss out on serious benefit accumulations anywhere, I needed all the information I could get. 

And then there’s the job market.  Due to a dearth of library jobs and an abundance of clever, accomplished library school graduates in the area, even a 10- or 20-hour library opening elicits a feeding frenzy of applications.  Speculation about a not-gonna-happen retirement was best avoided altogether.

Post-seminar, I have devised a two-point plan: read up on investment strategies and start a penny jar to fund lottery ticket purchases. 

I even have pointers for your short-term planning, but thankfully they involve fiction rather than finances.  I haven’t gotten my hands on pre-publication copies of these, so file the list under “risky strategy” if you wish.  But these forthcoming books already have booksellers and reviewers talking and thus merit a heads-up:

  • Due out in June, debut novelist Suzanne Joinson’s A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar:  The publisher likens its appeal to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  Library Journal deems it “atmospheric” and “highly recommended”.

  • From Jeff Shaara, A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh will be published in late May:  Author and subject speak for themselves, right?

  • Capital by John Lanchester, expected in August:  Isn’t this an ominous (in a good way) premise?  The setting is 2008 in London, and residents on Pepys Road are all receiving postcards with the same message:  “We want what you have.” 

  • From Chuck Palahniuk, expect Invisible Monsters Remix in June:  Yes, the library has Invisible Monsters, and you may have read it.  But this edition promises new chapters and scenes, a “director’s cut.”  

  • Chrystle Fiedler’s new series featuring naturopathic remedies starts with Death Drops in February:  Will Dr. Willow McQuade find the killer?  Will readers agree with some critics who think less emphasis should go to homeopathic cures and more to the mystery itself?  Fans of cozy mysteries should investigate.

  • From Mark Haddon, The Red House should hit stores and libraries in June:  The author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime envisions an engaging contemporary family scenario.

  • Mary Kay Andrews’ Spring Fever sounds perfectly timed for June:  Always a Southern delight, Andrews is a favorite of mine.  Take this one to the beach or–on audio–add entertainment to your drive.

  • In late May, look for Alex Grecian’s The YardScotland Yard, that is–you’ll find the Yard’s first forensic pathologist on the trail of Jack the Ripper.

Where everybody knows your name

Is it right that I appreciate bad book reviews more than good ones?

By “bad”, I mean uncomplimentary assessments, not poorly written texts. Book selectors aren’t glass-half-empty folks, but we need to be pragmatists, given that library budgets can’t accommodate all forthcoming titles. We value the rare unvarnished indicators of titles less likely to please our readers.

A sample from today’s reading raises a bright red flag: “Pretension leaps from the very first page of this trivial, tepid reworking…”  The reviewer goes on to explain precisely where the flaws exist, in his/her opinion.  I’ll check with other sources before deciding; the process works. 

Author shorthand is also wonderfully useful for book buyers. Much can be said about style and quality in few words by equating a newer writer’s effect to that of a famous author. Hinting that “followers of Tom Clancy may enjoy” or that “fans of Julian Barnes are likely to appreciate” nicely encapsulates tone, pacing, theme, and so forth.

Selectors, readers, and publishers all find this device helpful. For authors, there’d be two rewards: First, finding yourself mentioned along with, say, a bestseller like Nora Roberts or a prizewinner like Jonathan Franzen; secondly, just imagine hearing that a newcomer is being compared to you!

I thought it would be fun to look up archived early reviews for some authors whom we all know.   When these household names were initially published or auditioning a new series, in whose literary footsteps did they appear destined to follow?

    • John Grisham:  His first, A Time to Kill (1989) had a small initial print run, so I searched our Novelist database for his next,The Firm (1991). From Kirkus Reviews: “Grisham does not cut as deep or furnish the occasional shining paragraph that Scott Turow does, but he writes a stripped, cliché-free page that grip and propels.”
    • Janet Evanovich:  Having initially published romances as Steffie Hall, she hit her stride with One for the Money (1994), the first Stephanie Plum title.  Not only did the series opener merit status as a New York Times Notable Book, Booklist review claimed that “…Evanovich’s writing is as smooth, clever, and laugh-aloud funny as Robert Parker at his best.”
    • Leila Meacham:  San Antonio resident Meacham made a big splash in 2010 with Roses.  Meacham’s hefty (and hugely enjoyable) family saga merited no fewer than three name-droppings in the same Publisher’s Weekly review.  Margaret Mitchell was evoked shortly after this bit:  “…may herald the overdue return of those delicious doorstop epics from such writers as Barbara Taylor Bradford and Colleen McCullough.”
    • Stuart Woods:  He’d published a number of successes, including the notable Chiefs (1981) already, so we shouldn’t be surprised that a Kirkus reviewer of New York Dead (1991), first in the Stone Barrington series, compared the author to–himself.  “Silky-smooth cop thriller”, “Woods‘s best since Under the Lake.”

Sure, some very grand awards beckon — Pulitzer, Nobel, American Book Awards, the Orange Prize, Man Booker Prize, etc. But you can’t tell me that authors don’t aspire to a very practical honor, that of having proven so popular with a bookstore chain or library audience that the institution automatically pre-orders anything you publish.

Congratulations, you’re now a Standing Order!

The case of the cold blooded co-worker

Well, if the rest of us hadn’t already known who the Favored Employee around here is, we’d figure it out this week.  One of our group has been lavished with attention–photos and videos online, a front page article in the Round Rock Leader, and parties.  We see how the public adores her and how she’s kept her figure sleek into middle age.  Why shouldn’t other City workers resent Rocksssanne?

But she’s as popular with library staffers as she is with our customers.  Twelve years into her employment with the City of Round Rock, she’s about to turn fifteen (birthday, January 20), and she’s in fine form.  The fact that nobody wants to eat lunch with her doesn’t mean a thing!

Rockssanne, the ideal choice for a library mascot, serves as a fine examplar of public relations.  She also lends the library a bit of novelty.  She even relates to our customers’ interest in animals of all kinds.   Every day, we answer questions and supply resources about domesticated creatures (Chicken Breeds and Care, Training the Hard-to-Train Dog), wildlife native to our area ( Texas Snakes: A Field Guide ), prehistoric beasts (The Kingfisher Dinosaur Encyclopedia), even insights into animals’ perceptions and behavior (Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation or Animals Make Us Human).

Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to interview Rocksssanne? And then I remembered: she is a snake, and I possess no Harry Potter-like translation skills.  If other library staffers do, they’re keeping this information to themselves.  Instead, let’s imagine how such a dialogue might have gone:

Me:  Rocksssanne, I’m honored to have this opportunity.  You’re looking great, by the way.

Rocksssanne:  Thanksssss!

Me:  I know you have many customers to entertain, so let’s just do a few quick “Inquiring minds want to know” queries, OK?   A favorite activity? 

Rocksssanne:  I always look forward to getting out of my house for a little stretch and playtime.  Jane and Andrea will hang out with me and let me explore around their desks.  Naturally, I’m interested:  each of them has a computer–with a mouse!

Me:  Your favorite color?

Rocksssanne:  I’m kind of nearsighted, and colors don’t excite me that much.  Smells, on the other hand…

Me:  Favorite food?

Rocksssane:  You don’t want to know.

Me:  Favorite movies? 

Rocksssanne:  I bet you thought I’d say Snakes on a Plane, or Python, or maybe one of the Anaconda movies.  My tastes are actually eclectic.  I also enjoy documentaries about very small mammals (sort of a Food Network for my kind).  Also, I’m fond of classics with a lot of movement and physical comedy, like The Lady EveThose animated credits are a hoot, and Barbara Stanwyck sssslithers almost as well as I do.

Why wait for the 2020s?

You’d think it was Valentine’s Day already.  I can practically see the little cartoon hearts and Cupids floating around. 

The reason:  two Christmas-gift Kindles and their newly smitten recipients in my family.  With these devices on site (neither belongs to me), our Focus Quotient has declined markedly.  Whenever the slightest lull in conversation, pet activity, or televised sports occurs, the Kindle owner instantly re-fixates on that little screen.  Every so often, my own reading, working, or thought is interrupted by a delighted exclamation–again, not from me–about some just-realized feature of the e-reader.

I’m happy for them, really I am.  But the non-Kindle world still has its own diversions.

One example is the library’s Graphic Novels collection for adult readers.  Still located on second floor, the GNs just emerged from the far side of the circulation counter to a showier location beside the New Fiction shelf at the top of the stairs.  With this shift from a “you know where to find them if you like them” venue to the new “Who knew? Try one!” locale, we’re hoping for a Kindle or Nook-like response–discovery and excitement for browsers.

Graphic Novels are for everyone, even if everyone doesn’t know this yet.  These illustrated stories represent a vast range of style and content.  More than just comic books (not that comics aren’t great) graphic novels offer long-running series, take on social issues, create fantasy worlds, and experiment with new visual techniques.  I’m a certain type of GN novel reader; I don’t care for manga or its filmed counterpart, anime.  That segment of the collection I’ll leave to the those with a proper appreciation.  On the other hand, Persepolis is a favorite.

Here is a wonderful list from Graphic Novel Reporterfull of intriguing GN possibilities.

My second non-Kindle find almost qualifies as a Graphic Novel; instead, you’ll find it in the New Fiction section.

Admirers of Nick Bantock’s lavishly illustrated Griffin and Sabine books should look for The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston.  Every single page of Scrapbook is covered with ticket stubs, magazine clippings, photographs, report cards–a museum-like array of 1920s ephemera.  With artfully arranged pages and brief typed captions, Preston reveals Frankie’s adventures (and misadventures) from 1920 through 1928.  I would love to see more books like this one.

You can follow up with Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl, Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series, or Kerry Greenwood’s  Phyrne Fisher series.  Actually, Hildegarde Dolson’s hilarious We Shook the Family Tree (out of print, sadly) features the most Frankie-like narrator–who claims that the very day she arrived in New York City, the stock market crashed. 

My guess is that Hildegarde would have liked manga but Frankie wouldn’t.  But I’m pretty sure that both would-be sophisticates, given the option, would have gladly traded their daring stashes of cigarettes and lip rouge for an e-reader.  

Entering the resolution-free zone

For all I know, the Twilight Zone marathon (original 1950s-60s iteration) on Syfy Channel could still be broadcasting.  It certainly underscored many of our household activities on New Year’s weekend.  As I stirred blackeyed peas, unhooked tree ornaments, and dragged boxes of lights back up the attic ladder, Rod Serling was all the while demonstrating his hypnotic appeal.

Who could pay complete attention to anything else–or imagine changing the channel–when William Shatner, Art Carney, Charles Bronson, Martin Landau, and a host of other acting luminaries were embroiled in time travel, eerie parallels, and paranormal hijinks, usually culminating in a “gotcha” conclusion laced with irony? 

Production values have evolved, but the cerebral creepiness of the Zone still sets a high bar for television entertainment.

It also provides a great model for self-improvement in the coming year.  Instead of composing an annual “to do” list meant to transform ourselves into other beings–organized, punctual, socially brilliant–we could behave like Twilight Zone protagonists.  Just envision creative strategies instead of a personality overhaul.

Like Serling’s heroes and heroines, we may prove amazingly resourceful in dealing with challenges that beset us.  Those characters would have used the library and internet, too, had those options only been offered:

  • Baffled by financial/investment jargon? Try courses in Investing 101: Stocks, Bonds, & Mutual Funds or Personal Finance 101: How to Manage Your Money by going to the library’s home page and enrolling in Universal Class for free.

  • Frustrated because your job provides few opportunities for exercising your creativity? Find inspiration and instructions for spare time projects in the Hobbies and Crafts Reference Center database.

  • Tired of always being the last one in your group to hear about trendy books, especially those inspiring movies coming soon to your area? Take a look at the Book Movement website and check out EarlyWord‘s “Books to Movies & TV” feature.

Don’t get me wrong:  January goal setting presents an uplifting opportunity.  It’s just been my experience that a problem-solving approach fares better than, say, unrealistic vows like permanently banishing that on-again off-again seven pounds.

And would you believe that a co-worker just walked in with a plate of double chocolate cheesecake squares?  To my credit, I don’t recall saying “yes” (at least verbally).  My hand simply reached toward it, as though I had been transported into another dimension, in which a hand could have a mind of its own and I was powerless to stop it.  It was eerie!