Year: 2013

My kingdom for a repair estimate

If a significant artifact on the order of Richard III’s skeleton is ever unearthed around here, I like to believe that the find wouldn’t instigate an internationally publicized squabble between, say, Round Rock and Pflugerville. Emotions run high when honor and tourism are at stake. Couldn’t Leicester and York both benefit from returning the remains to York for burial?  Leicester could focus on a visitor center chronicling the dig and discovery; York could promote the burial site: traffic neatly distributed, two revenue-generating gift shops.

In truth, the controversy does appear to center on finer feelings of loyalty and respect for the dead.  York gets my vote.  The king had established happier connections there–childhood spent in the region, visits to the city, etc.–whereas Leicester signifies the venue to which his corpse was carted, post-battle, to be hastily stowed for eternity in a grave too short to accommodate his height.

Analyzing remains of Richard IIIOne could argue that if Richard III deserved half the notoriety attributed to him since his demise (no one’s actually proven that he had his nephews killed…) entombment under an eventual parking lot would be about right.  However, the king has a considerable body of defenders (and not just the Richard III Society).  Just serves to demonstrate that when one is gone, the world does indeed continue to spin.

I would give a boxful of autographed advance reading copies to have witnessed the archaeologists’ gleeful realization that the skeleton already deemed “of interest” exhibited that distinctive S-curve of the spine. It’s enough for me to imagine that Best Moment Ever — and to speculate which books in our library’s collection might be just the thing for others fascinated by their amazing feat of retrieval.

These novels all feature archaeological discoveries in England, Scotland, or Ireland:

Haunted Ground by Erin Hart
The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley
The Island House by Posie Graeme-Evans
Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon
To Dream of the Dead by Philip Rickman
The Moon Tunnel by Jim Kelly
The Bone Garden by Kate Ellis (part of the Joe Plantagenet series, no less)

Speaking of fortunate excavations and how valuable things come to be buried: I’ve been reminded this week how that can happen with library resources.

One of our handiest databases, Auto Repair Reference Center, might escape notice simply because it’s one among many databases on offer.  Even if you’ve used it to look up service bulletins or wiring diagrams, you could miss “Labor Times,” listed (for most vehicles) near the bottom of the topics page.  If your vehicle is included, you can use that feature to learn, before you take your car in, how much time is required for the repair and approximately what it should cost.

Oh, and Janette from Youth Services alerted us yesterday about this nifty option in World Book Online: under “Specialty Sites” you can select Craft Corner for age-appropriate educational craft projects.

Maggie Smith’s Bacon number: 2

Did you know that the library’s getting a new webpage?  Watch for it this spring.  We’re already generating content ideas, including more “If you like..” features: additional reading options inspired by favorite authors or themes.  Susan from Youth Services suggested a brilliant one–recommendations for Downton Abbey addicts.  Done!

FICTION:  Habits of the House by Fay Weldon; Summerset Abbey by T.J. Brown; The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton; The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro; The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate; The House at Riverton by Kate Morton, Ashenden by Elizabeth Wilhide;  The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones, The Golden Prince by Rebecca Dean.

MUSIC CD:  Downton Abbey: the Essential Collection

NONFICTION:  Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir by Margaret Powell; The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes; Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon; The Chronicles of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes; The Perfect Summer:  England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson; English Country House Interiors by Jeremy Munson; The Mitfords:  Letters between Six Sisters

DVD:  The House of Eliott series; both Upstairs, Downstairs series (original and recent); Gosford Park; Jeeves & Wooster

But a funny thing happened on the way to compiling this list–sort of a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon experience, only with author Henry James.

Examples:  Cora, Countess of Grantham, qualified as a “Buccaneer” (moneyed American beauty on the hunt for an English title to propel her into the upper echelons of society).  Edith Wharton, who authored The Buccaneers, was a good friend and literary colleague of James and even campaigned for him to win the Nobel Prize.  DA notables Dan Stevens and Michele Dockery appeared in a UK filming of James’ haunting The Turn of the Screw.  Dan Stevens currently stars (with Jessica Chastain) on Broadway in The Heiress, adapted from James’ Washington Square.

Remember (regarding Edith’s letter to the Times editor) the dinner-table allusion that “one of the Churchills” had ventured into journalism?  Well, among numerous other celebrities of the age, Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph, (AKA Mrs. George Cornwallis-West at that time) consulted James regarding the profitability of lecture tours.

Elements of DA that resonate with American viewers–class distinctions giving way;  clashing American and European mores (American energy and spirit vs. hidebound tradition); social complexities, not to mention elegant living and circulating among the “best” circles–characterize HJ’s work, too.

James’ hallmark, psychological realism, may not be the primary draw for DA aficionados.  But if you’re engaged by the developing thread of the Earl’s misfires in paternal influence or Isobel’s awkward forays into social activisim (especially if you enjoy speculating on her motives) you might be a James reader and not know it.

If you could only try one James story, make it The Beast in the JungleOther wonderful introductory options are DVDs:  The Golden Bowl (Kate Beckinsale); Wings of the Dove (Helena Bonham Carter), and The Heiress (Olivia de Havilland).  The library has two excellent fiction books–Colm Toibin’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author, Author–starring Henry James at crucial junctures in his life.

James, whose reputation and work demonstrate remarkable staying power, was quite modern in some ways:  membership in a famously dysfunctional family; cool, trendy friends (Mark Twain was a favorite correspondent); edgy writing schedule (creating serial installments for magazine publication from month to month).  He was even a recycler of sorts, significantly revising and repackaging and translating storylines from stage to page and vice versa.

You may find yourself an HJ convert.  If not, no problem.  As James observed via a character in Portrait of a Lady:  “I don’t want everyone to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did.”

Try our 2 percent solution

Could have been the caffeine:  twenty ounces of home-brewed latte consumed in a brief commute produces an adequate jolt.  But I suspect that NPR’s “2 percent” story (thank you, Neda Ulaby) was the real morning brightener.Audience laughter

Pop culture blogger Linda Holmes cited “an axiom of television comedy writing”, the expectation that certain jokes and references will likely be understood by about 2 percent of the audience.  Terms like “dislocation”, “fragmentation”, and “polarization” abound in similar discussions of contemporary American culture.

Nice to know that I’m not alone in sometimes missing references to the latest reality show phenom, YouTube record-breaker, or music industry sensation du jour.  So long as I don’t expect everyone else to fret about the trajectory of e-book vs. print circulation forecasts or discuss relative merits of Emilio’s and Anthony Ryan’s runway collections, I should get a pass for not tracking the saga of Manti Te’o’s girlfriend, right?

In a world of proliferating sensations, social channels, and apps (have you tried the Chihuly digital glass-blowing one?), we run the risk of limiting personal growth by spending too much time–especially online–ensconced with others sharing the same priorities and skill set.

Granted, once you venture beyond your comfort zone, you face a daunting array of opportunities competing for your time and loyalty. To address the learning curve for cultural literacy, you need a staff of assistants to monitor all those fronts for you–or at least a toolkit of go-to resources.

Here at the library, we have a nifty, instantly accessible solution to this very problem: library staff.

I find that American Dialect Society’s Words of the Year offers an insightful rundown of recent invention in language usage that also encapsulates significant trends.  But of course that (along with Atlantic Wire’s Books We Loved in 2012) is squarely in my English-major bailiwick.

To diversify my informational portfolio, I rely on co-workers like fellow reference staffers Geeta and Chris.  Their recommendations: tech sector sites Ars Technica and Engadget and social news sites Reddit and Alternet(Reddit’s alien icon perfectly captures that “stranger in a strange land” feeling that most of us experience with increasing frequency.)

Add to that expertise my daughter’s favorite daily update: AppsGoneFree, the app that alerts you which apps can be downloaded for free that day.

And you can still count on live, in-person advice on what to read at the Reference Desk.  Titles on my mind this morning include not shiny-new bestsellers but books read last year and still recalled fondly this year:  Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, William Landay’s Defending Jacob, Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist, Lance Weller’s Wilderness.

Finally, no mention of popular culture is complete without a nod to Angry Birds, Honey Boo Boo, or the Dos Equis guy. I don’t always reference commercials, but when I do, I plug my favorites.

Do you really want to be timeless?

Topic for the day:  Time Travel.  It’s due to Round Rock Antique Mall and the vintage necklace I bought there.  A 1950’s European accessory in an unusual color, it features beads cleverly made of Lucite; they look like glass but weigh almost nothing.

Admiring it, colleague Carolyn discerned its most salient attribute.  She observed that antiques markets and their wares “take you back in time.”  Who doesn’t occasionally speculate how your particular personality or capabilities might have fared in another epoch?

Like the Arts & Crafts table or 1880s trunk in my house, stories imagined in different periods offer the best of both worlds:  connecting to an adventurous past or even future with one foot planted in the age of central heating and Skype.   We aren’t the first culture to appreciate the empowering aura bestowed by artifacts or experiences from an alternate lifetime.

Time spiralI’m not particularly drawn to science fiction, but, like so many others, I still crave time travel accounts.  Authors who first come to mind—H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Eric Flint, Harry Turtledove—don’t have a lock on that theme, and neither does the science fiction genre.

Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol features time travel.  Romance fans have flocked to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and the first two volumes of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy.   (I wish their publishers would discover a production-enhancing time warp and get the books out faster.)  Beatriz Williams’ recent Overseas would also appeal to this audience.

Scanning the internet, you’ll see certain titles earning frequent mentions:  Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand; Selden Edward’s The Little Book  and The Lost Prince; Jack Finney’s Time and Again and From Time to Time; Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth  and Sepulchre; Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog; H.G. Wells’ The Chronic Argonauts (published before The Time Machine); Michael Crichton’s Timeline;  Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five.

Those who’ve enjoyed modern film/TV hits like Doctor Who, Groundhog Day, or Field of Dreams (from W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe) should check out Eight Best Time-Travel Flicks  for a more intense focus on that element.  Public libraries—Hennepin County; Douglas County; Multnomah County—suggest some wonderful reads in the perfect quantity:  more than a couple, fewer than Goodreads.

In Round Rock Public Library’s catalog, you can input “time travel fiction” for Subject and select “Books”, “Video—DVD”, etc.  for Type of Material to discover many titles, including new ones like Katie MacAlister’s aptly title Steamed: A Steampunk Romance and Jason Heller’s Taft 2012.  Some excellent titles might not strictly qualify as time travel but come close with “split stories” paralleling two eras:  I heartily recommend Amy Sackville’s The Still Point and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.

I wonder if H.G. Wells would approve of my latest time-bending maneuver:  DVR’ing Downton Abbey, then re-viewing to see if, this round, Sir Anthony would behave differently and not break Edith’s heart (and mine).

Moonlight in old Austin

Resolution someone should make for 2013:  solve the question of acceptable vs. inconsiderate digital multitasking.

Before the term came into being, we felt virtuous when accomplishing things simultaneously.  Haven’t we heard the stories about pioneer women sitting fireside, stirring the soup with one hand and quilting with the other–and rocking the baby’s cradle with one foot?  The other foot was presumably also doing something worthy–perhaps treadling the spinning wheel while someone else spun, sewed, and shelled peas.

More options exist for offending others now.  More of an Appliance Multitasker than a Gadget Multitasker, I’ll start up breadmaker, washer, and dryer and head out for some gardening while listening to a Playaway book.  But the minute I witness someone popping out a cell phone and texting during a live conversation, I become The Judgmental Multitasker.  It’s easy to scroll for information and disapprove at the same time.

However, multitasking books (and/or books that prompt the reader to do so) deserve gold stars–unless the reader was hoping for a restful, non-stimulating literary interlude…

Consider Steven Saylor’s A Twist at the End, the choice for a January book group.  It blends history, politics, true crime, mystery, and easily inferred social commentary.

Saylor’s protagonist is William Sydney Porter AKA O. Henry, famed author of classic short stories (“The Last Leaf“, “The Gift of the Magi“, etc.).  Prior to achieving literary fame, sometime Austin resident Porter was a ranch hand, pharmacist, quartet singer,  illustrator and cartoonist, editor of The Rolling Stone weekly, bank teller–and convicted embezzler.   (Trivia buffs take note: he’s also credited with coining the term “banana republic”).  Set in 1885 Austin, A Twist centers on the sensational Servant Girl Annihilator murders, still unsolved and credited to America’s first serial killer.  Sculptor Elisabet Ney, numerous colorful figures from the Texas legislature and the then-new Capitol building’s “Goddess of Liberty” statue also figure in.

Be warned.  You’ll be torn between turning pages and pausing to seek more historical background.  I found the framed 1895 panoramic map of Austin in my living room to be both a benefit and a distraction.  I kept trotting over to pinpoint whichever intersection or location had just been mentioned.  And, with the internet and Handbook of Texas Online so handy, why not treat myself to more details about moonlight towers, the Texas Capitol, and so forth?

You can order your own historic maps from the General Land Office (where O. Henry was employed for a time).

Note (pg. 221) the reference to Richard Harding Davis as certain to be widely read “a century from now, in 2006”.  Davis, premier correspondent of the Spanish American War, writer of fiction and Broadway plays, magazine editor, and literary influence for Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway (among others) was so dashingly handsome as to have inspired the image of the Gibson Girl’s escort.  His clean-shaven look influenced a generation of men to forego formerly stylish facial hair.  He’s even alleged to have brought the first avocado back to the States.

Had texting-while-chatting been an option back then, he’d have made it look charming.