And the hints just keep on coming

In the run-up to Book Expo America next week, I’m doing my exhibitor homework:  assessing which autographed publications and advance reader copies would most interest Round Rock readers.

Paula Daly, I note, has Keep Your Friends Close due out in September.  Her suspenseful fiction debut, Just  What Kind of Mother are You?  has checked out briskly since we acquired it last fall.

That ARC created an awkward scenario, now comical in retrospect.   The co-worker whom I elected Reader #2–after me– was away at an outreach appearance.   Rather than wait until our schedules coincided to hand off the copy in person, I propped it on the door frame, visible to anyone passing by.

Now imagine that you arrive at your workstation to spot an offering prominently emblazoned Just What Kind of Mother…?

Fortunately, this colleague (a) has a generous sense of humor and (b) is patently not a candidate for any degree of parenting criticism. 

Not only do Daly’s titles demand our attention, they also mimic popular nonfiction themes.  We tend to deflect acquaintances’ uninvited advice, but hints and tips packaged in snazzy covers by people unknown to us are practically irresistible. 

Michael Korda’s Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999 (recommended by the RRNN/Barnes & Noble book group) documents both fiction and nonfiction, but Americans’ affinity for life-improvement strategies is clear.  And purchasing trends in nonfiction mirror evolving society: 

1910s: 
Choices scholarly by comparison to today: lots of memoir, history, poetry, biography.  Yet Better Meals for Less Money and How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day reflect modern sensibilities.

1920s: 
Notables include The Art of Thinking; Etiquette by Emily Post; Economic Consequences of the Peace by John M. Keynes. 

1930s: 
More of what we now term “self-help” emerging:  Live Alone and Like It and Orchids on Your Budget by Marjorie Hillis; You Must Relax by Edmund Jacobson; How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. 

1940s: 
Post-war, it’s no surprise that How to Stop Worrying and Start Living resonated in 1948; in 1949, two of ten bestsellers were about canasta.  Fresh green juice

1950s:  
 The desire for high-quality everyday living inspires several from Betty Crocker and Better Homes & Gardens; Look Younger, Live Longer by Gayelord Hauer; How to Live 365 Days a Year by John A. Schindler.

1960s and 1970s:
Cookbooks now focus specifically:  dessert, salad, casseroles, bread, chicken.  And then: Sex and the Single Girl, The Joy of Sex, The Hite Report, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid to Ask.  Erma Bombeck (The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank) scores multiple chart toppers.

1980s and 1990s: 
These speak for themselves:  Richard Simmons; Beverly Hills Diet; Bill Cosby; Robert Fulghum; “Your Inner Child”; Rush Limbaugh, “Juicing”, Men Are From Mars, Who Moved My Cheese.  

Finally, a few recent titles I’ve spotted that might, if left at your door, prompt examination of your co-workers’ motives:
 If I Were You
Now Look What You’ve Done
Decisive: How to Make Better Choices
Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You, and
Wear No Evil.

The art and (mad) science of summertime

On those first Tuesdays when the library opens an hour later for all-staff meeting, we’re almost never discussing what you’d think.

Literary chat would be fun, but other priorities rule the agenda.  Administering an information/access/community center–the modern library model–demands customer service updates, new resource training, community awareness presentations.

This week’s confab was special, marking our official transition into SRP Mode, best described as a state of high alert with moments of mild panic.

Michelle, our director, likens library summer reading programs to the retail world’s Christmas–a potentially game-changing season fraught with conventional expectations and opportunities to innovate.  New customers are attracted by SRPs, while current users anticipate another rewarding experience.

Hence, the flurry of questions:  Did we order enough reading rewards for children?  How will they know when they’ve qualified for one?  Will the online registration work?  What prizes will tempt grownups to complete a reading log?  Will they like this year’s mad scientist theme?

And this issue was tricky:  how can everyone enjoy summertime when some define the ideal library visit as calm and thoughtful while others express high spirits in loud tones, sometimes romping around beyond a parent’s field of vision?

Did we oversell the “second floor is the quiet floor” concept, and by directing phone calls, conversations, and general noisiness downstairs, foster the impression that first floor is “No Holds Barred” territory?

Our consensus:  it’s OK–considerate and responsible, in fact–to remind folks about library manners and the need for constant parental supervision in a highly public venue.

I work on the grownup floor and consequently admire the energy (and diplomacy!) required to manage the pleasant chaos resulting from large crowds drawn by summer performers.  Still, as part of the team coordinating the adults’ SRP, I envy the demographic perks of Youth Services’ customer base.

Just think:  children aren’t encumbered by work responsibilities; grownups devote 40 potential reading and library-visiting hours to their jobs.  Parents, mindful of the advantages of early literacy and summertime reinforcement, don’t merely encourage library visits–they deliver and accompany their offspring!

The Adult Services audience, meanwhile, gets sidetracked by pesky non-library activities like the aforementioned employment, volunteer responsibilities, home and lawn maintenance, child care, meal preparation, bringing their young to children’s programs…

Given our multitasking, responsible demographic, we appreciate each and every completed adult reading log and program attendee.

Not that grownups lack youthful tendencies.   We observe “kid in the candy store” moments when overwhelmed adults ask for reading suggestions–“just a few, please!”.  Like the youngster who much prefers the sturdy packing carton to the shiny gift, a mature reader may bypass the new hardcovers and digital resources that we’re most excited about, instead choosing a years-old paperback novel.

And grownups can put one in one’s place almost as deftly as kids do.  When a retired patron recently reported her 10-15 books per week average, I calculated my meager 1.5 for the past week (which included a book review deadline, work, houseguest).  Answering my regretful “I didn’t get through many this week”, the customer huffed, “Well, I happen to think that reading is important!”

A-twitter over e-books

Ever had an unflattering photo making the rounds on social media?  This happens to libraries, too.   A valued (and justifiably frustrated) customer tweeted an image of the library’s copy of Flowers for Algernon open to display facing pages, both thoroughly scribbled with blue ink.

Any parent would recognize the style as that of a child young enough to have believed that he/she was producing something pretty or entertaining.  We expressed our regrets to the alert library patron and tagged the record so the damaged item can be taken out of circulation and replaced when it’s returned.

These things happen.   This anecdote doesn’t just remind us what understanding customers we have; it also endorses the practicality of e-books.  The library’s digital books (Overdrive) are never late, lost, returned to the wrong library, or defaced.

On the other hand, library e-books frequently cost much more than the corresponding print editions, and some desired new titles aren’t offered for library purchase and sharing, only to individual buyers.  And, of course, so many backlist titles aren’t available in digital format.

The perfect borrowing scenario (everything available for free on demand in pristine condition in one’s preferred format) doesn’t exist. But most of us appreciate and profit from the challenge of seeking out multiple formats.  Readers who extol the convenience of collecting e-books and reading on mobile devices should certainly check out the library’s Overdrive choices.  If a particular title isn’t offered there (or is checked out and you’re in a rush), purchase from one’s favorite online vendor may be the way to go.  But remember: that title may be offered in print or audio at the library–at no cost to the borrower.

We’ve frequently chatted with customers who express delight with their e-readers–and then exit the library with an armload of print and possibly a Playaway or two.

In honor of National Poetry Month, here (with apologies to Robert Frost and his wonderful “The Road Not Taken”) is my view of cost-effective reading:  “The Savings Not Overlooked”:

New novels were praised on a site I admire
But aware that if I bought them all
My wallet would suffer, I required
Of myself a solution, library-inspired
An alternative to financial downfall.

I then recalled Overdrive with borrowing free,
Which grants unto patrons a fourteen-day turn
With no risk of late fees.  Then I could foresee
That no-cost e-reading would work handily—
No drawbacks or issues that I could discern.

But wait–for some titles, publishers may elect
To limit their access to just single buyers.
In which case it’s savvy my search to direct
Back to print where there’s frankly much more to select.
(If you read in both formats, success rates are higher.)

As for purchasing books:  if they’re masterfully penned,
Or for gifts or discussions, I’ll pay Barnes and Noble
(Or Half-Price or Book Nook) glad, in the end,
For multiple options.  What I recommend:
Exploit all resources–retail, print, and mobile.

This month: rhyme AND reason

April’s first fifteen days may represent other priorities for you, but this is National Poetry MonthThe Academy of American Poets website offers a multitude of ways to celebrate, including Poem in Your Pocket Day (4/24).

For an enjoyable and non-intimidating local occasion, consider the poetry reading at Round Rock Public Library. Co-sponsored by the Baca Center’s Great Books Discussion Group and the library, this event features readings by poets and those who appreciate them. Each participant is invited to bring his/her own work or a favorite authored by someone else, well-known or otherwise (limit five minutes per speaker).

Having attended in previous years, I long ago put this on my calendar. And I am already scouting for my contribution (which probably should not be another Billy Collins selection, just to prove my awareness of other voices).  As for the other option — presenting an original work — I annually consider and reject it for the benefit of all. This untitled composition explains why:

A poet lives inside each of us
some say; research has not proven otherwise. Unfortunate pencil

Yet.

But this line of inquiry bodes ill for me.

Confronted with the question by data-gathering types sporting lab coats and clipboards
I could only reply
(1)  Evidently not, in my case
(2)  Unless maybe one does–
unrecognizable as such
due to lack of talent
and  a wretched sense of timing.

How else to explain the amalgam of

Rumpelstiltskin
a mythic trickster
and a night-laboring elf

who ventures out of elected obscurity to engineer bizarre scenarios?

If I’m provisioned with a sparkling, quiescent page and comfortable chair
a setting meant to lure my thoughts into memorable self-revelation

this perverse force beams a defiant stare.

Elegantly miming a zipper sealing his lips, he retreats
perhaps pausing to brush the air with his clearly NOT ink-stained fingers, signaling later!

Or he may not.  Regardless, he is gone.  vanished.  useless.

Until
rested from non-exertion
he effects guest appearances on occasions
which I probably need not explain
require no creative expression and may only uncomfortably accommodate it.

He gleefully piles on evocative
precise
decorative
verbiage
in the conversational space allocated for one workmanlike noun:

to appreciate
shadows on neighbors’ roofs
newly installed gardening mulch
comparative hues of paper being considered for promotional brochures.

In tribute to such commonplace views
something compels me to to spontaneously apply metaphors where labels should adhere
thus manufacturing poetry’s unpopular distant cousin:  TMI.

What if I never again bothered to bestow
contemplative time
a serene space
writing tools
inscription-worthy surfaces
for my inner poet?

Fingertips on dust-furred tabletops
tapered twigs and an expanse of sand
a sad golf pencil and the back view of a grocery list:

only such grudging supplies
offered during hurried and inconvenient moments
would abet literary output.

Which would improve first–
quality
or timing?

Would you like a film with that?

For someone who pokes fun at shallow social networking relationships (one click and you’re a “friend”) I am awfully quick to claim comradeship with noted authors.

Without demonstrating equal talent, one can still bask in the approbation of kindred opinions.

Masterfully expressing viewpoints I share this week:  Rebecca Mead and Annabelle Gurwitch.  Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is balm for the souls of George Eliot admirers who love the notably lengthy Middlemarch, often dismissed as dry and irrelevant.  Paralleling events and impressions from her own life with those of Eliot and her characters, New Yorker writer Mead conveys the novel’s timeless appeal.  But then, I’ve always been a fan.

Gurwitch‘s new essay collection on the perils of middle age– I See You Made an Effort–has just fallen into my clutches, so I haven’t spent quality time with it yet.  Reviewers deem the edgy commentaries “rollicking” and “hilarious”.  In the library professions, aging is unfashionable these days, so I smiled to note Bob Odenkirk‘s assessment:  “a book about the worst thing a person can do in America: get older”.

Among Ms. Gurwitch’s other writing and comedic accomplishments you may recall her stint as co-host of TBS’ Dinner and a Movie a few years back–which represents a further opportunity for me to glom onto a proven concept:  why not suggest themed pairings featuring library stuff?

Some of these resources will be new to your entertainment menu:

1920s DINNER AND DVD:
Try Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, based on Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher books, with high production values and authentic vintage costumes and settings.  You can sample foods trendy in the Twenties (see Food Timeline).  Or, search Los Angeles Public Library’s Digital Menu Collection with date 192*.

THE ROCKWELL EXPERIENCE:
Read Deborah Solomon’s new American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell and enjoy (what else?) Apple Pie; here you’ll find step-by-step instructions, each stage illustrated.

WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE:
That’s what Mango Languages calls its latest feature, classic films offered in conjunction with your language lessons.

DISNEY FAVORITES:
The Saving Mr. Banks soundtrack CD set includes previously unreleased pre-demo recordings by the Sherman brothers.  According to Richard Sherman, “Tuppence a Bag”/”Feed the Birds” was Walt Disney’s favorite song.  You could pair a project with Walt’s pick: listen, then search the library’s Hobbies & Crafts Reference Center for “bird feeders”.

TWAIN’S TREATS:
Read The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff and savor some of Twain’s favorite foods.  According to Menus from History by Janet Clarkson, there were many; Twain’s list from A Tramp Abroad includes at least three iterations of bacon, fresh seafood, a spectrum of the bread/pone/biscuit family, and “all sorts of American pastry”.

TED:
Explore (book or audio CD) Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, “the ultimate guide to public speaking”; then view a TED Joy of Eating segment.

RETRO-TECH:
Input “steampunk” in the library’s Catalog Quick Search for a Steampunk fiction read.  From there, consider the definition of  “Steampunk Cuisine”, perhaps even entertaining with “Tips for a Retro-Industrial Steampunk Party”.  And there’s always RRPL’s Small Engine Reference Repair Center

Do you have a good reimagination?

Perhaps we should make TCM‘s Robert Osborne an honorary library staffer.  He enhanced a customer interaction this week.

The caller queried, “I don’t owe any fines, right?”  Extra-busy recently, she’d lost track of time and required confirmation that nothing was overdue.

Well, you know what can happen when a basketful of items are checked out and the date due sneaks by.   Little 20-cent late fees multiply–so she owed a few dollars.  (Any library insider will tell you that late fees exist only to incentivize returning so everyone can share
tax-funded materials equitably.  If all items came back on time, thus generating zero fines, we’d celebrate.  And so would everyone who’s ever been obliged to wait longer than necessary for his/her turn…)

“Not what I wanted to hear,” she admitted, “but then who could afford to buy all those things if the library didn’t have them?”

Here’s where Mr. Osborne comes in.  The customer brightened just then, remembering her brilliant acquisition from Friends of the Round Rock Public Library’s Book Nook.   She had chanced upon Osborne’s 75 Years of the Oscars: The Official History of the Academy Awards and snagged it for two dollars!  While that copy is outdated by library standards–we now offer Osborne’s 85 Years of the Oscars –that once-costly trove of photos, trivia, and insider reportage is still “sooo entertaining” for the new owner and her friends.

Traffic to the Book Nook continues to increase, due to word-of-mouth testimonials like this.  For $2 (paperbacks, $1) savvy customers walk away with items in at least good condition; some Nook donations are brand-new.   Book lovers indulge in low-cost collecting; deserving volumes get new homes.

One Book Nook customer transforms pages into eye-catching paper wreaths.

Vinyl record clockI believe it’s correct to classify her inventive art as upcycling or repurposing rather than recycling.   Oxforddictionaries.com defines upcycle as “reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of a higher quality or value than the original”.  And upcycling has its own sub-tags, e.g. ,trashion.

In the introduction to his Upcycling: Create Beautiful Things with the Stuff You Already Have, Danny Seo advocates for eco-friendly concepts utilizing materials already on hand and salvaging from thrift stores and flea markets for this “higher form of recycling”.  He should know:   his guide features tie-dye using Sharpies, robot figures made from pots and pans, and a potato chip bag mirror, for starters.

Delve into the library’s Hobbies & Crafts Reference Center with keywords upcycle* or repurpose*, and you’ll discover photos and how-to’s for designs like shelves, tables, and chairs devised from vintage suitcases; a chair fabricated from old CDs; a designer-look necklace strung from broken jewelry; a mid-century-inspired clock born of a vinyl record; and loads of other outside-the-box notions.

A sampling of more upcycling/repurposing brilliance online:

Upcycle That (founded on Earth Day 2012)
Ikea Hackers
Mother Earth News’ Reusing Things: 100 Ideas of How to Reuse Commonly Thrown Away Items
Bob Vila’s Repurposing for Creative Storage Solutions
HGTV’s 25 Ways to Use Your Old Stuff
Blogger Gail Wilson’s My Repurposed Life

Cashmere sweaters account for a surprising share of repurposing activity; cup holders, baby attire, pot holders, and bracelets represent the tip of the iceberg.

Do you fret about possessing too much of this pricey knitwear, underutilized due to slight damage or un-trendiness?    Me neither.

Self-help on many levels

We don’t operate within Downton Abbey-like social strata, and no impenetrable physical barrier (that we know of) seals off the library’s first floor from the second.  Still, top-floor reference librarians go for long stretches of time without speaking to first-floor youth librarians.
And we like them!  We just stay busy and fail to cross paths.

When our schedules eventually coincide, we share reading suggestions.  Staffers who work with grownups love a top-drawer children’s book as much as youth staff relish an accomplished adult novel.  Colleague David–he works on both floors–recommended a Bluebonnet Award winner to me last week:  The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger.  Sure, I love a great title (so this story had me at “Origami Yoda”) but of course what has impressed critics, judges, and readers about this tale is the self-empowerment achieved by a sixth grader who overcomes social ineptitude by crafting a paper Yoda puppet to dispense advice to fellow students.

Brilliant.  We may forget that everyone else finds interpersonal issues difficult, too, but a perfectly timed solution is a universally acknowledged prize.

We don’t label any particular section in the library as “SELF-HELP”.  At a bookstore, such a sign would guide you to volumes fostering higher earning power; discovery of the perfect life partner; acquisition of beneficial habits; clutter dispersal, etc.   Our library offers those, too, along with databases that cardholders can use even when the library is closed; free tax filing assistance; free digital downloads; and many other options.  Even fiction books (see above) can prove wonderfully life-enhancing.

For libraries, SELF-HELP could serve as front-door signage.

Some advice has held up admirably for centuries.  Consider Polonius’ tips on fashion investment in Hamlet:  even Tim Gunn couldn’t improve upon those.  But lessons can become outmoded or at least suffer from that perception.  Imagine basing your efforts to achieve teen social success on a 1950s popularity manual!

That’s precisely what 15-year-old Maya Van Wagenen did.  Intrigued by model Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide, Van Wagenen devised an experiment:  try out some of those Eisenhower-era tips while keeping a detailed diary of the experience.   Whatever social benefits Van Wagenen derived from the project, she can add a $300,000 book deal to the sum.  Her manuscript, now titled Popular:  Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, is due out April 15.  Even better, Cornell’s inspirational volume is also being republished that day.

No need to wait until April for newly released books offering all manner of guidance, though; here are a few titles I just spotted on the New Nonfiction shelf:

Arduino Robot Bonanza

Decoding Your Dog

Man Up: A Practical Guide to Being a Dad

Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential

200 Skills Every Cook Must Have

Timeless Chic

Smart Tribes: How Teams Become Brilliant

The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

Online, you can access expert tips–even videos–on a very timely topic.  Produced locally with Round Rock concerns in mind, Water Spot, City Water Conservation Program Coordinator Jessica Woods’ amazingly helpful blog, offers advice and strategies that none of us can afford to miss.

The ghost who got a warm reception

In Valerie Martin’s new The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, famed British author and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle is touring the United States.  Though gracious among his fans, Doyle finds every dinner, interview, lecture, or appearance to be wearyingly predictable:  the American penchant for steam heat will render him miserably warm; he will be implored to “bring back Sherlock Holmes“; he will yet again be solicited for his impressions of America.

One can sympathize; Americans’ love for cozy interior climates and Sherlock Holmes–and their self-assurance–are documented. 

Mary Celeste stampAnd so is the Mary Celeste, an actual American ship discovered intact and adrift east of the Azores in 1872 with captain, crew, and the captain’s wife and daughter missing.  The vessel’s enigmatic fate inspired an 1884 tale by Doyle titled “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement”.  Appearing in the well-regarded Cornhill magazine, the story (though not attributed to Doyle at the time) paid the author well.  Since the account plays a role in Martin’s multifaceted novel, readers, too, are handsomely rewarded.

Doyle’s melodramatic yarn is just one player in the story encompassing a tragic seafaring clan, a heartrendingly tender couple, a resolute female journalist, a long-missing diary, and a charismatic young woman seemingly mystified by her ability to receive messages from the dead. 

The ghost in the title isn’t one that haunts the vessel; it has more to do with the spirit of America at the time: the national obsession with psychic phenomena such as “mediums” who allegedly bridged communication between the living and the dead.  Both sea voyages and the 19th-century Spiritualism Movement attracted participants willing to venture beyond their elements–some merely extracting adventure from the experience, others forever losing their way.

I particularly enjoyed Martin’s description of Pleasant Lake, a sort of Spiritualist resort, complete with séances, clairvoyant physicians, magnetic healers, and spirit photographers.

Viewing artifact photos of that time, we could scoff at the obvious fakery employed to produce depictions of, say, a widower shadowed by a faint image of his wife’s “spirit”–or we could imagine how a lesser degree of sophistication combined with extreme grief could bring the possessor to find comfort in them.  Though fictional, Martin’s book reflects significant historical research and thus affords an authentic sense of this era in American history.

Some elements reflect our consciousness today.  You need only glance at a TV schedule or new book display for evidence of our fascination with the paranormal.  And as for creative attempts to portray a life beyond fact–check out all the strategically chosen, digitally altered, and idealized shots featured on Facebook profiles. 

I’m not sure what it says about me that my Facebook profile shot is a Mad Men-style cartoon of a sheath-clad, bespectacled lady clutching a coffee cup.  A friend commented, “You do know that’s not very flattering, right?”  I could only respond in the immortal words of Pigpen in A Charlie Brown Christmas: “On the contrary–I didn’t think I looked that good.”

Over there and back again

For this significant anniversary, choose when you wish to observe it.  (Don’t try this at home; a wedding date is a wedding date.)

With World War I’s centenary, the approach makes sense.  Nations entered into the conflict over time, and some locales are noted for one definitive event.  The city of Sarajevo plans its commemoration for June 21-28, 2014.  France anticipated the generally agreed-upon remembrance dates of 2014-2018 by opening a new World War I museum in 2011.  Turkey’s “Anzac Day” event–April 25, 2015–will mark 100 years since Gallipoli.

Check the Centennial Commemoration of the United States in World War I website, and you’ll find notes about the organization but no events yet (U.S. declared war in April 1917.)

Publishers mobilized their forces in advance to equip us with insightful reads.  Classics like Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front are being reissued.  Margaret McMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 appears on several recommended reading lists.

Librarian Chris, who selects  RRPL’s nonfiction history resources, suggests these recent library acquisitions:  The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in1914 by Christopher Clark; Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson; Catastrophe 1914:  Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings; The Great War: A Photographic Narrative by Mark Holborn and Hilary Roberts;  To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild; and The Last of the Doughboys: the Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War by Richard Rubin.

Among a host of intriguing World War I novels, Jennifer Robson’s Somewhere in France follows a British aristocrat who defies her family to train as an ambulance driver.  P.S. Duffy’s The Cartographer of No Man’s Land considers physical and psychological battles through the eyes of a sensitive Nova Scotia boat captain/artist.  Anita Shreve’s Stella Bain also portrays a female ambulance driver whose case of what we would now label Post Traumatic Stress Disorder evokes the war’s aftermath–horribly mutilated survivors, long-term care veteran care, early studies of “shell shock”.

Sir Michael Howard observes, “…arguably, the Great War was one of the greatest tragedies of all of them because it was so inconclusive.”  While much of the unfinished business was political, families in all echelons of society faced lifetimes bereft of husbands, fathers, sweethearts, colleagues.  Some of the most affecting Great War fiction considers postwar years 1918 into the next decade.  P.S. Duffy reflects that an understanding of the 1920s requires an appreciation for World War I:  “That hedonistic, devil-may-care, caution to the wind sense all comes from a sense of, “Well, we could all die tomorrow.”  “

Debut novelist Anna Hope’s Wake memorably spans five days in November 1920, ending with the dedication of the Cenotaph and interment of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.  Three British women unknown to one another mourn a dead son and fiancé and a shattered, mute brother. They are unaware that their lives intersect as the Warrior’s body is collected in France, ceremoniously transported to England, and laid to final rest.

The Twenties represent a tough sort of hopefulness.  Wake invokes a slang term popular among the jazz-loving young adult set; it’s intended as a compliment for anything beautiful, impressive, or admirable:  “Killing!”

A tale of two

Jennifer Lawrence and I face different challenges.

I worry about income tax filing and furry rooftop intruders at home and maxed-out Fiction shelving at work. Poor Jennifer, on the other hand, is tasked with maintaining her ever-increasing trove of award statuettes, determining which enviable film roles to accept, and choosing designer gowns that don’t elicit critics’ comparisons to Ariel’s makeshift frock in The Little Mermaid.

Here’s what we have in common:  appreciation for less conspicuous films and books.

Certainly, high-grossing productions earn their popularity for good reasons.  But the artists behind those thriving endeavors are already amply recompensed.  They don’t need me.  When I bestow my patronage on quieter, more esoteric projects or the work of newcomers, I derive satisfaction from the sense of having somehow encouraged them.

Interviewers report Ms. Lawrence’s initial reluctance to play Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, citing her love of independent film.  Lawrence’s ultimate acceptance of the role was prompted by her “fondness for strong-spirited characters”.

I imagine Jennifer would be intrigued by two resolute types I’ve lately encountered.  Ronald Frame’s recent Havisham and M.D. Waters’ Archetype (available next month) both consider the plight of a woman with potential far exceeding the prescribed behavior of her society.

But these aren’t just chick books (not that this would be a bad thing…).  Havisham invents the backstory that fans of Dickens’ Great Expectations have hankered for.   We know that Miss Havisham still wears the gown sewn for a wedding cancelled at the last minute, but haven’t we wished for more insights, speculating as to the personality of the young bride-to-be?  In Frame’s telling, young Catherine Havisham’s exposure to wider society is curtailed by parental and economic pressures.  When eventually confronted with dilemmas
native to her privileged class, she is thus lacking in precisely the social context that could have informed her decisions.  Today, with narrowly focused informational channels limiting our own view if we let them, Catherine is both a cautionary tale and an engrossing character
study.

M.D. Waters’ debut, Archetype, variously described as “speculative”, “thrilling”, “gothic”, and “dystopian”, delivers themes reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Stepford Wives.   Beautiful protagonist Emma, like Catherine, also has wedding issues:  she doesn’t
recall having a husband–or even understanding “husband” as a concept when the story opens.  You see, Emma suffered a terrible “accident” but now is daily gaining strength and comprehension, thanks to the unrelentingly attentive staff at a “hospital” where the entire floor is devoted to her care (Emma’s husband Declan is very rich and very powerful).  As the sinister quotation marks above hint, all this does not signal good fortune for Emma.  She, like Catherine, lacks access to all the facts.  So far. Just keep turning those pages…

Jennifer could tackle either of these thought-provoking roles.  Both struggle with misdirected desire, have branding” issues, and are viewed as commodities in a male-dominated society; both are alternately tantalized and tormented by memories.

Two final thoughts: First, is it just my imagination, or don’t both book covers suggest graphic representation of the author’s surname?  Second, if you’re an indie film follower like Jennifer, check out the library’s IndieFlix access online.