Readers Exchange

Views from above and below

CunardTwoErik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania will be out soon–March 10–but the reviews (e.g., “…history at its harrowing best”) have me wishing I could get my hands on an advance copy this weekend.  If you have one you’re willing to lend, there’s a batch of brownies in it for you…

Larson consistently proves his gift for avid historical research that lends compelling new insights into milestones like the 1900 Galveston hurricane (Isaac’s Storm).  His telling portrayals of individuals’ lives beforehand amplify our comprehension of the aftermath.

The centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania (Hampton Sides calls it “the other Titanic”) has prompted numerous new entries on the subject. Among them, maritime researcher Eric Sauder, noted for expertise regarding passenger ships of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has two new volumes forthcoming: The Unseen Lusitania: The Ship in Rare Illustrations (May 1) and RMS Lusitania: A History in Picture Postcards (July 1).

Poignant cover art fronting these books depicts Cunard’s proud liner steaming ahead to a fate we know too well.   A small, perfunctory item from the Imperial German Embassy published in newspapers days before the ship’s departure had cautioned that “travellers sailing in the war zone…do so at their own risk”.  We can’t know how many passengers were ignorant of the warning and how many read and dismissed it. I picture them as relaxed and happy, focused on novelty of the journey and proximity of the destination, caught utterly by surprise when the torpedo streaked toward them from below.

My latest WWI-era (fiction) read, on the other hand, depicts danger from above and residents, not voyagers, who do acutely sense danger.  The centerpiece of Esther Freud’s wonderful Mr. Mac and Me is an imagined friendship between famed artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and teenaged Thomas Maggs, son of a pub owner in a coastal village in Suffolk. (Macintosh actually did sojourn in a similar setting in 1914). Freud also memorably portrays civilians’ experiences in wartime—food shortages, hyper-awareness of outsiders and their motives, upended routines, strange new regulations—and zeppelins.

Both the village lad and the artist are out of their elements.  The sensitive, cultured “Mac” would much prefer to be in his beloved Glasgow, but the seaside venue is meant to improve his health and economize on living expenses. Because “Mac” is frequently seen wandering and examining his surroundings (he paints wildflowers), the villagers reckon he’s a spy.  Thomas’ own artistic bent, encouraged only by Mackintosh, is ignored by family and discouraged by his teacher.  Declaring his fervent wish to work as a sailor on a seagoing vessel, he is reminded that his lameness (no barrier to work around home and pub) would render him useless there.

Through Thomas’ eyes, readers share the terror of Zeppelin raids–or the mere sight of the dirigibles looming above.  Running homeward one night, Thomas hears “the roar of thunder through a cloud” and then, “there it is, the round belly of a Zeppelin, directly overhead.  The noise fills the whole sky.”  Another time, he is awakened by the engine roar; the airship crew ultimately decides not to save all their bombs for London and drops one just down the street.

To combat the distress of these seemingly constant visitations, Thomas imagines what he would invent if he had Count Zeppelin’s financial resources:  “A submarine….I picture it streaking to the defence of any ship that is in trouble, scooping the grateful men into its hold.”

If you join a request list for either of these marvelous reads, consider some of the library’s other recent World War I-related acquisitions while you’re waiting:

An Unwilling Accomplice by Charles Todd
Hope Rising by Stacy Henrie
The Canal Bridge: a Novel of Ireland, Love, and the First World War by Tom Phelan
After the War is Over by Jennifer Robson
Silence for the Dead by Simone S. James
The Meaning of Names: a Novel by Karen Gettert Shoemaker

A Higher Form of Killing : Six Weeks in World War I that Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare by Diana Preston
Behind the Lines : WWI’s Little-known Story of German Occupation, Belgian Resistance, and the Band of Yanks who Saved Billions from Starvation … by Jeffrey B. Miller
Ring of Steel : Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I  by Alexander Watson
The Unsubstantial Air : American Fliers in the First World War  by Samuel Hynes
World War I : The Definitive Visual Guide : from Sarajevo to Versailles / R.G. Grant, et. al.
A Mad Catastrophe : the Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire by Geoffrey Wawro

Better living through Friends

Why I’m not a morning person:  the tendency to awaken with sudden realization of yesterday’s missteps.

The first conscious thought the day after our Book Buzz event:  Robert–our Penguin Random House rep and speaker–hadn’t been supplied with a bottle of water and probably hadn’t been urged to partake of the appetizers and cheesecake we served.   This is no way to treat someone who drove miles to get here, provided book bags and galley copies for a crowd, and did a great job talking up forthcoming books.  But our unusual task completely preoccupied us.

When Robert arrived, the four of us were decanting platters of gourmet appetizers just delivered by the caterer.  Beholding the elegance of the hors d’ oeuvres, we joked about the rarity of the experience (and indeed of an occasion to say “hors d’ oeuvres”).  For us, fancy catering resides squarely in the Not Part of My Life category.  We devised serving patterns, juggled trays, and dispensed goodies while Robert shared publishing back stories and plot hooks with the mocktail-sipping audience.

Ultimately, the food and presentation got rave reviews–and we avoided lobbing pesto-coated mozzarella skewers onto anyone’s favorite jacket or shoes.  Knowing the hazards of food service, we invited guests to pick up their own beverages.

The advantage of using reference librarians for wait staff is that, should spillage occur, we’d know where to find the best stain removal tips.  But without Friends of the Round Rock Public Library we’d have had no such worries.  We’d also have had no refreshments.

As one library patron commented, “Children’s programs are very important–I get that.  But we grownups like to have our share of the attention, too.”  With this in mind, and given attendee swag from Penguin Random House, we shared our vision of a memorable adult event with the Friends group.  They furnished the money for the rare catering treat.

In recent years, Friends of RRPL has funded summer reading program prizes (really good ones), a staff appreciation event, hired presenters for children’s programs, extra shelving, eBooks, movie licensing fees, the popular Book Page handouts, and many other enhancements that benefit youth, tweens, teens, and adults.  Thanks to FOL, these are made available to taxpayers without additional taxpayer expense.

FOL inspects, sorts, and carts thousands of donations up to the Book Nook, an enterprise furnishing new homes for books, fabulous bargains for savvy shoppers, and proceeds to improve the user experience at the library.  How they accomplish so much so quietly is beyond me.  While their profile is understated, their impact is anything but.

Actually, that’s a great premise for the next National Novel Writing Month—imagine a super-high-profile Friends organization emanating the glamour and power of a secret society (think Da Vinci Code) or covert operation.  They’d be whispered about, even feared!  Everyone would hope to infiltrate, or—better yet–join them!  I’ve read (and certainly written) worse.

In the meantime, RRPL’s nonfictional and thankfully mild-mannered Friends group is planning some very entertaining fundraisers for next month…

Strange encounter at the library


When you think horror, think Round Rock Public Library!

Wait–that didn’t come out right.  But we do want fans of terrifying tales to know that we purchase books for them; those chillers are shelved among other fiction, which explains the absence of a “Horror” sign.  Search the library catalog with the subject “horror fiction“, and you’ll see.

Or–just ask us.  The Reference Desk can supply lots of reasons for you to become totally creeped out.  (That didn’t come out right, either.)

Recent library acquisitions in the genre include The Vines by Christopher Rice; The Deep by Nick Cutter; The Last American Vampire by Seth Grahame-Smith; River of Souls by Robert R. McCammon, Bird Box by Josh Malerman, The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero, and The Vanishing by Wendy Webb.

And consider Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library, which terrifies me far more than the average reader because I’m a librarian.  This little tale (with wonderfully quirky alternating page illustrations) vividly portrays the sort of user experience that libraries strive every day not to achieve.

The first page evokes trepidation: a boy approaches the circulation desk–guiltily, because his shoes squeak.  There he encounters a surly librarian who, affronted by this distraction from her book, slams the volume down upon the counter.  (If you see one of us engrossed in pages while working a service desk, it’s because we’re reading reviews for book selection; we know that you’re more important.  But I digress.)

The not-ready-for-customer-service-award staffer proves just the leading edge of the young customer’s ordeal.  Throughout everything, the boy charmingly retains his sense of properly-brought-up reason: he questions that the vast, labyrinthine basement to which he is directed could logically exist beneath a public library, given that “public libraries like this one were always short of money”.

Perhaps we should capitalize and promote ourselves as “basement-free!”, “staffed by non-terrifying people!” and “guaranteed not to imprison our customers!”– selling points sure to resonate with readers of Murakami’s whimsically nightmarish scenario.

Frankly, we’re always on the hunt for any point to demonstrate our relevance.  We despair over folks who haven’t visited a library in many years (maybe their shoes are squeaky) and sustain the old stereotype of book warehouses that “nobody needs anymore”.  If these folks dropped by, they’d encounter computers, youth programs brimming with children and parents, volunteer tax assistance, an art gallery, helpful live assistance to find and use resources, study rooms and carrels in use—many more options beyond print.

They wouldn’t see the free Wi-Fi that so many customers depend upon.  And actually a significant portion of the service we now provide is invisible to those just surveying the premises.  Consider thousands of customers who tap into our digital resources—available 24/7 from home or wherever–and don’t forget mobile device users who download eBooks, music, articles, etc. and communicate with us online.

And we’re part of the problem, continually marketing our convenient digital resources, reminding customers that—as much as we love to see them in person—they can access our information remotely.

…Which means that you, too, could be part of the Vast Unseen Horde of Library Users. (Perhaps that will be Murakami’s next title).  Mwahahahaha!

The buzz stops here


Have you heard about Book Buzz yet?  On February 17, our Penguin Random House library rep will be on hand to share the insider publisher scoop from New York City, forecasting popular titles for the months ahead.  PRH is sending enough “Keep Calm and Read” tote bags, advanced reading copies of forthcoming titles, and catalogs for everyone (which is why we must limit registration to 75; you can register here.)  The ARC you take home could be the next Gone Girl or Gray Mountain.

AND staff will be circulating among attendees with trays of goodies and “mocktails”.  Those nonalcoholic treats were a hit when we served them before.  It’s fun to sip colorful beverages and pretend they’re upscale concoctions at a fancy New York venue.

As long as we’re imagining– just think what diverting library programs we could expect if our favorite fictional characters were presenters.  What if one of these protagonists from recent popular fiction were the speaker for a future library event?

Matt Biggs from Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon:  The first thing you’d notice would be our guest lecturer’s disheveled appearance. However distracted, incoherent, and sleep-deprived he might appear, he’s better off than most of the population; they’re unable to sleep at all and currently shambling about in red-eyed derangement (also seeking to destroy anyone suspected of not sharing their fate).  Hmmm, before we share further insights about Mr. Biggs, I’ll just step over and check the lock on that exterior door…

Claire Frasier from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (most recent, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood):  Claire’s 20th-century medical know-how impresses–and rescues– characters in earlier centuries; her encyclopedic knowledge of herbal remedies and contributions to the Revolutionary War and other landmark events would dazzle audiences here.  One caveat:  should the persuasive Claire need to intervene in some distant era, she’ll depart for the nearest stone circle on another time-traveling mission before she’s finished her presentation–and some audience members will have acquiesced to the “loan” of their engagement rings.

Tsukuru (from Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage):  However much the audience may long to engage Tsukuru in an empathetic de-briefing of his so-called friends’ wrongful accusation and shunning, let’s not.  Instead, we should bolster his self-esteem by rapt attention to his lecture on the intricacies of train station architecture.

Sarah, the housemaid from Jo Baker’s Longbourn:   This servant’s unvarnished below-stairs reportage of the Bennet family (of Pride and Prejudice fame) will keep attendees riveted–and we will not invite the poor girl to serve the refreshments.   Gossip generated by a houseful of marriageable daughters, inheritance worries, the handsome new footman (and let’s not forget family secrets) will tide us over until the next Season Five episode of you-know-what on PBS.

Matthew Clairmont from Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy (most recent, The Book of Life):   Vampire Matthew could enlighten us on numerous topics:  many centuries’ worth of eye witnessing historic events; his close personal relationship with Christopher Marlowe; wine; stonemasonry.  But aren’t we primarily interested in just getting a good look at him?