Round Rock Reads!

Well, what did you expect?

Ikea does it again!  Their cleverly designed tier of wire document trays sitting to my left has just yielded the answer to an unavoidable question.

Amid household receipts and insurance papers awaiting pre-income tax filing, I dredged up a snapshot of a popular book display from years ago.  This feature, titled “Promises, Promises”, consisted of dozens of too-good-to-be-true titles.  Among the ones I can decipher from the photo are Inventing Made Easy, The Instant Gourmet, Learn Windows 98 in a Weekend, How to Win at Gambling, and so forth. 

The display succeeded then (those books were practically irresistible and checked out like crazy), and today it finally suggests a simple response to “And what do you like to read?” 

Faced with that question, I usually hesitate before admitting to eclectic tastes including but not limited to debut novels, classics, literary fiction, short story collections, and “certain nonfiction books”.  Now, recalling the stash of books that likely delivered less than advertised, here’s a more articulate reply:  I prefer books that go beyond the expected.

This past weekend, the first three stories in Colm Toibin’s brand-new collection, The Empty Family, delighted me with their Jamesian themes.  One episode features Henry James himself as a character; the others remind us that James perceived early on how differences in American and European sensibilities represent competing claims on one’s loyalties.

Another winner I just finished is Penny Vincenzi’s Forbidden Places, chosen as light romantic fare.  Along with Vincenzi’s usual well-written plot convolutions, the World War II setting chronicles interesting details about Land Girls and the WRENS–and more than a bit of suspense.

And a bonus awaited me today at the joint Round Rock Reads!/Round Rock New Neighbors discussion at Barnes & Noble.  Jeff Guinn’s Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde prompted an enthusiastic sharing of insights.  However, even before the planned exchange commenced, the short list of March nominations (thanks, Jay!) was announced.  Looks like four more contenders for what I–and probably you–like to read:   

  • Nicholas, Denise:  Freshwater Road

  • Garcia, Cristina:  A Handbook to Luck

  • Cohn, Marthe:  Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany

  • Smith, Patti.  Just Kids

A case of disorganized crime

If I were a better person, I’d have completely finished Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie & Clyde in time for Tuesday’s Round Rock Reads! kickoff.  As it is, events this weekend meandered out of control in true Bonnie & Clyde fashion.

First, the process of un-holidaying my house went into overtime.  I was corralling ornaments into bins and lugging them up the attic stairs long past the allotted time.  Next, dismantling the outdoor decorations involved significant follow-up.  Things would go slightly awry, giving rise to other maintenance needs: nail holes, paint to be retouched around the door, etc. etc. etc.  Then, I yielded to the impulse of reading the one book on hand not required for book discussions.  It is neither as well-written or as edifying as Go Down Together, but the sheer defiance of starting it when I didn’t have the time was irresistible.

I’d be the perfect Bonnie & Clyde accomplice, demonstrating the very behavioral patterns that landed their photos in post offices across the nation:

  • Neglecting to factor in annoying practical considerations 

  • Repeatedly operating in reactive rather than proactive mode

  • Acting on a whim rather than investing in the long-term good

At least, I don’t share Clyde’s fondness for highway maps (I need a GPS), nor do I fancy myself a poet, as Bonnie did.  Those Rand McNally maps that we take for granted today didn’t exist before the 1920s; Clyde depended on them and tended to leave them in just about every car he stole.  And I was fascinated to learn that he and Bonnie took pride in a spiffy appearance, so much so that they would drop off their outfits for dry cleaning and then station their activity close by until they were able to reclaim their refreshed apparel.  Those are just the sort of details that Jeff Guinn infuses frequently and to great effect in his book.

Depression-era America figures as a personality in Go Down Together, as well.  Social mores, economic policies, law enforcement staffing, quirks of fate, new products, and media attention all contributed to the outcome of Bonnie and Clyde’s story.  As for the outlaws’ own considerable part in it, Guinn somehow manages to place a myriad of details and evidence at our disposal while still leaving readers the privilege of assigning blame and determining cause. 

Drop in for the Round Rock Reads! kickoff event on January 4; following the documentary film, local author Mike Cox will regale us with more intriguing facts about Bonnie & Clyde’s era.  And don’t worry if your Round Rock map has mysteriously gone missing; you can call the library for directions!

If you can’t be honest, hope you’re photogenic

If Sam Bass had resolved to change his ways on New Year’s Day back in 1878, giving up his bank- and train-robbing habit, he might have lived past his 27th birthday.  Then, Round Rock probably wouldn’t have been elected as his final destination.

 Perhaps it was already too late for Sam.  A couple of years earlier, he and a partner had gambled away the $8,000 due the owner of the cattle they’d just herded and sold.  If the raids on stagecoaches initially seemed a strategy for recouping those funds, it’s fairly clear that robbery became an end in itself and a career of sorts.  

Spotting some Sam Bass-oriented western novels on the shelf last week reminded me of the outlaw’s enduring popularity as a subject.  Deputy Alijah W. Grimes, attempting to disarm Bass and his gang, was gunned down in the process; A.W. Grimes Boulevard was named for him.  Sam Bass, the wanted desperado, inspired not only a street name but also a theatre, a baseball league, a statue at Madam Tussaud’s, several film characterizations, at least one ballad, and scores of books.   A search of the library catalog will yield several biographies and three works of fiction devoted to Bass.  Deputy Sheriff Grimes has none.

Say what you will about who deserves what, the fact is that lawbreakers fascinate us.  The only controversy regarding Deputy Grimes’ actions has to do with the practicality of challenging Bass at that precise juncture.  Just about everyone values bravery and devotion; those attributes we understand.  It’s rashness, greed, and cruelty that don’t compute so easily.  No wonder readers can’t seem to get enough of true crime stories.

And if it’s Texas-based, enigmatic, legendary bad guys you seek to comprehend, look no further than Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.  The winning selection for the 2011 Round Rock Reads! campaign, Jeff Guinn’s Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie & Clyde, sets the focus for events beginning January 4.  If you can buy, check out, or borrow a copy to read, you’ll be rewarded with a stranger-than-fiction tale of the first order.  If you haven’t finished (or even started) the book by next week, you’ll still enjoy the activities.  We hope you’ll come to one or more.  As history demonstrates, starting out the New Year right does make a difference!   

Our stormy relationship: it’s over

We knew it couldn’t last.  A library and its community-wide reading choice eventually have to part ways.  Isaac’s Storm: a Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History is a thing of the past.  I’m on the Round Rock Reads! committee and will admit that we have a roving eye; we’ll soon be seeking a relationship with another exceptional book.

But this was fun while it lasted.  Last night’s final Isaac’s Storm program was a hit with the audience, which numbered over sixty.  KEYE meteorologist Troy Kimmel’s appearance highlighted the evening, and just about everyone stayed on to view the History Channel documentary Great Disasters: Galveston Hurricane 1900: Isaac’s Storm.

I was intrigued (not to mention entertained) by Mr. Kimmel’s overview of some milestones in storm forecasting, along with user-friendly explanations of key hurricane concepts, e.g., “storm surge”.  I also appreciated his sharing passages from an account of the Galveston hurricane; it was published shortly after the disaster. 

The audience proved to be worthy company, as well, and not just because they shared my preferences for film-watching treats:  popcorn and ice cream.  Some obviously well-read attendees asked insightful questions that were expertly fielded by our Meteorologist for the Evening. 

Yes, the program was great, and so was the book.  And we have more than memories to document the fourth annual Round Rock Reads!.  The 1900 Storm Photo Exhibit on loan from the Galveston County Historical Museum continues on display in the library for the entire month of January.  Also, the Round Rock Reads! Nominees Book Club will be discussing Nick Arvin’s Articles of War in February and W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams) in March. 

So–no regrets on the library’s part.  We’ll find another book to love.  Do you have suggestions?  Why not send us a comment? 

Star-crossed and blindsided

Describing Romeo and Juliet’s attraction as “star-crossed” sounds romantic, but Shakespeare was just calling the situation as he saw it.  If you check the origins of the word “disaster”, you’ll find that it amounts to something like “against the stars or fate”.   

Attendees at Saturday’s Round Rock Reads! event at the La Frontera Barnes and Noble heard Mike Cox (author of Texas Disasters: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival) recount numerous instances in which fortune, chemistry, or meteorology produced catastrophic milestones in the state’s history.  Cox’s chronology dates all the way back to a lost Spanish fleet in 1554 and includes the 1900 Galveston flood, the 1916 Paris fire, the 1937 New London school explosion, and the 1953 Waco tornado, among many others.

These accounts offer the kind of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction spectacle that guarantees a riveting read.  And the incidents aren’t merely fascinating and sad.  In some cases, they are also tragic in the Shakespearean sense: a fatal flaw in character, judgment, or priorities shapes decisions contributing to the worst possible outcome.  The 1900 Galveston flood (also chronicled in this year’s Round Rock Reads! selection, Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History) presents just such an example.  True, forecasting technology back then didn’t generate the wealth of data we have today, but bureau politics and self-interest prevented the utilization of vital climatological data that was available. 

Some disasters have left a legacy of progress and innovation, e.g., the use of radar detection following the Waco tornado.  As a consequence of the New London explosion, a sulphur-scented additive now instantly signals the presence of natural gas.  And speaking of legacies, Cox notes the presence of a young reporter named Walter Cronkite at the New London site. 

I found both abovementioned books fascinating, and here’s a third title to intrigue you:  Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.  It’s not about Texas, but it is true.  I can only imagine what Shakespeare would have thought of that one.


Studying the T chromosome

The KUT news story about Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum’s upcoming oral/visual history project caught my attention this morning.   By way of accounting for Texans’ deep and abiding interest in their state and in its stories, the spokesperson mentioned a book that’s familiar here in Round Rock:  Tweed Scott’s Texas in Her Own Words. 

We know a good thing when we read it.  This unusual collection of why-I-love-Texas essays was voted the official Round Rock Reads! selection a couple of years ago; the blog provides further details.  Author Scott theorizes that a special element–he calls it the T chromosome–must explain why even transplanted Texans develop such intense affection for the Lone State State.

I enjoyed presenting signed copies to a couple of favorite Texans currently residing in States That Aren’t Texas.  If you’re considering this book as a potential Christmas gift or just want it for yourself, check the library catalog.  Round Rock Public Library owns multiple copies.