Reader's Exchange

September 2009 - Posts

V is for...

Vampire lit is fashionable (and marketable) these days--not just Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, but all sorts of standalone titles, paranormal romance series, mysteries, and even humorous romance fiction.  A quick survey of the library catalog--I entered "vampires" in the Quick Search box--yielded 587 results.  Titles range from Christine Feehan's bestselling Dark Slayer to David Wellington's 23 Hours: A Vengeful Vampire Tale to Michelle Rowen's Tall Dark & Fangsome.

Plots run the gamut from traditional scenarios to the whimsical concept of a small-town Oklahoma vampire single dad (Michele Bardsley's Wait Til Your Vampire Gets Home).  Clearly, this theme offers something for everyone.  Amanda Grange has melded the occult trend with the Jane Austen franchise in Mr. Darcy, Vampyre.

So, what's not to like?  I should be delighted that classic cape-wearers are proving to be modern page-turners.  Instead, I'm feeling a little disillusioned.

Years ago, a former Miss America confided during a TV interview that, thirty years after her reign, she refused to even take out the trash without applying makeup, styling her hair, and donning a becoming outfit.  She didn't want to destroy the public's fantasy of the woman who could always look good!

I don't care to see a domesticated vampire any more than I hope to spy a beauty queen in a mud mask and sweatpants.  Readers may all enjoy their favorite takes on the legendary phantom, but some of those clever adaptations are bound to take the edge off the vampire's mystique.

 Do you agree?

What do you predict will be the next big trend in fictional characters? 


Readin' westerns now

Western novels don't rank high on my to-read list.  They're too reliable.  I can seek out the glamour of fiction debuts, bestsellers, etc,. knowing that Westerns (at least the ones that aren't checked out by more appreciative readers) will always be there for me.  I've largely taken for granted the traits that characterize these novels--strong narration, sense of place, elemental struggles.

But now Steve Hockensmith has roped me in as a Reader of Westerns.  Reviews of his Western/mystery series ("hilarious", "vivid images", "filled with historical atmosphere") lured me to search for the first one.  The library didn't have Holmes on the Range (nominated for an Edgar Award) but it has now been ordered and should arrive soon.  Book #2, On the Wrong Track, was checked out by a discerning library patron, so I located #3, The Black Dove

Here's the premise: It's the 1890s, and brothers Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer (alias "Old Red" and "Big Red") are vainly attempting to get themselves hired on as detectives.  They've worked as cowboys/drovers; then that gig with the Southern Pacific Railroad didn't turn out well--but that's another story.  When they are unexpectedly reunited with a mysterious--not to mention beautiful--lady from their past and their old friend Dr. Chan starts behaving peculiarly, they are obliged to employ "deducifying" skills they didn't even know they possessed.

Did I mention that Gus and Otto are avid fans of Sherlock Holmes and have personas that mirror Holmes and Watson?  The San Francisco/Chinatown setting contributes lots of local color, quirky characters, and some truly comic situations.  The most memorable feature in this enjoyable yarn is the Otto's folksy play-by-play narration.  Candid to a fault, he alternates between short-sightedness and surprising emotional sensitivity.  The contrast between his gossipy extroversion and Gus' uncommunicative reserve (obviously signifying hidden depths) enlivens the story even more than the quest for the Black Dove. 

So, I've been totin' around The Black Dove for several days now.  But I'm on my way to check it in so that you can have a turn.  Hockensmith's #4, The Crack in the Lens, was recently purchased for the library's collection, but it's checked out.  No surprise there.  


Since You Asked...

What other six books would I recommend to President Obama? 

Imagining the Leader of the Free World strolling from the Oval Office to the family residence at the end of the day, probably encumbered with treatises on the economy and briefs on world events, here's what I suggest.  These titles provide context for the current political climate but also have the capacity to nourish the President's curiosity about regional diversity and bestow moments of relaxation and enjoyment.  I can picture him reading poetry aloud to his family:

  • The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand: reminds us that ideas do have the power to change the course of history and that "intellectual" isn't a bad word
  • A biography of LBJ (Robert Dallek, Robert Caro, and Doris Kearns Goodwin have authored good ones); lessons from the life of a master politician
  • The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop: title says it all
  • The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis:  classic, very entertaining exploration of human motivation
  • Ava's Man or, All Over But the Shoutin' or The Most They Ever Had (due out in October) by Rick Bragg:  plain-spoken but powerfully eloquent prose offering insights into the Southern working man's experience
  • Sailing Alone Around the Room or another poetry collection by Billy Collins:  Humorous and warmhearted riffs on topics that are mostly everyday themes but always satisfying.  Other Poet Laureates of the United States would be excellent choices for the President and for the rest of us.

And here's a bonus selection:  If President Obama can also work in Isaac's Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson, he could join us for one of the Round Rock Reads! events.  I promise to buy a round of lattes at both Star Co. and Friar Tuck's Pantry if he does!

Reading is a capital idea

President Obama's widely reported "vacation reading list" has provoked me to wonder why there is no position for Presidential Librarian.   This office, not to be confused with management of a Presidential library, would advise the Chief Executive in selecting titles for personal reading, those most representative of social trends, economic theory, creative expression of evolving American values, and so forth.  

Imagining myself (what a surprise!) in this role, I then envisioned the following conversation:

Me: "Mr. President, may I recommend this list of six books, all of which chronicle individual experiences in pursuit of the American dream?"

President Obama (efficiently check-marking items as he peruses the titles):  "Hmmm.  Already read it.  That one, too.  Yep.  Ditto.  Wrote that one...."

So, while admitting that the First Reader appears perfectly able to discern good literature unaided, I contend that someone still has to paw through all those advance reading copies sent in by publishers, draft encouraging replies to schoolchildren who want to know if the President enjoyed Harry Potter, and assist the White House staff in mobilizing the very best summer reading campaign ever.  

Vote for me!

Balzac and the Little Book Group

If you're a book clubber, you've probably noticed this, too:  the most satisfying discussions result when some of the group didn't care for the chosen title and, in airing their grievances, point out facets the rest of us missed or perhaps even incite a spirited debate. 

Everyone who attended this week's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress event apparently liked the book, but the conversation flowed nicely despite universal approval.  As discussion leader, I claim no credit; Dai Sijie's first novel is pretty much a can't-miss selection, either for individual pleasure reading or for group consideration.  The narrative showcases the author's cinematic eye, personal experience in "re-education" during China's Cultural Revolution, and use of imagery and touches of the fairy tale and the fable to incorporate plot elements into a surprisingly compact tale.     

Nine attendees contributed insightful comments, and as the conversation progressed, I realized that the majority of the group has actually traveled in China.  Hearing others recount anecdotes from their visits and place their trips into the context of recent Chinese history added another dimension to the story. 

Relaxing around a table and sipping a latte in the comfort of Star Co.'s back room enhanced my enjoyment of the Balzac exchange.  I missed July's Three Cups of Tea event but heard compliments about Friar Tuck's Pantry, another prime location for treating oneself to snacks, beverages, and good talk about books.  Of course I love the library, but I could easily get accustomed to more off-site discussions at these great downtown Round Rock venues.