Reader's Exchange

November 2009 - Posts

Don't say we didn't warn you


Library patrons who are placing holds on popular, checked-out titles tend to comment, "I'll bet this comes in either when I don't have time to read it, or when all my other requests do."  And we both laugh, recognizing this to be prophecy, pure and simple. 

When my reserved copy of Diana Gabaldon's seventh Voyager title (An Echo in the Bone) materialized on the Holds shelf, the timing couldn't have been worse:  Thanksgiving houseguests due in a few days, pies to be baked, meals to be planned and shopped for, house to be tidied, another hefty book to be read for December discussion.  Add to this the weekly forty hours working at the library, which, I have to say, really cuts into my free time.  Can you relate?

Why not pass on this copy and re-reserve it for later?  For one thing, it would just arrive the week before Christmas and the next round of visitors and pies, but the real reason is that Gabaldon's Voyager series is most enjoyable when viewed as a challenge.  832 pages?  Bring it on. Complex plot featuring the convoluted genealogy of a Scottish clan, some of whom time-shift back and forth in a 300-year time span?  Yes, thanks!

Before Voyager, time travel was on my "don't bother" list, along with impossibly hunky romance protagonists and their impossibly spunky love interests.  Still, I picked up Dragonfly in Amber years ago when the Scottish clan element and raves of Gabaldon enthusiasts aroused my curiosity.  Now I'm a convert.  Yes, Jamie Fraser is amazingly handsome and endearing.  He and Claire, the love of his life, achieve more clever and resourceful deeds than is humanly possible, but I'm OK with that.  Observing historical events (in Echo, the Battle of Saratoga) as experienced by Frasers is oh-so-entertaining.  Gabaldon's inclusion of medical lore and pioneer craft details is adept; at times, the text almost reads like a mashup of adventure, romance, and the Foxfire books--in a good way.

So, if Claire can brew her own penicillin on a windowsill and captivate men with hair that hasn't been washed in weeks, I could work in an 800-page novel in an overscheduled week.  I did and don't regret it; sleep is overrated.  But, speaking of decisions, I am not stocking my guest room with any Gabaldon books.  I pick up nice hardback copies of popular fiction at the library book sale and stash them away for houseguests.  Anyone who starts a novel and hasn't finished by departure time may keep it.  Should my visitors get their hands on an installment of Voyager, they'll never come downstairs.  

Food for thought


We 21st-century Americans celebrate our capacity for assimilating new ideas and techniques.  We upgrade phones at the drop of a hat, endlessly tweak our Facebook pages, and investigate any number of eco-friendly home improvements.  Adapatibility, flexibility, innovation--these are our watchwords.  Just don't go switching raspberries for strawberries in Aunt Bertha's Thanksgiving jello salad, and God forbid you should try to have a festive extended-family meal without (fill in the blank with your clan's most time-honored dish)! 

During the holidays, food signifies fulfillment of two needs--affection and stability.  That's a fact, as is the realization that all those modern technologies encroach on time formerly spent planning and executing the Significant Seasonal Meal.  Each approaching Thanksgiving or Christmas finds me a little more desperate for rock-solid yet inspired culinary advice.

So, I turned to my fellow library staffers for recommendations.  What, I asked, is your #1 cookbook?  The nominees:

  • Betty Crocker Cookbook:  named multiple times, this classic offers "favorite comfort foods", instructions for novices: cuts of meat, freezing, etc, convenient looseleaf format, and lots and lots of color illustrations
  • Six Spices: A Simple Concept of Indian Cooking by Neeta Saluja: "helps you master the basics"
  • Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course:  "my cooking bible at home in England"
  • America's Test Kitchen books and DVDs:  "everything about cooking from the best appliances and cookware to improving recipes"
  • The Joy of Cooking:  "I like the older version more than the current one"; also named by more than one respondent
  • New Best Recipe:  "old favorites that have been tested for taste, texture, dependability"
  • Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food by Jessica Seinfeld
  • The Food Network website
  • The "small holiday recipe brochure--I think from Borden--that I picked up at the grocery checkout several years ago":  "I've even preserved each page in a plastic sleeve".  

As in our other pursuits, when it comes to cooking we retain our appreciation for the traditional sources as we test-drive evolving ones.  No wonder our celebrative repasts carry so much emotional weight; they are microcosms for the challenge we face in navigating a changing world while preserving our identities. 

With apologies to The Serenity Prayer, here's what guided my choice of menu items for this Thanksgiving:  courage to adapt a couple of family favorites to slightly more healthful versions, and wisdom to not monkey around with the buttermilk pie recipe. 


New York minutes

Orion/NYCJust back from my second-ever visit to New York City, I am suffering from mass-transit withdrawal and humming "Avenue Q" and "Billy Elliot" tunes.  We are blessed to have my husband's brother and sister-in-law (they'd attract hordes of visitors even if they lived somewhere uninteresting) situated just a couple of blocks from Times Square.  Not only that, they dispense kind advice on NYC navigation without making us feel like complete yokels. 

Still, I boned up on some local attractions and customs before this trip.  Checking out the usual suspects from the library--Fodor's, Insight, Blue Guide--was a good move; they effectively guided my selection of our what-to-see short list.  I've forgotten which book provided the Essential Cab Advice, but here it is because you should know:  tell cab drivers cross streets rather than addresses, and never select a cab driver who approaches you in the airport.

Sometimes, the best feature of a planned destination is the discoveries you make en route.  Propelled by rush-hour sidewalk traffic, I was seeking out a garment district address when the "Sposabella" sign caught my eye.  I'd read about it in The Curious Shopper's Guide to New York City: Inside Manhattan's Shopping Districts by Pamela Keech.  The store specializes in wedding veils and related finery, and celebrities patronize it.  Since (despite evidence to the contrary) I still consider NYC a mythical concept--not unlike flying First Class--spotting "Sposabella" and several other wonderfully specific shops that I'd first viewed in print was a treat.

Another can't-keep-to-ourselves discovery from this excursion is something you won't find in the library; it's more like a deck of cards than a book.  City Walks: New York: 50 Adventures on Foot by Martha Fay was offered in museum gift shops in NYC, but you can also purchase it at Barnes and Noble and other local bookstores.  Handy-sized cards map out walking tours for various interests and different parts of the city.  Notes on the back spotlight features you might otherwise miss. 

I recommend City Walks for your own next trip or for a traveler's gift.  I also feel compelled to plug Pete Hamill's Forever (which is available at the library) as possibly the ultimate fiction choice about New York City.  And, with photos of Central Park and the Naked Cowboy on my phone and a Mood Designer Fabrics shopping bag on my arm, I am qualified to judge, don't you think?

Studying the T chromosome

museumThe 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. 



Defining moments

card files

Reading first novels isn't just rewarding; it's practical.  Unless the author inspires a media frenzy on his/her debut, you're certain to snag a copy of that as yet undiscovered gem.  And consider the joy of recommending someone whom your friends haven't read yet.  As with dispensing choice gossip, you're enlightening an eager audience--only this time, it's a good thing!

I'd been watching for Emily Arsenault's The Broken Teaglass since pre-publication reviews appeared, especially after hearing it likened to the "clues from the archives" scenario of A.S. Byatt's Possession.  What surprised me was that as I read on, Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End more frequently invited comparison.

Here's the premise of Teaglass:  amiable twentysomething fresh from college accepts position as editor (one of many) at the Samuelson Company, "the oldest and most revered name in American dictionaries".  Protagonist/narrator Billy elicits your sympathy early on, though you'll sense a story he's not divulging yet.  Working alongside a female colleague (she's another plot thread all by herself) he discovers that Samuelson's vast citation files harbor clues to a disturbing and potentially criminal episode.

The story offers an intriguing mystery and charmingly interwoven romantic tension.  However, for me the highlight was Samuelson's workplace culture, portrayed as both typical (some "types", generational quirks) and unique (not everyone can handle lexicography as a career).  As Ferris does in his tale, Arsenault lends immediacy and humor to an unconventional workplace and those who labor in it.

The pace of the story is nearly halted at times by the odd, noir-ish notes excavated from the word files.  At times they suggest Edward Gorey's amusingly unconnected narratives or science fiction bits from Margaret Atwood's wonderful The Blind Assassin.  Characterizing The Broken Teaglass as Then We Came to the End meets Possession meets Edward Gorey meets The Blind Assassin would be fun--but not fair.  You'd want to try Arsenault's first novel on its own account.

What not to miss at the festival

What would induce someone to give up a day off to volunteer for Texas Book Festival?  Probably not the official volunteer T-shirt.  TBF uniforms feature a different classy color each year, along with, alas, the customary tubelike fit.  Those of us who fall between the intended-for-guys sizes can select one of two silhouettes: "shrink wrap" or "rectangle".  If Stacy and Clinton from What Not to Wear ever spot me in my festival knitwear, they're sure to follow up with a WNTW Volunteer Edition.

On the plus side, volunteer shirts qualify you for impressive perks.  The wearer is immediately identified with one of the nation's top literary events--instant prestige.  Even if you haven't published a novel, discovered the next new voice in fiction, or escorted a famous author around the Capitol grounds yet, your apparel proclaims that you are Part of It All.  To avoid getting an important writer lost en route to the book signing tent, I have elected not to escort. Selling logo merchandise in the tents has been fun in previous years, but this time I went for my dream job:  Capitol Monitor.

CMs basically consult their festival schedules to confirm program times; point out restrooms; check for open beverages; record attendance; and watch the doors once seating capacity has been attained.  I'm not sure which aspect of Capitol Monitoring I appreciated most.  For one thing, being a CM means that you are in the capitol, and I am a major fan of that gorgeous edifice.  Opening the House Chamber portal to let in latecomers, I turned the same doorknob that generations of legendary Texans reached for in their own comings and goings.

The "monitor" part is also rewarding, though, because CMs remain on hand throughout the program.  Thus, I witnessed former Rolling Stone writer Jancee Dunn's response to a delightful panel discussion question.  To an audience member's inquiry of which musical mega-star was the nicest, Ms. Dunn instantly named Barry White.  A chorus of "Ohhhhh, Barry White!" erupted from attendees and panelists, and the briefest of Barry White love-fests played out before the session could resume. 

Later, during Taylor Branch's Clinton Tapes program in the House Chamber, I managed to stop gaping at those vintage star-shaped chandeliers long enough to enjoy both the author's commentary and the range of Q&A topics posed by listeners.  One gentleman was two spaces too far back in the question queue; the author had to leave in order to keep his appointment at the autograph tent.  Graciously accepting that his queries would go unasked for the present, the young man told me what he'd wanted to say.  Both points were excellent, and now I'm curious about them, as well. 

House ceiling  

I need to check out Branch's new book, hoping that the answers are within--and also pencil in Texas Book Festival on my 2010 calendar.  The T-shirt is inevitable, but at least I can wear cute shoes.