Reader's Exchange

March 2010 - Posts

You can't take it with you

After much debate, we finally did it. We interfiled.  The library shelved reference and other nonfiction titles together, so you can locate all the volumes on your topic without traversing two different areas.    Reference (non-circulating books) display purple stickers on their spines.  Recognizing this label is your cue to take notes or perhaps photocopy a few passages, since that book won't be accompanying you home.

Sensational headlineWe still hear an occasional "Awwwww!" when someone didn't spot the purple tag and was all set to check out that marvelous find.  Boy, do we understand.   Though generally designed for lookups rather than lengthy reading, reference books offer a focus, depth, or sheer array of data that instantly fascinates.  A fiction fan, I am still halted in my tracks when I encounter a purple-stickered nonfiction number brimming with trivia or number-crunching on a favorite topic. 

I can't ditch the reference desk to spend an hour engrossed in my latest discovery--but you could.   For some relaxing infotainment, I recommend picking up a fancy coffee or tea from one of the Main Street establishments (with lids, beverages are OK in the library) and paging through something like these: 

  • Modern Scandals. Three volumes (coverage from 1904-2008) reporting bribery, suicide, the original Ponzi scheme, archaeological hoaxes, Mae West, Hollywood goings-on, governmental missteps-most everything from Elinor Glyn to Eliot Spitzer.
  • Global Perspectives on the United States. Like an international relations Cliffs Notes, these two volumes address brain freeze inspired by ever-changing country names and alliances. The "Statistical Snapshots" brief you on each country's demographics and economic data; main entries outline the nation's history of dealings with the US.
  • Women in the Middle Ages. Along with significant individuals (Margaret Beaufort, Venerable Bede) these two volumes include, for example, literacy, dowries, enchantresses, spinners and drapers, valkyries, and widows.
  • The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 29 volumes spanning centuries of music. Who invented this instrument? Who composed music in England in the 18th century? How about Denmark? And so forth. We have editions for jazz, opera, and American music, too.
  • Menus from History: Historic Meals and Recipes for Every Day of the Year. Two brand-new volumes place handy lists in front: search by date, country, or occasion. Menus reveals what was consumed at Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's 1961 "first meal in space" (meat puree, coffee, blackcurrant marmalade); a 1911 Esperanto Society dinner (roast chicken, whortleberry jelly, salted biscuits, Waldorf salad), the common hospital diet for Devon and Exeter Hospital in 1829 (don't ask). Not just for foodies, Menus provides tidbits to spice up all your writing projects.
  • American Decades. Separate volumes for each decade from 1900-1910 to 1990-1999 catalog world events, fashion, lifestyle trends, laws, science and technology, awards, people in the news. Why bother organizing a class reunion, birthday party, or school report without it?
Library style forecast

Selecting fiction for the library reminds me of The Devil Wears Prada.  True, there's no dragon-lady boss mistaking my desk for the coat closet (though I wouldn't mind being first in line for Meryl Streep's character's rejected designer bribes and handbag samples).   My office space isn't awash in Gucci belts and Manolo Blahnik footwear, but the pile of current publishing journals offers scores of next-season book reviews.  The common factor is this: proximity to an endless supply of tempting goods.

Prada bagUsually our best hope for pleasing all our readers is to opt for titles from many different genres: romance, western, fantasy, mystery, etc.  When something new comes along with the promise of gratifying more than one audience--even better.  Helen Simonson's new Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a case in point.

Reviewers have been chatting up this book for months.  They predict it'll be a hot property for book clubs, noting the story's witty balance of village charm and contemporary issues.  From all reports, readers like me who demand exceptionally well-drawn characters will judge the Major to be a worthy protagonist.  Tempting, indeed.

So, I checked out the library's copy as soon as it was cataloged.  There was no waiting list then, but that's changing.  I thought Major Pettigrew's Last Stand lived up to the early buzz:  inventive plot, authentic characterization, tone that is consistently warm-hearted without devolving into cutesiness.  Simonson exhibits a deft hand with prose, particularly dialogue.  After a couple of "let me just read you this paragraph" episodes, my husband declared himself sold on Simonson's style and on the story's interracial romance premise.  This novel's social relevance is practically guaranteed to prevent the dreaded silence after your book club's initial round of "I enjoyed it, too" votes.

An additional design feature you couldn't expect from Gucci, Prada, or Michael Kors: As demonstrated this past weekend, Major Pettigrew accessorizes just fine with either a Marshall's clearance rack ensemble or the classic pajamas and fuzzy slippers.  

Don't cry for me, Athelhampton

I still own a copy of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure.  I didn't burn mine--unlike a number of Victorian readers who vehemently disapproved of it back in 1896.  Jude still incites controversy, as proven by today's Round Rock New Neighbors book discussion (at the La Frontera Barnes & Noble).

A couple of attendees found themselves unable to finish despite their best efforts.  "Oppressive grimness" was, I believe, the cause: the story offers ample evidence to support that claim.  Veteran Hardy readers come to expect this tone.  Either you decide that you're not up to the inevitable intensely dramatic consequence at this point in your day/week/life, or (if you're a fan like me) you ramp up the page-turning velocity in order to confront it sooner rather than later.  It won't be pretty, but it'll be memorable.

TH heart resting place?As happens in successful groups, disagreement fostered a spirited dialogue today.  Those who wished that just about any other title had been chosen this month still ventured thought-provoking questions about, for example, the author's intent, degree of autobiographical influence, and the strictures of society.

Hardy's response to the virulent criticism of his day may not surprise you.  Numerous sources state that he announced it had cured him of the habit of novel writing.  Jude the Obscure was his last novel; he concentrated on poetry thereafter.  I'd worked up some righteous indignation on the author's behalf, then consulted a few of the library's literature commentaries.  As it happens, poetry had always been Hardy's first love; he was no stranger to rejection and likely knew what to he was up against; he also realized that poetry offered greater scope to express "unconventional" views without inspiring protest.

It's difficult to pity an author who was frequently acclaimed and who achieved financial success in his lifetime.  Hardy enjoyed the friendship of luminaries and earned one of Britain's highest honors:  his ashes are interred in the Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey.  Except for his heart, that is; it was buried in the Stinsford parish churchyard.  However, many argue that such is not the case.  Allegedly, the housekeeper placed the vessel containing the heart on the kitchen table, and a cat ran off with it.

What, then, would be buried under the monument?  Guessed one member of the group:  the cat.

Moonlight Graham Rocks!

To borrow from "Casey at the Bat", the outlook wasn't brilliant for last week's adult book club.  We all liked W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe--not an ideal situation.  Book group veterans will tell you that an occasional "hated it!" or "who chose this book anyway?" can spark a lively give-and-take.  Sadly, unanimous approval can morph into a quick, party-pooping round of compliments with nowhere to go from there (at least nowhere fun).

Moonlight Graham baseball cardThank goodness we disagreed on the book-vs-movie question.  I still contend that Field of Dreams, while a nice film, can't hold a candle to Shoeless Joe, its literary inspiration.  The opposing camp, though, was more than adequately represented.  As one alert researcher pointed out, you can hardly fault the moviemakers' changing the J.D. Salinger character, given that Salinger's legal representation expressed definite views.

And then we reverted back to total accord--though with plenty to say about everyone's favorite character: Archibald "Moonlight" Graham.  Burt Lancaster's poignant portrayal of the New York Giant who played in only one inning of one big-league game is memorable cinema.  Moonlight, who trades in his glove for a worthy career as a small-town physician, doesn't regret his choice but yearns to have experienced just one time at bat.  The character's name and the premise are wonderful--and they're not fiction.

Several sources, including Keith Olbermann's "Moonlight Graham Remembered", quote Kinsella as reporting that he discovered Moonlight Graham while exploring The Baseball Encyclopedia.  "Doc" Graham really did live in Chisholm, Minnesota, and did achieve the beloved reputation described in Shoeless Joe.  Graham even accomplished pioneering research on children's blood pressure.  And what about the "Moonlight" moniker?  Though Kinsella invents a charming scenario for the book, most sources believe the nickname came either from Graham's speed or from the fact that he was "moonlighting" as a medical student.

If you, too, are a Moonlight Graham fan, you should come into the library and see his listing in The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia; it's on page 537, along with Skinny Graham and Peaches Graham.  You could also check out  I recently ordered Chasing Moonlight: The True Story of Field of Dream's Doc Graham (by Brett Friedlander and R. W. Reising); it should appear in the library catalog in the near future.  Finally--are you even surprised to learn of a Cincinnati rock band called "Moonlight Graham"?

Alice's adventures in Candy Land

We can't ask Mr. Starbuck; he's a fictional character.  But I suspect that other folks bearing popular brand surnames--the Heinzes, Bayers, Disneys, Wrigleys, Ferraris, etc.--would report favorably on that situation.  

Vintage candy productionIt's not just the money.  Sharing dynastic credit for entertaining, conveying, or comforting one's fellow man would be immensely satisfying.  Most enviable of all:  internal access to product development, marketing strategy, and closely guarded assembly line processes.  In Katharine Weber's new True Confections, the fictional Alice Ziplinsky documents her privileged point of view (she marries the heir apparent to Zip's Candies) so vividly that I felt I'd sampled every part of the experience except the actual product.  

In Alice's case, she doesn't just marry into a family fortune, she binds herself to a tribe's changing fortunes involving a span of 85 years.  Weber chose the Ziplinsky family's commodity wisely.  As Steve Almond effectively chronicled in Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, candy bar trends, names, and advertising evolved to reflect America's social history.  Zip's confections, too, must contend with changing perceptions just as the younger generation inevitably deals with consequences of choices made in bygone days, some more justifiable than others. 

book coverIf, like me, you're fascinated by the insider peeks at candy bar manufacture, trade show gossip, and assembly line jargon, you'll find that facet sufficient reason to pick up True Confections.  But Alice is also a wonderful character study as she progresses from needy, approval-seeking outsider to fully engaged visionary.  She possesses sufficient quirks to hold her own with the in-laws, and you'll be hard-pressed not to share her passion for confectionary production. 

Readers who enjoyed Jeanne Ray's Julie and Romeo, Judith Ryan Hendricks' Bread Alone, or Adriana Trigiani's Very Valentine likely reveled in the vicarious satisfaction of visualizing and creating unique products.  You can anticipate that experience again with True Confections.  Don't bother to locate a bookmarker, though; use one of the candy wrappers that you're sure to empty as you're reading.