Reader's Exchange

January 2011 - Posts

Stories that turn you inside out

One should be careful what to wish for this week.  Only infrequently do I fondly remember Midwestern weather, but those snowed-in days were wonderful (as long as the power stayed on).   A pile-up of the white stuff invites cocooning and simmering vats of soup on the stove.  Best of all, one is absolved from attempting to go anywhere.

I'm an indoor person.   Structure and defined spaces provide security, strength.  Even the most exhilarating outdoor experience is complemented by the joy of returning to my own personal environment/refuge. 

You may think otherwise, and two authors of recent experience could document your viewpoint convincingly.    I'm just finishing first-novelist Amy Sackville's imaginative The Still Point, which I'd already have completed if I didn't keep stalling; I won't hasten to read those last few pages.  It's not that I dread knowing the outcome; I've simply enjoyed containment in the special realm of reality that Sackville constructed.

The Still Point shifts between two quests:  turn-of-the-century Arctic explorer Edward Mackley's venture to reach the "still point" at the top of the world, and his great-great niece Julia's struggle for identity as she archives Edward's expeditionary artifacts.  Julia and husband Simon inhabit the memorabilia-strewn family mansion, a venue which threatens rather than enhances their odds for happiness as long as Julia's Sleeping Beauty-esque preoccupation with Edward's century-old romance and mission persists.  Sackville's descriptions of the forbidding winterland verge on the poetic, and she admirably sustains that suspended-between-worlds sensation that I'm now reluctant to abandon.Mark Twain House

The second venturesome tale is a Mark Twain classic, the January selection for one of my discussion groups.  Roughing It, published in 1872, also straddles two dimensions: Twain's actual escapades and his inventive wit (tall tale alert).   The author's original few months exploring the American West expanded into a six-year odyssey, and readers are apt to perceive that Twain's confidence and verbal acuity burgeoned right along with it.  Whereas the fictional Julia confronts a destructive interior environment, Twain derives strength from the ever-changing eccentricities of his rugged destination.

What else would we expect from a habitual risk-taker and early adopter who made and lost fortunes, who allegedly was the first to typewrite a manuscript submitted to a publisher, and who copyrighted himself to prevent unauthorized persons from using his persona?  And, with regard to the criticism sometimes directed toward Twain's extravagantly designed house: I guess he just wasn't an indoor kind of guy.

Whether you have one subject or millions

Colin Firth at the microphone

The King's Speech could be one of the best horror movies ever.   King George VI, forced to address audiences of millions despite having a noticeable stutter, surely experienced unimaginable dread before such occasions.

The film conveys the terror of the king's predicament; he could clearly foresee the extent of criticism and disappointment generated by each turn at the microphone.

Another scary plight comes to mind--that of the internet communicator who doesn't realize the potential reach of those words just submitted online.  Once a message or text is posted, it passes out of the writer's control.  It may be copied, filed, forwarded, or otherwise disseminated far beyond the writer's intended scope.

Digital text may and frequently does take on a life of its own.  With that daunting reality in mind, I sought advice from three City of Round Rock professionals upon whose guidance I depend:  Will Hampton, Communication Director; Shannon McIntire, Information Specialist; and Brooks Bennett, Technology Specialist.  I asked all three to share the resource or inspiration that has proven most useful in shaping their communication styles:

  • WILL:  "As a government professional, my writing style has been influenced the most by Hans and Annemarie Bleiker, citizen participation experts who have taught many of us city employees.  Their website is People need to trust the information we provide them - be it on the website, in a newsletter, City Focus, script, etc.  Personally, I've always been a fan of Hemingway.  Simple and to the point is hard to beat in my book." 
  • SHANNON:  "I'd recommend Jakob Nielsen's article on How Users Read on the Web.  Nielsen's focus is web usability--not writing--but his research on user behavior often involves determining which writing styles are most effective on websites, email, etc.  His website has a lot of articles that involve writing for the web because research shows that improving the text on a website can dramatically increase its usability--probably more than any other single element."
  • BROOKS:  "I really have enjoyed the Yahoo! Style Guide.  Modern society has forced us to create and adapt to new words and terminology and the Yahoo! Style Guide makes doing so a little bit easier.  It also takes into consideration the differences in writing for print and writing for the web - an issue we strive to do better with everyday."

A while ago, I responded via email to a library patron's local history question.  My answer was addressed to that individual, but the letter--complete with my name and work contact information--is now displayed on the patron's website.  Upon spotting my correspondence in its new iteration, two thoughts occurred to me:  (1) Glad I proofread! and (2) Thank goodness, I, like King George VI, can access excellent advice.

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. 

Learn in a weekendThe 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
And you thought matchmaking was obsolete

Just for the record, the book towers on second floor of the library featured Gems from Nancy Pearl even before Library Journal named Pearl 2011 Librarian of the Year.

LJ rightfully praises Pearl's innovative training and advocacy for books and libraries.  What I appreciate most is the uncanny knack of "the librarians' librarian" to bring together books and readers, matchmaking that has engendered great happiness on thousands of occasions. 

Pearl crownBefore Nancy Pearl hit the big time as executive director of the Washington Center for the Book (where she originated the "one city, one book" concept), and before she gained national celebrity and inspired an action figure, she evangelized the joy of reading on a smaller scale.  She worked as a bookstore owner and librarian in Tulsa where I lived.  I wasn't a librarian then, or even thinking of becoming one at that point.  But I still viewed her as a role model; her booktalking ability was and is magical.   Chatting on the local NPR station, Pearl warmly recalled Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons.  A few words and one well-chosen anecdote later, and I was hooked, convinced already that Pearl's pick was exactly my kind of book.  Not only am I now a Kaye Gibbons fan, but I've recommended Charms and other Gibbons novels to others who also loved them.

Along with Nancy Pearl's contagious affection for a good story, I admire her non-judgmental approach, the belief that "a good book is a book someone likes and a bad book is one they don't like".  Still, Pearl does encourage librarians and readers alike to answer "What should I read next?" with three titles:  "One should be pretty close to the one they loved.  The second should be a little bit different, a bit of a stretch.  Their third book is the real stretch book, the reach book. The book they never would have found because it is nonfiction and they only look at Westerns."

From my vantage point at the reference desk, I can see the Gems from Nancy Pearl displays clearly; every book there has been recommended by Pearl.  Julia Glass' memorable Three Junes would, for most readers, fit the "close to one they loved" category.  Across from it, Mark Winegardner's witty Crooked River Burning could supply the "little bit different" factor.  For the "real stretch" book, you might want to pick up Jose Saramago's Blindness, unless you'd prefer Larry Beinhart's (how appropriate!) The Librarian.

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.Bonnie & Clyde

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!