Reader's Exchange

March 2011 - Posts

This public display of passion drew applause

Lamberts Downtown Barbecue is now officially a hangout for "bookies".   At least, that was the featured author's affectionate designation for those assembled in Lamberts' second floor venue for last Tuesday's "An Evening with Douglas Brinkley", presented by Texas Book Festival and Texas Monthly.

Rice University professor Brinkley's appearance (for The Quiet World: Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960) initiated the new author series highlighting spring /summer book releases.  Responding to Texas Monthly Editor Jake Silverstein (author of the recent Nothing Happened and Then it Did) in informal interview mode, Brinkley's comments at times ranged beyond the scope of Quiet World into future book territory.  I couldn't have been the only appreciative listener convinced that this exchange--as happens with the best author events--centered on the book but was at heart fervently concerned with the issue that inspired it.

Quiet World coverSecond in Brinkley's planned Wilderness Cycle (following The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America), Quiet World focuses on the long-standing and frequently political fight to protect Alaska's terrain and resources.  This volume notes contributions of a large and varied field of characters, including naturalist John Muir, poet Gary Snyder, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. 

To comprehend the Alaska issue, one needs both reliable data reporting and astute perception-checking, both evident in Brinkley's remarks.  What I found so effective was the author's gift for conveying the epic scope of the conflict by showing its personal side.  In some instances, Brinkley achieves this by recounting contributions of larger-than-life personalities: John Muir foresaw the potential for eco-tourism; Theodore Roosevelt saved Mesa Verde.

 Wide-angle observations--such as the author's contention that "Drill, Baby, Drill" is hardly a new theme and that resource conservation is "the single most important issue", the "big story" that is only inconsistently reported in newspapers-- underscore the need for persistent vigilance among those hoping to preserve natural treasures as "gifts to our children". 

Brinkley credits John Muir for teaching us that "it's OK to have a religious ecstasy about nature".  How to best express that zeal?  Asked for examples of worthy local projects, Brinkley cited local Audubon Society groups and Barton Springs.

My recommendations?  (1) Visit your bookstore or library for one or both of Brinkley's lovely published volumes; Round Rock Public Library has both Wilderness Warrior and Quiet World.  (2) Check out the impressive list of upcoming author appearances in the TBF/TM series to learn how you can receive invitations.

Volume Three of Douglas Brinkley's Wilderness Cycle is due out next year: Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Stewart Udall and the Environmental Movement 1961-1964.

Have no fear: the underdogs are here

When we root for the underdog, are we all cheering for the same idea?  Besides the cartoon character, I can offer two other models. Mr. Chartwell cover 

First, Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "underdog":  loser or predicted loser in a struggle or contest".   Compare it to this OxFord English Dictionary characterization, the original United States usage:  "the beaten dog in a fight"/"the party overcome or worsted in a contest".  

Since we all have underdog moments, it's easy to relate.  If you're already applauding the less likely (and consequently more deserving) candidate, how much more would you support one who is already down for the count?  And how intrigued would you be if presented with two great novels whose protagonists fit both descriptions? 

Last weekend's reading--which prompted my question in the first place--featured two new releases.  In both, quick-witted, perceptive main characters confront unusual forces strongly arrayed against them, neither aware of the true nature of the challenge until the test is well underway. 

But you'll know within just a few pages that you've already picked a winner:

  • The Daughter's Walk by Jane Kirkpatrick:   Already a fine pick for readers who favor engrossing fact-inspired historical fiction, Kirkpatrick's tale earns extra points for insights into the women's rights struggle and specialty garment industry (not to mention wonderful character studies). In 1896, twenty-year-old Clara Estby and her mother Helga contract to walk the 3500 miles between Spokane and New York City to earn prize money to save their family's land from imminent foreclosure. And that's only the first half of the story...
  • Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt:  History majors will recall that Chartwell was the country residence of Lord Winston Churchill.  In Hunt's story, it's 1964, and the aged former Prime Minister suffers periodic visitations by a massive, gloom-inducing black canine.  This beast both is and isn't an actual dog, but we know for certain that he is not the underdog--that would be Churchill.  The PM's long association with the insufferable hound coincides with young widow Esther Hammerhan's recent acquaintance, and you'll soon perceive just how daunting a force both characters face.  Not gothic or depressing as you might expect, this quirky and sensitive first novel is full of heart--and highly recommended. 
Beware the Ides of March--and creepy geography

Today is March 15.  If Julius Caesar were around, he'd have a new concern of which to beware.  It's illustrated by Creepy, which, according to the interview I caught on KUT this past weekend, is a program that anyone could use to track your movements.  Creepy aggregates the GPS data encoded in all those Twitter, Flickr, and Foursquare transmissions you send.  The user can construct a map displaying your whereabouts during those communications.

Creepy's originator, Yiannis Kakavas, had a motive (other than being creepy): to alert smartphone users that they are unintentionally divulging more personal information than they probably intended to.  Consider photos of one's children playing in their back yard, for example; GPS coordinates pinpoint your home address.

Mr. Kakavis' cautionary project warns of potential threats of location specificity.  On the other hand, last night's drive home from work (the car in front of me displayed a glowing nighttime GPS screen identical to the one on my dashboard) reminded me of its obvious capability to empower.  night gps screen

Geographic knowledge is also wonderfully entertaining.  If you'd prefer to enhance your familiarity with other cultures and locales, I have just the thing--a short list of mystery series set in exotic places.  Usually, my suggestions are based on personal acquaintance, but in this case I've chosen travel-worthy selections recommended by other librarians and readers:

  • Tarquin Hall: Vish Puri, Most Private Investigator series (The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing) set in Delhi, India
  • John Burdett:  Sonchai Jitpleecheep series (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts, The Godfather of Kathmandu) set in Thailand
  • Donna Leon:  Commissario Guido Brunetti series (Death at la Fenice, Acqua Alta, Uniform Justice and several others) set in Venice
  • James Church:  Inspector O series(A Corpse in the Koryo, Hidden Moon, Bamboo and Blood, The Man with the Baltic Stare) set in North Korea
  • Barbara Nadel:  Inspector Ikmen series (Belshazzar's Daughter, The Ottoman Cage, Arabesk) set in Turkey
  • Colin Cotterill:  Dr. Siri Paiboun series (The Coroner's Lunch, Thirty-three Teeth, Disco for the Departed, Anarchy and Old Dogs and several others) set in Laos
  • Cara Black: Aimee Leduc series (Murder in the Marais, Murder in Belleville, Murder in the Sentier, Murder in the Bastille and several others) set in Paris
  • Zoe Ferraris: Katya Hijazi and Nayir Sharqi series (Finding Nouf, City of Veils) set in Saudi Arabia
  • I. J. Parker: Sugawara Akitada series (Rashomon Gate, Black Arrow, Island of Exiles, The Hell Screen and others) set in 11th-century Japan
I bet Walt Disney never had storage issues

We recently set up a project meant to achieve blockbuster/bestseller status.  In reality, it's more like a fairy tale--and not in a good way.

Long story short:  We bought and assembled special sets for book discussion groups.  Named Book Club Carryouts, Rumpelstiltskinthese 10-volume packages consist of primarily new, mostly hardback titles ranked very favorably by critics and book club sites. We even chose snazzy Ikea carryalls instead of the droopy canvas tote bags we've seen other places.  These portable treasures look fabulous!  In fact, they have a Rapunzel-like quality--so lovely that you'd expect them to go out more often (if only they were accessible).

Sleeping Beauty also comes to mind: some of those stylish totes have lain undisturbed for waaaay too long.  Instead of a high tower or ivy-covered castle, our Book Club Carryouts (for lack of a better venue) reside in the employees-only area where customers can't see them.  So, we hope you'll seek them out online.

Your quest will be rewarded when you see how easy it is to provide your book group with recently published selections for free!  Check out our list of offerings; you're almost certain to discover several recently published fiction or nonfiction books that your group members thought they'd have to wait to get in paperback or to purchase individually (Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, Sebastian Junger's War, Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Mary Roach's Packing for Mars, and many others).

Later this year, we'll be displaying these magical book bags in the glass case (just like Snow White) downstairs.  In the meantime, we hope you'll share one of them with your book group, suggest another title you'd like to see in Carryout form, and live happily ever after!

Unless you're Anne Hathaway, selectivity is essential

Jeweled Flannery O'Connor motifLessons from this year's Academy Awards:  (1) Announcing that the event is young and hip doesn't make it young and hip, and (2) Except for their fame and ownership of jewelry costing more than my house, film stars are just like the rest of us.

Presented with a microphone and the object they've coveted most, those glamorous individuals are rendered awkward and conflicted.  Do they endear themselves to the yawning multitudes with a minimum of heartfelt verbiage, or capitalize on this ultra-publicized platform to dispense as many career thank-you's as possible?  And where are those scriptwriters when you really need them?

I can relate.  My communication tool is this blog, but my focus changes all the time.  To select fiction for the library, I consider dozens of reviews each week.  Which titles should I order/read for myself/mention here?

Usually, a clear focus emerges.  However, this week I understand how Anne Hathaway must have felt when ushered into a room full of designer gowns.  As my blog notes reveal, I can't choose, either:


  • It starts with the Publishers Weekly review of Bobbie Ann Mason's forthcoming The Girl in the Blue Beret--which reminds me how much I loved her Feather Crowns (1993).  Wishing I had time to reread it this week, I consider blogging about books related to unusual family situations:  Cheaper by the Dozen, Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth, Dave Egger's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate....
  • The writeup for Ann Napolitano's upcoming A Good Hard Look distracts me now.  Her story feaures Flannery O'Connor as a character!  What a great premise!  At this point I go out to the shelves for Napolitano's earlier well-reviewed Within Arm's Reach and check it out.  And now I wish I had time to re-read my personal copy of Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories.  Hmmm, Flannery would be a great blog theme....
  • Then, there's the blurb for Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All the Time (due out in July). "Bizarre characters" and stories that examine "America's violent underbelly" aren't my favorite themes, but many of our readers greatly appreciate them.  Wouldn't "gritty" and "uncompromising" fiction works be good to mention this week?
  • And now I see that the library has Pollock's earlier Knockemstiff.  It's not only a short story collection, it's a debut collection.  I love those!  Wish I had time to read that one right now.  The theme of small Midwestern towns, too, would generate some wonderful reads:  Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Laura Moriarty's The Center of Everything...
  • Would you look at that?  A second reading of the publisher info for The Devil All the Time compares Polluck's "religious and Gothic overtones" to "Flannery O'Connor at her most haunting".  Who knew?

And where are those scriptwriters when I need them?