Reader's Exchange

February 2012 - Posts

Keeping up with the prizewinners

Following up Sunday night's round of thank-you's to the Academy, here's a note of personal appreciation.  To National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen, for his entertaining essay about three of my favorite classics, published it in a favorite magazine:  I liked it; I really liked it.Vintage trophies

Not everyone did.  After you access Franzen's  "A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the problem of sympathy" in The New Yorker's Feb. 20 issue via the library's print copy or Academic Search Complete, you could find plenty of disagreement online.  Still, readers only acquainted with Wharton via the oft-assigned Ethan Frome may be compelled to pick up The House of Mirth.  (Then, see the wonderful film version starring Gillian Anderson).

Pulitzer winner The Age of Innocence could prove even more tempting.  For someone of her extremely privileged upbringing (the term "keeping up with the Joneses" is thought by many to refer to Edith Newbold Jones Wharton's father's clan) Wharton exhibits a sharp eye for class consciousness and a gift for delicately snarky observations.  I also recommend that movie--Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder.

But the Wharton novel you simply can't miss is The Custom of the CountryWhen "A Rooting Interest" appeared, I'd just finished "reading" (listening to MP3 during walks) it for the third time.  I found myself nodding vigorously at Franzen's assessment of Custom as "the earliest novel to portray an American I recognize as fully modern, the first fictional rendering of a culture to which the Kardashians...would come as no surprise."

Custom's heroine (?), the dazzlingly beautiful but utterly empathy-challenged Undine Spragg, radiates such persistence (not to mention ruthlessness) in the pursuit of what she imagines to be happiness that Franzen compares her to Wile E. Coyote.  You'd be hard pressed to follow Undine's adventures without discerning a few over-the-top or reality show vibes from an author you probably imagined to be prim and starchy.

Reinforcing Franzen's assertion that Wharton is "a vital link" in a literary progression including, among others, Sinclair Lewis, Undine's character embodies qualities--vitality, ingenuity, self-confidence--highly  valued in American business and political circles.  Undine fails to perceive that entitlement is a bad thing, and if she finds that she has missed a point of complexity, she faults the other party's failure to promote his/her interests with the dedication Undine applies to her own.

Clearly, Undine can take care of herself, and does.  Yet, readers will inevitably find themselves mentally cheering her on even while aghast at her presumption.   Undine's charm combines the single-mindedness of Scarlett O'Hara and the fish-out-of-water appeal represented by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. 

If she only had a heart...

Mad Men and Englishmen

Julian Fellowes has a lot to answer for.  Why did he introduce us to the infuriatingly indecisive Lady Mary and Matthew andDownton Abbey men convince us of Sir Richard's capacity for revenge--let alone raise the question of who dispatched the evil Mrs. Bates--if he didn't intend to provide a new episode of Downton Abbey every single Sunday into perpetuity?

Following last Sunday's courtroom suspense and faux snowflake-enhanced marriage proposal, to what can we now look forward until DA3?  The answer:  MM5.

Mad Men, that is.  You still have time to watch or re-view Seasons 1-4 (available from the library) before March 25.  You should know why Pete and Peggy still exchange meaningful glances and how Don's shoebox full of photos and locked drawer of documents shed light on his brilliantly erratic behavior.   

Also, don't overlook the historical content, whether you're already a Downton or Mad Men addict or a potential buyer-in.  If you're not comfortable admitting to investment in the characters and the soap-opera storylines, you can legitimately claim appreciation for portrayals of America in the 60s and England during the trials that would forever alter its expectations and its role in the world. 

With Mad Men, however, I'm also hoping for practical advice.  Even more than the campy sets and costumes, the Mad Menbrainstorming sessions for ad campaigns fascinate me.   Perhaps a Season Five discussion will offer the solution to the library's current advertising dilemma: the Database Snooze.

Here's what we'd tell Don and Peggy: Round Rock Public Library offers cardholders free access to dozens of databases, most of them available from home.  And they're amazing!  With Masterfile or Academic Search Complete, for example, you can find articles for your research paper or other pursuits--on a huge range of topics!   With Heritage Quest, family history researchers can search thousands of genealogical sources--24/7!  in the comfort of their own homes!

And that's just a sample! we'd enthuse; Reference USA allows you to customize searches: all the businesses of a certain type in a specified area--city, county, zip code, etc., and even get competitor listings!  And there are children's databases, literature, hobbies and crafts!!!

At this point, our Mad Men friends might recommend that we switch to decaf and/or ask us to clarify the problem, which obviously is not product quality.

Declining the offered cigarette, we'd explain:  It's the name.  No matter how relevant we know the products to be or how fervently we promote them, we see patrons' eyes begin to glaze over when they hear "database".   "Digital resources", "e-learning", "electronic research"--not exciting, either.

Will Season Five inspire a new brand for our wide array of fabulous online resources?  Will we be the first library to invent a term that does justice to these wonderful tools?  Stay tuned, or sample some of this great stuff yourself.  Databases (there, I said it) will be there for you even when your favorite series goes on hiatus.

Scooping the relocation market

Call me a concerned citizen: this issue has been on my mind ever since its mention on the Colbert Report.  It touches on two subjects close to my heart: ice cream and Round Rock.

Stephen Colbert boasts of his own Ben & Jerry's ice cream variety:  AmeriCone Dream--vanilla with fudge-covered waffle cone pieces and caramel.  Jimmy Fallon has his own blend: Late Night Snack-- fair trade vanilla, fudge-covered potato chip clusters, salty caramel swirl.   Shouldn't someone market an ice cream flavor for Round Rock?Ice cream cone lamp

Ben & Jerry's, noted for delicious and witty combinations (e.g., Economic Crunch), many of which honor other influential personalities, deserves credit for a winning concept.  But shouldn't this distinction also be conferred upon a historic place, a vibrant community affording shelter and employment to thousands?

Not that Texas doesn't offer many other attractive locales: anyone contemplating relocation can easily utilize websites like Homefair to call up side-by-side data views for various towns.  You can select similar cities or even compare one zip code in the same city to another zip code area.  The list of factors you can survey includes educational attainment among citizens, school test scores, property values, commute times, pollution, and many other points. 

I couldn't help noticing, however, that the "discernment and creativity quotient" is not represented.  Round Rock should score well there.  Don't outsiders need to know that, in addition to the inducements of Dell, Ikea, a picturesque downtown, inviting parks and trails, a baseball team, and a huge stone resembling a flattened toadstool, our citizenry exhibits good taste to the point of actually packaging it?

And what better way to exemplify our zest for fun and dairy products?  With all due respect to Ben & Jerry's, though, we'd want someone closer to home vending our signature flavor nationwide. 

Blue Bell's Homemade Vanilla, admittedly perfect as is, would serve as the sweet foil for a quirky slate of ingredients, say cinnamon pecans and bits of Round Rock doughnuts ribboned with red pepper jelly.  We could call it Round Rock Revel.  (I suppose that another thriving suburb to the north would just go with Plano Vanilla.) 

While this concept is still theoretical, there's plenty of time for others to lobby their favorite ice cream producers with your own distinctive combinations.  Just think of it:  Round Rocky Road, Espresso Swirl Express, Brushy Creek Brickle....

Across a crowded room

Rebound relationships are best avoided, but I think Destiny steered me into this one.

It was springtime 2011, New York City.  I'd left the convention floor of Book Expo America to lug a bunch more free prepublication books down to the mailing center.  I piled my treasures into my designated shipping box and was making for the escalator when a random glance propelled me the opposite way.

The object of my interest languished forlornly on the "free for the taking" table--that sad collection point for items that other attendees had picked up but ultimately ditched as their own containers overflowed.

The stylish 30s black-and-white Conde Nast cover art sported an intriguing title: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  I scooped it off the table and gladly afforded it space in my Round Rock-bound parcel.  That castoff copy of a first novel proved to be a favorite of the past year.Chrysler Building elevator

Your loss, jilter of Rules of Civility!  Thanks to you, I attained double rewards:  a top-notch novel and the satisfaction of recognizing a prize discarded by another. 

Not that Rules of Civility needs me anymore; the reviews are admirable (as evidenced in the author's snazzy website).  It's also a preferred choice of book groups, currently No. 14 on The List in Book Movement.

Bestsellers are wonderful in their glitzy way, but breakout books and underappreciated gems offer you the joy of discovering something fabulous before all your friends do. 

Perfect matches can lurk right under our noses in editor's choice and reviewers' "best of" lists.  One feature you'll really enjoy (cover graphics for all titles!) is Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2011 spotlight; In Best Fiction, you'll spy bestsellers like 11/22/63 and The Night Circus right alongside lesser-knowns like This Burns My Heart and We the Animals.

To fine-tune selections to your very specialized tastes, don't miss the lists displayed on the left after you select a tab: dozens of categories including Nonfiction, Debut Fiction, Pulse-PoundersIndie Contemplative Fiction, Book Apps for the Very Youngest Readers, and much more.

Like me, you'll know a good thing when you see it.