Reader's Exchange

April 2012 - Posts

What can you say about a 70s hit?

It's like a dare in reverse.

Assure me that "you have to read this book", and a little neuron deep within my gray matter commences to flash in a no-I-don't- you-can't- make-me sequence.   Not coincidentally, I'm often the last in my crowd to pick up trendy titles--The Hunger Games, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Help, etc. 

On the other hand, should the recommendation be couched in terms of "it reminds me of that other book you told me about and I loved" or "too slow-moving for me but you'd go for it", I'll chart a beeline for the bookshelf.

I did just finish the recent and gushed-over Defending Jacob yesterday and judge the mass approval to be entirely justified.  Seriously, you have to read it.

But the soon-to-be-available (June) The Innocents by Francesca Segal sounds exactly my cup of tea.   Reviewers note its thematic similarity to Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence, so it gets English major points (even more so because it also calls Zadie Smith to mind).  Morever, I adore first novels, and not only is Segal a debut novelist, she's been--according to her homepage-- authoring the "Debut Fiction" column in The Observer for three years.   And, while the premise should be engrossing, it doesn't promise to achieve blockbuster status--extra credit for potential mild obscurity. (I'll be thrilled should sales prove me wrong on this point.)

70s bestsellers displaySpeaking of popular hits, though, you should know that Francesca is the daughter of Erich Segal, well regarded as a Yale classics professor but unfortunately more celebrated for his 1970 bestseller, Love Story.  Segal's 2010 obituary in The New York Times quoted a Variety article naming  Love Story "the first of the modern-day blockbusters."

The writeup further asserts that the film version of Segal's book salvaged the finances of Paramount Pictures, "which was facing imminent destruction".  At this point in my background-checking of the Segals and Love Story, numerous Fun Facts began to surface.  I was reminded, for example, that Harvard classmates Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones were said (by Segal) to have inspired aspects of the Oliver character and Oliver's troubled relationship with his father.

According to Mr. Segal's Washington Post obituary, Love Story was nominated for the National Book Award, but judges threatened to resign unless it was withdrawn.

Did you know that Erich Segal received writing credit for (among other movie projects, including the screenplay for Love Story) the Beatles' Yellow Submarine?

And now I can wield a comeback the next time someone rolls his/her eyes dismissively at English-major books:  Tommy Lee Jones majored in English. 

Birdbrains, unite!

It's true what they say--tweeting on the job is sooo distracting.  But the dove, sparrow, and grackle families outside the library windows intent on nest arranging and procreation are definitely in twitter mode.

One of the two dove nests currently defies several laws of physics by somehow accommodating a mother and two fluffy youngsters who seem to enlarge right in front of our eyes.  Doves are second-rate nest builders at best, so we were agog at Mom's success at balance and containment even before the kids came along.  How soon will those adolescents fledge and leave the nest?  Will they volunteer, or will parental pressure be brought to bear?  

We can't see the sparrow nest.  That tiny domicile is situated just outside on the window ledge and its view blocked by the frame. But anyone could relate to sounds of a busy household.

The grackles are another story entirely.  Their nest looks roomy and sturdy and even exhibits symmetry (so we knew it didn't belong to doves), but the mother bird was difficult to spot and identify.  With the help of whatbird.com and several identification guides from the library's collection, I arrived at the unsurprising conclusion that the brown female is one of those stately yet raucous types who frequent our bit of urban forest. And then Papa Bird finally showed up, confirming the guess; he's much more distinctive.   This is why I love Roger Tory Peterson's bird guides; he generally illustrates females and juvenile birds along with the males and even positions "confusing" species side by side so you can compare markings, etc.

But I've had suspicions about Mr. Grackle ever since I (a) spotted two females hanging around, only one of whom brings food to the nest and (b) read that some grackles will mate with one female and then abandon her for a second one during the nesting period. Do we have a feathered temptress trying to lead Papa astray?  Or have I just read one fiction review too many?  Time will tell.

Mother jay and babiesAnd--this is the wonder of bird watching--time always tells quickly.  Young birds emerge, develop, and leave the nest in two or three weeks.  The avian youngsters could be viewed as micro-grandchildren (revel in their cuteness and above average development) or perhaps characters in a living mini-series in which intergenerational issues resolve themselves within days, not decades.  When the baby doves take flight, I'll relish a "my work here is done" aura of self-congratulation.

If you haven't already pegged your favorite bird sites, take a look at whatbird.com, US Geological Survey's Bird Checklists, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds.  You can ask bird-related questions (identifying, dealing with noise, etc.) Two live bird cams--great blue herons and red-tailed hawks--chronicle the Circle of Life, good and bad.  Will the great horned owl attack again? When will the eggs hatch? 

Having fully activated your bird radar, you may begin to appreciate the exotic species all around you.  Only this week, right here in the library, I've observed a Cardigan-Clad Empty Nester, a Ponytailed Seersucker Wearer, a Red-braided Songbird, a Bleary-Eyed Testprepper, and a whole flock of Texas Websurfers.   

All creatures of habit great and small

Scene witnessed while I waited in a customer service queue; the venue shall remain nameless: just ahead stood a young woman juggling several items requiring the attention of the person behind the counter--and a cell phone parked between shoulder and ear. 

Deep in her narration of personal issues (about which the rest of us would have preferred to remain ignorant), the chatterer glanced up periodically to see when she might expect her turn.  Not frequently enough, though; absorbed in conversation, she failed to notice that a clerk had looked meaningfully at her a couple of times--the clerk who currently had no one in front of her and had occupied herself with paperwork, awaiting an opening to invite the customer forward.

In the fleeting moment between ending one conversation and speed-dialing the next one, the customer did achieve eye contact with the staffer.  And that was sufficient.  "Ah,"  the employee observed, "If you've finished talking, I can assist you now." 

That phone disappeared like magic.  Judging from the covert smiles registered on other faces in line, I wasn't the only one who approved. An apple a day

Resorting to phone chat to fill every spare moment is a habit--an annoying one, in this case--but who doesn't have one or two of those?  Coincidentally, I just got my hands on Round Rock Public Library's copy of Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit:  Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

I love a good makeover as much as the next reader, and this book stands out amid transformational titles.  It doesn't exhort you to become a different person so much as it promotes awareness of why you've allowed cravings to drive you while underscoring how much change potential you already possess.

Though not far into the book,  I've spotted some easily relatable examples that could equip even non-science major types to grasp the mental processes in question.  I comprehended the fundamentals of string theory for about five minutes after reading Brian Greene, so clearly anything is possible.

Referencing unique case studies, historical events (Montgomery bus boycott), and popular culture (Febreze marketing, Cinnabons franchise locations, Tony Dungy's coaching), Duhigg's message is loaded with empowerment.

This is a busy week, so I'm relieved  to note that the text portion of The Power of Habit is under 300 pages.  I can finish it and still avoid the habit of overdue book returns.  And besides, small items can still exert tremendous influence for good or ill.  Just consider the power of cookies, lottery tickets, and smartphones.

Celebrating the Poe in poetry

Healthy dandelionIt's April, National Poetry Month, and the sad but timely news is that poetry and e-readers don't play well together.  Craig Morgan Teicher observes in the 3/26 Publishers Weekly that it's "surprisingly hard" to recreate as digital display the irregular line lengths and distinctive indentations with which poets craft their work. 

Another threat to poets' peace of mind has been with us for centuries: those irreverent types who can't resist the temptation to parody or pay homage to their favorite verses.  I have it on good authority that some of these people even blog.

Cultivating my own bit of Round Rock lately, I've encountered (as you have) a vibrantly stubborn landscape challenge that thrives on adversity.  The spiraling despair of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bellsseemed the ideal point of departure for my tribute to this worthy opponent: 
 

THE WEEDS

Note the plethora of weeds - 
Tall weeds!
What a dismal chore their lushness guaranteed!
In the pleasant afternoon,
At their quantity we swoon
And we forecast hours rendering them less.
For each unwanted sprout
Means everyone will doubt
Our success.

And the neighbors -ah, the neighbors- 
Those expending all their labors,
Who can guess
At the hours, hours, hours
Mitigating some distress
‘Mid the shrubberies and flowers
Lest their yards appear a mess?
They fight vegetations evil 
In this campaign quite primeval 
Soldiering on.  
Though the dandelions should cower
Still they tower, tower, tower,
Tower
Those paragons of weeds!
Uninvited plants exceed
Those we've coaxed to grow from seed!
Toward their absence we proceed.
Spending time, time, time,
Fighting these botanic crimes,
For the overthrow of weeds,
Of the weeds  - 
Spending time, time, time,
Fighting these botanic crimes, 
We're swiftly chopping weeds,
Oh, the weeds, weeds, weeds- 
We're expertly lopping weeds;
Spending time, time, time,
Turf is freed, freed, freed, 
Righting these botanic crimes,
Cheer abating of the weeds, 
Of the weeds, weeds, weeds -  
And negating of the weeds, 
Of the weeds, weeds, weeds, weeds,
Weeds, weeds, weeds - 
End the greening and the preening of the weeds.