July 2012 - Posts
When my husband phoned from his seminar in Seattle last night, I'd already been asleep so was mostly noncommittal. Lucky for him. I'd been reading about a hardboiled private eye earlier; had I been more alert, he might have heard this:
"So you wanna know the score, huh? Here's the lowdown. Telemarketers made a move and I was right there with the "do not call" list song and dance. Betcha they never saw it coming. Those terriers are still at it--you know the ones: bushy eyebrows, short legs, rap sheet a mile long: barking, digging, marking the storage shed. Sure, they figure to have the upper hand for now, but I've got my eye on ‘em. We'll buy ‘em off with new dog toys if we have to..."
I'm really enjoying the advance copy of Ariel S. Winter's The Twenty-Year Death, due out in August. However, I don't typically choose hard-boiled or noir fiction, so this one may be infiltrating my psyche--rather like one drink going straight to the head of someone who doesn't usually touch alcohol.
As I consider Leila Meacham's new Tumbleweeds (which is neither hardboiled nor a mystery), remember: I'm still under the influence...
Leila has the goods on Texas characters, all right. Bet she raked in a lotta cabbage on that Roses book last year. Readers didn't grouse if they had to line up for it and didn't beef about her stringing 'em along for hundreds of pages to get the final dope. It was A-OK.
As for Tumbleweeds, you'll get your mitts on it if you know what's good for you. Meacham has eyeballed the Texas high school football racket and also knows all about small burgs in the Panhandle--how folks like to jaw about things that aren't their business but all of a sudden clam up when they oughta be singing.
In Tumbleweeds, what you've got is three kids--Trey, John, and Cathy-all three orphans or may as well be. The two guys are big cheeses at school on account of they're football heroes. The girl is a real dish, also plenty smart. But her old man was living on borrowed time and money, so the only lettuce she has is what she puts into burgers at the local greasy spoon.
Why is she slingin' hash if she's such a big deal? And what about the good town folk? Do they act like saps or end up being swell after all?
Hey, don't grill me! Glom onto a copy and figure it out yourself.
In an ideal society (a utopia), here's what you'd encounter just about everywhere you go: citizens reading great literature and sharing thoughtful comments--in checkout lines, in the break room at work, in the bleachers between soccer games, at the coffee shop, and so forth.
OK, that's just my personal ideal, and we know that utopias don't really exist. Still, the one city, one book concept pioneered in Seattle moved us all forward. That admirable model has been emulated in more locales than you'd imagine.
So why am I not 100% pleased with ubiquitous mentions of the Hunger Games trilogy? Movies, book groups, Sunday school discussions, library programs, blogs, and yes, a chat overheard in line at the grocery store: is this not Utopian behavior?
I don't begrudge HG one bit of the excitement it's generated; book buzz is wonderful, period. I just fear that many fans of the trilogy won't follow up on their discovery: whether or not they've been dedicated readers in the past, they've now bonded with dystopian fiction. Other engrossing stories of this type abound. Some have been around for decades; they're just less trendy.
Not all definitions of dystopia suggest simply "an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad"; some also require political or societal repression. I prefer to start with Oxford Companion to Literature's "unpleasant or catastrophic future" and figure in some environmental degradation, a trend carried to an extreme, and/or terror and deprivation.
That's a formula for a dynamite reading list, combining Utopian curiosity with dystopian intensity:
- Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles (2012). What will happen to growth cycles, crops, and human behavior if the earth's rotation goes completely awry? (Susan Beth Pfeffer's young adult Life as We Knew It offers similar appeal.)
- Ryan Boudinot's Blueprints of the Afterlife (2012). Described by a Goodreads commenter as "nearly unreviewable", this edgy, crazy scenario imagines that a sentient glacier has destroyed the continent, human nervous systems can be hacked, etc.
- Kevin Barry's City of Bohane (2011). Publishers Weekly describes this Costa Award winner as "a walking tour of Bohane, an apocalyptic fictional city on Ireland's west coast." City has reminded some readers of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange.
- Albert Brooks' 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America (2011): Not only has cancer been cured, life expectancy has been extended via other means. No surprise, then, to find a world of old vs. young amidst ravages of global warming.
- Hilary Jordan's When She Woke (2011): With elements of both The Scarlet Letter and dystopian classic The Handmaid's Tale, Jordan's chiller, set mostly in Texas, portrays a society where convicted criminals' bodies are dyed to advertise their misdeeds to the world.
- Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960): Amid dystopian greats like Brave New World, 1984, and Lord of the Flies, Canticle is less frequently assigned as school reading. Deemed "a masterpiece" by many critics, Miller's Hugo Award winner chronicles a nearly obliterated world slowly (sometimes hilariously) reestablishing a foothold on scientific knowledge.
Uh-oh. That was unquestionably a frown (which Customer Service 101 assures us is a Bad Thing) clouding the nice library patron's countenance. She even shook her head in disapproval at something I'd just shown her.
And our interchange had been going so well. I'd shared lots of information about Overdrive eBooks, noting that, while some major publishers decline to make their eBooks available for library circulation, we still add new digital titles every month and offer a great variety for free checkout.
Probably should have stopped there, but instead I lovingly tapped my finger atop two printed advance reading copies I'd just been handed. These were intended as stellar examples of new and forthcoming choices: Karen Engelmann's The Stockholm Octavo and Ariel S. Winter's The Twenty-Year Death.
At that point, the customer and I beheld two quite different things.
I glimpsed two intriguing novels I'd intended to snap up at BEA, had I been in the right place at the right time. Both authors had spoken passionately about their stories at Library Journal's debut author panel. Engelmann's historical piece, set in 18th-century Stockholm and incorporating a sort of mystical card game, lines up perfectly with my preferred tastes.
Winter's crime novel (three crime novels in one, actually) exhibits classic hard-boiled cover art, auguring that it's not what I usually go for--and yet I have been itching to read it ever since Winter chatted it up and sold me and a not inconsiderable number of other librarians on it.
These two ideal selections for Readers Extravaganza weren't going to get read before August 16 if I didn't have copies. I asked co-worker and Acquisitions magician Barbara if she could request pre-publication copies through our library vendor, acknowledging the mission to be a long shot. But Barbara and our rep came through. I'd just delightedly taken possession when this whole conversation started.
My vision of the two paperback represented wishes granted. The alert customer, on the other hand, beheld two flimsy volumes with paper quality one or two notches above newsprint.
I cherish the not-ready-for-primetime look and feel of ARCs as evidence that these are not intended for the masses. But these two items weren't merely unpolished; the corners were just slightly dog-eared and the books appeared, as the patron observed, potentially "used". Perhaps my treasures had endured a problematic transit; maybe I'm not their first reader. None of that matters; I am thrilled with them.
If you come to Readers Extravaganza, I'll at least be able to tell you if these two first novels lived up to my considerable expectations. Who knows--perhaps you can borrow one of these copies that will appear even less pristine at that point, but all the lovelier for having granted access and enjoyment.
"Let me tell you about the very rich," advises the oft-quoted passage from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, "They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them..."
What it does is render them fascinating to readers from the not-mega-rich category. Otherwise, why would we--particularly in this economy--immerse ourselves in fictional lifestyles bizarrely devoid of price tag reading?
Lately, I've enjoyed a literary novel (Mark Helprin's In Sunlight and In Shadow), a new romance/time travel story that I think Diana Gabaldon fans would especially like (Beatriz Williams' Overseas), and the film version of Kaui Hart Hemmings' The Descendants. All three feature characters possessing wealth almost beyond imagination.
We readily conjure sympathy for those who don't appear to need it (or anything else). Is it because we're reminded that no amount of financial security can prevent heartache?
Or is it that we can vicariously savor private jet travel, multiple home ownership, and a cadre of personal assistants, then comfortably revert to the non-fictional (and press photographer-free) joys of the perfect chili dog or a stolen hour relaxing in the back yard when we should be doing chores or answering email?
Just think-- immense wealth would curtail one's appreciation of ordinary features of life that are still so marvelous as to make us feel happier every single time we encounter them. Some of my favorite riches:
- Anything Texas-shaped (if you're a native Texan compelled to live in other places at some point, you understand)
- Enough water to keep plants alive, even in summertime
- Downtown Round Rock: the library has a great view of Main Street Plaza
- Advance reading copies (the only thing better than a wonderful read is the chance to savor and share one before it's published)
- Underground New York Public Library blog (Thanks to colleague Kate for sharing this link. Photos of New York City subway riders photographed unawares while engrossed in their books could very well make your day.)