Reader's Exchange

February 2014 - Posts

Self-help on many levels

Escher's We don't operate within Downton Abbey-like social strata, and no impenetrable physical barrier (that we know of) seals off the library's first floor from the second.  Still, top-floor reference librarians go for long stretches of time without speaking to first-floor youth librarians.
 And we like them!  We just stay busy and fail to cross paths.

When our schedules eventually coincide, we share reading suggestions.  Staffers who work with grownups love a top-drawer children's book as much as youth staff relish an accomplished adult novel.  Colleague David--he works on both floors--recommended a Bluebonnet Award winner to me last week:  The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger.  Sure, I love a great title (so this story had me at "Origami Yoda") but of course what has impressed critics, judges, and readers about this tale is the self-empowerment achieved by a sixth grader who overcomes social ineptitude by crafting a paper Yoda puppet to dispense advice to fellow students.

Brilliant.  We may forget that everyone else finds interpersonal issues difficult, too, but a perfectly timed solution is a universally acknowledged prize.

We don't label any particular section in the library as "SELF-HELP".  At a bookstore, such a sign would guide you to volumes fostering higher earning power; discovery of the perfect life partner; acquisition of beneficial habits; clutter dispersal, etc.   Our library offers those, too, along with databases that cardholders can use even when the library is closed; free tax filing assistance; free digital downloads; and many other options.  Even fiction books (see above) can prove wonderfully life-enhancing.

For libraries, SELF-HELP could serve as front-door signage.

Some advice has held up admirably for centuries.  Consider Polonius' tips on fashion investment in Hamlet:  even Tim Gunn couldn't improve upon those.  But lessons can become outmoded or at least suffer from that perception.  Imagine basing your efforts to achieve teen social success on a 1950s popularity manual!

That's precisely what 15-year-old Maya Van Wagenen did.  Intrigued by model Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide, Van Wagenen devised an experiment:  try out some of those Eisenhower-era tips while keeping a detailed diary of the experience.   Whatever social benefits Van Wagenen derived from the project, she can add a $300,000 book deal to the sum.  Her manuscript, now titled Popular:  Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, is due out April 15.  Even better, Cornell's inspirational volume is also being republished that day.

No need to wait until April for newly released books offering all manner of guidance, though; here are a few titles I just spotted on the New Nonfiction shelf:

Arduino Robot Bonanza

Decoding Your Dog

Man Up: A Practical Guide to Being a Dad

Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential

200 Skills Every Cook Must Have

Timeless Chic

Smart Tribes: How Teams Become Brilliant

The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

Online, you can access expert tips--even videos--on a very timely topic.  Produced locally with Round Rock concerns in mind, Water Spot, City Water Conservation Program Coordinator Jessica Woods' amazingly helpful blog, offers advice and strategies that none of us can afford to miss.

The ghost who got a warm reception

In Valerie Martin's new The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, famed British author and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle is touring the United States.  Though gracious among his fans, Doyle finds every dinner, interview, lecture, or appearance to be wearyingly predictable:  the American penchant for steam heat will render him miserably warm; he will be implored to "bring back Sherlock Holmes"; he will yet again be solicited for his impressions of America.

One can sympathize; Americans' love for cozy interior climates and Sherlock Holmes--and their self-assurance--are documented. 

Mary Celeste stampAnd so is the Mary Celeste, an actual American ship discovered intact and adrift east of the Azores in 1872 with captain, crew, and the captain's wife and daughter missing.  The vessel's enigmatic fate inspired an 1884 tale by Doyle titled "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement".  Appearing in the well-regarded Cornhill magazine, the story (though not attributed to Doyle at the time) paid the author well.  Since the account plays a role in Martin's multifaceted novel, readers, too, are handsomely rewarded.

Doyle's melodramatic yarn is just one player in the story encompassing a tragic seafaring clan, a heartrendingly tender couple, a resolute female journalist, a long-missing diary, and a charismatic young woman seemingly mystified by her ability to receive messages from the dead. 

The ghost in the title isn't one that haunts the vessel; it has more to do with the spirit of America at the time: the national obsession with psychic phenomena such as "mediums" who allegedly bridged communication between the living and the dead.  Both sea voyages and the 19th-century Spiritualism Movement attracted participants willing to venture beyond their elements--some merely extracting adventure from the experience, others forever losing their way.

I particularly enjoyed Martin's description of Pleasant Lake, a sort of Spiritualist resort, complete with séances, clairvoyant physicians, magnetic healers, and spirit photographers.

Viewing artifact photos of that time, we could scoff at the obvious fakery employed to produce depictions of, say, a widower shadowed by a faint image of his wife's "spirit"--or we could imagine how a lesser degree of sophistication combined with extreme grief could bring the possessor to find comfort in them.  Though fictional, Martin's book reflects significant historical research and thus affords an authentic sense of this era in American history.

Some elements reflect our consciousness today.  You need only glance at a TV schedule or new book display for evidence of our fascination with the paranormal.  And as for creative attempts to portray a life beyond fact--check out all the strategically chosen, digitally altered, and idealized shots featured on Facebook profiles. 

I'm not sure what it says about me that my Facebook profile shot is a Mad Men-style cartoon of a sheath-clad, bespectacled lady clutching a coffee cup.  A friend commented, "You do know that's not very flattering, right?"  I could only respond in the immortal words of Pigpen in A Charlie Brown Christmas: "On the contrary--I didn't think I looked that good."