Earlier in the week, two distinguished-looking individuals smiling determinedly, perfectly tailored, and sporting patriotic ties strode onto the debate platform. Witnessing this, my daughter and I echoed one another's' thoughts: There go two very brave men.
Imagine millions of people scrutinizing--and potentially misinterpreting--every nuance of body language and parsing every syllable you utter. No amount of coaching can guarantee that you won't slip up and offer your opponent the perfect opening for a memorable comeback or future one-liner.
The first outing afforded us no "There you go again"s or silver feet. But missteps are inevitable, as one candidate had been reminded when he failed to mention military personnel at a crucial juncture during his party's convention.
Though merely a voter, I, too, had reason to recall (twice) this week how prominently the experiences of servicepersons and veterans figure in our culture. Two novels I selected randomly from my "read ‘em while they're still new" pile both examined the plight of war veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Rebecca Coleman's new Heaven Should Fall imagines the case of a veteran of the war in Afghanistan contending with PTSD and his extended family's increasingly skewed worldview. The veteran's new sister-in-law Jill perceives what no one else in the Olmstead clan is willing to admit, that Elias requires not only assistance but also an advocate dedicated to his welfare and to demanding the resources due him.
The Olmsteads' assessment of the role of government is a story in itself, one that Coleman integrates skillfully. When are regulations inconvenient and when are they unjust? How do you balance family loyalty and concern for the welfare of others? How do you detect suspect agendas labeled as patriotism? These questions are implicit within the exciting story line--also quite familiar to our two debaters.
In Selden Edwards' The Lost Prince (which I highly recommend, though you should read The Little Book first), a sensitive intellectual is consigned to a remote European hospital outpost, destined for an asylum; the horrors of battle have rendered him unable to communicate and to reclaim his identity. In this story, the war in question is World War I. Then, his condition would have been labeled "shell shock".
Edwards' latest also prominently features historical luminaries--J.P. Morgan, William James, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, to name a few--as characters, vivid descriptions of the landscape in immediate postwar Europe, and insights into corporate empire-building in early 20th-century America.
Read Lost Prince yourself to discover whether the stricken soldier is found and recovered, but it won't spoil the conclusion to predict that you, too, will be delighted by the strategy adopted by a friend bound to locate the missing soldier at all costs: venturing into immediate postwar Austria and Italy armed with the one property most apt to ease travel and communication obstacles: a suitcase filled with American currency.
I'll never think of "emotional baggage" in quite the same way again.
From the "that was awkward" memory file: I'm applying for a driver license in another state. Peering into the hood of the vision screening device, I focus on the foggy surface and announce, "OK, you can turn it on now." Brief pause. "It is on."
I could have told them there was no point in testing me without glasses. Thanks to polycarbonate, my nose no longer features dents from supporting powerful lenses. Frame selection is the problem now. After I select likely styles, I still can't tell how they'd really work for me with my face that close to the mirror.
Fighting my Independent Customer tendencies (I don't even like to be greeted at the door) I eventually devised a workaround. This works surprising well: I recruit a store employee to alert me what not to buy--because no one will tell a customer directly that something looks terrible even when it does. I'll quickly try on four or five frames in succession, asking the staffer to elect--reality-show style--which one should be eliminated first, etc. until one remains.
This year my drafted stylist was particularly helpful, even suggesting an alternate color. The store manager who fitted my new selection listened happily to my lavish compliments about the employee before gently inquiring if I'd gone online to complete the customer feedback survey.
And I hadn't. Most store receipts we get now offer those opportunities--just one more mode of information overload.
Here's what made this instance special. The manager related how their company forwards complimentary comments to the individual who was named. The positive report arrives in the form of a little certificate which, she explained, is displayed on the wall with the collection of customer praise, and "we enjoy them so much!"
Who wouldn't follow up after that? The survey required less than a minute. Especially with City of Round Rock employees marking Customer Service Week next week, I should have remembered: service interactions are as personal to the employee as to the patron.
Most customer transactions are rewarding, some just memorable than others. Recently, a library patron I'd assisted to find product rankings observed that library people were "just wonderful--and so nice, too." She speculated whether we had all gone to charm school?
No, but apparently she did.
I saw one of those annoying commercials again last night. It's not political ads I find exasperating; it's the appeals for us to charge vast sums on our credit cards to finance theme park vacation packages so we can "make memories" for our families.
Surely this approach aims directly for parents of the very young? The onset of adolescence in one's offspring usually dispels any hope of shaping another's future perceptions, not to mention current ones. And it's not just our relatives who have free rein to forget, embroider, or recall facts differently than we'd prefer. Libraries can supply stacks of evidence that anyone may re-examine or imagine at will.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is a case in point. He seems to be popping up everywhere these days. For example, "Kit" Marlowe enlivens Deborah Harkness' Shadow of Night (sequel to her bestselling A Discovery of Witches). Generally viewed as the best-known Elizabethan dramatist and possible author of works attributed to Shakespeare, in Shadow Marlowe is portrayed as a daemon. University professor Harkness, well versed in lore of the age, had her reasons for casting Marlowe as a devious, mercurial, but obviously gifted creature.
Other historical realities are employed in the All Souls trilogy: the elusive Ashmole 782 manuscript sought by Diana is a known-but missing-actual document; the School of Night group existed; and "Shadow of Night" denotes a George Chapman poem dedicated to Matthew Roydon.
About Matthew: Harkness depicts him as Matthew de Clermont/Clairmont/Roydon, a 1500-year-old vampire (also courtier, scholar, builder, architect, spy, poet, since attenuated lifespan presents ample time for skills acquisition). Roydon really was an Elizabethan poet in Marlowe's circle. Charles Nicholls' The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe is among resources that Matthew's fans could consult for more details.
Readers curious about Kit Marlowe's exploits would also appreciate The Reckoning, along with the library's literature databases and some Marlowe nonfiction on our shelves. But fiction fans particularly benefit from Marlowe's trendiness; they can choose from Anthony Burgess' A Dead Man in Deptford; Leslie Silbert's The Intelligencer; Louise Welsh's Tamburlaine Must Die and--new from M.J. Trow--Dark Entry and Silent Court. Trow envisions the multi-talented Marlowe as crime investigator, a pursuit complementing his known scholarship and reputed espionage.
Philip Henderson observes that we now find Marlowe relatively well documented because "his name appears fairly frequently in academic, secret service, and police records". Unlike the understated Marlowe portrayed by Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love, the real Kit made enemies left and right and engaged in barroom brawls and street fights. A fellow playwright once called him "an epicure, an atheist, and a Machiavellian."
Of course, now the "M" word merits reconsideration. Michael Ennis' new The Malice of Fortune depicts Niccolo Machiavelli collaborating with Leonard da Vinci to track down a serial killer. Ennis invites us to view the author of The Prince not as deceitful but rather as "a loyal, charismatic friend" and "an incurable romantic".
But the traditional reference is so much more fun.
Raise your hand if a youngster of your acquaintance ever fixated on an unlikable bedtime story, demanding this resented volume to be read nightly for weeks on end.
Now, raise your hand and say "Hmmmm" if you ‘ve ever pondered pithy questions inspired by a story for three-year-olds. I'm doing that right now. If only co-worker David had asked my views on the latest Edith Wharton-inspired fiction release. But no, he had to bring up The Three Billy Goats Gruff.
David's son currently favors this classic. Amid one of his many renderings (David even does celebrity voices) doubts regarding the moral of the story arose--as in, is there a moral?
To review: the youngest/smallest goat (with announced goal of attaining the hillside, eating, and growing fat) saves himself by convincing the hungry troll--emphasis on this creature's unattractiveness--that his older, larger brother would be a more satisfying meal. And so forth. By the end, two goats have saved their hides by figuratively throwing their brothers under the bridge; the ugly troll perishes spectacularly.
Can't you just imagine some of the conversations (can you say "revisionist history"?) in store for the three brothers as they're grazing on that slope? But I digress.
In The Moral Compass, William J. Bennett charitably observes that "This familiar Norse tale is about an age-old job for big brothers--looking out for little brothers." As I see it, the older brothers' protection occurred solely by default. Not that I was any more successful when David first posed the question. I ventured, "Good will ultimately triumph after challenges have been faced."
Oh, I know. The concept of "good" doesn't hold up for a minute if you take the troll's POV. Already facing discrimination for his unfortunate looks, he delays gratification by giving the smaller goats a pass (so is the moral "Good things DON'T come to those who wait"?). In his own special way, the troll would have saved the goats from self-induced obesity. He wasn't underhanded, either; he clearly outlined his agenda.
The goats at least deserve credit for validating the dangers of eating red meat and asking rhetorical questions. One hopes that the moral isn't "Selfishness is OK but ugly isn't" or even "Loyalty can be inconvenient." Perhaps David should render the troll with a Michael Douglas-in-Wall Street voice to underscore the warning against greed-and eating one's fellow creatures.
Every version of the story I viewed narrated the sound of goat hooves on wooden bridge thusly: "Trip, trap, trip." Based on the number of internet references to this story, not to mention oft-used elements like the sequence of three, exacting a toll for proceeding, brains over brawn, etc. "Trope, trope, trope" could also work.
For divergent (and delightful) further takes on Goats vs. Troll, I recommend visiting that well-regarded source of the finest in literature. I refer to the Children's section of Round Rock Public Library, where you can enjoy, among other kinder, gentler renditions, gems like The Three Armadillies Tuff, The Three Silly Girls Grubb, and The Three Billygoats Gruff and Mean Calypso Joe.
When this year's political conventions began, I considered information gathering my priority. But it's hard to claim any responsible-citizen cred when these events are so entertaining. The eclectic (but never random) mix of soaring rhetoric, artful film, celebrities, statistics, vision, and dramatic personal histories demanded not only my attention but occasionally a box of tissues.
Of course, women's issues were highlighted significantly, contrasting with an earlier time when Secretary of State Clinton (referenced Wednesday night) provoked comment by her views, actions, and whether or not she'd worn a headband the previous day. This week, an online news scan would yield screenloads of opinion about the sartorial choices of convention speakers Ann Romney and Michelle Obama. Intense scrutiny of their designers and color palettes must be a compliment, evidence that they delivered enough thought-provoking content that their ensembles were just more convenient to assess confidently.
I can't discern much controversy there, myself. Both women chose lovely, American-style looks. Many of us female viewers would consider wearing those dresses ourselves, reported price tags (Romney, $1900-$2000, Obama, $450-$500) notwithstanding.
But Ann and Michelle invested wisely. Take a few hundred or a few thousand dollars and divide that cost by millions of television watchers/critics; the per-capita cost would be as slim as the heels on their much-discussed pumps. Besides, as Mary Todd Lincoln reportedly observed, "I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity."
The public's fascination with high-ranking political spouses has often been justified. Some of America's top-ranking spouses have fused fashion and viewpoint to inspire their own followings.
Ms. Lincoln wasn't the only White House fashionista with decided views (she deemed General Grant a "butcher" and the guard who left his post at Ford's Theatre "a murderer"). Nancy Reagan, who reflected that "acting was good training for the political life that lay ahead of us" raised eyebrows when, as wife of California's governor, she declared the gubernatorial mansion a firetrap and decamped with her family to alternate accommodations.
The contention that "A woman is like a teabag--only in hot water do you realize how strong she is" is sometimes attributed to Ms. Reagan but usually to Eleanor Roosevelt, who more than balanced her lackluster style portfolio with a remarkably productive life and a plethora of quotable thoughts. Jacqueline Kennedy, exhibiting clarity in priorities as well as costume, suggested that "When Harvard men say they have graduated from Radcliffe, then we've made it" and further judged "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."
Dolley Madison, celebrated for fashion-forwardness and a vibrant personality, directed her considerable networking skills to enhance the administrations of both Thomas Jefferson and her husband James. Dolley was so highly regarded as to be awarded an honorary seat in Congress. Samuel F.B. Morse invited her to the first public demonstration of his telegraph. Following the famous message "What hath God wrought", the second telegraphed correspondence was a greeting from Dolley to a friend.
The term "First Lady" wasn't used in Dolley's day (when designations like "Lady Washington" were still being auditioned). President Zachary Taylor is believed to have coined the phrase in tribute to Dolley at her funeral. At some point, the term caught on. Not that it's ever achieved universal approval; Jacqueline Kennedy commented that "It sounds like a saddle horse."
"Cool!" my husband announced, displaying a missive from Saturday's mail. "It's addressed specifically to you; sounds like a ransom note."
Fortunately, my cute sunroofed hatchback had not actually been taken captive, but someone clearly wishes to wrest it from my ownership. The flyer proclaimed: "Linda, We want your 2009 Matrix!"
And it's not the only notice like this. Are you getting them, too? Following the self-congratulatory stage ("Can I pick 'em or what!!!?") we're supposed to render up what the car dealers really want--orders for new vehicles to replace ones we just sold them at prices we're expected to find tantalizing.
Good luck with that. A recalcitrant auto customer, the type who delights in paying off the car before interest kicks in and seeing how many years of service I can squeeze out of it, I value longevity over glamour. Consequently, "wanted" appeals just come across as creepy. But they also (I admit it) spark momentary excitement--as do those alerts from realtors, claiming that potential buyers are eyeing our modest homestead with acquisitive intent.
I do get a little charge out of those notices hinting that others covet our house and neighborhood. We like our place, naturally, but it's not going to make the cover of Southern Living anytime soon. Yet, following receipt of one of those ingratiating letters, the windows acquire an extra sparkle and the exterior exudes more architectural interest for a few days. Covetousness may be one of the seven deadly sins, but it works great for commercial purposes.
I've just realized that the entire Seven Deadly Sins lineup--pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth--also benefits libraries.
I bet you didn't know that our library catalog has subject headings for each of the individual topics: in Dewey language they're gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, laziness, envy, and pride and vanity. You could address the whole package with the subject search "deadly sins".
Concerned that an insufficient achievement level may reveal slothful tendencies? Try Rory Vaden's Take the Stairs: 7 Steps to Achieving True Success (2012), Adam Pash's Lifehacker: The Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, and Better (2011), or other guides found with subject headings like "success" or "time management". And, given the number of diet books we offer, the gluttony issue is more than adequately addressed.
Aware that this will come out wrong, I'll say it anyway: I'm mainly interested in the other five deadlies.
Think about it. You can locate many thoughtful treatises on subjects like "self-control", "generosity", or the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude/courage) on our nonfiction shelves.
But for pride, covetousness, lust, anger, and envy, we offer entire sections dedicated to imagined scenarios of their effect on mankind: we call these areas Fiction, Romance, Mystery, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Westerns. As collection developer, I have the happy task of ensuring the availability of a current and wide selection of this very material. You're welcome!
Have you produced any amigurumi lately? Do you know what that is?
What's great about this question is that your chances of answering correctly are about equal no matter which side of the generational divide you inhabit.
Amigurumi (translation: "knitted stuffed toy") denotes a crafting trend that's all over the internet. You can download patterns for everything from hedgehogs and penguins to the edgier Hello Kitty figures, aliens, and monsters online and knit or crochet an astonishing range of witty miniatures.
Alternatively, you could come into the library and search for "amigurumi" as a keyword and leave with a nice volume of patterns already in print and ready to use. Creepy Cute Crochet, for example, equips you to create a crocheted Cthulhu or Noseferatu. Armed with this guide, crafters of both genders and all ages can manufacture vampires, Grim Reapers, and awwwww-inspiring skeleton wedding cake toppers.
Creepy Cute comes to us from Quirk, the same publisher who introduced literary mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Android Karenina, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Cleverness, whether craft- or humor-oriented, transcends generational boundaries, and Quirk is reinforcing that bridge nicely. Other Quirk titles, including Night of the Living Trekkies, The Meowmorphosis, and Taft 2012: A Novel, offer further age-indiscriminate appeal. Cell phones (pitting Callers vs. Texters) only serve to divide us, but stitchery and satire will have us bonding yet.
Oh, it's true that, while Boomers and Gen X- and Y-ers can all claim literacy with the canon of parody (I refer, naturally, to Mad magazine) those of us who were on hand for the earliest productions may feel that we possess greater insight. We might even recommend some education in classic musical humor (some of which predates us): Anna Russell's operatic sendup of Wagner's Ring Cycle or How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera or Tom Lehrer songs.
Mostly, however, we can revel in our shared appreciation, look forward to Quirk's forthcoming titles, and take note of such non-Quirk (but definitely quirky) literary achievements as these: The Hunger Pains; Game of Groans; My Favorite Fangs: The Story of the Von Trapp Family Vampires; Fifty Shames of Earl Grey; The Girl with the Sturgeon Tattoo; Harry Potty and the Deathly Boring; Goodnight, iPad; Who Cut the Cheese; Breaking Down (part of the Nightlight saga) and, finally, Fifty Shades of Sparkling Vampires with Dragon Tattoos That Play Starvation Games.
…you’re in for a shock. Clearly, some days are better than
others here at the library, but an event we have planned for this week has
inspired a whole string of brief but expressive terms. Brace yourself.
FREE. That’s right, I said it. If you drop by Readers
Extravaganza this Thursday and are on hand for the prize drawings, you could
leave with a great advance reading copy or new book (most are autographed) or
other prize from this year’s BEA. No charge.
EXPO. As in Book Expo America: that’s the huge annual
event mingling booksellers, publishers, and librarians at New York City’s Javits
Center. Authors plug their forthcoming books and everyone tries to snag advance
reading copies so they can prognosticate what the big hits of the coming year
BUZZ. If you’re an author or publisher, this is the feedback
you dream about—excited word-of-mouth advertising that could propel your book
into mega-sales. So don’t be surprised if you see some of these (see next
4-letter word) around the gallery area on Thursday night:
BEES. But don’t worry. They’ll be fabric or
FOOD. I believe I heard Kate mention punch and cookies; you can certainly expect a nice treat to be served.
LINE. This signifies what I stood in (otherwise known as a
queue), sometimes up to an hour, waiting to get a notable author to inscribe
his/her name, just so co-workers, friends, family, and YOU could have lovely
DROP. This is what I’ve been doing--with names-- ever since
I returned from BEA 2012. No matter what conversational topic is in force, I’ll
find cause to mention that I had teeny little chats with Robert Goolrick, Dan
Rather, Buddy Guy, Tim Gunn, Sabrina Soto, Lemony Snicket, Ted Dekker, Janet
Groth, Amor Towles, Gillian Flynn, and others. A signed copy of Gone
Girl is one of our prizes, by the way.
LOVE. Many other librarians paid their own
expenses for BEA, as I did. For-profit employers may have more expansive budgets; librarians' greatest asset is their affection for new books.
MINE! I’ve given away dozens of wonderful items so far, but no one gets my advance copy of Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and In Shadow.
Don’t even ask.
So, you've managed to avoid starring in a Youtube video or some other digital gaffe showcase that's "gone viral"? Don't congratulate yourself yet. As I was reminded this past weekend, low-tech and even no-tech modes of embarrassment lurk in the most innocuous places.
As actual viruses do, these menaces reside, silent and dormant, in dark venues. They await a host who will enable them to replicate and reveal their insidious nature.
I'm referring, of course, to school yearbooks that we inscribe for our friends, who then (oh, the horror) keep them and bring them out years and years later.
The occasion was a rare get-together with three friends from elementary school through high school. All of them look wonderful and chose professions that enable them to enhance peoples' lives--which they do. Appreciating my luck in having hung out with precisely the right crowd, I wasn't feeling entirely confident of having measured up. Naturally, that's when the 7th grade yearbook surfaced.
As the pages ruffled to divulge what we'd written, I could envision the dreadful possibilities of my authorship. But miraculously, that particular inscription had been inked in a fleeting instance when nerdiness and pre-adolescence had given way to sincerity and appropriateness.
Communication still poses challenges, however. My friends are too polite to bestow "Worst Facebook Friend" honors on me, but we all know. Due to Google privacy concerns, I removed most photos and don't post new ones. I'll go weeks without reading news feeds and seldom comment. Overwhelmed by Facebook's chattiness, I figure that time saved scanning posts (many of them significant, I know) could be devoted to reading another book or two every week. I think they understand.
At least my Facebook-neglecting time was wisely invested. Setting up the August book tower upstairs, I discovered many personal favorites in critics' lists.
For the display, I needed a can't-miss handout for patrons who say that their reading time is scarce (sound familiar?); thus, they want to spend it on "something really good".
Surveying opinions of editors and reviewers from The New York Times, Salon.com, The Onion AV Club, The Village Voice, and The Modern Library, I compiled fifty fiction titles published from the 1980s and onward, all deemed to be outstanding. You can pick up a copy at the library; but some of my picks are below. I hope that Becky, Lou Ann, and Peggy will enjoy these--and you will, too.
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- Possession by A.S. Byatt
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
- Then We Came to the End by Jonathan Ferris
- The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
- Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
- Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
- Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
- Atonement by Ian McEwan
- The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
- Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
- The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
- Empire Falls by Richard Russo
- A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
- White Teeth by Zadie Smith
- The Master by Colm Toibin
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.)
Could be--and not just because they create more shade outdoors. I developed this theory following a recent local newscast (topic: Let's Avoid Blackouts) reminding us that the clothes dryer is a major electricity consumer.
For those of us exceeding average stature, three-quarter length sleeves (a term preferable to "long-sleeved but not long enough") are a default fashion statement. We hang jeans and trousers to dry upside down so the weight stretches natural fibers, producing another quarter inch of ankle coverage. Actually, since the clothes dryer is a threat to hem length, putting all garments on hangers to dry is the way to go. That strategy works so well that I give my dryer a further vacation, draping towels over backyard furniture and railings to benefit from solar action.
Energy-saving inspirations are everywhere. The live deck monitor for the solar array at Round Rock City Hall is data-rich and a visual learner's delight. As we make incremental improvements--efficient light bulbs, solar shades, reduced appliance use--we can share in the more impressive achievement of a CO2 offset equaling 3,719 trees. The State Energy Conservation Office's "Energy Conservation in the Home" Fact Sheet concisely illustrates keys concepts: radiant barriers, ridge venting, heat transfer in windows, etc. that all homeowners should know.
From the U.S. Department of Energy, "Estimating Appliance and Home Electronic Energy Use" lists enough specific data about individual appliances and how much they consume (not to mention what you'll be paying annually to run your aquarium, dishwasher, toaster oven, etc.) that you may begin to reconsider whether they truly enhance your lifestyle.
The good news? You could justify doing less ironing and vacuuming. The bad news? You're probably hosting energy vampires. According to this National Geographic article (and numerous other sources), those are electronics and appliances that drain energy even while switched off. Don't reach for the garlic; get a power strip.
Here's a summer entertainment option costing you relatively little in terms of energy use and cash: group viewings of library DVDs. True, the television and DVD player require electricity; however, the family or bunch of friends and neighbors shares one screen instead of utilizing multiple devices. You're not consuming fuel driving to another destination, and library checkouts are free.
You probably knew that the library offers hundreds of children's DVDs; you can also pinpoint a television series that you either already love and want to revisit or sample for the first time. A subject search for "television series" results in nearly 200 offerings, including True Blood, Prime Suspect, Sherlock, Dexter, The Sopranos, Midsomer Murders, and lots more.
A subject search for "documentary films" lists several hundred choices: serious (Regret to Inform; philosophic (The Nature of Existence); historic (Freedom Flyers of Tuskegee, British Royal Weddings of the 20th Century); even wonderfully specific (Tupperware!, The Meaning of Tea: A Tea Inspired Journey).
You will discover an engagingly informative treatment of a topic perfect for your audience, literary (Dickens in America), pet lovers (Dogs Decoded), area history fans (Texas Rangers) or whomever. Should your gathering relish a spirited or even controversial discussion, consider Sicko, Hot Coffee: Is Justice Being Served?, Finding Life Beyond Earth, God in America or another title that you'll readily identify as a conversation-starter.
Thoughtfully saving energy, you'll also spark opinions and generate excitement. Your activity won't register on the City Hall deck monitor, but it'll make the world a better and more entertaining place.
At one time or another, parents require the reassurance of that longstanding nutritional theory (that Junior's current fixation on nothing but peanut butter or cheese or oranges or cereal, etc. merely indicates his body's pursuit of a particular vitamin or mineral).
You'd think that an empty nester with reasonable eating habits could jettison any such concerns, yet I appear to be driven by the corollary regarding fiction consumption. I suspect my system to be deficient in literary dread. Not usually a fan of thrillers or plot creepiness, I subconsciously seek that element wherever I look.
How else to explain that when I observed a publisher's ad for The Unexpected Houseplant, I entertained visions of a gargantuan carnivorous bloom commanding "Feed Me"? (Alternatively, I wondered whether a posthumous manuscript by Edward Gorey may have just come to light.)
But no. Closer inspection revealed Unexpected Houseplant's subtitle: 220 Unexpected Choices for Every Spot in Your Home--also tastefully demure botanical cover art. I was strangely disappointed.
My craving could also account for a similar letdown: Colm Toibin's just-published New Ways to Kill Your Mother (subtitle: Writers and Their Families). Once I've read something like Zombie Island and restored my equilibrium, I'll pick up favorite author Toibin's latest and appreciate it on its intended terms. In the meantime, it's heartening to learn that my advance copy of Diana Wagman's The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets actually does feature a startling seven-foot iguana and that Christopher Coake's ominously titled new You Came Back delivers a truly nightmarish scenario.
Always an easy mark for a witty book title, I award extra credit to those new and forthcoming offerings referencing Shakespeare (The Evil That Men Do) or employing wordplay (Meet Me at Emotional Baggage Claim, SEAL Team 666). And, for sheer attention-getting value, one has to acknowledge Grandad, There's A Head on the Beach.
Alexander McCall Smith (The Full Cupboard of Life, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built) consistently charms with titles that could have been lifted from Victorian texts--or perhaps hastily translated from a foreign language. Due out in October: The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds.
Though, fortunately, good titles usually designate good texts, especially clever names--like Gary Shteyngart's (2011) Super Sad True Love Story--can be so perfectly calibrated to the book's tone as to invite misinterpretation. When I nominated Super Sad for a book group's upcoming slate, a male participant countered with, "Nooooo! No chick books!" Not to worry, guys.
And here's a tip for anyone (miraculously) unaware of the buzz surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey. It isn't about interior decorating.
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