Reader's Exchange

Pearls before Spam

"You know who June Cleaver is, right?" the library customer inquired, "You remind me of her, sort of put-together and calm."

So, June--AKA Barbara Billingsley in vintage TV's Leave it to Beaver--and I can both act.  At the reference desk, anyone may inquire about potentially any topic, while printers, computers, and other technologies develop glitches and tics.  Calmness would be the ideal mode, so if a low-simmering state of vigilance reads as such, all the better.

But who would aspire to June's crisp pearl-adorned, high-heeled perfection, anyway?  She dressed more elegantly to vacuum the carpet than most people currently do to attend weddings. 

Pearls, spike heels, and shirtdresses are trendy now, and so is June (still).   As shorthand for "unrealistic wifely/maternal role model in postwar America" Mrs. Cleaver has long served (as she did fresh-baked cookies for the boys and coffee for Ward) to instigate discussions of gender roles, consumer trends, historical accuracy.  Searching Academic Search Complete or Masterfile with "June Cleaver" as keyword, you'll find such articles as "And June Cleaver Seemed So Cheery" and "Shadows of Suburbia".

As we mark the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the end of Hilary Clinton's term as Secretary of State, and the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, it's useful to know that Ms. Billingsley (94 when she died in 2010) was in fact a divorced working mother at the time she portrayed June.

According to American Decades online, in 1959, "two out of five women with husbands and school-age children worked outside the home."  Audiences knew even then that those 50s and 60s serenely stereotypical TV families didn't mirror reality.  Still, wasn't it agreeable to imagine, as parents increasingly juggled workplace and household, how it would be to live in houses that nice and have time to leisurely discuss a playground spat in the middle of the afternoon? 

Fabulous vintage Jell-OLaura Shapiro's Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America entertainingly considers how the food industry, gender expectations, and emerging food celebrities both reflected and changed America.  While one can't picture June purchasing a cake mix or serving Spam, Shapiro reveals how iconic products like those (and Jell-O!) signified cultural evolution.  You, too, may be prompted to get your hands on a copy of Peg Bracken's groundbreaking I Hate to Cook Book  (which the library has--50th  anniversary edition.)

All this household-level ferment occurred in tumultuous times chronicled by library resources, including The Fifties in America, The Sixties in America, Neil Sheehan's Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, and Marabel Manning's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Getting back to June: what would she have read when she wasn't dusting the living room suite?  We guess that she'd choose some of the titles from the 1950s Fiction handout available at the Reference Desk.   Dare we speculate whether she'd have borrowed one of those trendy steamy romance trilogies if they'd been around in 1959?  Some shirtdresses featured nice paperback-sized pockets...

Very very very fine houses

This week, I found myself tracking former residences the way some people Google their old flames.

Leave 'em and love 'em: that's my motto.  Of a dozen former homes, we've owned two.  We were fond of them then, but they've acquired nostalgia value over time.  The soft focus of receding memory masks recollections of the porch roof diabolically engineered to layer six inches of ice on the steps below, not to mention the second-floor A/C unit that expired, soaking the ceiling, the day after we took possession. 

Memory isn't the only agent of flattery or enhancement.  Thanks to Google Earth, I just viewed the charming effects of a subsequent homeowner's generous budget and vision.  Reveling in its clever half-story to full-story metamorphosis and the perfect front door replacement, that property has manifestly not been mourning our departure. 

I'm pleased for the home and its inhabitants, for myself, too: Google Earth's street view revealed that a tree cutting with sentimental value I planted there in the late 1990s survived and is flourishing.

Property ownership and romantic partnerships can similarly delight or break your heart, broaden your horizons, and furnish evidence that the other party has prospered in terms of success and attractiveness after you've parted ways.

Cute bungalowDream bungalowAll houses are potentially historic--at least to you.  While the library isn't generally equipped with files of through-the-decades interior photos of local properties that we are sometimes asked for, we can share some engaging options for exploring property-related interests.

If the building in question existed a few decades ago in an area covered by Texas Digital Sanborn (Fire Insurance) Maps online, you can view its shape, proportion, and context (Was it next door to a livery stable, church, etc.?).

Our Historic Map Works resource offers graphical insights into both edifices and communities.  I love its slogan--"Residential Genealogy".  It's not just apt in perceiving what interests us amid bricks and shingles; it also suggests that, as in other aspects of family research, the odds of discovering what you hoped for are sufficiently uncertain as to guarantee jubilation when you succeed!

We continually discover informational gems regarding Round Rock's historic buildings in the Planning Department's Historic Preservation pages.  If your home is not officially historic (yet), you might be more interested in Planning's other offerings: Building Inspection and so forth.

If you love before-and-after scenarios, don't miss WhatWasThereFor numerous Round Rock locations (and some other cities and towns), you can adjust the Google Street View slider to fade back and forth from past and present.

And of course our book collection, with selections ranging from Green By Design, Bungalow Nation, Creating the Not So Big House to House to Ourselves: Reinventing Home Once the Kids are Grown, can inform and abet any questions, plans, or fantasies you may entertain about your abode.

My fantasy: to own a Craftsman Bungalow someday.  Not that I don't appreciate my 1980s two-story; we enjoy a wonderful neighborhood--and dry ceilings.

Note from IRS: Please direct creativity elsewhere

Though not yet filed, my tax documents are on track to easily fulfill the deadline.   Otherwise, there'd be reason for soul-clouding dread each time I visit irs.gov to help customers track down forms or tax tables.

No, happiness is the order of the day.  The four colorfully-clad individuals headlining Internal Revenue's homepage all bear smiling countenances ranging from pleased to downright giddy.  Taxes--nothing we'd rather chat about!

Contrast their pleasure with the black-and-white, sedate visages regarding you at the Academy of American Poets site.  And yet Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot would be delighted to learn of your interest in National Poetry Month: nothing I'd rather talk about today.

Among 30 Ways to Celebrate, the Academy recommends "attend a poetry reading".  The Baca Center's Great Books discussion group and Round Rock Public Library are co-sponsoring just such an opportunity, on April 16 at 1:00 in the library's meeting room B.  Imagine: you can celebrate compliance with the data-driven mandatory reporting of your tax share by nourishing your creative spirit.  You're invited to read a favorite poem (original or otherwise) or simply enjoy selections brought by others.Rain falling

If I can get away from the reference desk to attend, I'll bring a favorite from a former U.S. Poet Laureate.  However, this week's glorious rains did prompt me to scribble some haiku-like reflections.  These seasonal musings were expressed around my household--different voices, but all with attitude:

Admonition from the new rain barrel  sitting in our garage, as yet uninstalled

Lovely rain this week:
But not here, ‘midst cars and tools.
I missed my calling.


What will the neighbors think?

Audacious, mid-yard
A lone but soaring weed spear
stains our good repute.


My rain-hating dogs, when I directed them outdoors for a very good reason

In what universe
do you dream that we'd abet
your torrent-fraught scheme?


Leafing Crape myrtles, aspiring to a very good season       Budding crape myrtle

So disappointing:
Bluebonnets, this droughty year.
Well, just watch this space!


Pair of doves, minimally concerned with nest-building technique

Are you kidding us?
No empty hanging baskets?
Look--five nice twigs! Done!

A Texan a day...

Sam Bass is still causing trouble: the third request from out-of-towners for "the shootout map" (starring Mr. Bass in his final appearance) this week triggered my realization that March is done and I missed Texas Independence Day.

Visitors, bless ‘em, have shown more regard for Texas history than I have lately.

Perhaps if I were a fifth-generation Texas like my husband (I'm only fourth generation) my devotion would surface at less erratic intervals.  He checks in daily with the Texas State Historical Association's Texas Day By Day.

I may be subconsciously preventing schedule erosion by visiting this remarkable compendium less often.   Though immune to other digital lures--online gaming, serial Facebook updating--I am helpless in the face of so many links to pursue and can't resist roaming beyond TSHA's daily offerings to explore further.  

You'd be amazed at the variety of lore chronicled therein.  Not a native?  All the more reason to acquaint yourself with Three-Legged Willie, The Light Crust DoughBoys, "Ma" Ferguson, Bring ‘Em Back Alive Buck,  Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Ima Hogg.

Life in other states may not have promoted knowledge of what transpired when the Chilympiad barred women from competing or when the U.S. War Department shipped camels to Texas. The Texas movie poster

But you'll encounter frequent references to The Other 49.  One can't be faulted for being born elsewhere.  We gladly claim "naturalized" Texans who arrived later and notably achieved:  Walter Cronkite, Norah Jones, Emmitt Smith, golf guru Harvey Penick, Sandra Bullock, Dr. Phil....

Electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian was a native, as were Roy Orbison, Van Cliburn, Ornette Coleman, and too many other influential artists to name.  Bandleader/Governor/Senator Pappy O'Daniel demonstrated (as have others since) that in Texas politics and entertainment are, if not indistinguishable, definitely intertwined.

TSHA affords juicy gossip:  Pennsylvania-born Anna Raguet inspired Sam Houston to (once he'd been elected President of the Republic) expedite the divorce suit against his first wife.  Ms. Raguet allegedly found the proceedings off-putting and married Houston's secretary of state instead.

As for adventure:  Rebecca Gilleland Fisher, captured by Comanches who killed her parents, was subsequently rescued.  She later became a charter member of the DAR and aided in saving the Alamo from destruction.   Medal of Honor recipient John Cary Morgan, whose achievement was fictionalized in the movie Twelve O'Clock High, didn't merely take over his B-17's controls when the pilot was shot; he had to fly with one hand and stave off the "crazed" pilot with the other.

And nowadays, as we contemplate a diminished Post Office presence, the loss of stagecoach mail and passenger service (March 1, 1861; the route was relocated north out of Texas) resonates, doesn't it?

John Steinbeck observed that, "Like most passionate nations, Texas has its own history based on, but not limited by, facts."   TSHA's trove of data in Handbook of Texas Online defies fiction to invent anything so colorful.

But it's still OK to speculate, as Tex Ritter did:  "They say that Virginia is the mother of Texas.  We never knew who the father was, but we kinda suspected Tennessee."

Here's your hat; what's your story?

Like all parents, I ponder the Generational Divide some days more than others.  And this week?  Well, it occurred to me that J.K. Rowling's great gift to humankind--the Sorting Hat--might represent the issue nicely.  If the hat assigned generational membership, it might still consider age, but it would also pose a question:  Which do you value more: representing yourself as a unique individual or deriving comfort from commonalities with others?

A solid member of the latter cohort, I've learned that special-ness comes at a price, as when the doctor, car repairer, roofer, or computer technician exclaims, "Wow, you almost never see that!"  

We prove every day that informational resources at the library can match the sudden need for material on a newly prescribed diet, relationship miscue, or DIY assignment.  And the most marvelous aspect of such guidance is the fact that it exists at all.  Its availability reinforces one's inclusion in good company.  Others have faced this situation, too!

But leave it to fiction to venture beyond mere answers, thus bridging across generations.  Novels invite interpretation colored by the reader's background.  Andre Dubus' engrossing House of Sand and Fog, for example, deals with home ownership but ultimately suggests more questions than answers with attendant emphases on prejudice and character.  Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, Jane Green's Another Piece of My Heart, and Rebecca Coleman's Heaven Should Fall  are all "domestic fiction" but illustrate vividly disparate permutations of family crises.  They appeal to readers of both types, those intuiting personal connection and those intrigued by the possibilities.

Other novels explore plots thankfully far outside average experience for any age or outlook.  Debut author Kimberly McCreight's Reconstructing Amelia (available in April) and Kevin Powers' award-winning The Yellow Birds imagine, based on the authors' knowledge, darker scenarios involving school bullying, intrigue, and personal tragedy in the first instance and the Iraq war in the second.

Lynda Rutledge's book coverAuthor of Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale  Lynda Rutledge was on hand at the Round Rock New Neighbors book discussion group (they meet at the La Frontera Barnes & Noble) earlier this week.  Her story visits five generations of a prominent small-town Texas family, none of which communicate adequately with the others or relate in the same fashion to the valuable possessions accumulating in the family mansion.  Acknowledging one plot angle particularly enjoyed by the group, Ms. Rutledge confessed her delight in having furnished readers information that even the characters didn't know.

Now that's an approach with universal appeal, further demonstrating fiction's powers of inclusion.

And in that vein I have to share a curious facet about another well-received novel from the past year, Ben Fountain's National Book Critics Circle winner Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.   Checking its availability at RRPL, I spied in its record  a subject heading I don't recall encountering previously:  "Football & War".  Generational membership aside, to appreciate its aptness you just might need to be a Texan.

Oh, don't be so modest (just be accurate)

The customer isn't always right.  On those rare occasions, it's fortunate if someone else has already said so. 

That's what happened with the recent job hunter who slid his resume across the reference desk, sighed, and related his situation.  After applying three times to an area employer with zero response, he was finally (and constructively) informed by an HR staffer: "You will never get hired with that resume."

Strong words, I thought, curious to see what could be so off-putting.  Answer: everythingInconsistent spacing and bulleting, clashing fonts, and grammatical errors immediately lowered the reader's opinion of the applicant--but at least they distracted from the content.

Chunks of text appeared to have been excerpted randomly from an in-house training manual.  Descriptions of positions and responsibilities failed to cohere or to register a logical career progression.  Instead of crisply proclaiming, "Here's how my experience and capabilities can benefit your company!" this resume shrugged, "Here's two pages of stuff..."Making the selection

No one would match that document with the well-spoken, promising candidate at the desk; I agreed that the resume misrepresented him.  Satisfied with the consensus of the Complete Rewrite camp, the patron cheerfully agreed, "I'm totally on board."  Then he added, "It just needs to be quick."

Uh-oh.  A competitive, from-scratch resume isn't a reference question; it's project--a serious one with a potentially life-changing payoff. 

It's not the writing that's labor-intensive; it's the conceptualizing:  selecting the words to prove that you're the choice among potentially hundreds; finding phrases to convey both hard experience and openness to learning opportunities.  Sometime you also need to compensate for gaps resulting from relocating for your spouse's job, caring for family, the economy. 

Hiring a resume expert is one solution, but where's the challenge (and savings) there?  Using library resources, you could promote yourself better than anyone else can.

I showed the customer our array of resume guides; one even featured makeovers.  ResumeMaker online could enable him to produce a professional-looking document, as would Job & Career Accelerator.  And a colleague and I both quickly scanned his pages to share our first impressions.  (I've read that first perusals commonly last ten seconds or less before submitted resumes are designated "discard" or "consider".)

You're wise to keep abreast of current resume style trends, too: 

  • Strive for 1-2 pages in length (more realistic than the strict one-page model).
  • Jettison the "References on request" line; that's a given.
  • Envision your resume as a portal: provide links to your online publications, web page, LinkedIn (then keep these features updated).
  • Consider featuring an accolade from a supervisor, client, etc. (quotation similar to blurbs on a book jacket).
  • Drop the Objective statement, which can appear old-fashioned or limiting. Instead, compose a "headline" to snag readers' attention.
  • Customize each resume to echo when possible the same keywords used in that job posting. The initial reader may be a scanning program, not a human.

As always, rely on your knowledge of each employer to determine how edgy your style for that document should be.  If possible, use multiple proofreaders to catch those little missteps before submitting your finished product; unless you're entering a bake-off, no one wants to read that you're a "roll model".

The quality of mercy

Not an ardent reader of Science Fiction, I approach it like a child lectured that eating vegetables is a Good Thing and should be undertaken frequently: I'm always glad afterward but rarely pursue the experience.

Predictably, when an advance copy of Ariel Djanikian's The Office of Mercy arrived among some historical fiction, chick-lit, and literary titles, I picked up everything else first.  But then my Sci-Fi Deficiency instinct kicked in, and I scanned the cover more closely.  Sold! 

It was the creepy eye that fascinated me.  Strategically set in the foreground and encased in metal, it regarded me with a glazed, shattered look from an incongruous forest glade lit from above with eerie green shafts: definitely an Orwellian vibe.   

Office of Mercy graphicThen, imagine my chagrin when, post-reading, I realized that the eyeball is a helmet with a shattered lens.  For me, the lexicon of cover art graphics would suggest that helmet=classic sci-fi; eyeball=psychological or dystopian fiction.  So let's call my error prescient; The Office of Mercy actually is dystopian.  That's great news for Hunger Games fans. 

Through the eyes of 24-year-old Natasha Wiley, readers absorb the sophistication and logic of life in America-Five, one of several domed communities dotting the map in the post-Storm world.  As with the best of dystopian lit, the tone compels one to begin questioning the leaders' self-proclamation of utopian existence even before evidence to the contrary materializes.  I enjoyed reading that, despite lofty posturings of ethical intent and carefully honed priorities, teams from the various Americas continually compete for population and "sweep" statistics.  Some things never change. 

America-Five's most solid claim to superiority:  it has a library.   While other communities were buttressing their structures and gathering seed, livestock, and scientific supplies in advance of the Storm, only America-Five's directors had the vision to stockpile information:  books, digitized data, paper records.   Eventually (this will not surprise librarians, educators, and city officials everywhere) the realization dawned that manuals for moral instruction and simulators for entertainment and schooling just weren't enough. 

Citizens craved more:  access to information "beyond what the individual memory could retain".

In the sleek, gadgety community--vertically stacked grain cultivation, labs stocked with genetically tailored replacement parts, textiles that regenerate when torn--the library boasts a couple of low-tech but much appreciated features:  comfy plush chairs and soundproof conference rooms. 

Hmmmm.  We're frequently lobbied to acquire those things now.  Some things never change.

I selfishly wish that Ms. Djanikian would pen another story (The Office of Mercy is on our March order list), this time starring the library.  Our staff could propose innovations to maximize its appeal: 

  • Keyboards and workstations that self-sanitize after each logout
  • Study rooms that morph to accommodate 2 to 20 people without changing the footprint of the space
  • Window blinds that allow all the natural light into the building despite being closed by the single reader sitting in front
  • Even more plush chairs and soundproof rooms

    Not that we deserve creativity points; we've just been listening to our customers.
Some like it hot

Yes, I'm overthinking this.  Chances are that if a city official or Michelle, our library director (or anyone else) happened by the reference desk when I said that, they wouldn't consider it strange or inappropriate. 

I'm still going to disregard that professional advice.  But the Library Journal article was quite useful otherwise. Acknowledging the massive popular response to trilogies by E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Sylvia Day (Crossfire series), the author surveyed the history of "hot romance" and "erotic romance" books, offering suggestions for further reading, strategies to determine what readers want, how to find credible review sources, etc.

Observing that everyone has preferred styles or emphases and that some readers always choose the sexier stories, the author advised: "My favorite way of determining this criterion is by asking, ‘How hot do you like it ?' "

Well, that question immediately flunked my Something I Would Ever Say at the Reference Desk test.  But the point is certainly valid.  Maybe I could propose a theoretical 1-10 scale where 1 is something you'd read aloud to your grandmother, and so forth.Clown teapot

Not that any amount of care would guarantee 100% professional behavior on my part.  Recently, helping a customer who needed a cache of funny one-liners for a performance project, I ended up laughing along with her--a lot, and too loudly. Poor role modeling for the Quiet Floor, but those bits were first-quality comedy. Humor truly does affect us like a tonic.

Just thinking about that episode puts me in such fine spirits that I've thought of two ways to share the happiness:

First, for E.L. James fans, here are suggestions for other authors whom you may enjoy and whose books are available at the library (thanks to Sylvia Day's expertise for this information):  Lora Leigh, Lauren Dane, Shayla Black, Jaci Burton, Shannon McKenna, Emma Holly, Maya Banks.

Second, I'll remind humor fans that you can pinpoint some wonderful reads just by typing "parody" or "parodies" or "satire" in the Catalog Quick Search box on the library's home page.  Your finds will run the gamut from classic to edgy:
 

  • The Complete Stories of Dorothy Parker (audiobook)
  • Spoofs! (Sesame Street, DVD)
  •  Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (DVD)
  • Goodnight iPad 
  • The Da Vinci Cod by Don Brine or The Dick Cheney Code by Henry Beard
  • Comedian Chris Elliott's The Shroud of the Thwacker
  • The Girl with the Golden Bouffant (from the Jane Bond series by Mabel Maney)
  • Don't Mess with Travis by Bob Smiley
  • Snobs by Julian Fellowes
  • Our Dumb World: The Onion's Atlas of the Planet Earth
  • The Politics of Barbecue by Blake Fontenay

And let's not forget The Fifty Shames of Earl Grey by Fanny Merkin.

Never enough awards for "Best Supporting..."

I spotted Wonder Woman in the library a couple of days ago.  Or maybe it was Super Mom; there's scarcely any difference.

The first clue to her identity was the adorable napping baby nestling in a handmade sling tied jauntily around her shoulders.  Without apparent effort, she managed a reading list, a mammoth shoulder bag, and two other children, aged about four and two and a half.  Obviously schooled in Proper Public Behavior Especially in Libraries, the older kids giggled and stage-whispered and held hands, generally being charming with only an occasional soft verbal reminder from Mom.  Her nonverbal communication powers were awe-inspiring. 

We witness many amazingly focused parents, serenely juggling parenthood and information seeking in this most challenging venue, the "quiet floor" AKA upstairs at the library.

No ribbons or statuettes (or, better yet, spa vacations) are awarded for such feats, but they are quietly applauded.   Everyday nurturing, heroically supportive stuff of all kinds inspires authors these days.

Fictional accounts of military families and spouses provide insights appreciated even--or especially--by those not directly affected by postings and deployments.    Siobhan Fallon's You Know When the Men are Gone, set in Ford Hood, Texas (where the author lived for three years) examines daily lives of base residents; story titles include "Leave", "Gold Star", and "You Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming".  Other novelists and romance writers taking up this theme include Kristin Hannah (Home Front); Sally John and Gary Smalley (A Time to Surrender); and Ellen Hopkins (Collateral). 

To discover more novels like these, try searching the library's catalog with subject "military spouses-fiction", "families of military personnel-fiction" or combinations of keywords such as "fiction military Afghanistan".

Some wonderful reads imagine (based on historical research) lives of spouses with another special concern:  celebrity and consequent scrutiny surrounding the husband:  Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife; Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife and Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette; Ann Beattie's Mrs. Nixon; Melanie Benjamin's Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb;  Paula McLain's The Paris Wife.

Maxine Kenneth ramps up the fictional component: her Paris to Die For and Spy in a Little Black Dress portray Jacqueline Bouvier (pre-Kennedy) as a CIA trainee and spy.

A marvelous story that etched itself into my memory decades ago (others claim this, as well), Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman, follows a gently reared city girl who marries a Canadian Mountie and relocates to the wilds of northern Alberta in the early 1900s.  Read
it and you'll agree with its "classic" status.  RCMP image

Novels attuned to supporting players demonstrate how partnership with someone in the public eye elicits (at least sometimes) strengths rivaling those of the better-known spouse.

Zelda Fitzgerald, for example, occasionally channeled her spunkiness into advertising for F. Scott Fizgerald's books.  Reporting that she'd recognized bits of her old diary in This Side of Paradise, she invited readers' curiosity by joking, "Mr. Fitzgerald--I believe that is how he spells his name--seems to
believe that plagiarism begins at home."

Living in the Sticks-and-Stones Age

I should appreciate my colleagues in City of Round Rock's Communications division more.  Sure, they've been kind and supportive of this blog all along, but now it appears that they've been bravely fostering a risky venture.  Consider the case of a university librarian in Canada who's being sued for 3.5 million dollars

The librarian in question, who initiated his blog for his students' benefit, describes that content as "mostly about my random thoughts on libraries, the media, and so forth".   The controversial entry (later un-posted) concerns a publisher whom he allegedly deemed "dubious", judging some of the company's academic books to reflect "second-class scholarship". 

As a fellow librarian blogger with similarly random content and a decent-but-not-spectacular readership, I commend his intentions.  Like you, I'm a taxpayer.  Anyone charged with spending funds on books and other acquisitions, as public librarians are, aims to gratify the audience's needs and interests and not expend dollars on unworthy materials.  Expert opinions are essential, but a single one isn't going to rule the day. Decision

Happily for me, I work with fiction, that wonderful and subjective universe which grants value for reasons beyond factuality or currency.  An author who's been pilloried by the critics may be adored by the book-buying (and library-going) public.  In the same afternoon we might overhear one patron grumble that he can't understand why the library would waste money and shelf space on Author So-and-So's "fluff" only to note another customer lamenting the interval before Author So-and-So's forthcoming installment. 

Evidence that fiction offerings don't escape evaluation, the reviews I relish most involve less than flattering pronouncements.  Reviewers devote especial creativity to those, as in the assessment of "too much wuthering, too few heights" or "extends the hackneyed into the realm of the ridiculous".  Should I ever publish a novel myself, frankly I'd prefer a "what was she thinking?" reception over the tepid "somewhat enjoyable" verdict rendered in one of this week's reviews.  Ouch.

Along with professional reviews, publisher marketing, forecasting at events like Book Expo America, social media, and bestseller lists, librarians heed customer preferences, even when our patrons disagree among themselves.

Last Monday, a purchase request for Cora Harrison's Chain of Evidence landed in my email.  "You already have all of her previous books, and they are wonderful," the requester commented.  "Please purchase it!" 

We certainly will.  Cora Harrison isn't a high-demand name here (yet), but her Tudor-era mysteries set in western Ireland are gaining a following.  If you try and appreciate Ms. Harrison's series, you'd probably also savor comparable works by M.J. Trow, Cassandra Clark, Peter Tremayne, Priscilla Royal, and C. J. Sansom.  

And then you can alert me should the library experience a series gap that should be remedied or updated.  While attorneys parse one librarian's opinion, we're glad to focus on what readers think.

My kingdom for a repair estimate

If a significant artifact on the order of Richard III's skeleton is ever unearthed around here, I like to believe that the find wouldn't instigate an internationally publicized squabble between,say, Round Rock and Pflugerville.  Emotions run high when honor and tourism are at stake.  Couldn't Leicester and York both benefit from returning the remains to York for burial?  Leicester could focus on a visitor center chronicling the dig and discovery; York could promote the burial site: traffic neatly distributed, two revenue-generating gift shops.

In truth, the controversy does appear to center on finer feelings of loyalty and respect for the dead.  York gets my vote.  The king had established happier connections there--childhood spent in the region, visits to the city, etc.--whereas Leicester signifies the venue to which his corpse was carted, post-battle, to be hastily stowed for eternity in a grave too short to accommodate his height. 

Analyzing remains of Richard IIIOne could argue that if Richard III deserved half the notoriety attributed to him since his demise (no one's actually proven that he had his nephews killed...) entombment under an eventual parking lot would be about right.  However, the king has a considerable body of defenders (and not just the Richard III Society).  Just serves to demonstrate that when one is gone, the world does indeed continue to spin.

I would give a boxful of autographed advance reading copies to have witnessed the archaeologists' gleeful realization that the skeleton already deemed "of interest" exhibited that distinctive S-curve of the spine.   It's enough for me to imagine that Best Moment Ever--and to speculate which books in our library's collection might be just the thing for others fascinated by their amazing feat of retrieval.

These novels all feature archaeological discoveries in England, Scotland, or Ireland: 

Haunted Ground by Erin Hart
The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley  
The Island House by Posie Graeme-Evans
Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon
To Dream of the Dead by Philip Rickman
The Moon Tunnel by Jim Kelly
The Bone Garden by Kate Ellis (part of the Joe Plantagenet series, no less)

Speaking of fortunate excavations and how valuable things come to be buried: I've been reminded this week how that can happen with library resources. 

One of our handiest databases, Auto Repair Reference Center, might escape notice simply because it's one among many databases on offer.  Even if you've used it to look up service bulletins or wiring diagrams, you could miss "Labor Times", listed (for most vehicles) near the bottom of the topics page.  If your vehicle is included, you can use that feature to learn, before you take your car in, how much time is required for the repair and approximately what it should cost.

Oh, and Janette from Youth Services alerted us yesterday about this nifty option in World Book Online: under "Specialty Sites" you can select Craft Corner for age-appropriate educational craft projects.

Maggie Smith's Bacon number: 2

Did you know that the library's getting a new webpage?  Watch for it this spring.  We're already generating content ideas, including more "If you like.." features: additional reading options inspired by favorite authors or themes.  Susan from Youth Services suggested a brilliant one--recommendations for Downton Abbey addicts.  Done!

FICTION:  Habits of the House by Fay Weldon; Summerset Abbey by T.J. Brown; The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton; The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro; The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate; The House at Riverton by Kate Morton, Ashenden by Elizabeth Wilhide;  The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones, The Golden Prince by Rebecca Dean.

MUSIC CD:  Downton Abbey: the Essential Collection

NONFICTION:  Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir by Margaret Powell; The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes; Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon; The Chronicles of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes; The Perfect Summer:  England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson; English Country House Interiors by Jeremy Munson; The Mitfords:  Letters between Six Sisters

DVD:  The House of Eliott series; both Upstairs, Downstairs series (original and recent); Gosford Park; Jeeves & Wooster

But a funny thing happened on the way to compiling this list--sort of a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon experience, only with author Henry James.

Examples:  Cora, Countess of Grantham, qualified as a "Buccaneer" (moneyed American beauty on the hunt for an English title to propel her into the upper echelons of society).  Edith Wharton, who authored The Buccaneers, was a good friend and literary colleague of James and even campaigned for him to win the Nobel Prize.  DA notables Dan Stevens and Michele Dockery appeared in a UK filming of James' haunting The Turn of the Screw.  Dan Stevens currently stars (with Jessica Chastain) on Broadway in The Heiress, adapted from James' Washington Square.

Ascending stairs: The HeiressRemember (regarding Edith's letter to the Times editor) the dinner-table allusion that "one of the Churchills" had ventured into journalism?  Well, among numerous other celebrities of the age, Winston Churchill's mother, Lady Randolph, (AKA Mrs. George Cornwallis-West at that time) consulted James regarding the profitability of lecture tours.

Elements of DA that resonate with American viewers--class distinctions giving way;  clashing American and European mores (American energy and spirit vs. hidebound tradition); social complexities, not to mention elegant living and circulating among the "best" circles--characterize HJ's work, too. 

James' hallmark, psychological realism, may not be the primary draw for DA aficionados.  But if you're engaged by the developing thread of the Earl's misfires in paternal influence or Isobel's awkward forays into social activisim (especially if you enjoy speculating on her motives) you might be a James reader and not know it.

If you could only try one James story, make it The Beast in the JungleOther wonderful introductory options are DVDs:  The Golden Bowl (Kate Beckinsale); Wings of the Dove (Helena Bonham Carter), and The Heiress (Olivia de Havilland).  The library has two excellent fiction books--Colm Toibin's The Master and David Lodge's Author, Author--starring Henry James at crucial junctures in his life.

James, whose reputation and work demonstrate remarkable staying power, was quite modern in some ways:  membership in a famously dysfunctional family; cool, trendy friends (Mark Twain was a favorite correspondent); edgy writing schedule (creating serial installments for magazine publication from month to month).  He was even a recycler of sorts, significantly revising and repackaging and translating storylines from stage to page and vice versa.

You may find yourself an HJ convert.  If not, no problem.  As James observed via a character in Portrait of a Lady:  "I don't want everyone to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did."

Try our 2 percent solution

Could have been the caffeine:  twenty ounces of home-brewed latte consumed in a brief commute produces an adequate jolt.  But I suspect that NPR's "2 percent" story (thank you, Neda Ulaby) was the real morning brightener.Audience laughter

Pop culture blogger Linda Holmes cited "an axiom of television comedy writing", the expectation that certain jokes and references will likely be understood by about 2 percent of the audience.  Terms like "dislocation", "fragmentation", and "polarization" abound in similar discussions of contemporary American culture.

Nice to know that I'm not alone in sometimes missing references to the latest reality show phenom, YouTube record-breaker, or music industry sensation du jour.  So long as I don't expect everyone else to fret about the trajectory of e-book vs. print circulation forecasts or discuss relative merits of Emilio's and Anthony Ryan's runway collections, I should get a pass for not tracking the saga of Manti Te'o's girlfriend, right?

In a world of proliferating sensations, social channels, and apps (have you tried the Chihuly digital glass-blowing one?), we run the risk of limiting personal growth by spending too much time--especially online--ensconced with others sharing the same priorities and skill set.

Granted, once you venture beyond your comfort zone, you face a daunting array of opportunities competing for your time and loyalty. To address the learning curve for cultural literacy, you need a staff of assistants to monitor all those fronts for you--or at least a toolkit of go-to resources.

Here at the library, we have a nifty, instantly accessible solution to this very problem: library staff.

I find that American Dialect Society's Words of the Year offers an insightful rundown of recent invention in language usage that also encapsulates significant trends.  But of course that (along with Atlantic Wire's Books We Loved in 2012) is squarely in my English-major bailiwick.

To diversify my informational portfolio, I rely on co-workers like fellow reference staffers Geeta and Chris.  Their recommendations: tech sector sites Ars Technica and Engadget and social news sites Reddit and Alternet(Reddit's alien icon perfectly captures that "stranger in a strange land" feeling that most of us experience with increasing frequency.)

Add to that expertise my daughter's favorite daily update: AppsGoneFree, the app that alerts you which apps can be downloaded for free that day.

And you can still count on live, in-person advice on what to read at the Reference Desk.  Titles on my mind this morning include not shiny-new bestsellers but books read last year and still recalled fondly this year:  Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles, William Landay's Defending Jacob, Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist, Lance Weller's Wilderness.

Finally, no mention of popular culture is complete without a nod to Angry Birds, Honey Boo Boo, or the Dos Equis guy. I don't always reference commercials, but when I do, I plug my favorites.

Do you really want to be timeless?
Topic for the day:  Time Travel.  It’s due to Round Rock Antique Mall and the vintage necklace I bought there.  A 1950’s European accessory in an unusual color, it features beads cleverly made of Lucite; they look like glass but weigh almost nothing.

Admiring it, colleague Carolyn discerned its most salient attribute.  She observed that antiques markets and their wares “take you back in time.”  Who doesn’t occasionally speculate how your particular personality or capabilities might have fared in another epoch?

Like the Arts & Crafts table or 1880s trunk in my house, stories imagined in different periods offer the best of both worlds:  connecting to an adventurous past or even future with one foot planted in the age of central heating and Skype.   We aren’t the first culture to appreciate the empowering aura bestowed by artifacts or experiences from an alternate lifetime.

Time spiralI’m not particularly drawn to science fiction, but, like so many others, I still crave time travel accounts.  Authors who first come to mind—H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Eric Flint, Harry Turtledove—don’t have a lock on that theme, and neither does the science fiction genre.

Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol features time travel.  Romance fans have flocked to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and the first two volumes of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy.   (I wish their publishers would discover a production-enhancing time warp and get the books out faster.)  Beatriz Williams’ recent Overseas would also appeal to this audience.

Scanning the internet, you’ll see certain titles earning frequent mentions:  Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand; Selden Edward’s The Little Book  and The Lost Prince; Jack Finney’s Time and Again and From Time to Time; Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth  and Sepulchre; Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog; H.G. Wells’ The Chronic Argonauts (published before The Time Machine); Michael Crichton’s Timeline;  Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five.

Those who’ve enjoyed modern film/TV hits like Doctor Who, Groundhog Day, or Field of Dreams (from W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe) should check out Eight Best Time-Travel Flicks  for a more intense focus on that element.  Public libraries—Hennepin County; Douglas County; Multnomah County—suggest some wonderful reads in the perfect quantity:  more than a couple, fewer than Goodreads.

In Round Rock Public Library’s catalog, you can input “time travel fiction” for Subject and select “Books”, “Video—DVD”, etc.  for Type of Material to discover many titles, including new ones like Katie MacAlister’s aptly title Steamed: A Steampunk Romance and Jason Heller’s Taft 2012.  Some excellent titles might not strictly qualify as time travel but come close with “split stories” paralleling two eras:  I heartily recommend Amy Sackville’s The Still Point and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.
 

I wonder if H.G. Wells would approve of my latest time-bending maneuver:  DVR’ing Downton Abbey, then re-viewing to see if, this round, Sir Anthony would behave differently and not break Edith’s heart (and mine).

Moonlight in old Austin

Moonlight tower sketchResolution someone should make for 2013:  solve the question of acceptable vs. inconsiderate digital multitasking.

Before the term came into being, we felt virtuous when accomplishing things simultaneously.  Haven't we heard the stories about pioneer women sitting fireside, stirring the soup with one hand and quilting with the other--and rocking the baby's cradle with one foot?  The other foot was presumably also doing something worthy--perhaps treadling the spinning wheel while someone else spun, sewed, and shelled peas.

More options exist for offending others now.  More of an Appliance Multitasker than a Gadget Multitasker, I'll start up breadmaker, washer, and dryer and head out for some gardening while listening to a Playaway book.  But the minute I witness someone popping out a cell phone and texting during a live conversation, I become The Judgmental Multitasker.  It's easy to scroll for information and disapprove at the same time.

However, multitasking books (and/or books that prompt the reader to do so) deserve gold stars--unless the reader was hoping for a restful, non-stimulating literary interlude...

Consider Steven Saylor's A Twist at the End, the choice for a January book group.  It blends history, politics, true crime, mystery, and easily inferred social commentary.

Saylor's protagonist is William Sydney Porter AKA O. Henry, famed author of classic short stories ("The Last Leaf", "The Gift of the Magi", etc.).  Prior to achieving literary fame, sometime Austin resident Porter was a ranch hand, pharmacist, quartet singer,  illustrator and cartoonist, editor of The Rolling Stone weekly, bank teller--and convicted embezzler.   (Trivia buffs take note: he's also credited with coining the term "banana republic").  Set in 1885 Austin, A Twist centers on the sensational Servant Girl Annihilator murders, still unsolved and credited to America's first serial killer.  Sculptor Elisabet Ney, numerous colorful figures from the Texas legislature and the then-new Capitol building's "Goddess of Liberty" statue also figure in.

Be warned.  You'll be torn between turning pages and pausing to seek more historical background.  I found the framed 1895 panoramic map of Austin in my living room to be both a benefit and a distraction.  I kept trotting over to pinpoint whichever intersection or location had just been mentioned.  And, with the internet and Handbook of Texas Online so handy, why not treat myself to more details about moonlight towers, the Texas Capitol, and so forth?

You can order your own historic maps from the General Land Office (where O. Henry was employed for a time).

Note (pg. 221) the reference to Richard Harding Davis as certain to be widely read "a century from now, in 2006".  Davis, premier correspondent of the Spanish American War, writer of fiction and Broadway plays, magazine editor, and literary influence for Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway (among others) was so dashingly handsome as to have inspired the image of the Gibson Girl's escort.  His clean-shaven look influenced a generation of men to forego formerly stylish facial hair.  He's even alleged to have brought the first avocado back to the States. 

Had texting-while-chatting been an option back then, he'd have made it look charming.

More Posts « Previous page - Next page »