Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern [2011]

In a remote European monastery in 1417, an Italian book-hunter named Poggio Bracciolini unearthed a rare manuscript from Roman times. It was a ninth-century copy of a much older work, De Rerum Natura ("On The Nature of Things") by the poet Lucretius (c. 99-50 BCE). Stephen Greenblatt uses this rediscovery as a springboard to explore the history of human inquiry over two thousand years. This is not a modest undertaking, but Greenblatt moves with ease from the personal details of Bracciolini's experience as an Italian humanist and apostolic secretary to larger set pieces such as the destruction of Alexandria's written treasures and the excavation of Herculaneum, entombed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

De Rerum Natura contains many deeply polarizing ideas, some of which are still contentious today--for example, the notion that the soul dies with the body and there is no afterlife, or the assertion that the pursuit of pleasure should be humankind's guiding principle. Greenblatt demonstrates that these ideas (along with more scientific but no less inflammatory concepts such as the existence of atoms and the idea that the universe was not centered on humanity) were not unprecedented, but grew out of the teachings of Epicurus, of whom Lucretius was a disciple. 
These concepts might be unsettling to our culture--still largely guided by precepts of self-denial, even if we do not adhere to them--but they were nothing short of incendiary upon their reintroduction into a Renaissance society dominated by the Catholic church. Many who embraced them after Bracciolini's discovery were persecuted as heretics.

Greenblatt leads a fascinating journey of discovery, tracing a set of ideas from antiquity to Thomas Jefferson.

Grade: A

I came to the conclusion that I was an atheist on my own, without consulting learned texts or reading up on the subject. I had some conversations with friends about faith, and was raised in a very faith-conscious place (Utah) even though my parents were not actively religious in any way. My mother had a very personal relationship with spirituality, which I never shared, and died as a Buddhist. But while listening to this book, the concepts being discussed spoke to some deep part of me, saying "You are not alone. Other people have come to these conclusions before you." It's not as if being an atheist is exactly embraced here and now in American culture. I can only imagine living in a time where thinking these thoughts, let alone voicing them, might lead to death. What a lifeline Lucretius's work must have represented to those who were almost completely isolated in their beliefs.

Random Thoughts:

I listened to the book's audio version, and (to my untrained ear) the narrator Edoardo Ballerini did a fantastic job of all those tongue-twisting Italian names.

This book was an excellent way to warm up to my 2012: Year of Nonfiction challenge, in which I am going to try to read as much nonfiction as fiction. I will talk more about it when I post about the statistics of my 2011 year in reading.

ETA: My paper copy finally came in, and it was worth it (as usual) to take a look at it even though I listened to the audio version. It has glossy photographs! And many pages of notes and bibliography at the back! And it has an index (*swoon*).

Dead Mother: No
Book Review Index

Monday, November 28, 2011

Helga Recommends: Paper Books

This is not going to be a curmudgeonly anti-ebook rant, because electronic books certainly have their (growing) place in the world, and I have and will continue to make use of them. If your object is simply to read and not to own a book, either format will do, and an ebook will often end up being more convenient. But when it comes to investing in pieces of intellectual and cultural capital, physical books have any number of advantages over their electronic counterparts:

  • Batteries. During the recent power outage in the northeast, I was able to read by candlelight even when I was trying desperately to conserve the remaining power on my various devices. I do not have to have my computer turned on in order to look up a word origin or the history of Norway. In the coming global superpocalypse, I'll still be able to read via the ray of sunshine coming through the bunker airholes, whether or not I have a charge or a signal. (Note to self: Pack Apocalypse Books)
  • Possession. Once I have it in my hot little hands, a book is mine and no one can relieve me of it unless they break into my house and figure out my shelving system. What Amazon and Barnes and Noble give, they have the power to take away. That being said, a house fire would take out both my paper books and all of my electronics. (Note to self: Pack Apocalypse Books in Fireproof Box)
  • Longevity. I can sit down with my son and read books that were read to me as a child. Yes, the same books. Technology is not yet to the point where he will be able to say to his children "this is the ebook that grandma used to read to me when I was little--we can't read it because that file format is obsolete, but there it is on my ancient backup drive." I also have many of my mother's books, including her Regency romance novels, and reading them gives me the feeling of being close to her.
  • Marginalia. In college, developed a complex system of symbols and notes that enabled me to very quickly find relevant pages in the books I had read and, of course, amuse myself with my own witty commentary. Physical books can be marked, tabbed, folded, inscribed, and lent to others who may add their additional commentary. If necessary, they can be thrown across a room in a fit of pique. Someday, ebooks may catch up on this front, but they're not quite there yet.
  • Sharing. I'm sure that it's possible to give the gift of an ebook. One might even be able to e-write some nice sentiment in the front before emailing it to one's friend or relative. But the paper book has a physical presence that says "pay attention to me, the person who gave me thinks I'm important." A physical book can be shared with others, it can be re-gifted, it can be sold to a used bookstore, it can be donated to the library, it can be used to prop up a wobbly table, it can be turned into a purse. The afterlife of paper books is full of possibilities.
  • Price. Bear with me on this one. Ebooks are, in general, less expensive than their newly published counterparts. However, they aren't less expensive enough to make the investment worthwhile, given their instability . . . once purchased, they should be backed up (especially if Amazon moves farther from "sales" to "licensing" and begins removing content again). If the purchaser wants to keep the material for a longer period of time, ebooks will have to be transferred from device to device. The common format today will no doubt be superseded by future formats, which may not be compatible, and so on . . . $1.99 is the maximum price I put on this hassle. If it disappears from my computer, I haven't spent enough to be driven to tears by it. I will bend this rule to get a book by a favorite author that I absolutely couldn't get in any other format without selling a minor body part, as I have to purchase older novellas by Connie Willis.
  • Proximity. When I think about paper books, I think about my collection as a whole. How I have ordered it and re-ordered it. How I can glance at a shelf and pull down a book to see my notes or read a particular passage. How I can easily see a stack of books (or five) I have yet to read, although I have the most sincere intentions toward them. A lot of people find their next read by browsing, and I like to spend time browsing my own shelves until something catches my attention.
I have not purchased as many books since I became a librarian--with so many enticing books paraded before me every day--so the books I do buy tend to have special meaning. Book ownership is, for me, rooted in a feeling of place. Books = home. My family home was decorated with books, therefore I feel better when my walls are covered with books. As a child I saved up my allowance money to buy books that I still own today. I have books my grandmother gave me when I was a child; I have many of my mother's books; I have multiple copies of some books (different editions or duplicates); I have some of my father's books; and I have books that belonged to a grandfather who died several years before I was born. A large part of my history can be pieced together by reading their spines, and I am passing down that history to my son as we read together. The other day we were reading The Monster at the End of this Book; "Please do not turn the page!" doesn't really work in a digital format.*

Feel free to argue with me or provide additional support in the comments.

*There is, however, an app for that.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Status Report

I have been busy online for the last several months, even though I haven't posted regularly here. Here's a quick rundown:

Even though I've been reading, I haven't posted a book review here in a while. That doesn't mean I haven't been reviewing books, however! Several of my reviews of lesbian-themed novels have been posted at the Lesbrary: Storms by Gerri Hill; The Jewel Box by Alcamia Payne (not recommended, but the review was fun to write); Rulebreaker by Cathy Pegau; Ghosts of Winter by Rebecca S. Buck; and Rum Spring by Yolanda Wallace. Of those, Rulebreaker was my favorite. Keep your eye on the Lesbrary for more material--I'm committed to reviewing at least one item per month.

On the professional front, Robin (@Tuphlos) and I have been working steadily on our collection development blog, talking about issues that we see every day. Some of my recent posts include:

Weeding Window, Deaccession Drama
Collection Dilemmas: Poetry
Reporting From the Front Lines
Statistics 2: Extreme Close-Up

I also participated in the Library Day in the Life project at Collection Reflection as well as on this blog.

I was interviewed by Sarah at YA Librarian Tales for her "Life Behind the Reference Desk" series. I also recently did a guest post on the Letters to a Young Librarian blog about one of my favorite activities: walking.

And of course I've been busy posting humorous book covers at MARC of the Beast.

When I actually put all this together, it looks like I've been busy! My goal is to post book reviews more regularly here, but in the meantime I have been getting back in the flow of writing by writing a few more personal pieces. I hope they've been enjoyable!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book Review: Wake [2008]

On my way out of town for vacation with no audiobooks in the car, I cruised though the Young Adult department at my library and picked up the audio version of Wake, by Lisa McMann.

Janie Hannagan can't avoid being sucked into other people's dreams. It's especially problematic in study hall after lunch, where she is witness to an endless cycle of "naked in front of class" nightmares and sexual fantasies. Janie lives with her alcoholic mother and works as much as possible at a local nursing home, hoping to make enough money to go to college and escape. Cabel Strumheller is a seemingly slacker student who lives near Janie and generally keeps to himself, although Janie has established a tentative friendship with him. When an overnight class trip exposes Janie's secret to Cabe, their burgeoning romantic relationship takes a serious hit. Rumors swirl that Cabe has become a drug dealer even as Janie starts to gain control over her abilities, leading her into a situation she never could have predicted.

Grade: B-

Wake was an interesting "what-if" exercise for one kind of paranormal power, but I'm not sure I'll keep reading the series. The explanation for Cabe's strange behavior [SPOILER] is that he's working for the police to bust a local dealer, which was fairly unbelievable. I know, I was perfectly content to believe that someone might see other people's dreams, but I apparently draw the line at the idea of high school students going undercover. I can't tell from this story, for example, whether they used actual high school students to help with the bust. There's also this fascinating story from twenty years ago--and maybe that's the problem, as a plot device it feels a little weak and dated. Apparently there are academic articles about this stuff. ANYWAY TANGENT OVER.

In addition, I'm not sure what my problem is, but I don't like having to deal with "experimental" tenses when I read. Wake is written in a diary-like format with a third-person present tense that conveys an immediacy ("Janie shakes her head to clear it.") that consistently throws me out of the story. The only time I've ever liked a book that attempted something similar, it was the audio version of The Knife of Never Letting Go. The narrator was competent, if stilted, coming across as very young. All that aside, I would categorize this as a good young adult suspense, and give it to a patron who was looking for something scary but not gory.

Dead Mother: No
Book Review Index

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Meditation on Coming Out

FYI, I am a lesbian.

Today is National Coming Out Day, which usually passes without much acknowledgement on my part. It's an opportunity for people to say "hey, I'm gay!" in a large group, which is theoretically a little bit easier than doing it alone. It also provides an example for people who might not be ready to come out or who might think they don't know any LGBT folks. If you want an example of why coming out is important on a personal level, read this post from Dear Sugar.

The first person I came out to was myself, and man was that a long and complicated process. Despite being raised in a liberal home, homosexuality was not really a topic of discussion during my formative years. Being by nature non-confrontational, even with my own feelings, I opted for asexuality as the safest course of action throughout high school and most of college. I read a lot of my mother's (straight) romance novels. I formed close attachments to other women, but did my best not to analyze that pattern of behavior. In retrospect, I suffered from internalized homophobia and was afraid I would lose friends and family members if I talked about my feelings.

I remember coming out to my parents when I was 21. While I was bracing myself for some sort of strong reaction, they responded in such a mild way that I realized that they'd probably known for years and had just been waiting for me to figure it out. I realize that most people likely don't have such an anticlimactic time coming out to their family, especially if they're living in Utah, but I was lucky. I consider myself lucky, because every time I've come out, the most I've gotten is a skeptical look. Aside from my grandmother, most of my family members took the information in stride.

You don't just come out once, and then you're done. It's a process that repeats over and over as you move to new places, start new jobs, and make new friends. It's the moment you talk to an administrative assistant and explain that you have a wife and you're legally married and you're going to be opting for the family insurance plan. It's the crossroads at which your new co-worker asks if your son looks more like you or your husband. You can choose to change the subject, or explain that the kid is lucky enough to have two moms. It's true that the world is changing, and coming out isn't as agonizing or dangerous (job or life-threatening) for someone like me, in my liberal corner of liberal Massachusetts, as it once would have been. However, there are still plenty of places where it's not easy, and the mere act of being gay is deeply frightening to other people. Everyone's circumstances are different, but coming out is one thing we can all share with each other. And that's why National Coming Out Day is still important.

ETA: I am, of course, coming out about different things all of the time, as I think everyone is. I'm a mom, I'm getting a divorce, I'm dating someone new . . . "coming out" is a way of saying "sharing something personal about yourself that you can't be sure how people are going to react to."

Meditation Index

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Meditation on Birthdays

Birthdays mark the passing of a discrete amount of time and always present an excellent opportunity for reflection. A few weeks ago, a day passed that represented for me both great joy (the birth of my son and my father) and sorrow (the death of my mother). Yesterday my own birthday came and went, leaving me to consider whether I am really where I want to be in my life. When I wrote a birthday post four years ago, I was still in library school. I had just bought a house with my partner and was a nervous first-time homeowner, worried about the lack of a landlord to blame/fix things. I was not yet a parent, and wasn't exactly clear on when that was going to happen, although I knew I wanted to have children. Today, I am separated from my spouse and still live in the house we bought, as often as possible with the vibrant company of our son. I have been working hard to move forward with my personal life, but parts of me remain in limbo while our family is officially divided by the gears of the legal system. I am looking forward to the end of this period of instability. In the meantime, I am happy in a new relationship and I love parenting my hilarious and sweet toddler.

Professionally, I know I am right where I want to be. I love my job as a reference librarian at a public library, and I've built a nice network of librarians and friends on Twitter to whom I can turn with almost any question (professional or personal) I might have. In the past year or so, I've really found my niche and started collaborating with other librarians and sharing that work online. I will soon be dipping another toe--maybe even a whole foot--into the world of library conferences. A co-authored book chapter is in the works. It feels like things are moving in a useful and interesting direction, and when I think about my previous life as an office manager and remember the seemingly endless days I came in to work feeling disconnected, I'm glad that I was pushed to change careers.

When I came into the world, I believe that there were two important witnesses: my parents (I am going to assume that I was too startled by coming out of the womb to act as a credible witness). It has now been five years since my mother's death. I can remember spending that first birthday without her, less than two weeks after cancer finally won their 30+ year struggle, being devastated and angry that she wasn't alive to celebrate the way she had on the day I was born. Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do to mend that wound entirely, no matter how many friends entreat me to have a wonderful day. However, since my father's retirement I've been able to spend the past several birthdays with him, since he spends his extended summers out here on the East Coast. After an adulthood of spending birthdays without either of my parents, it has definitely helped to have him here for both our birthdays, making this two-week stretch land solidly on the side of celebration rather than commiseration. Yesterday we spent a good chunk of time stapling wire mesh on to my garage eaves--in the rain--in a vain attempt to keep out squirrels, but somehow the ridiculousness of that activity pushed the day over the edge and made it a good birthday.

All these events--my mother's death, the dissolution of my marriage, the fact that my father just turned 70 and lives most of the year in Utah, a place that might as well be the moon for all its accessibility to me, and these birthday milestones--make me want to stop and hold on tight to every sensation I can. And be thankful.

Meditation Index

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: Acacia [2007]

I believe I picked up Acacia (first in a trilogy) because it was discussed on the SF Signal podcast, but don't hold me to that. Another thing it had going for it--unlike a lot of fantasy epics that have come out recently--was that it was available on audio CD through my library. Written by David Anthony Durham, Acacia is an incredibly dense foray into epic fantasy worthy of comparison to George R. R. Martin.

Acacia is the name of an island that functions the seat of a longstanding empire. What is largely unknown is that Acacian hegemony relies heavily on slavery and opiates to control and maintain the empire's vast ancestral holdings. Emperor Leodan Akaran, while portrayed as a basically good man, has inherited a deeply flawed system, as well as four children to raise upon the untimely death of his wife. When Leodan is struck down by an assassin from an enemy race of northmen known as the Mein, he sets in motion a plan to send his children into safety. Crown Prince Aliver and his younger siblings Mena and Dariel grow to adulthood in different corners of the Known World, while eldest sister Corinn is kept alive in captivity by the Mein as a future tool for ritual sacrifice to their undead ancestors. When the time comes to wrest control of the empire back from the Mein, things do not quite go as Aliver forsees in his zeal to bring freedom and justice to his inherited kingdom.

Grade: B+

I enjoyed the sometimes unexpected directions that Acacia took. The book had a lot more breadth of action and covered a longer time span than I had expected when I first decided to read it. Like Martin, Durham populates his book with many viewpoints from people other than the royal children, including many of the antagonists, a grizzled war veteran, the emperor's trusted adviser, and so on. There aren't as many women as I would like, unfortunately. However, one of Acacia's best features is a great deal of ethnic diversity among the cast. The action centers around an equatorial island, Acacia, and the royal children--each a major point of view character--are (gasp) not white. I can't even begin to tell you how refreshing this was.

Durham does an excellent job of capturing the coils of a political struggle as well as each individual's struggle for power. When the empire changes hands, its new Meinish ruler finds himself presented with the same obstacles and making similar compromises as his predecessor--much like an optimistic president who finds himself compromising his platform away when faced with the choice of getting nothing done or making difficult decisions. I am looking forward to seeing where Durham goes next after the book's fairly self-contained ending. Judging by book one, I'm guessing it's going to end badly for several characters.

Dead Mother: Yes
Book Review Index

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book Review: The Snowman [2010]

At some point this summer, The Snowman, a mystery/thriller originally published by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø in 2007, became a hot item. It was even featured on Good Morning America. The seventh book in an ongoing series featuring detective Harry Hole, The Snowman's popularity is understandable in a post-Girl With the Dragon Tattoo world intrigued by Scandinavian noir. I found it curious that the book being pushed is not the first in the series (and mentions events that presumably happened in earlier books), but it does have a suspenseful, self-contained story that doesn't require much background to appreciate. There is also something refreshing about spending time in the sweltering heat of July reading about snow and ice in Norway.

Norway has always been known as a land of peace and prosperity, and it's never been home to a serial killer . . . until now. Known as the Snowman, this person abducts and kills married women with children and leaves behind only a sinister sculpture in the snow. Until recently, the killings were spaced far enough apart that no one noticed a pattern, but two consecutive disappearances draw the attention of the Oslo police and hard-bitten detective Harry Hole. Harry is a recovering alcoholic who is constantly in trouble with his bosses; the love of his life left him because he couldn't separate his life from the job; and he's the only policeman in the country who's ever been involved in catching a serial killer. As the trail of clues leads Harry closer and closer to the killer, it becomes clear that this is a very personal game that the Snowman intends to play out between them.

Grade: B

If you're up for a thriller with some interesting twists and turns, this would be a good book to choose. If you're a fan of "damaged" protagonists who can't seem to get their lives together but somehow prevail, Harry Hole is definitely your man. Unfortunately, I wasn't really in the mood to read about a detective as deeply dysfunctional as Harry. There are times I favor gritty realism in my mysteries, and there are times I prefer to escape with a Lord Peter, and in this case there were too many scenes in which "seed" was running somewhere for me to really like The Snowman. The mystery wasn't extremely opaque--I had figured out most of the key points by halfway through--but its resolution was suspenseful enough that I was gripping my steering wheel and involuntarily slowed down to 55 miles an hour on the Mass Pike as the last disc played.

Random Thoughts:

I once visited Norway, but of course Nesbø's descriptions of Oslo's seedy underbelly didn't jive well with my memories. Still, it was interesting to read about Oslo, and Bergen, and even Voss (very briefly mentioned, but important to my family history as site of the Rokne family reunion!) and know that I had actually been to those places.

The audiobook was read by Robin Sachs, known to Buffy fans as Ethan Rayne, and he did a good job at pronunciation. If they don't cast Daniel Craig in the theoretical future movie of the book, they're crazy. Yes, I know he's already in the Girl movies, but Harry Hole is a much more likely character for his craggy face.

The book is threaded through with music, much of it American and recognizable to me. I guess this makes sense, since Nesbø is also a rock musician and songwriter. He also wrote about recent tragic events in Norway for the New York Times

Book Review Index
Dead mother: Multiple

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book Review: Heartless [2011]

Gail Carriger's Heartless is the fourth and penultimate book in the Parasol Protectorate series. It is also one of the very few books I've read recently that made me produce audible sounds of delight and distress. There was no question of whether I would read Heartless, as I pre-ordered it from my local independent bookstore what seems like ages ago. I also ordered a copy for my library's collection, which is currently checked out and has holds on it. Spoilers ahoy if you haven't read the first three books in the series!

Heartless picks up with Lady Alexia Maccon ponderously pregnant and clearly near her due date. She comes to a truce with the vampires, who have been trying to kill her for a book and a half, by arranging to have the baby (presumed to be a soul-stealer, since it is the product of a union between supernatural and preternatural parents) adopted and raised by the flamboyant Lord Akeldama. Before the "infant-inconvenience" arrives, Lord and Lady Maccon take up residence in London (in one of the fashionable vampire's capacious closets) and Alexia becomes embroiled in thwarting a possible threat against the Queen, despite her voracious appetite and difficulty rising from a sitting position. In the course of her sleuthing, Alexia delves into the history of her husband's packs--both Kingair and Woolsey--and unexpectedly learns more about her father, the mysterious Alessandro Tarabotti. After a monstrous and destructive contrivance is loosed on the city, it is up to Alexia to make sure that everything is put right in the end.

Grade: A-

Reading Heartless was much like brewing a cup of favorite tea--you know what to expect and end up feeling comforted, relaxed, and ready for more. All of the secondary and tertiary characters that a reader might have missed while Alexia was gallivanting off to Scotland and Italy in the last two books are present and accounted for, including plenty of Professor Lyall and Biffy, a dash of Ivy and Alexia's obnoxious sister Miss Loontwill, Madame Lefoux, the Westminster hive, the werewolves, and of course more of Lord Akeldama than I had ever dreamed I would get. I was so pleased! The strength of the series comes from the characters and their interactions, and Heartless provides many opportunities for the reader to spend quality time with characters grown near and dear.

Random Thoughts:

As ever, it is wonderful to read a book in which there are characters with a range of sexualities and find that their sexual preference is not the defining portion of their character. I appreciate what Carriger has done to incorporate a more generous cross-section of experience into all her books, especially because it's so rare to encounter one queer character in the genres of SF/F and Romance, let alone several . . . let alone in a series set in Victorian England!

I am now awaiting the final installment of the series (Timeless, to be published in March 2012) with a mixture of gleeful anticipation and depression. I don't want it to end! However, I am also looking forward to Carriger's new venture, a finishing school series set in Alexia's world.

My reviews of the other books in the series:


Book Review Index
Dead Mother: In a tangential way, yes.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Library Day in the Life

This post is part of the semi-annual Library Day in the Life project, in which I have been participating on Twitter by using the #libday7 hashtag. This post is an excruciatingly detailed description of the thrilling life of a reference librarian at a large-ish public library. On a Saturday.

8:30 Get to work and immediately make tea. Check email, Twitter, and attempt to wake up.

9:00 On desk in the nonfiction/young adult area. This part of the library is not air-conditioned and is therefore already quite warm, since we are not allowed to keep the windows open overnight. The person on desk first is responsible for opening the windows and starting the fans. While I'm out and about doing that, I pick up books left lying around and stick them on the book truck for counting and reshelving.

9:05 "Fluff" the new YA fiction display by filling the holes left from the previous day.

9:10 Explain to patron why the fan is positioned the way it is, since he seems to think that he should be able to angle it in whatever direction he likes.

9:15 Patron comes up looking for "self-help" books but is unwilling to explain much beyond that, then is disappointed with our selection (shockingly, we don't have a c. 1959 "great" book that he thinks we should have) when we get to the 158s. He is one of those patrons that knows he's looking for a specific book, but doesn't tell you that until you get to the shelves and are able to look down at your helpful computer from the floor above. This is one of those times when an iPad would come in handy, I'm thinking. He leaves to search the internet for the books he really wants.

9:23 The elevator doors open and a patron says "there you are!" I know who this is without looking, because I see him almost every day. He asks about holding a movie--released July 19, so no library has it in their collection as yet--and puts a much more easily found movie on hold. I make a note of the first movie as a suggestion for purchase for my DVD-purchasing colleague.

9:39 My high-maintenance video patron returns to ask whether Fast Five is out on DVD yet (no, not until my birthday) and whether Breakout Kings has a scheduled DVD release.

9:40 A girl comes to me with a Scholastic circular, looking for all the books in the Chronicles of Icemark. The first one is on the shelf in paperback, I have to go back to the closed stacks for the second one, and the third one is not on the shelf (hardback YA fiction) where it's supposed to be. I check the new YA fiction and the large print YA fiction just in case it's been misplaced, as well as the overflow book truck, and finally tell her that I'm going to have to place a hold on some other library's copy. However, before I mark the book missing I note that it was last checked in on 7/27, so I run back to circulation and check the put-away shelf, where it sits complacently. She leaves happy.

10:00 Switching desks to the main reference desk, located near the public computers. Immediately, I have one person wanting an extension on computer time, one person wanting to print, and one person raising his hand and saying "Miss?" while looking at me expectantly. At the risk of appearing to be a grumpy librarian, I wish people would come up to the desk when they needed help. The patron was getting IE error messages, so I happily switched him to Firefox.

10:09 A patron wants more time on the computer to finish a project but comes up with only two minutes left, which (PSA) is way too late to ask for an extension. However, the reservation system isn't running as slow as usual, so I manage to squeak it through.

10:10 A patron wants to get on a computer, and I run him through how to use the reservation system. We've been open an hour, and all of our 30+ public computers are in use. As I take one step away from him, another woman comes up and asks for help. On my way to her computer, a HMP complains that the fan is blowing her papers as she's trying to work, and could I move it? I explain that the fan is positioned this way in a (probably vain) attempt to cool everyone in the computer area, and that it's going to stay right where it is, sorry. The first woman is interested in finding the registered sex offenders in her neighborhood, which is a more common reference question than you'd think or hope for. The information on level 3 sex offenders is easy enough to find through the website.

10:15 A woman comes up to complain that her computer has suddenly shut off. In fact, three computers in a row have suddenly shut off, because the person at Computer 20 hit the power strip with his foot and cut off the power to all of them. This means that I need to flip the switch, ask them to wait, make reservations for each of them (because there are people coming in all the time and it's less awkward than restarting and having two people claiming one computer). To make matters more annoying, when the computers are shut off improperly, the sessions go "on hold" and I have to go around the reservation software to get them back on. Each and every time, I am caught by the "no num

10:25 A patron, staring at the golf pencils and scrap paper, asks me if we might have a pen or pencil and if he could maybe use that paper. Debating the advisability of a FREE, NO REALLY THIS IS FOR YOU sign.

10:27 The sex offender registry patron leaves, saying: "Thank you. We might need you again later."

10:29 I notice the patron at Computer A keeps looking over his shoulder at me in a shifty way, but I can see his screen and it's clearly not porn. He is also wearing a T-shirt that says "SHHH! That's the sound of nobody caring what you think!"

10:34 The phone rings. "Hi, I was just calling to see if the computer room was open today?" Me: "Yes, we're always open when the library is open..." After I hang up, I realize he might be talking about the computer lab, which has been closed to the public for almost two years for lack of staffing. But surely not?

10:37 The phone rings again. I explain that we don't have a public fax machine and direct the patron to the nearest place that does. The fan decides that it's cooled off enough to start working again.

10:40 A flood of patrons came all at once with their issues, which I addressed one by one but can hardly remember.

10:43 A woman approached the desk, wanting to know as much as possible about tanning and tanning beds for a research paper she was doing. As it happens, most of the books on tanning that we have in the collection require animal hides, but we did have an Opposing Viewpoints book that included a pro/con for tanning. I also found information at the FDA and various articles and studies about tanning bed use and potential health risks. And then there's the Indoor Tanning Association. They endeared themselves to me right away by having a section entitled "Member's Only"...

10:55 In the midst of working on the real reference question, I answer a bunch of printing related questions, transfer a phone call, deny people extra time on the computer, and print several things out for the patron I'm trying to help. The HMP is worried that she'll lose the email she's working on if she runs out of time, so I show her how to save a draft in Gmail. I end up working past when my shift ends to try and get a patron's final exam questions to print out instead of a blank page. I can't find the tanning bed woman, who I told to come back after picking up the one book we had that might be useful. Hopefully the printouts weren't in vain.

11:05 Oh, the sweet, air-conditioned haven of the staff area. Time for lunch and a book and some collection development.

12:00 Back on desk in the nonfiction/YA area. I check in with my co-worker about the tanning bed patron, who seems to have found what she needed. A patron asks me where the best place to plug in and work on a laptop would be. It's quiet, so I work on some collection development.

12:25 A woman comes over to ask for help finding books. They are by Patterson and Evanovich, but I know right where those are (and it's air-conditioned downstairs), so I take her down to find them, without much luck. We go two for four.

12:36 A patron walks by and tells me to "stop working hard."

12:42 People come up to the desk to try to check out books. I direct them around the corner. This happens fairly often when I'm sitting at this desk.

12:47 A patron has been standing over at the catalog for a while, so I ramble over to ask her if she needs any help. She says she's all set, so I return to my post.

12:50 A pair of kids are wandering around the mezzanine and looking in general like they were about to start running and playing hide-and-seek, which indeed they did. They ended up being chased down the stairs, with three other friends, by the security guard.

12:52 A man came up looking for the "music section." In the interests of conducting a proper reference interview, I asked a few follow-up questions and ended up taking him to books on the Blues. When I got back, a woman was waiting to ask me why Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture had been cataloged as 004.092 PAUSCH and not as a biography or memoir or even, as some libraries had it, as 158.1. She was looking at the Library of Congress material in the front matter as I walked up, so I assume she was a librarian or some sort of book person. After I looked to see how other libraries in our consortium had cataloged it, I responded honestly that I wasn't sure why Tech Services had put it in the 000s, but that I was glad it was actually on the shelf.

1:00 Off desk time! Better wrap up that nonfiction order.

2:00 Back on desk, this time at the slightly air-conditioned Fiction & Media desk. I check in with my co-worker about the rowdy children, who apparently have been running around and playing with the elevator for the last hour, despite the efforts of security.

2:10 A woman asks me for Chicken Soup for the Heart, which I diligently look for--my computer down here is so slow that an eternity passes between a click and a page loading--before gently asking her if maybe she would be interested in one of the hundreds of Chicken Soup for the Soul books instead. She departs for nonfiction.

2:22 A patron holding her toddler's hand asks if we have public computers where people can print things out. I direct her upstairs, and let her know that it's going to be 15 cents a page, except for resumes and cover letters, which are free.

2:30 A patron comes up looking for Kiss CDs but has been baffled by our system of organization, the ANSCR classification system for audio recordings. For some reason, he was having trouble with the concept of M Rock. In addition to being user-unfriendly, our CD collection is completely out of order. While trying to help this patron find music by an artist named Eva Cassidy, I find in the Cs: Duffy, Lady Gaga, Emilia, Levi Kreis, Jimmy Buffett, The Dave Matthews Band, Selena Gomez, Ann Wilson, and Paul Simon. Needless to say, I pull these out as I come across them and take them back to my desk to check them in. Four are marked Missing in the catalog, one has a hold, and I end up taking Duffy home with me. I could spend days and days organizing the DVDs and the CDs, but I'm afraid that they'd be out of order again within hours.

3:00 I realize how quiet it's been this afternoon. It's kind of spooky, actually. There should be more people here picking out DVDs for the weekend or something. Instead, all I've got is the regular from the 9:00 hour, who is considering the contents of our DVD collection for the nth time and wants to give me a job listing to pass on to anyone who might be looking. I think about ordering paperbacks.

3:10 Helping a woman who came in looking for a book that is checked out across western MA, which is a warning flag that has Summer Reading List written all over it. I request a copy from central MA, where it is not as in demand, and find her the call numbers for Angela's Ashes and 1984 as well. They, at least, appear to be in the library for her to take home. I do a fruitless online search for the rest of the Ludlow High reading list.

3:22 From the desk, I can clearly see a sleeping patron. I ponder the idea of waking him up, but he must sense something, because he stirs and checks his watch.

3:30 A couple walks up the stairs, saying "circulation" over and over again to each other. Um...okay?

3:34 I overcome difficulties understanding a woman with a heavy Russian accent and direct her to the author she's looking for.

3:37 My girlfriend posts a notice that Connie Willis has a new novelette coming out in December. I am completely derailed by this and must pre-order it right away. I am considering it my birthday present to myself.

3:40 A child is dragged from the library, screaming at the top of his/her lungs.

3:44 A patron asks me where I keep the new paperbacks. I tell him that I have a small display (and show him where it is), but otherwise they're with the rest of the paperbacks. He doesn't have anything particular that he's looking for, which makes him one of the frustrating kinds of patrons.

3:47 Time has ground to a complete halt, as far as I can tell.

3:50 This sometimes happens on Saturdays.

4:00 Before heading upstairs to my cubicle for off-desk time, I gather the latest registration forms and book reviews from the Adult Summer Reading Program, which I volunteered to lead at the main library. There are quite a few book reviews, so I will have plenty to share about what our patrons are enjoying via the library's Twitter feed.

4:30 Done for the day after tidying up a few odds and ends!

Links to my other Library Day in the Life posts:
A Day in the Life of a Reference Librarian
Weekend Edition
Late Shift Edition
Collection Development Edition

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Review: Cotillion [1953]

I am an avid consumer of well-written historical romances, and Georgette Heyer is universally acknowledged as the queen of the Georgian/Regency period. I've read several of her books here and there, and recently had the opportunity to read Cotillion on a borrowed Nook e-reader. This is the first time I've actually used a real e-reader (rather than my tiny ipod touch) to read a book, and I found the experience similar to reading the paper version . . . which I also checked out from my library. I alternated between the two, and found it very easy to use the Nook, although I still prefer my books without batteries.

Cotillion is set in 1816 and takes place largely in London. However, the action begins at Arnside, an estate to which all the young, unmarried male relations of a crotchety (but wealthy) old man have been summoned. The man is Matthew Penicuik, and he wishes to provide his great-nephews with the opportunity to offer for his ward Kitty Charing's hand in marriage, and thereby inherit his entire fortune. Miss Charing herself is not particularly fond of this plan, although she has been in love with one of the intended targets, Jack Westruther, since she was young. Fortunately or unfortunately, Jack does not appear to make an offer, and Kitty concocts a scheme to become "engaged" to his cousin, Freddy Standen, in order to get to London and secure Jack's attention.

Freddy, whose judgment "in all matters of Fashion, was extremely nice" and who has an excellent grasp on proper behavior among the ton, is also acknowledged by himself and his family members to be a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to practical matters. His genial good nature leads him to acquiesce to Kitty's spur-of-the moment plan, although the idea of ultimately breaking their engagement goes strongly against his sense of propriety. Kitty feels guilty about the deception, then awed as she is brought into the Standen family fold and introduced to the wonders and pitfalls of glamorous society. Kitty's impulsive, friendly behavior gets her involved in several situations that she and Freddy work together to resolve as a pair of rather unlikely cupids, even as she begins to realize that Jack may not be the man she thought she loved. Cotillion is a seamlessly woven and gently humorous novel that is sure to appeal to any Regency fan.

Grade: A

Although the false engagement plot is very well-worn at this point, it was refreshing to have both a hero and heroine neither laboring under the harsh yoke of secrets from the past nor outcast from society in any way by their poor behavior. Definitely no rake in need of reformation, Freddy is a very engaging hero, and it is refreshing to have the main male character be a dandy with no hidden reserves of physical strength or intelligence. Rather, he is kind and tolerant, muddling through when other people's scrapes are thrust in his lap. There are a few issues I could take with the book--Kitty's month in London seems to stretch forever and the resolution of her relationship with Freddy happens quite suddenly--but nothing that dissuaded me from finding the book completely charming.

The author of more than fifty books, including detective novels, Heyer's masterful grasp of setting and the rhythm of language shines most brilliantly in her Regencies. The wry, understated humor in Cotillion had my lips twitching on any number of occasions:
The Chevalier's fingers, writhing amongst his glossy brown locks, were fast ruining what had been an admirable example of the Brutus, made fashionable by Mr Brummell. Freddy watched this with pained disapproval. It did not seem to him to serve any useful purpose; it was, in fact, a work of quite wanton destruction.
For a book that was published more than fifty years ago, Cotillion holds up incredibly well, and feels much more authentic and well-formed than most of what's published today in the same genre. If anyone reading this loves Regency romances and hasn't read something by Heyer, I would be truly sorry to hear it.

ETA: While she was dying, my mother embarked on a project to re-read (or read for the first time) all the Heyers she could get her hands on, which meant that I spent a lot of time getting books from several Salt Lake City libraries and creating a master list so we could track what she had read.

Additional reading:  
The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken Hodge
Georgette Heyer's Regency World, by Jennifer Kloester

Book Review Index
Dead mother: Yes

Thursday, June 2, 2011

TV Review: Cougar Town Season One [2009]

I confess that I watched Cougar Town entirely because Tara and Joe wouldn't stop talking about it on the Extra Hot Great podcast. If anyone said to me that Cougar Town has television's worst show name, I would agree emphatically. Not only is it based on an offensive stereotype about older women of voracious sexual appetites who "chase" younger men, it doesn't actually have a lot to do with the show at this point, so it's both lame and irrelevant. Instead of judging the show by its title, which is admittedly difficult, it's key to understand that it was created by Bill Lawrence, the creative mind behind Scrubs. If you liked Scrubs, the chances are good that you're also going to enjoy Cougar Town. I've only watched about five Friends episodes from start to finish, so I'm not a huge Courteney Cox fan, but I did watch and enjoy Scrubs for several years before I got tired of it retreading the same territory. I enjoyed watching Cougar Town for many of the same reasons: it features quirky characters, absurd humor, and surprising heart. 

Cougar Town is a half-hour comedy on ABC set in southern Florida. Jules Cobb, the main character, is a recently-divorced realtor played by Courteney Cox. After splitting with her cheating ex-husband, Bobby, Jules tries partying and no-strings-attached dating as a way to make up for the seventeen years she spent working and raising their son. And yes, some of her early dates are significantly younger men. Jules's two best friends are her next door neighbor, Ellie Torres (played by Christa Miller, aka Jordan on Scrubs), and her younger employee, Laurie Keller (the hilarious Busy Phillips). Ellie and Laurie have nothing in common aside from their relationship with Jules, who functions as the show's neurotic, interfering caretaker.

On the male side of the equation are redneck Bobby, who lives on a boat stranded in a parking lot, his slavishly devoted best friend Andy Torres (married to Ellie), and Grayson Ellis, a recently divorced man in his 40s who lives across the street from Jules and is often seen bringing home college-aged women for one-night stands. Jules and Bobby's son, Travis, also appears in most episodes; he and Jules have a relationship that pushes the boundary of too close, something that is true of many of the pairings on Cougar Town. From week to week, the show shuffles its seven main characters in different combinations around a loose theme. The best moments come from unexpected pairings and the surprising sweetness they can generate, as well as from the accumulated small, comfortable moments around things like Penny Can (a game featured in several episodes) or the gang's fondness for wine.

Let's not pretend in any way that Cougar Town is a hugely groundbreaking show. It's a formulaic sitcom. The worst things about it are its lack of diversity (both racial and sexual, although I suppose Andy counts as a token); the fact that most of its female characters--especially Jules--have issues with food; and its tendency to essentialize men and women and their interactions with each other as if they could be universally applied. Despite its flaws, however, Cougar Town ends up on the "charming" side of the scale, rising above these issues by virtue of its quirky tone.

There are several things that Cougar Town gets right, although it took some time for it to find its footing in the first season. I appreciated that by the end of the season, the show had moved far from "cougar" territory to portraying Jules in a healthy relationship with someone her age and transferred the entirety of the Predatory Woman stereotype to bit character Barb. Barb makes me giggle every time she shows up, especially at Travis's graduation, where she explains that she's there to preview talent for the fantasy draft of younger men that will soon be on the market. I think the showrunners made another smart move by making the show more about the "Cul-de-Sac Crew" as a group than about Jules and her struggle to re-enter the single life.

Grade: B-

Friday, May 27, 2011

Meditation on My Luxurious Leg Hair

How amazingly freeing it would be if hair removal — arguably the most deep-seated and impenetrable of all our beauty myths — became strictly optional, and being hairy was considered maybe a little hipster-ish (or insert your-favorite-youth-culture-group-here), but basically cool? -- Virginia Sole-Smith

I have never been super diligent about shaving my leg hair. When it first became A Thing To Do, I never quite understood the need to remove something that was so determined to grow on my body. In high school, when my entire basketball team decided to support one of our members in her pursuit of the Hairy Leg portion of the Smooth/Hairy Leg contest for Spirit Week, I was relieved that I would more easily blend in with my teammates when we were all wearing shorts. The looks on the faces of one opposing team in particular (whom we privately called the Microwave Barbies) were priceless to behold. We may even have gotten a few points off them before they crushed us with their superior firepower and uniformly perky blonde ponytails.

My mother's leg and arm hair had long since been stunted by radiation, and shaving was something that she rarely bothered to do. Nevertheless, I have always felt obliged to shave my legs (eventually), probably due to some unspoken social pressure. Like many women, I do less shaving during the winter, and I never wear skirts and therefore don't feel any obligation to have accordingly feminine-looking legs. I've never considered waxing or any other more extreme form of hair-removal, because I simply don't care that much whether there is hair on my legs at all. And I like to avoid pain wherever possible!

Last winter, I was stricken with a particularly painful full-body outbreak of psoriasis, which meant that I certainly wasn't going to apply a razor to any part of me, as it already looked and felt as if that had occurred. Several months and many treatments later, I was recovered enough to shave my left leg, but ran out of energy before I got to the other one. And then I kept shaving the left leg, and leaving the right leg. I idly wondered (although I knew better) if there would be some kind of crucial length of time where the growth would eventually stop, or whether I would have a braid-able quantity at some point. I enjoyed the contrast of one smooth leg and one . . . not. Recently, I went to the mall in shorts and noticed an older woman staring at my legs. I guess that unspoken social stigma is still in place for women with hairy legs, or maybe it only exists for women with one hairy leg?

This experimental phase of my life ended abruptly with the onset of summer weather and the brave sacrifice of two razor-heads. Did I end up shaving my right leg because of the aforementioned social pressure? I can't be sure. Part of me wants to grow it back out again expressly so I can find that lady at the mall and walk aggressively past her. Part of me just wanted my legs to match again, which, of course, they don't. I now have a smooth-shaven right leg and a few days of growth on the left leg.

Leg shaving: It's a lose-lose proposition.

Other reading: My other meditation on hair; Beauty Schooled on hairy legs and Reclaiming the Leg Wax; the frightening articles in Allure's Hair Removal section of the website; and an opinion piece on Feminism, Women Shaving & The Western Harem.

Meditation Index

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: The Doomsday Book [1992]

I'll come right out and say it: Connie Willis is my favorite author and this is not the first time I've read The Doomsday Book (1992). The first time was sometime in the late 90s, after I was introduced to her work by randomly picking up a hardcover edition of To Say Nothing of the Dog in Sam Weller's. I never looked back, devouring everything of hers that I came across (with the exception of Blackout and All Clear, which are waiting patiently for me to get around to them). The Doomsday Book is set among the same time-travelling Oxford-based historians and comes a little bit earlier in the timeline than To Say Nothing of the Dog. It's hard to believe that it's been almost twenty years since it was published!

Kivrin Engle is on the brink of becoming the first historian to be sent back in time to the middle ages, and her mentor James Dunworthy is not remotely happy about it. The acting head of the History department is determined to get her to 1320 before his authority is revoked, and therefore hasn't pursued proper safety precautions. Kivrin, who is eager to experience life in medieval England, blithely departs anyway, at which point everything goes awry. Hours after her departure, those in 2055 Oxford are struck down by a mysterious virus that prevents Dunworthy from finding out where and, more importantly, when Kivrin has landed. The narrative is divided between his "current day" struggles to make sure she's all right and Kivrin's experience in the past.

When she arrives, Kivrin also falls ill and is taken to a nearby manor house to recover. As she becomes familiar with the language and the "contemps" of the village she is taken to, she gradually falls into the pattern of daily life. Although she makes regular "reports" to a recorder implant, she loses her distance from her subject matter, coming to care for the family that nurses her back to health, especially the children. But there are times when she is also forcibly reminded that she doesn't belong:
It's already happened, Kivrin thought wonderingly. The verdict is already in and Lord Guillaume's come home and found out about Gawyn and Eliwys. Rosemund's already been handed over to Sir Bloet. And Agnes has grown up and married and died in childbirth, or of blood poisoning, or cholera, or pneumonia. They've all died, she thought, and couldn't make herself believe it. They've all been dead over seven hundred years. [241]
Meanwhile, Mr. Dunworthy and his assistant Finch try valiantly to find someone to operate "the net" and locate Kivrin in the midst of sickness and quarantine, protesters, a group of American bell-ringers, a boy who snuck in to the quarantine area because he thought it would be interesting, an archaeological dig, bureaucratic red tape, and the Christmas season. The intertwined narrative is beautifully crafted and moving, bringing me to tears every time I read it.

Grade: A

The Doomsday Book isn't easily categorized into one genre. It's got time travel, sure, and I read it as part of the "Women of Science Fiction" book club. But it's also historical fiction and, perhaps unexpectedly, a thriller. The reader is aware from the outset that Kivrin is likely in terrible danger, even as she innocently believes she's been sent to 1320. The revelation that she's been sent (SPOILER ALERT) to 1348 and the horror of the Black Death hangs over the narrative for almost three hundred pages before finally being confirmed. Willis takes the time to build sympathetic characters (in both time periods) that we become attached to, even though we have a nagging suspicion that many of them may end up dead.

The novel also features many classic Connie Willis elements, including a Christmas setting, picketers and ridiculous signs ("Do Not Have A Relapse"), a running screwball comic thread featuring Finch and the bell-ringers that keeps the drama from becoming overwhelming, a text stuffed with historical details, and a large cast of characters, many of them flawed. There are any number of people who can only see the world through their particular obsessions, including Dunworthy.

Willis also explores the greater question of responsibility and blame: who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands during the Black Death? Who is to blame for getting Kivrin lost in the past? Is there a God? If so, how could that god allow so many people to suffer so horribly? Coupled with this is a continuing thread that explores expectations (given as statistics and probabilities by those studying the past) versus the realities of everyday life and human experience.

Random Thoughts:

My second trip through The Doomsday Book was actually via audio cassette, and it's amazing how some passages came back to me in the voice of the narrator, even though it's been years.

Had I but world enough and time, I would read Willis's short story "Fire Watch," the first of the Oxford Time Travel stories, followed by To Say Nothing of the Dog and then Blackout and All Clear to complete the cycle. It's a goal.

Dead Mother: Yes
Book Review Index

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Meditation on Mother's Day

I have a bit of a conflicted relationship with Mother's Day. It's been five years now since my mother was alive on this "holiday," and thinking about mothers and hearing everyone else's mom appreciations always makes me miss her terribly. My grandmothers are no longer around either, creating a bit of a vacuum where once cards were mailed. We weren't exactly avid about celebrating Mother's Day in my childhood. Sure, we did the usual mandatory homemade cards and breakfast-cooking attempts, but after breakfast in bed it was pretty much business as usual. The idea of a day especially to honor mothers is both sweet and . . . kind of like Administrative Professionals Day. If we knew what was good for us, we'd probably make sure moms and office supply gatekeepers were soundly appreciated every day. However, since that doesn't happen, I feel that Mother's Day is a whack-upside-the-head kind of opportunity to reflect on the awesomeness of parents in general and moms in particular. I'm also going to take this opportunity to say an extremely early Happy Father's Day to my father, who was there every day when I got home from school while I was growing up, and who did the laundry and a great deal of cooking and other tasks traditionally assigned to mothers. I haven't remembered Father's Day for the past many moons, so this is likely the best he's going to get! And I am proud to have been raised by two people so adept at co-parenting.

My feelings about Mother's Day have recently been even more complicated by the fact that I became a mother a little less than two years ago. My son is lucky enough to have two mothers, in fact, so he will have to do double-duty on Mother's Day in the future. As with many landmarks in my life, my son's arrival makes it difficult to be cranky about the commercialism of holidays, because it's just fun to have him around. I can't be as sad about my mother's absence when he looks up and smiles so brilliantly at me or gives me a sweet kiss on the cheek as he did this morning. I do wish that my son and my mother had the opportunity to get to know each other and spend lazy Mother's Day mornings together, but since that's not possible, we'll do the best we can with what we have and try to approach every day as if it were a special day for parents and children.

In honor of my mother, some of the posts I've written that feature her:

Meditation on Hair Loss
Sports I Love: Figure Skating
Meditation on the Answering Machine
A Meditation on Dead Mothers (in Books I've Been Reading)

Meditation Index

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Status Report

Perhaps one or two readers of this blog have wondered about my rather minimal output lately. Haven't I been reading? Don't I have interesting things to say about my favorite topics (me, libraries, books, tiny things, and ME) and the leisure to transmit those thoughts through a keyboard and click "publish"? I have been doing those things, dear readers, just not here! I have been throwing my intellectual seed to the winds of the internet, and I expect that strange things will start growing in the next nine months or so. Let me point you in the direction of some recent output:

I recently started a blog with my friend Robin (@Tuphlos) so that we could host longer-format discussions of the collection development issues that we regularly discuss (or possibly rant about) on Twitter. Recent posts include practical advice for librarians tackling nonfiction collection development and a description of how materials donations are handled at my library.* If you are interested in guest posting, please let me know! It would be great to have some perspectives beyond that of the harried public librarian.

On a monthly basis, I lovingly select romance and cozy mystery book covers to . . . "feature" at MARC of the Beast in conjunction with broadcasting their blurbs over Twitter. This is a collaborative foray into the wilds of Tumblr with my friend Kristin (@shinyinfo). If you appreciate puns, and wish that every cozy mystery title featured a spectacularly good/bad one, this is the site for you. If you are genuinely excited that every third romance novel published by Harlequin features a pregnancy and/or a boss, you might not be as interested.

And finally, I recently responded to a call for more lesbrarians, and started reading and submitting monthly reviews of lesbian fiction over on the Lesbrary site. My first review garnered a response from the author; I'm still not sure if this is good or bad. My most recent review was of Karin Kallmaker's Paperback Romance, and I've just volunteered to read Rum Spring, which features an Amish heroine ("Love or tradition? Which path will she choose?").

That is what I've been up to, but I'm also finishing up some books that will be absolutely ideal for review on this blog, and I am working on a general post about lesbian fiction. Thanks for reading!

*I suppose I should say at some point that my views are my own, and do not represent my place of employment. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Helga Recommends: Podcasts

This blog features my opinions, but I don't talk too much about individual things that I like beyond rating and reviewing the books I read and occasionally other things as well. I spend a lot of time in the car, so in addition to my dependency on audiobooks to help pass the time (and actually cross books off the TBR list), I have developed a rotation of podcasts that I listen to every week. Podcasts are more portable than audiobooks, which I listen to on CD, and I listen to them while doing chores, or at the grocery store, or any time I want to tune out reality. This requires subscribing to many podcasts.

My podcast rotation includes:

Pop Culture Happy Hour: All of the credit/blame for this weekly NPR offering goes to PCHH evangelist and my dear friend Margaret (@MrsFridayNext), who repeatedly referenced it until I had to listen in order to make sense of her effusions. I didn't start at the beginning, and it wasn't until later that I finally figured out Linda Holmes was also the Television Without Pity recapper Miss Alli, whom I had diligently followed through many TARcon and other recaps. It was truly a moment of squee. The show is a minefield of music, book, comic, and movie recommendations that you will want to follow through on (AT YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY).

Extra Hot Great: Tara Ariano and Joe Reid are also ex-TWoP gurus. EHG is a forum in which they--and designer Glark (David T. Cole)--weigh in on pop culture with a variety of delightful (usually TWoP-related) guests. They have several regular segments, but my favorite is inevitably Game Time, in which Tara and Joe face off and answer pop culture trivia questions. They often talk about shows I don't know or care for, and despite this I find myself listening attentively.

Slate's Culture Gabfest: This podcast is hosted by Slate talking heads (usually Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner) and features three segments each week, followed by a round of endorsements. As with PCHH, the endorsements usually lead directly to interlibrary loan requests. Unlike the first two podcasts I listed, the Gabfest emphasizes "culture" rather than "pop culture," and the subject matter ranges from insanely popular to rarefied. One of my favorite recent moments was when they went to see the Justin Bieber movie and dissected it as seriously as possible.

Only a Game: Every time I listen to this WBUR show, which features interesting, journalistic stories about different sports, I end up wishing it were twice as long. Bill Littlefield is a knowledgeable and gracious host, and I often ending up purchasing the featured books for the library. I also enjoy the weekly review of sports news that Littlefield does with the always-gregarious Charlie Pierce, derailed as it often is by Charlie laughing at his own jokes. Also known as: The Sports Show for People Who Don't Really Care About Sports.

Hang Up and Listen: Another Slate offering, this time with a sports angle. Hosted by

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Review: Bossypants [2011]

Among people of my acquaintance, Tina Fey is seen as a kind of celebrity Everywoman. Even though her life undoubtedly includes photo shoots and awards shows and running a popular television show and occasionally moonlighting on Saturday Night Live, she still manages to seem "normal," almost like one of us. She's not tall, or freakishly skinny, she has a scar on her face, and she's funny. That's why Fey's memoir Bossypants was hotly anticipated as the book that would allow us to learn more about our famous sister.

Bossypants chronicles Fey's childhood in suburban Philadelphia, her move to Chicago and time with Second City, and her years with SNL and 30 Rock through a series of loosely connected stories. While her narrative is unabashedly written from a female perspective--from her first period to her first trip to Planned Parenthood for a Pap smear to the question of whether she should have a second child--it is also presented in the wry, self-deprecating way that one would expect from her writing: "nowhere in the pamphlet did anyone say that your period was NOT a blue liquid." Fey is keenly aware of her position as a woman in a male-dominated industry, and Bossypants works best when she is using her story to dissect the double-standards and stereotypes she's encountered. This is not a good book in which to find "dirt" on other celebrities, but it is an excellent glimpse into the life of a smart, hilarious, and driven woman who is balancing a career and personal life, just like the rest of us.

For a memoir, though, Fey provides remarkably little information about her childhood and family. I was looking forward to learning about her past, and certainly that was accomplished--in terms of her career. As for her early childhood, Fey spends a brief chapter and quickly moves on. Despite the fact that the book is dedicated to Fey's mother, there are only the barest hints of her presence in the narrative. Fey mentions her brother very early on ("My brother is eight years older than I am. I was a big surprise."), but there is no sense of how their relationship functioned as children, or whether they even interacted at all. There is a chapter on her father, Don Fey, but that's the exception in this glossed-over part of her history. She talks about Christmas at her in-laws' house, but never introduces a contrasting picture of Christmas with her family. It's as if Fey is completely comfortable talking about her professional failings and, to some extent, her personal feelings about her career and motherhood, but she's unwilling to cross a certain boundary of privacy. This is completely understandable, but it means that even after an entire book, I still got the sense that I was somehow missing the real Tina Fey.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book! There were several times I laughed out loud, and I definitely appreciated Fey's understated humor. Bossypants is a quick and fun read, and since Tina Fey is a celebrity, I am looking forward to her follow-up memoir that addresses all the gaps I whined about above.

Grade: B

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: The Likeness [2008]

I'm not sure what I would have done if I'd finished In the Woods and The Likeness hadn't been waiting for me at the library--gnashed my teeth and written an angry blog post, perhaps. Actually (gasp) run out and purchased the book? Thankfully, no drastic actions were necessary. As I said in my review of the first book, The Likeness actually caught my eye several years ago, but I thought I'd better start at the beginning.

Tana French's follow-up picks up in the aftermath of Operation Vestal with the story of Cassandra Maddox, whose relationship with the narrator of In the Woods ended in flaming ruin, largely because of his inability to deal with the past. Subsequently, Cassie left the murder squad and joined Domestic Violence, which she finds much less satisfying. When she is called to advise on a homicide case run by her new boyfriend Sam O'Neill and her old boss in Undercover, Frank Mackey, she is startled to find that the victim appears to be her exact double and was using an alias that she and Mackey created together many years ago.

Mackey comes up with an unorthodox plan to uncover her killer's identity: Cassie will revisit her undercover days and resume the victim's life as if she had been wounded, rather than killed. Although she first greets his scheme with understandable skepticism, going undercover also offers Cassie a much-needed break from the lingering effects of Operation Vestal. However, the downside is that the culprit is likely among the four people with whom the victim, Lexie Madison, shared an old mansion in the country. As Cassie gradually becomes comfortable in Lexie's life, she also grows close to her housemates--a group of inseparable, eccentric graduate students--and learns more about "Lexie's" life before she assumed her own false identity. Will the killer figure out Cassie's game before she has a chance to figure out the truth of what happened to Lexie?

Grade: A-

The Likeness has a fascinating premise that I'm not sure I ever fully embraced. This might be because I've never met someone who looks exactly like me; I have been mistaken for other people, however, and that's always a disconcerting feeling. Despite the fact that I was somewhat reluctant to buy in, The Likeness was easily one of the best books I've read recently, and an excellent follow-up to In the Woods. It has the same deft, location-oriented nostalgia and emotional resonance, although this time the setting is Whitethorn House rather than the woods. French does a masterful job of blurring the lines of Cassie's identity as her personality becomes subsumed into "Lexie." Even though the operation must have a finite end, the illusion of a fresh start is so powerful that she is tempted to embrace it as a safe haven, even as the housemates' relationships are more and more strained because of her presence. The Likeness is suspense of the most excruciating and drawn-out variety; its tension is not predicated on imminent danger and horrific acts, but on the slow breakdown of human relationships and the agony of inevitable endings.

Random Thoughts:

I listened to The Likeness on audio CD, and that was definitely a good decision. I can't testify for the accuracy of the various Irish accents employed by the narrator, but there's something about the rhythm of French's language and narrative description that lends itself to that medium.

French tends to weave a certain amount of commentary on Irish politics or the "state of the nation" into her novels, and The Likeness is no exception. Sometimes these are quick comments about the concept of land and ownership, and sometimes they're more lengthy discourses that can bring the plot (in this case, already very slow to unfold) to a grinding halt. Overall, it's fascinating to find out more about another culture that is similar to ours, yet very different at the same time.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Review: Anna and the French Kiss [2010]

Ah, Paris, City of Light. Several of my friends read Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins, and spoke very highly of it, and the title character shares my name. How could I not put in on my TBR pile?

Anna Oliphant is a high school senior whose famous-author father has arbitrarily decided she would benefit from a year abroad before she graduates. The School of America in Paris (or SOAP) is an elite institution at which middle-class, movie-loving Anna does not feel immediately at home. She's left her mother and younger brother, as well as her best friend Bridgette and the boy that she kissed the night before she left for France. At SOAP, she is befriended by a girl named Meredith, and falls into her group of friends, which includes the beautiful (and taken), British-accented Étienne St. Clair.

The chemistry between Anna and St. Clair is immediate, and the bulk of the book is essentially a "will they-won't they" that unfolds over the course of her year in Paris. Anna and the French Kiss is a quick read, but Perkins takes the time to build the relationship between Anna and St. Clair. My favorite part of the book is Anna's slow acclimation to a different way of life. She comes to Paris without friends, without knowing French, and feeling completely inadequate. She figures out how to manage and do the things she likes (most importantly, going to movie theaters) to the point that she actually misses Paris while she's home over Christmas. In that way, the story is as much a love letter to Paris, as well as people's ability to be at home anywhere, as long as are in the company of those they love.

Grade: B+

Random Thoughts:

Are we to mentally pronounce "St. Clair" as "Sinclair," like St. John in Jane Eyre? It worked out OK when I tried it, although I kept slipping up when I wasn't paying attention.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: [Spoiler] No

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Meditation on Being a Teacher

There was a time in my life when I was absolutely convinced that I wasn't cut out to teach anything to anyone. In the summer of 2000, I had just earned my Master's degree in English Literature, but I was at a crossroads. If I wanted to continue into the PhD program, I was also required to attempt teaching college students how to write and, even more nerve-wracking, how to think critically (at least in theory). Considering I was twenty-two at the time and felt very nervous about teaching people not that much younger than me, and was also feeling other pressures to change the direction of my life, it's not surprising that I chose to end my academic career.

I don't regret the decision, because it ultimately led me to my work as a librarian, but I've always felt like I chickened out. I was sure that my parents, who were both teachers themselves, disapproved somehow. They had intimated that I would be good at teaching. My father was a tenured professor in the discipline I was abandoning, my linguist mother taught Spanish before moving on to her career as an editor, and my childhood was filled with looking things up in the dictionary and trying to understand out the difference between "lay" and "lie" as it was explained over the dinner table. That one still gives me trouble sometimes.

The teaching portion of my current job as a reference librarian in a large public library is fairly minimal, given all of the other things that I do at the library. It takes up a relatively small amount of my time; the classes are one-shot attempts to teach patrons how to use the programs and services that the library offers. When I first started teaching computer classes, beginning with Computer Basics, the easiest to conceive but sometimes the hardest to teach, I was terribly nervous. How could I be responsible for teaching people skills that might make a difference for them when applying for jobs? I started slowly, gained momentum, and eventually realized that I . . . was kind of good at what I was doing. People were actually learning things! It was amazing.

Library patrons are probably some of the easiest students to have because, unlike the college students that plague some of my friends who did not  abandon English literature, they have very low expectations and absolutely no investment. The classes we offer are free, which also means that getting people to attend can be an uphill battle. My patrons are grateful if I answer their questions. They are happy if they learn anything at all in the course of the hour and a half I spend explaining things like how to use a mouse or how to minimize a window. I get immediate feedback in the form of evaluations that are handed back at the end of class. There are some hard realities that could be discussed here about economic differences, and the digital divide, and our educational system, but I will save that for another post. I am simply grateful to have the opportunity to share my knowledge with people who are so willing to embrace it.

Which brings me to my other teaching job, one that is both challenging and rewarding. My son is now more than 18 months old, and he is acquiring words and concepts almost faster than I can keep up with. It is tempting to want him frozen as an adorable toddler before he can develop into a rowdy (rowdier) boy or a teenage terror, but at the same time, watching him learn and grow is fascinating. He absorbs everything I say and everything he sees around him, and he reflects it back at unexpected moments. His other parent and I read to him every day and encourage his curiosity and engagement with the world, but it's difficult to determine . . . success? I'm sure most parents wonder if they are teaching their children the right things at the right time and place. Teaching someone the difference between right and wrong, or even teaching someone to say "cold" when they're not 100% clear on the concept, is a bit more difficult than teaching the right-click. Unlike my other job, I have no evaluation forms to tell me whether I'm going the right direction. I can only hope that the outcome will be similar to when he learns how to ride a bike. He will wobble a little, and maybe crash into a few parked cars, but eventually he will be ready to drive off around the block out of my sight as I sit on the porch steps. I will wait patiently for him to come back around to me, and hope that someday he can teach me the difference between "lay" and "lie."

Meditation Index

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Meditation on 2010 Romance Novel Titles

In late 2009, I reviewed the Romantic Times list of award nominees for that year and came up with some conclusions about their titles, particularly about historical romances. This past year, I was late on the RT nominees, but that's fine, because I am just in time to evaluate their 2010 list and the
Romance Writers of America 2011 RITA and Golden Heart finalists (for books published in 2010; some titles appear on both lists). Last time, my approach was haphazard, to say the least, but this year I have a larger pool--let me pause to emphasize that these are all award-nominated books, and therefore I am being magnanimous by only evaluating the "best" titles out there--to work from, and I am prepared once again to come to Startling Conclusions about romance novel titles. My approach is still haphazard, but I've expanded the artificially-created categories that I'm arbitrarily using, so it's totally more scientific, right?

Notable Players:

Nobility: As usual, having a title is a big deal in romance-land (particularly for historicals), and the clear winner was Duke, with 8 titles. Er, should that be title-titles? [Followed by Lord: 4, Lady: 3, King, Prince, Earl, and Countess: 2, Queen, Duchess, Baron, Royal, and "Gentleman": 1] I'm going to go ahead and put the two "Heiress" titles here as well. Total: 30 titles. My favorite: I Kissed an Earl.

Punctuation: This is my favorite trend. There were, naturally, a ton of series romance books using colons in ill-advised ways (eight titles), but the question mark made a strong showing as well this year, appearing in five titles. There was also one title that sported an exclamation point! My favorites (I can't choose just one): Hired: Sassy Assistant and, doubling up on punctuation, Marriage: For Business or Pleasure? Total: 14 titles.

Rogues: There was some speculation on Twitter that Rogan (he prefers to be known as "Rogue") was "in" as a hero name after I posted my review of The Master's Mistress. Not only is Rogue popular as a name, "rogue" was big in titles as well, carrying five novels alone, and there were an additional four with the synonyms "rebel" or "renegade" to recommend them. My favorite: Red-Hot Renegade. [Related: There were also five book titles that referenced rakes, scoundrels, or libertines. Those words have a somewhat more unsavory flavor, however, so I didn't include them in "Rogue" proper. Feel free to disagree violently in the comments.]

Death: A surprising number of titles were "deadly," "fatal," "lethal," or had something else to do with killing. I am going to chalk this up to genrefusion and move on. This category is so boring that I don't have a favorite title.

Christmas: As I noted in an earlier post on Christmas titles, they're the gift that keeps on giving. From the gag-worthy Christmas with Her Boss (... award-nominated, remember?) to my personal favorite, A Cop in Her Stocking, these books are apparently year-round favorites. Total: 10 + 2 novellas.

Notably Absent or Diminished:
  • Only 3.5 (one was a novella) mentions of millionaires or billionaires or tycoons or magnates. This has to be an ALL-TIME LOW. And as much as I hate the boss-employee trend that is so hot right now, there were only six titles that overtly referenced it.
  • Corollary: Only THREE Sheikh titles! What is this world coming to?
  • Only seven Scots titles. I feel like I personally have ordered at least 10 "Highlander" books this past year, so it surprised me that there were so few, especially considering there is a whole category for "Scotland-Set Historical Romance" in the RT awards. There was one, ahem, rogue title that went Irish instead.
  • Four "angel" titles. I don't think this is as much of a thing as we were led to believe it might be, and here is the evidence. Speaking of "evidence," that word was featured in two titles. 
  • The four "devil" titles pretty much cancel out the angel titles, right?
  • Marriage or weddings were mentioned in eleven titles. Brides or wives were mentioned in an additional eight. 
  • A solid 15 titles contained the words "night" or "midnight," with an additional seven calling on "dark" or "darkness." I'll also throw the four "moon" or "moonlight" titles on top of that heap.
  • Eleven titles referenced temptation or seduction in some way. Not surprising, as these are romance novels we're discussing. Another eight talked about kissing. 
  • Emphasizing the moral element, nine titles were "wicked" while four talked about sin. 
  • There were a few surrenders (4), some "forbidden" romances (3), and, interestingly (possibly only to me?), four "stranger" titles.
  • There must be something in it, because several titles referenced the sea, or sailing, or islands, or water. 
For those of you who are visual learners, I have made graphs to chart the most frequent themes and the most frequent "atmospheric" choices:
    These are the themes or words that came up most often in the pool of 100+ nominees. Someone interested in publishing the next big romance novel would be wise to include ALL of them, or at least as many as possible. For example:

    The Roguish Duke's Midnight Seduction: Island of the Deadly Christmas Moon?

    I think it has a nice ring to it. Feel free to submit your own Ideal Title in the comments.

    ETA other favorite titles:  Dad's E-mail Order Bride; Knight of Passion; They Almost Always Come Home; and Zoe and the Tormented Tycoon.

    Meditation Index