july and august reading

Claiming Ground by Laura Bell — Because I grew up in Iowa City (and later attended graduate school there), home of the Iowa Writers Workshop, I have heard a lot of authors talk and read from their books, and I have read a great many books and stories set in my hometown or some place very like it. It’s sort of a game, really — seeing how quickly you can figure out which bar the characters are meeting up at, or deducing what apartment someone lived in during the time their memoir takes place, or whatever. Reading Laura Bell’s book was my first real experience of that in Wyoming (there are other books about this part of the world — Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces and Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction spring to mind first — but this is the first one I read while living here). Reading it brought the particular delight recognizing people and places that I know, or know of, but it is also a good read as a memoir by a woman trying to figure out how to belong to a place she is not from.

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand — A good but peculiar young adult novel about theatrically and romantically inclined cousins. I say peculiar because the book is told by a first person adult narrator about her young adulthood, and it ends with the narrator as an adult, which made it seem like an old-fashioned book in many ways (my unscientific perception being that the adult narrator looking back was more common in children’s and YA books of the earlier parts of the 20th century, before the YA explosion of recent years). The story is told by Maddy and is about growing up in what had been a large extended theatrical family that was merely now a large extended rather complacent family, except for Maddy and her cousin Rogan, who were theatre mad and also in love. The main part of the story deals with their high school’s production of Twelfth Night, in which they both star, and of what happens to them afterward, and what eventually reunites them.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman — I loved this book, and then I got taken to task by my very smart friends for not questioning why the gay character must be a tortured youth aspect and for not recognizing that the main female character is not really allowed to be much of a character. I will cop to that. I still loved the idea of magic in this book — that it’s not really actually all that good for anything — and so you have all these with a lot of skills and really no actual purpose in life. Given that that’s pretty much exactly how I felt upon finishing my fancy liberal arts college, I suppose it makes sense that I related to the book. I also found it wickedly funny, and if you’re a fan of children’s fantasy literature in general and Narnia in particular, you’ll have a great time picking out all the references.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan — I love the New York Times reviewer who began his review this way:

If you’re like me, you tend to regard plot summaries as a necessary boredom at best. They’re the flyover country between a reviewer’s landing strips of judgment, revealing almost nothing about the way a book actually works, almost nothing about why it succeeds or fails. . . . At least this is how I felt until I read Jennifer Egan’s remarkable new fiction.

He then proceeds to try to summarize the plot (I’ll let you click through for it), which is crazy and both epic and quotidian. I loved Egan’s first novel, The Invisible Circus, so much that I sort of keep hoping she’ll write it again. She never has, and her subsequent novels are so very different from that one that I always think I’m not really going to like them, but then I read them and I do. This one, in particular, reminds me of what my grandmother once told me: that you never really know when someone is going to show up in your life. A Visit from the Goon Squad is that in literature, writ large.

R Exposure by Kathryn Harrison — Something I read online somewhere made me think I should reread this, but I can no longer remember what. In any case, I love Kathryn Harrison, and this one was worth revisiting.

Father of the Rain by Lily King — One of the best and most satisfying novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s decidedly one where describing the plot — which deals with Daley growing up with her alcoholic father, leaving him, and going back to try to help him — doesn’t do it justice at all.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell — Caldwell’s memoir about her friendship with Caroline Knapp (author, most famously, of Drinking: A Love Story) is about dogs and rowing and dealing with death and grief and being a recovering alcoholic and various other things, but the parts that interested me most were those that dealt with being a single woman. Not single in a Bridget Jones/Sex and the City/constantly on the lookout for the next guy, if not The One kind of a way, but single in a living by yourself and having your life and being happy kind of a way. There’s not enough of that narrative in the world.

Cash by Johnny Cash — Our first book for this year’s book discussion group. I made everyone watch the video of Hurt, but what was most interesting to me was hearing from people — our group ranges from age 34 to age 76 — about their experiences listening to Cash over the years, and their sense of how he was talked about in their youth.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan — I knew going into this story told by two high school students named Will Grayson from two very different Chicago suburbs that I would love it, and I was not disappointed. As with many of John Green’s books, I found the ending a wee bit over the top, but I sort of don’t care, because a) it’s fiction and b) the characters and the writing and the dialogue are so wonderful and funny. Actually, b) is the far more important point. I often say that I know I really, really love a book when I find myself punching the sofa during particularly good bits. This book and Father of the Rain were the big couch punching books this summer.

LSW coloring contest, round 2!

Cross-posted from thelsw.org.

a woman carrying a pile of books and a man reading
image for the new LSW coloring contest; please see post for details and a printable version
Remember the last time we had a coloring contest? Wasn’t that fun?

Let’s do it again! Using my expert librarian searching skillz, I have located this dubiously copyrighted image and made it into a coloring sheet for you all. Download and print yourself a PDF copy (or upload it into Photoshop or whatever you want to do), color, embellish, destroy, do whatever, and then send it back by September 1, 2010 to

Laura Crossett
LSW Clubhouse North
PO Box 85
Meeteetse, WY 82433

Or, if you insist, you can rescan the sucker and email it to me at newrambler at gmail dot com (but if you send it to me in the mail, I’ll send you something in return).

Update 8/10/10: Thanks to LSW member N.Ansi, we now also have an .svg version, which is handily editable in Inkscape.

on reading cover letters and resumes

The invaluable Swiss Army Librarian posted some Notes on Reading Resumes a few weeks back. At my library, I am also on a committee that is evaluating 40+ applications for a single position. Some of them are very good. Some of them are very bad. Many of them need. . . help. And so in the interests of providing some of that, I thought I’d make a few notes of my own.

  • File format does matter. Like Brian, I think PDF is the best choice you can make at present, as it will be sure to preserve your typography and spacing and such, and it’s fairly standard. If you have Microsoft Word 2007, you can save any document as a PDF. If you don’t have Word, and don’t have money, Open Office is free and will let you do the same thing. We got one letter that came as a text file, without about two words per line. It was so unreadable that I’m not sure anyone on the committee took it seriously.
  • I am biased toward people with some kind of web presence. No, I don’t think it’s a requirement, but it is an excellent way to demonstrate your fluency with technology and to show off any nifty work you’ve done — tutorials, pamphlets, reading lists, videos, whatever — that doesn’t necessarily fit well into a standard letter/resume. Again, it’s not necessary to have money to do this — I’ve seen some excellent portfolios that used Google Pages, Weebly, or wordpress.com, among others.
  • Appearances matter. Be consistent in your formatting, and use standard (or at least semi-standard — as Brian notes, doing a little bit of spiffy design work is a good way to show off your computer aptitude) professional typefaces. Comic Sans on a resume just does not inspire me to take you very seriously.
  • When applicable, say something in your letter about why you want to move to the place where the job is as well as why you want the job itself. If you’re moving from one suburb to another, this isn’t probably as important, but for jobs out here, I’m always a bit worried when people don’t say anything about wanting to live in the rural West. We are over 100 miles from a mall, an interstate highway, or a Target, and that’s a problem for a lot of people.
  • As with most things, some of how your resume comes across will just depend on who’s reading it. Brian likes objectives; I don’t. There’s not much you can do to anticipate who will read your resume or what reaction they will have, so when it comes down to it, do what seems right to you.
  • Specifics really help a letter. Don’t just say, “I ran a summer reading program.” Tell us how many kids participated, what ages they were, how many books they read, any other detail that will help show us what it was really like.

There is a lot of information out there on resume and cover letter writing. If you are in school or are a recent graduate (or sometimes even a long-ago graduate), your school will have an office of career services that should be able to provide you with everything from resume help to mock interviews. At the very least, ask some friends to look over your materials, as another eye can be useful in catching typos. And lastly, let me make one additional plug for social networking in general and for the Library Society of the World in particular. There are several LSW FriendFeed room denizens who are starting library school and/or new jobs, and I know they’ve gotten a lot of help from the people who hang out there. We’d be more than happy to help you, too.

june reading

American Taliban by Pearl Abraham — This is a novel that is not actually based on the story of John Walker Lindh — in fact, he shows up in the narrative toward the end, just so you know for sure the protagonist isn’t him — although it is a novel about a young American who becomes entranced with Arabic, goes to Pakistan to study, and becomes entranced there with militants in the mountains and ends up going to Afghanistan with them. Like this reviewer, “my first move after finishing was to Google Lindh,” which was interesting, because I read very little of the coverage of him at the time because it made me so angry. Nine years later, I am still incredibly angry about this country’s treatment of the Muslim world and political prisoners, and at its incredible lack of respect for subtlety, and many other related issues, but I’ve calmed down enough to consider, at least, and enough time has gone by that more subtle things have been written. In addition to the New Yorker story linked above, you might also enjoy this piece from Esquire about Lindh in prison. But back to the book, for a moment — it’s good, though maddening at times, particularly toward the end. If anyone else out there reads it, or has read it, I’d love to discuss the ending.

Fat Girl by Judith Moore — There is a great deal of hatred for this book among fat-acceptance activists, at least to judge by Amazon reviews, which I didn’t look at until I was sitting down to write this post. I think it’s a misplaced anger, or an anger based on a misunderstanding of the book (which is a devastating account of both growing up fat and having a truly horrific mother, and yet isn’t at all self-pitying). Consider this, from the opening: “Narrators of first-person claptrap like this often greet the reader at the door with moist hugs and complaisant kisses. I won’t. I will not endear myself. I won’t put on airs. I am not that pleasant. The older I get the less pleasant I am.” Of course, telling the reader you are not endearing is a pretty good way of endearing yourself to this reader, as is writing well — and ultimately, I am afraid, my allegiance to good writing outweighs my allegiance to just about anything else.

Red Line by Charles Bowden — Charles Bowden is my new crush. This is an old and peculiar book that is half memoir, half narrative of trying to trace down the life of a Mexican drug dealer who was executed outside Tucson. It’s full of lines like “Without the music, the last few decades would remain political prisoners of the New York Times” and “I do not care about the table setting, I eye the knife.” And he has the best hat ever.

Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle — Kyle wrote a great novel about a girl and horses and early adolescence and grief and western Colorado called The God of Animals. This is a collection of stories that, I would guess, were mostly written earlier and dug out to publish after her novel was successful. They are quite good, although I suspect they are probably more appealing to my general demographic than to the broader readership of the world. If you like what I think of as serious chick lit, you’d like these.

The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum — I will generally read almost any novel that deals with mental illness, because I am interested both in mental illness itself and in portrayals of it. This is a fast (as in fast-moving), semi-melodramatic about fraternal twins, a brother and sister. The brother has bipolar disorder and the sister does not; she lost touch with him twenty years ago but then gets a call from a psychiatric hospital where he’s been admitted, only to discover that he’s not there when she arrives. She knows he loves to chase storms, and it’s that season, so she gets her editor to let her cover a stormchasing tour in hopes of finding him. I don’t really think it’s fair to ask the portrayal of one person to be representative of all people with a particular disorder, because how could it be? Charles, the character in this book, isn’t every person with manic depressive illness, but he seems to me like a fair portrayal of one.

The Myth of You and Me by Leah Stewart — Childhood friends suffer a rift and, through mildly improbably circumstances, are brought back together again. I should be more bothered by the contrivances of the plot and the improbably happy ending, but I am endlessly fascinated by friendships, and thus I liked this book.

Live Through This by Debra Gwartney — Part of this story — before it became a book — was on an episode of This American Life some years ago. It’s a memoir about how Gwartney’s two older daughters ran away from home when they were 14 and 16 and lived as street kids, first in their town, and later in San Francisco and elsewhere, and how Gwartney tried to find them and get them to come back, and the ways in which she succeeded and failed. I used to know a fair number of street kids, kids who mostly, like Gwartney’s daughters, had homes but chose not to live in them, and because I was a kid myself, I was always on their side. Their home lives doubtless were horrible — if not outright abusive, then intolerable in some other way. And I was a great believer in self-determination, for people as well as nations, and I hate to see anyone being harassed by the police, as these kids frequently were. I never considered their parents, and what they might actually be like, and how they might feel, and now I realize that probably some of them were like Gwartney — confused and overwhelmed and overly attached, but not monsters. I’d never considered what it might be like to be the mom of one of those kids and not know where that kid was. The book is not prescriptive about parents or runaways, and I’m not either, but I was glad to read it for the whole new angle it gave me on something I thought I pretty much knew all about.

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson — I fell in love with North Africa at a young age, dating, I suppose, from my mother reading King of the Wind to me. I’ve always suspected that this means my love of the place and of Islam is just the sort of exotic, Orientalist view of things that, while I suppose preferable to intolerance and hatred in some respects, ultimately causes just as many problems. I just went over to glance at the opening of King of the Wind again, and, indeed, Marguerite Henry refers to Muslims as Mohammedans, and the illustrations are full of minarets and turbans. I forgive her in part because the book was published in 1948, and in part because I believe it was meant respectfully, whatever its flaws. And I know that Henry fought with her editors to be able to publish a book in which the main characters were a horse and a mute Moroccan boy. My love for and understanding of Islam may have more to do with my mother’s explanation of Ramadan to me when she was reading the book to me and later her telling me about Malcolm X making a hajj to Mecca than it does with my specific memories of the book, but that’s where I pin it.

Anyway, this is all a very long-winded way of getting around to saying how much I loved The Butterfly Mosque and what a good instruction it was for me in the ways in which even a fairly enlightened Westerner can misapprehend another culture. Willow Wilson was born and raised as an atheist in Colorado but always felt somewhat uncomfortable with atheism. She was interested in Islam, had studied some Arabic in college, and was sort of adrift, so she took up an offer to teach English at a school in Cairo. She converted, met and fell in love with an Egyptian, married and lived for several years full-time in Cairo; they now (according to the author biography) split their time between Cairo and Seattle. This all takes place not too long after September 11, so as you may imagine, it’s an interesting ride.

It’s pretty rare to meet people in my demographic (young, college-educated, liberal-minded) who are religious at all. and thus I find I tend in some ways to feel kinship when I do meet them, even when they are of a different denomination or even an entirely different religion. Anyway, this is a lovely, lovely book, and it continues the unofficial theme of this month’s reading by being very much the story of one person — one person within the context of a religion and two cultures, but one person, with her own quirks and loves and fears and stories — an individual, not a representative.

thelsw.org goes social!

Just a quick public service announcement to let you all know that the Library Society of the World website is all set up with BuddyPress, and that means it’s ready for you to go set up an account!

While I expect much of the action will continue to take place in the LSW Room on FriendFeed (or whatever comes next), I think it’ll be great to have a place with a little more permanence.

A few how-to notes:

  • When you first sign up, you’ll have to wait a minute or two to get an email confirmation, which will have a link for you to click to activate your account. A few people have had their confirmation emails end up in their spam folders, so check there if you don’t see yours right away.
  • By default, everyone who signs up for a new account will currently be made an Author, which means you can make posts and edit and delete your own posts. If you want to write a page or you need to do something else, please just let me or one of the other gazillion admins know, and we can bump you up. (I’m totally open to arguments for bumping the default level up, actually, so please feel free to make them. I was trying, in an unaccustomed fashion, to be somewhat moderate in setting things up.)
  • To make a new post to the front page, go to the Site Admin link (under Meta in the sidebar) and then click on the little New Post button at the top (or just use the quick posting option from the dashboard). If you are familiar with WordPress, it will look very, very familiar to you.
  • You can give gifts! When looking at a user profile, you should see a little “Gifts” tab. Click over there and you should get a little pane of gifts you can scroll through. They include a few of the badges from the LSW Badge Game; I’ll add more as they are made and as I get to it. (And please keep making them and adding them to the Flickr group.)
  • If you are confused by any of this, please drop me a line or catch me on the chat machine (newrambler on Gtalk; theblackmolly on AIM) or leave a comment here. I love helping people out with stuff, so it is no bother.
  • Most of all, as always, the LSW is yours. Go forth and claim it!

girl meets copyright

The other day, a friend called to tell me that she was getting published in an international journal. The first words out of my mouth were, “Be sure you read your copyright agreement.” Yup. Not “Congratulations,” not “That’s great,” not “When can I get a copy?” Nope. I am such a librarian that the first thing I told her to do was to check her copyright.

I spent my formative years, as most people do, blissfully unaware of the intricacies of intellectual property. In fact, I’m fairly sure I didn’t run across that term until I was in graduate school (my second graduate school). Oh, I’d looked at the copyright statements in books from time to time, to see when they were written, and I’d realized that sometimes the copyright date didn’t really tell you that, because it was the date the copyright was renewed, or it was a copyright for that edition or something. I’d seen the battered paper sign taped up by the copy machines at the public library that gave dire warnings in small print about photocopying copyrighted material. I knew that when my favorite used record store put up a cutout of Garth Brooks saying you shouldn’t buy used CDs, it was making fun of the movement started by Brooks and other artists to clamp down on the sale of used CDs because they supposedly cut into their profits. But on the whole, copyright wasn’t something I ever thought about. The phrase “public domain” had not yet entered my consciousness.

How I got from those days copy ignorance to my current state of copyawareness is an interesting, and, I hope, instructive story.

This blog has had a Creative Commons license on it since it started back in 2005, which is around the same time I learned of the existence of Creative Commons, and since all the hip librarian bloggers were doing it, it seemed like the Thing to Do. And it resonated with me–I liked the idea that I could specify how people used my work, though it wasn’t something I had ever thought about before.

About a year later, I got asked to contribute something to a special issue of Counterpoise being edited by the Homelessness, Hunger, and Poverty Task Force. Graduate school, multiple jobs, and life being what they are, I ended up deciding to give them not something new, as I’d hoped, but rather a column I had written back when I wrote for the Daily Iowan that I thought would be appropriate. I had been in library school for long enough at that point that I had a dim idea I ought to ask the paper about reprinting it. I did, and they said, “oh, yes, you can do that; there’s a form to fill out and the publication that wants to reprint it will need to pay a $10 fee.” Um.

So I asked for the form, and I filled it out to the best of my knowledge, and I sent the company a check and thought, “well, I guess I got paid $16.50 for this, so I still made a profit on it.”

Several years later, when I was fully employed as a librarian, the Iowa thesis and dissertation open access policy came out. Basically, it required everyone submitting a masters thesis or doctoral dissertation at the University of Iowa to submit it electronically and make it part of an institutional repository that would be fully searchable and available online. Iowa’s was not the first such policy, but it was among the more controversial, largely because it aroused the ire and wrath of the writers.

Before I became a librarian, I was a dog-walker, and before that, I got an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, which is the unfamous cousin of the much more widely known Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was a heavy library user. I loved books! I loved bound periodicals! I even loved that I could find newspaper articles via LexisNexis, via dialup, from my home. I loved libraries! But I did not know diddley-squat about them, or about copyright, and neither did most of my writer friends. And so when that mandate came out, my old graduate program listserv, which I still subscribe to, which is mostly a sleepy little thing with occasional posts about residencies or calls for submissions or announcements about readings, went crazy.

Graduates who had written essays using the real names and identities of people went apeshit at the idea that those essays might get digitized and the people might find them whilst Googling themselves. People who’d had things published fretted about the consequences of having those things, often in earlier draft form, digitized. People who hoped to have things published worried they’d never be able to because no one would publish stuff that was already out there on the web. To some extent, these concerns are legitimate (although to the “I used real names” people I wanted to say, “and you were not concerned about the people who could walk into the library and take your thesis off the shelf and read it? Or find it in a library catalog and request it?”–neither of these is, of course, comparable to late-night ego-surfing, but it would be enough to give me pause when mentioning people in a piece of writing), because most mainstream publishers are still freaked out about electronic text and believe that no one will ever pay for things any more if they can get them for free somewhere else. And their concerns were, eventually, listened to — the current policy allows MFA students to choose open access electronic deposit only if they want to, and there is strong language about how paper theses will never be scanned.

Recently, an old friend asked if she could get a copy of an essay of mine that she wanted to teach as a part of one of her classes. Library geek that I am, I immediately went off to see if the journal it was published in was indexed anywhere and if full-text from it was available. Somewhat to my surprise, it was, but not until a few years after my essay was published. So I fetched my copy of the journal from home and scanned a copy and then, good librarian that I am, went to check out the copyright situation.

If you’ve ever watched a VH-1 Behind the Music documentary, you know that there are several things that happen in the life of any musician. There are drug and/or alcohol problems. There are a succession of drummers. There are breakthrough albums or songs and later disappointments. There are quarrels with bandmates. And there is financial ruin brought about by the fact that the band was so excited that someone wanted to sign them that they didn’t bother to read the contract that says that all their money is going to their agent and their record label. Writers are much the same way, at least in my (limited) experience. You want to publish me? Oh thank you thank you thank you! And then you call all your writer friends, or at least all the one who you think won’t hate you, and you go out and drink toasts, and you get some paperwork from the journal editor and you send it back, and many months later, you get a few copies of this journal with your essay in it, and, well, there is no high like the high of seeing your name in print. I have never had a book published, but I’m guessing it’s a similar thing on a much larger scale. Oh yeah, there was that paperwork I signed about them printing my essay or publishing my book, but I just kind of glanced at it.

Well. Ha. I knew better now. I was a librarian. I had been reading Dorothea Salo religiously since library school. I knew you did not just glance at your publishing agreement. But of course back in 2003, that’s all I did. So this time around I went to go look it up. Literary journals, generally speaking, as I now know, retain the copyright on your piece until it is published, and then it reverts back to you. So sent my friend a PDF of my essay and told her the copyright was mine and she could use it with my blessings. She thanked me, in a slightly baffled fashion, and it was then that I realized that while I’ll always bridge two worlds, I will also always be a librarian.

Other people have written about open access and the humanities, and about why humanists, of all people, should be cheering the California Digital Library on in its boycott of Nature Publishing Group.* My librarian friends are mostly still afraid to talk about these issues when it comes to the creative writing types, though. But I’m not. I am a creative writing type, or at any rate, I was, and I can tell you that this stuff does matter, even for the creative folk.

So you want to complain that open access will destroy the marketability of your work? Okay. Fine. But then don’t complain when books cost money, and when that course packet of essays you want to put together for your class turns out to cost a lot of money, and when the library and the department send you nasty notes about the illegality of making multiple copies of copyrighted work for your classes. Because you know what? All those other writers want their work to be marketable, too, and their publishers all told them that the only way to do that was to clamp down on all these people trying to steal their stuff for free.

Do you want your school to go on subscribing to The Georgia Review and Granta, not to mention the little little magazines — all those obscure journals where you got your start? Then it’s very much in your interest to support things like the CDL’s fight against NPG, because library budgets are not forever expandable. Librarians want to give you access to the things that you want. It’s what we live for. Well, that and watching David beat Goliath. If you’re a writer, there’s a good chance that in addition to buying books, you use, or have used, a library heavily at some point in your life. There’s a good chance that you have generally positive feelings about libraries, albeit mostly as places that contain books. We are that, and we will continue to be that, at least in part. We want to do for your work what librarians have always done: collect it, preserve it, and make it available, in whatever ways are best suited to the time and the place and to patrons’ needs. (Translation: yes, we are looking at digital stuff. Yes, we may some day want your work in digital format, too. Yes, we think this is a good thing. Yes, we understand that you have concerns, and we do take those seriously. And we really don’t think you want to go back to the days of books in closed stacks findable only through searching gigantic tomes. Do you also want your book not to appear on Amazon.com?) But in order to do all of this, we need money, and right now, we are being gouged. California has decided they aren’t going to take it any more. I hope you will support them.

*As Dorothea notes, the CDL vs. NPG thing is only very tangentially an open access issue, and I realize I’m conflating a lot of things here that shouldn’t all necessarily be conflated. But they are related, and they are all often equally scary, and so I am treating them as kind of a big IP monolith for the sake of this particular exercise.

most of march-may reading 2010

I try not to blog here too often, but I have been seriously remiss in reporting here that our fundraising drive to send Walt Crawford to ALA was successful. 36 people donated a total of $1210, which Walt assures us will be enough to get him to DC and back. Walt writes a little about the whole thing on his blog, too. I can’t make it, but if you are there, please give him my best.

In the meantime, I’ve read a few books, though never as many as I’d like.

A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein — It’s always fun to read a book with a character with your name. . . especially when that character is a no-good prodigal daughter suspected of infanticide who’s returned and is now carrying on a relationship with the college dropout son (there’s a great line about how he flunked out of Hampshire, where you don’t even get grades) of the main character, a suburban New Jersey doctor. I think most people, myself most emphatically included, make bad decisions at some point or other, and reading books about other people’s bad decisions is one way to think about your own. I guess there are people in the world who feel that there lives have been free of tragedy and bad decision making, and I guess perhaps those are the people who find books like this one lurid or over-the-top, and then there are people who have plenty of tragedy and bad decision making to go around and would prefer not to deal with it in fiction. If you do like it in fiction, though, this book is for you. (Also, I love that it got me to sympathize with a character who wants to live in the suburbs.)

Radical Simplicity by Dan Price — I picked this up when someone returned it, because I love to imagine that I have an alternate life full of good health and practical skills and can thus go off and live in a homemade yurt on some farmer’s property whilst living off my income as a freelance writer.

Bad Apple by Laura Ruby — I read this mostly during rehearsals for this year’s Missoula Children’s Theatre production here, and, I must say, it was an unmemorable YA novel.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks — Even though I often love historical fiction, I also often have a moment of dread when I start it, thinking — thinking what, I’m not sure — I suppose whatever it is that the words “historical fiction” conjure for people who don’t like it — but I’m almost always pleasantly surprised, as I was by this book, which was the March selection for our book discussion group. Despite the slightly out-there ending, the book is put together beautifully, and it made me want to go look stuff up about every thirty pages, which I think is a good thing. It’s set in an actual village that decided to quarantine itself due to an outbreak of the plague; a few characters are real, but all are used fictitiously, and it’s both a good story and a sort of lovely mashup of ideas from plague novels past and present and The Scarlet Letter and a dozen or so other things.

After by Amy Efaw — Well. There are books about other people’s bad decisions that are illuminating, and then there are books about other people’s bad decisions that just make you want to throw them across the room. This YA novel also concerns a teenager who kills her baby, although it is the central subject of the book rather than an alluded to prior event. But oh my. She has a single mother. A single promiscuous mother! She, however, is perfect and only even ever had sex once! She has a young, hip, yet tough female lawyer! She grows up and takes responsibility! Oh, it is terrible. Terrible, terrible. Yet apparently trainwreck terrible, the kind of terrible that compels you to finish the book. Oh well.

R Tam Lin by Pamela Dean — Reread because of an earlier conversation on FriendFeed that I can’t find now, but I’ll offer this somewhat humorous follow-up

R Bel Canto by Ann Patchett — April’s book discussion book, still as good as the first time I read it, although in some ways I think I prefer some of Patchett’s less perfect novels.

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott — The great thing about working in the library is that you see pre-pub reviews. The terrible thing about working in the library is that it’s such a long time between when the pre-pub reviews come out and when the actual book arrives in your library. A patron who’d never read anything by Lamott told me she read and loved this book. I can’t help but think it’s probably better, or richer, if you’ve read Rosie and Crooked Little Heart, but they’re not necessary to understanding the new one. This may be my least favorite of the three, but I’d want to go back and reread the others again, and let this one sink in a bit longer, to be sure. In any case, I love a writer who revisits characters periodically over the years.

When I Came West by Laurie Wagner Buyer — A memoir by a young woman who dropped out of college in the early 1970s to come live with a man in a cabin in northern Montana whom she’d never met. She wanted to move west, you see, and live close to the wild, and she didn’t know any other way to do it, which is both sad and yet understandable. It’s very hard to be born into a world you are sure you don’t belong in and yet have no idea how to go about getting to or functioning in the place you think you do belong.

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli — I want to review this book by saying, “It’s like Message from ‘Nam, only good,” except then of course I’d have to admit to you that I’ve read Message from ‘Nam, which is an Danielle Steel novel that I did, in fact, read once when I was in college, because my housemates and I were addicted to Lifetime movies, and we had taped their version of this, only it cut off at the end, so I had to find out what happened. Anyway. Both books deal with young women who leave home to work as journalists in Vietnam (one as a writer, one as a photographer), and both have various experiences that lead them to a more complicated understanding of the war and its effects. Soli’s book, though, as I noted, is actually good, and if you happen to be fascinated by journalists in Vietnam in general (as I am, as a result of reading Dispatches and a book called War Torn), it is fantastic.

Devotion by Dani Shapiro — Over a decade ago I stayed up all night reading Shapiro’s first memoir, Slow Motion. I didn’t do that with this one, but only because I am older and have a full-time job and don’t function without sleep. Most of the early reviews I read made it sound like I was going to hate it — like it was going to be another one of those “I did this thing for a year where I asked a rabbi, a Buddhist, and a yogi for spiritual advice,” but it actually wasn’t like that at all. Instead, it’s a series of lovely, numbered mini-essays that go down like canapes, or more properly that reminded me of finding a series of birds nests with tiny, beautiful eggs in them.

help the LSW send Walt Crawford to ALA!

On Saturday, Walt Crawford, friend to many of us, foe to the absolutist, “library voice of the radical middle,” author, blogger, lover of stone fruit and old movies and the Lovin’ Spoonful, and probably the foremost expert on blogs by library people in the English-speaking world, announced that he had lost his job and that he might thus not be able to go to ALA this year or to continue Cites & Insights. In the course of chatting with a few people about this, Laura Harris said it would be really great if the LSW could somehow sponsor Walt to go to ALA, with any extra money going toward Cites & Insights. Meg Smith came up with a clever way of soliciting help on FriendFeed without Walt knowing about it. After Steve Lawson and Rochelle Hartman pointed out this morning’s post from Walt, though, we decided we’d better go ahead and tell him, and I’m very happy to say that he has accepted our sponsorship.

Since Saturday night, when we first announced this project, 26 people have so far donated $815. If you’d like to help out (I figure this will get Walt to Washington, D.C. and lodged for a bit, but he might want to get back to California at some point), you can send your contributions

  • to me via PayPal (my account is newrambler at gmail dot com)
  • to me by check (Laura Crossett, Send Walt to ALA Fund, PO Box 85, Meeteetse, WY 82433)
  • directly to Walt via the PayPal button on Cites & Insights

I was a wee baby blogger five years ago, when I first heard the name Walt Crawford. Everyone in the library blogosphere was abuzz (we were not yet a-twitter; Twitter didn’t exist then) with the word that Walt Crawford was going to start blogging. I’d never heard of the guy at that point, but I went ahead and subscribed to this new blog, and to the RSS feed for this other project of his that people were always raving about, a monthly ejournal called Cites & Insights. I soon learned that Walt was smart and funny, that he had a great talent for reading and synthesizing information, and that he had little patience for grammatical gaffes. A few months later, I met him in person at the first ever OCLC Blog Salon at ALA in Chicago, and I learned that he was also personable and generous (Walt, you may not remember this, but you offered to share a cab with me, and you were deeply apologetic about not paying the whole fare, since you had to get off first).

What I really learned, though, was that Walt wasn’t cool because he had a blog (although it was cool that he had one). Walt was, and is, cool because he takes us seriously. He reads our blog posts and our FriendFeed conversations; he points out the flaws in our logic, and then he writes cogently and well about the ideas he sees emerging.

I don’t always agree with Walt, and he can be exasperating (although who among us is not, at some time or other? — I certainly am), but I admire and respect the work he has done. His one-time co-author, Michael Gorman, famously ranted about the “Blog People.” A lot of us ranted and raved about that, and proudly put up “Blog Person” badges on our sites, and added Gorman pictures to the lolbrarians group. Walt didn’t do any of those things. He read our blogs, and he thought about them, and he wrote about them — and he continues to do so.

If you’ve ever read Walt at Random or Cites & Insights (or just searched for your name) or talked (or sparred) with Walt in a comment thread, please consider making a donation.

january and february reading, 2010

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc — LeBlanc spent a decade hanging out with two young women in the Bronx and the many people who came in and out of their lives — boyfriends, husbands, children, friends, and other family. It’s a long book, and one that took a long time to write, and one that took me a long time to read, but I am still stunned at how she managed to make me go from a sort of revulsion to a real love of these people in the course of a few hundred pages.

The History of Love by Nicole Kraus — January’s book discussion book. Meh. Not a bad book in any way, just not one I got very excited about.

[listen] That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo — While I love all of Russo’s books (and I’ve read most of them), I kind of keep hoping that someday he will write Straight Man again. That Old Cape Magic comes closest, as it also deals largely with academics. It’s not as funny (but few things could be), but it’s quite good, and the narrator did a decent, if not inspired, job.

Not My Daughter by Barbara Delinskey — Delinskey’s novel about high school girls who form a pregnancy pact and its effects on them and their mothers (who are all best friends, too!) is just as melodramatic and terrible as you might suspect. Melodrama is my favorite indulgence, though, so it worked for me.

[reread] A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle — I had forgotten, or perhaps I never knew, how very preachy L’Engle can sound at times. I was rereading bits of A Wrinkle in Time because I was thinking about using it for a set of booktalks, and I was thinking about how I always think of that book as a sort of touchstone for smart kids who grow up feeling isolated and as though no one understands them. All of her books have a bit of that, and not surprisingly, as a kid and a teenager I gobbled them up and starred pages and copied out passages and generally regarded them as being up there with JD Salinger’s Glass family stories. I feel more comfortable in the world now, which is good, but it oddly makes me feel ever so slightly less at home in some of these books, which is. . . interesting.

Reconsidering Happiness by Sherrie Flick — Just the sort of writerly novel about people figuring out their lives and their relationships that I love.

[listen] Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater by Frank Bruni — I’ve written about this over on my other blog, where I’m doing a little month-long five days a week blogging project, so if you are interested in things I write about other than libraries, please check it out.

I also reread, in part, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which was February’s book discussion book. It was my favorite book in all the world when I was fourteen, and I read it many times in high school, but in the same way that I can’t quite bear to look at pictures from that time, I also could not quite bear rereading this, because it made me remember not just how I loved the book but also how very unhappy I was, and how the book was a part of my own loneliness, because I loved it so much and I so desperately wished I had someone to talk to about it, and I did not.