Saturday, May 31, 2008

May Books Bought

It's been so crazy around here this month, I only bought a few books. Actually six, which is pretty remarkable for me. Here they are with justifications for their purchase. I'm also including a new feature: how much I spent for each book. (Yikes!)

A few weeks ago I helped a patron with a "What Should I Read Next?" mystery/crime fiction search and Ian Rankin's name came up. I'd heard of Rankin, seen his titles around, but never picked one up until now. (Yes, working in a library can be a dangerous thing.) Knots & Crosses is the first in a series of novels featuring Edinburgh Detective Sergeant John Rebus. By many accounts, Knots & Crosses is not the best entry in the series, but it is the first and I do like to start a series at the beginning whenever possible. This is a British edition for sale at one of my favorite haunts, Daedalus Books. Mass Market Paperback - Price: $3.98

I discovered Mal Peet's Tamar in a Reader's Advisory workshop a few weeks ago. Participants paired up and described a book they really enjoyed, including the specific aspects of the book they liked. The other participant's assignment was to find similar books using various library resources. My partner did a great job of convincing me to read Tamar, a YA novel subtitled "A Novel of Espionage, Passion and Betrayal." It's also winner of the Carnegie Medal. (If you're interested, the book I talked about was Jeffrey Ford's The Shadow Year.) Hardcover - Price: $4.98

Good-Bye Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson appeared on a list of VOYA's best graphic novels from the last several years. Okay, I admit it, I saw it at Daedalus and acted on impulse. Trade Paperback - Price: $3.98

I really like Washington Post writer Michael Dirda's writing. Classics for Pleasure is clear, concise, full of wit, imagination and passion. (Passion about books, that is.) Dirda can take a title you have absolutely no interest in and convince you in two pages that it's a book you must read. Another dangerous guy to have around. Hardcover - Price: $7.95

Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy by Steve Monsma is the text for a class I'm planning on taking this fall. It's really more of a study than a class, a group of people interested in how Christians can make a difference in the culture. Trade Paperback - Price - $11.55

Culture Shift: Engaging Current Issues with Timeless Truth by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is a thin book packed with lots of thoughtful ideas on how Christianity impacts (or doesn't impact) our cultural climate. (And yes, I'm spending a good bit of time thinking about Christianity and culture.) Hardcover - Price: $10.49

Total Spent on Books in May: $42.93

Next time: The books I actually read in May

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Absolutely Crazy

(This post is for all three of you in my worldwide audience.)

Sorry about a lack of posting, but things have been absolutely crazy lately with our 12th wedding anniversary, last weekend's church retreat, books, work and other stuff. During the next two weeks, I plan to:

Visit my new niece in Chicago
Interview for a full-time job at the library
Buy a new computer (a Mac - may Microsoft perish in flames)
Work on a major church project
Revise two chapters of my YA novel
Send out a new story
Take my first golf lesson
Read two more YA novels (besides mine)

Plus tonight's two-hour season finale of Lost, the only television I consistently watch. More when things slow down including Books Bought and Read for May.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Burger Wuss (YA 1999) - M.T. Anderson

Burger Wuss reminds me of some of those early John Hughes movies from the 80s like Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, only smarter and funnier. Anderson either remembers what it's like to be a teenager or he's very observant. Or maybe both.

Sixteen-year-old Anthony has just lost the love of his life to Turner, a sadistic four-time Employee-of-the-Month at a fast-food joint called O'Dermott's (which has many similarities to a certain unnamed franchise that features a large yellow letter of the alphabet between L and N). The best way to exact revenge, Anthony decides, is to get a job at O'Dermott's working right alongside Turner. But since this is not only fiction, but teen fiction, things can go wildly off-course.

It's not long before Anthony finds himself in the middle of a fierce rivalry between O'Dermott's and cross-town fast-food rival Burger Queen (in one of the funniest softball games ever captured in print). He also strikes up a friendship (or is it a partnership?) with Shunt, a homeless co-worker seeking to topple the restaurant's corporate structure, if at all possible, by anarchy. Add to the mix two clueless parents, two sickeningly in-love coworkers and a manager with way too much corporate spirit.

Burger Wuss is a hilarious, yet sympathetic look at teenage love and revenge, filled with clever dialogue and authenticity. All of Anderson's novels are wildly different from one another, but they all feature top-notch writing. For newcomers, Burger Wuss is a great, entertaining place to start.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Few Thoughts on YA Novels

I'm on track to finish reading at least four YA/J-Fic novels this month, which is by no means a huge amount, but compared to most months, quite significant for me. What I'm discovering is that some writers remember what it was like to be a teen and can transfer those memories into the here-and-now of the 21st century. But some don't and can't. (I certainly don't want to fall into that category.)

M.T. Anderson either remembers what it was like to be a teenager or he's very observant of teenagers (or maybe both). I'm almost finished with Burger Wuss, a tale of teenage revenge at a fast-food restaurant. Even though the book is nearly ten years old (which qualifies as ancient history in YA literature), Anderson's portrayal of teen angst, betrayal, injustice, humor, satire and the general rollercoaster of emotions are spot on. He understands.

So does Ann Dee Ellis. Her debut novel This is What I Did: rings true to what I've seen in encountering teenagers in 15 years of teaching.

But I've sampled other novels that are disappointing in their portrayal of teens, some of which feel like Wally and Beaver have been dropped into 2008 America. While the characters aren't perfect, they're a little too noble and unrealistic, children of parents who stepped out of a Father Knows Best episode. The stories themselves aren't bad, but appear to have been written by good writers who maybe haven't been around kids for awhile.

The lesson for me as a writer is to observe teens more, to try to understand their motivations, desires, needs (You get the opportunity to do that at the info desk, believe me.) and make that appear on the page.

As a reader, I'm finding that the literature is as broad as in any genre. It's all over the place and seems to be expanding further every day. That's probably a good thing, if you can find the time to discover more of it and separate the wheat from the chaff.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Weekend, VOYA and Rejection

Quite a weekend. Cindy played a great concert last night with the McLean Symphony and successfully finished a half-marathon today. Medieval Mania went over quite well at the library yesterday (I dressed up as a monk - hopefully pictures to follow) and a great time was had by all. Plus I read a pretty good YA book, This is What I Did: by Ann Dee Ellis.


I'm strongly considering buying a subscription to VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates): The Library Magazine Serving Those Who Serve Young Adults. I flipped through an issue yesterday at the desk when things were slow. Sure, the library gets the magazine and I could read it for free at the desk, but it's probably something I'll want to have at home as well. From what I saw, the articles and reviews are quite impressive.


Ah, it feels like old times: Yesterday I got my first rejection letter in several weeks. I just haven't been sending much out lately, but I'm hoping to change that with a couple of new stories, hopefully one new story a month. That's not a huge amount, but it's better than I've been doing. Plus the novel is still moving right along.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Boys and Reading

The other night a boy who looked about twelve or thirteen came up to the info desk looking for a book like the one he’d just read, Stetson by S.L. Rottman. I asked him what he liked about the book and he told me it has a boy narrator and features cars. He also said he likes books that are set in the real world, preferring them to fantasy or science fiction (which completely cuts out what little expertise in the J-Fic/YA areas I have).

So I went to one of our databases that gives book recommendations based on books you’ve already read and enjoyed. The first search produced mostly books by or about girls (maybe because Rottman is a woman) and the patron wasn’t interested in any of them. I couldn’t really blame him; none of them exactly matched his interests.

Of course databases aren’t perfect, so we tried another one. The only book this one found similar to Stetson was Stetson.

“I also like spy stories,” he said, sensing that he probably wasn’t going to find what he really wanted. We found a few spy books and he seemed content. But I wasn’t.

I was disappointed with the database experience, but mostly disappointed with my lack of knowledge in the area of boys’ books. The database searches I’ve used in the past are usually very good and quite accurate, so I wasn’t sure if this was a database glitch or what. (I also found two reference books on books for boys. For both, the latest editions were ten years old. There is a recently published book on good reads for boys, but it's $45.)

The next day I related this story to a librarian. She just nodded and said, “There just aren’t that many books written for boys that age.” This led to a discussion on why boys tend not to read as much as girls, how that drives the market, and lots of other things.

I recently listened to a Washington Post Book World podcast that cited a study done in Wisconsin on the reading habits of children. The study cited that on average, third-graders read about 40 books a year. By the time those kids reach high school, they’re only finishing four books a year. (Of course you have to consider that most books on a third-grade level are fairly thin.) What the study didn’t show was a breakdown by sex.

Okay, so I think we can assume that as boys get older, they read less. Is that due to sports, video games, attitudes that “Reading isn’t cool” or all of the above? Whatever the reasons, it’s frustrating.

I guess that’s one of the reasons I wrote a YA novel. (Yeah, I’m still revising….) Although it’s fantasy, it’s the type of story that I would have liked as a YA reader. Maybe someone else will like it. (Let’s first see if a publisher will like it.) I’d sure love to see more YA books with boy protagonists, but is there anybody out there to read them? The Harry Potter series is finished. The Series of Unfortunate Events is also finished. Are boys reading other books or simply moving on to sports and video games? And can you do anything about it?


Monday, May 12, 2008

Sunstroke and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley

I first heard of Tessa Hadley through a podcast of The New York Times Book Review (or maybe it was the Washington Post Book World podcast - I subscribe to both). Although she has published three novels, Sunstroke and Other Stories appears to be her first collection. All of the book's ten stories are narrated by women in middle to upper-class British settings. There's certainly nothing unusual in that, but what is unusual is how Hadley explores relationships.

All of the relationships in the book are problematic for one reason or another. In the title story, one of two married women on holiday considers an affair with a visitor. In "The Surrogate," a young college student falls in love with her professor, but settles for an affair with a man who simply looks like the instructor. In "Mother's Son," a woman who hears her son's confession that he's cheating on his girlfriend finds herself confronted by the girlfriend herself.

Each story includes a "moment of truth" in which a decision of some kind has to be made. There's little time to consider the immediate consequences of those decisions, but many years (sometimes decades) to reflect on their aftermath. And in some cases second chances present themselves.

Much of Hadley's work is focused on those dizzying moments of indecision when what we want is waging a war against what we know is wrong. Hadley knows that when you're in the midst of such moments, it's almost impossible to balance desire, pain, regret, joy and sorrow. But reading these stories makes it clear that she's been there.

Ten short stories (few are over 20 pages) covering 177 pages - Well worth your time.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Cranking Up Lost and Listening to Annoying Singers

Some people really give me a hard time when I tell them we don't have cable TV. I tell them the only TV show I watch is Lost, which has really been interesting lately. I'm also glad it now comes on at 10PM EST on Thursdays, giving me a little unwind time from late shifts at the library.


While we're waiting for Lost to roll around on the ol' tube, check out The Ten Most Annoying Singers.

Library Encounters

This is the stuff I love:

I'm at the information desk yesterday when a man - probably in his early 60s - walks in, takes a look around like he's lost and slowly approaches the desk.

"What can we do for you today?" I ask.

He leans in close like he's afraid someone besides me will hear him. "My son says I should come in and get a library card, use the library. I've never even been in a library before."

"Well, I'm glad you came in," I tell him and help him get started with the application for a library card. He provides all the correct information and in a couple of minutes we're done.

"That was quick," he said. I hand him his card and explain the different types of material we have, how long he can check them out. I tell him how he can use his card to access the Internet, renew/place holds online, etc. I stop when he looks a bit overwhelmed.

"I don't really know how to use a computer."

"We can get you started," I tell him. "We offer one-on-one training on how to use the Internet, search the catalogue, our library databases," etc.

"How much does it cost?"

"It's free. Would you like for me to sign you up?"

He's still got a little uncertainty, but I can see that he's beginning to realize coming to the library wasn't such a bad idea, that maybe his son has been on to something all this time.

He signed up and looked like a kid who'd just won a lifetime supply of candy. I gave him a welcome packet, explained the essentials and told him to let us know if he had any questions. He walked out beaming.

I've only been working at the info desk for a few months, but this isn't the first time I've had such an encounter. I guess we tend to forget that most library patrons come to the library as kids, get a card and come in on a more-or-less regular basis. It's a big step for an adult with grown children to come in and want to change something about their lives, even if it's only getting a library card and signing up for computer training. Maybe it's just the geek in me, but it's exciting to see.

Okay, end of Feel-Good Story #523

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Introducing the "No-Nabokov-Before-Breakfast" Rule

Helpful Writing Tip - It's always a good idea to read Nabokov after you've done your writing for the day, otherwise despair will set in. (And these are the early stories I'm reading.)

I'm also reading Tessa Hadley's collection Sunstroke and Other Stories. I'd never heard of Hadley until I listened to a podcast (either the New York Times Book Review or Washington Post Book World, I can't remember - but you should check out both) that featured the author.

Monday, May 05, 2008

April Books Read

April turned out to be a pretty good reading month, not as intense as March, but definitely respectable, especially considering that I am not a fast reader.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (NF 2007) - Tim Weiner
Discussed earlier here.

What Jesus Demands from the World (NF 2006) - John Piper
Just who is Jesus and just what does he expect from people? All people? Piper always does a great job of making theological issues clear and simple without watering things down. My men's group read this from February to April and while we questioned a couple of Piper's thoughts, we all found the book enlightening.

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (NF 2008) - Sudhir Venkatesh
You might remember Venkatesh from one of the chapters in Freakonomics. He's the sociology grad student who walked into one of Chicago's worst neighborhoods carrying a clipboard with questionaires asking people "What's it like to be poor and black?" without getting killed himself. Venkatesh's book is eye-opening, entertaining, sad, and impressive all at once, giving the reader an idea of how a gang actually operates. You might be surprised by what you read. My only problem with the book: Vankatesh just couldn't be as naive as he portrays himself.

The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God's Call to Justice (NF 2007) - Mark Labberton
Labberton calls Christians to extend their worship of God beyond the worship service, beyond the walls that separate us from the homeless, the heart-broken, the needy - the people we either can't or don't want to see in our lives. A very bold (and convicting) book.

A Clockwork Orange (1962) - Anthony Burgess
A modern classic and rightfully so, o my brothers. This futuristic tale of violence run amok and the oppressive means to control it became both a blessing and a curse in Burgess's lifetime (Be sure to read his Foreword in the Norton edition.) and even more so after Stanley Kubrick's film version in 1972. Don't be put off by the slang used in the book; you'll get used to it as you go along.

The Black Ice (1993) - Michael Connelly
Connelly has become one of my favorite crime fiction writers during the past few years. This is the second book (after The Black Echo) in the Detective Harry Bosch series, finding Bosch trying to solve the apparent suicide of a fellow police officer.

Mister Pip (2006) - Lloyd Jones
Shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize, Mister Pip is a coming-of-age story set on an unnamed tropical island in the 1990s. Young Maltilda discovers the Pip of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations from the teachings of her classroom instructor Mr. Watts, the only while man on the island. While I enjoyed much of the book (especially watching Matilda encounter the love and power of the printed word), the presence of the invading redskin soldiers and the aftermath of their invasion felt too manipulated. Still recommended, though.

No Country for Old Men (2005) - Cormac McCarthy
This was even better the second time I read it. While I think Blood Meridian is a better book (possibly even a masterpiece), No Country for Old Men may be my favorite McCarthy book. If you've only seen the movie, you owe it to yourself to read the novel. While the two versions share many similarities, there are some very interesting differences.

Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library (NF 2007) - Don Bochert
A hilarious and sometimes sad look at the strange and wonderful things that happen in a public library. Bochert was part of the Los Angeles County library system, which is quite different from ours, but I still found myself nodding in several places thinking, "I can relate, man, I can relate."

Like the Stars: Leading Many to Righteousness (NF 2004) - Glenn Parkinson
A great look at how Christians can impact the culture without taking it by force. (More on this topic in the future.)

Ella Minnow Pea (2001) - Mark Dunn
Definitely the most fun I've had with a novel this month. A few thoughts on this novel in letters here.

That's it for April. Go read something.