Thursday, May 30, 2013

Armchair BEA: Literary Fiction

There is no definitive definition of literary fiction. It's a bit like porn: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Ha! Not really, but close.

Sam over at Tiny Library offered a wonderfully concise definition of literary fiction. She writes that literary fiction, "can come from any genre but it has to impress with beautiful writing in addition to a good story. Sometimes in literary fiction the story can take a back-seat and you get more introspective, character driven novels."

Three of my top literary fiction writers are: 

Conroy is a delightful man in person.
1. Pat Conroy: He can get a little purple in his prose at times, but I think I love him more because of it. The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline are two of my favorite novels. Beach Music and The Prince of Tides are great novels to start with if you haven't read anything by Conroy yet. Also check out My Reading Life which is a collection of love letters to books and other readers who impacted Conroy's life masquerading as essays. He has a new memoir coming out in October, The Death of Santini.

2. Jhumpa Lahiri: In the past I wasn't much of a short story reader but I very much enjoyed her two short story collections, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. However, what I love most is her novel, The Namesake. Lahiri has a new novel coming out in September, The Lowland.

3. Sarah Waters: Such a great writer. I could read her writing about paint drying. I love her sentences, her ability to create atmosphere and emotion, and her characters are exquisite. My favorite is Tipping the Velvet and my least favorite is Affinity, yet I read it twice. Nan King, the main character in Tipping, is perhaps my favorite character in all of contemporary fiction.

Two literary fiction writers I plan on reading soon:

Last year at the Iowa City Book Festival I went to a joint reading by Dean Bakopoulos and Patrick Somerville. I'd never heard of either writer, but my friend Cayt had, and I was curious and tagged along. I enjoyed hearing each writer read from his current book and loved the way they talked about their writing and their literary friendship. I ended up buying Bakopoulos's My American Unhappiness and Somerville's The Cradle. I haven't read either book yet, but they're on my TBR pile, so stay tuned!

Bakopoulos and Somerville, Iowa City, 2012

Armchair BEA: Blogger Development

In case you missed yesterday's post, I'm participating in Armchair BEA which runs from May 28-June 2, 2013. Each day different discussion questions are posted for book bloggers to write about and then visit other book blogs to get some conversations going and meet new bloggers. Its for those of us who can't or don't want go to BookExpo America, which is really awesome, but once was enough for me.

The topic of this post is paths to becoming a better blogger or blogger development. Today's other topic was genre, which I wrote about here.

What my blog is:
This is my forth year as a book blogger. I often go through episodes where I spin in circles until I wear myself out thinking about my blog and what I "should" do with it. I think up big plans, small plans, and sometimes even make blogging schedules. Then I remember that my blog is a hobby and it can be whatever I want it to be and whatever that is can even change from week to week if I want it to.

I mainly write reviews, photo essays of library visits, and occasional author event recaps. I am happy if I write one post a week.

Just recently I've started connecting more regularly with a few book bloggers. I'm an introvert, even online, but I did meet up with a book lover I met via Twitter/Goodreads for an author event last month. It's fun to connect with fellow book lovers online (obviously, right?) and I think it would be great to meet more in person as well. One of my goals this year is more community, hence participating in Armchair BEA!

Learning from others:
Like most of my blogging peers I've learned the most just from visiting/reading other book blogs. Sometimes I've liked what other bloggers have done and other times I avoid what they've done. I've picked up some cool tips from Kimberly at Caffeinated Book Blogger and her Blogger Tips & Tricks feature.

On monetizing:
I have no plans to monetize the blog, although I have pondered the thought. I was an Amazon Associate for about five minutes until the program was pulled from Illinois. Personally, I shy away from blogs that are loaded with advertisements. I don't blame anyone for wanting to make a buck, but too many flashy ads make me question the content.

Expanding my blogging horizons:
Last year I hosted a Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge and that gave me more structure than I was used to, but I enjoyed having that structure. It made me think more about when I would read and post what. Of course the best part was introducing Cather to more readers. I think I might do something similar with a different author every-other year.

I'm looking forward to reading everyone's post on this topic, 
because I secretly want to learn how to get better at scheduling posts!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Armchair BEA: Genre: from Literary Theory Snob to Mystery Lover

Okay, so let me come clean. My previous post on the classics made me sound like I've always been judgement free when it comes to books and reading. The truth is, I was once a literary snob. I came close to disowning my earlier love of horror and I absolutely, flat-out, thought disrespectful things about the mystery genre. I thought people who read mystery series were rather mindless, thoughtless people who were no better than people who watched sitcoms. I also went through a kill-your-TV-phase. Now I'm older and wiser (at least when I comes to mysteries and sitcoms).

This slow transformation into a literary snob started in college in the early 1990s. The main cause wasn't the formal study of literature, but the hysteria surrounding literary theory. My first literary theory class as an undergrad was co-taught by an English professor who regularly reminded students of her background in Mathematics to seem like a more muscular intellect and a Comparative Literature professor who reeked of desperation to seem European with a Marxist edge. It reached its height in the mid-to-late 1990s when I realized I probably should have left graduate school after earning my masters degree and not gone on to a Ph.D. program. After ten years of higher education it got to the point that when reading anything, even a cereal box or beer bottle, I zeroed in on opportunities for the application of various theoretical interpretations.

Reading for the story, for the beauty of language, or for the joys and challenges of life that the writer was exploring were not what mattered. I was on the verge of no longer enjoying reading. I certainly started losing interest in what I was supposed to be reading all the while holding it up as the must important stuff to read. The only important stuff to read. Sure, you can talk about Walt Whitman but only through a theoretical lens. Empathizing with what he was trying to do in Leaves of Grass was okay if you were in high school, but not here.

Francine Prose hit it on the head for me. In Reading like a Writer she says,
"Only once did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading "texts" in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written" (8).
Now, don't get me wrong. I am not putting down graduate school or academic scholars (at least not all of them). If you're considering graduate school, good for you! I have friends who are happily living their lives as tenured English professors. It just wasn't for me at that time.

What saved me? Who saved me? Nevada Barr saved me. A mystery writer.

My Aunt Sandy saved me, too. I told her I was having thoughts of quitting graduate school but felt like I should--that I had to--finish what I started. The last time we talked before she died way too young from cancer she advised me not to spend another day doing something I no longer enjoyed. Eventually I understood and heeded her advice, but it took a while.

Anyway, one thing I did not give up in graduate school was my love of the outdoors and living in Reno, Nevada, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range provided many opportunities for outdoor activities. If I wasn't reading, writing, or watching the X-Files, I was out hiking or mountain biking. One day I came across a review of a book in one of the outdoorsy magazines that I regularly read. It was for Nevada Barr's first novel, The Track of the Cat. I was intrigued and went out and bought the book and loved it. I told a friend who was a big mystery reader that I read a mystery and liked it. (At least I was open minded enough to have friends who read genre.) She gave me Patricia Cornwell's Postmortem to try. I was hooked and read all the Cornwell that was published at the time. Soon I was blowing off coursework. I justified reading Michael Connelly's The Poet as something close to research because the serial killer in that novel uses lines from Edgar Allan Poe and I was specializing in 19th century American literature so, hey, it was relevant.

Anyway, long story not so short, I fell in love with mystery and thrillers. They got me back to the joy of reading. After I left graduate school I went through a phase where I read them almost exclusively, but then they started creeping me out a bit. Everyone started looking like a potential murderer and I started noticing good places to hide a body when I was out hiking. Now I'm back to reading rather eclectically. I can even read novels by 19th century American writers without dwelling on how the text will or will not fit into my next seminar paper or dissertation.

My top 3 favorite mystery/thriller writers are:
  • Nevada Barr: each novel in her Anna Pigeon series is set in a different National Park. The parks aren't just pretty backdrops, but rather Barr makes the unique features of each park integral to the murder/mystery. Barr was a park ranger once upon a time, so there's unquestionable authenticity here.
  • Patricia Cornwell: her Kay Scarpetta novels helped popularize forensic work. Cornwell always introduces and/or incorporates some of the latest forensic tools or techniques and her characters seem like old friends to me.
  • Louise Penny: I finally started reading Penny two summers ago. Although the first couple books in her Three Pines series were a bit hard for me to get in to, I was soon swept up by the knack Penny has for gently laying out on the page both the worst and the best of what its like to be a human being.

Mystery/thriller writers I want to read more of:
  • Rebecca Cantrell: I've only read the first in her Hanna Vogel series. Recently picked up Blood Gospel which she wrote with James Rollins.
  • Sara Paretsky: Cannot believe I haven't read more of her. She's a feminist and social justice advocate who lives in and writes mysteries set in Chicago. What's my problem?
  • Matthew Pearl: I loved his first novel The Dante Club (it features 19th century American writers) and The Poe Shadow was pretty good, too, but I've yet to read The Last Dickens or The Technologists.
  • Jacqueline Winspear: Have been following her career since she hit the scene but have not read her yet. Actually own the first three books in her Maisie Dobbs series and she's up to ten now.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Armchair BEA: Classics

My Favorite Classic
The first discussion topic for Armchair BEA is classics. I was struck by a few of the questions the moderators asked, particularly these: If you could give a list of classics to someone who claims to hate them to make them change their mind, what would be on it? How would you convince them to give classics a try?
I became a reader of classics through television. Yes, modern culture's much maligned boob-tube is what led me to the classics. Let me explain. 

As a kid I wasn't a huge reader. Sure, I read books, but I didn't seek them out and live on them like oxygen until I discovered, while browsing through a Scholastic catalog, that they'd written a book based on the movie Dracula. Back-ass-wards, right? 

Well, I was only in 7th grade and didn't know that the movie was based on Bram Stoker's1897 novel, Dracula. But I loved monster movies and Dracula was my favorite character. I have such a fond memory of spending what seemed like the entire summer (between softball games and mowing the lawn) lounging on the hammock in the backyard reading Dracula. I remember it wasn't what I expected--the style was a challenge for me to get into at first--but I loved Dracula so much that I persevered. I was mesmerized by the depth with which I was able to explore the story of Dracula through the novel. It also helped me understand my parents, who read every night and on the weekends, a bit more.

Dracula led me to Salem's Lot which led me to a lot of great and some pretty bad novels in the horror genre. I have a strong suspicion that making my way through novels like Dracula and The Stand at a young age helped me give some of my assigned school reading a fighting chance to grow on me.

I loved reading The Good Earth and The Pearl in 8th grade. In high school I recall enjoying just about everything that my English teacher, Mr. Antus, had us read. Well, with the exception of The Old Man and the Sea. I wish Mr. Antus was still alive so I could ask him what he was thinking when he had a bunch of teens read that one.

A Marine Classic
I continued to read a lot in the Marines, which I joined before I was out of high school. During these years I gravitated toward books that helped deepen and widen my knowledge of and love for the USMC (and that also helped me make sense out of the frustration and disappointment I was also beginning to feel).

One day I had finished my work and my boss (a sergeant major, one of the highest enlisted ranks) told me that I could read until my shift was up. When he had found out I was a reader we'd instantly bonded--across age, gender, and race lines, not to mention many, many levels of rank (I was a Private First Class). So, there I sat reading when an officer walked in. He saw me sitting there with a mass market paperback and instantly started chewing me out (I imagine he thought it was a romance novel). My boss stepped in and innocently suggested that the officer ask what I was reading. When I held up my copy of Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller by Burke Davis that officer turned a bit pink, apologized, and walked out. We chuckled. Books are powerful!

Eventually I did go to college where I got into Middle and Old English literature, discovered Willa Cather, and then in graduate school focused mainly on pre-twentieth century American writers. After graduate school I discovered the world of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, advance reader copies, and book clubs, but classics have remained a consistent part of my reading life because I know I'll be in for a good and/or meaningful story when I pick up one.

I think my point in sharing the above is that if you're going to try to get people to read a classic, you have to find away in for them. Find out what they're interested in. These days there are many classics being turned into graphic novels and some are finding new readers through Hollywood adaptations. In other words, don't kill your TV and don't freak out about classics being turned into comic books.

It's human nature to want to find out more about what we're interested in, so if you're trying to get someone to read the classics, my advice is to start not where you are, but where they are.

p.s. Speaking of classics, did you know that the Marine Corps has required reading? It's called the Commandant's Professional Reading List and it started in 1988 (after I got out or I'd have been all over it. Hell, I might have even reenlisted!). Here's a link that will take you to the official reading list website. Each rank has a list of required books to read and you can view them that way or as professional categories. Titles include classics such as Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and more recent popular novels like Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire. Check it out, you might be surprised by some of the titles. You can even follow USMC reading action on Twitter @USMCReadingList.

Good night, Chesty, wherever you are!

Armchair Book Expo America--Introduction

This is the first time I'm participating in Armchair Book Expo America. I attended BEA in the flesh one year and it was a fascinating experience. The Armchair BEA organizers have asked us to introduce ourselves, so here goes.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging? 

I started blogging in January 2010 after several people told me they enjoyed reading my reviews on Goodreads. Around that time I had also discovered book blogs and had also stepped down as a manager at Borders to attend massage therapy school. I missed the daily engagement with books & book people and had enjoyed writing about books in college, graduate school, and then as a marketing manager for Borders (it makes me sad that some day I'll have to explain what Borders was, but for now I assume most readers have heard of the place). Book blogging looked like a great outlet for what I enjoyed doing, so I took the leap!

Where in the world are you blogging from? Tell a random fact or something special about your current location. 

For the sake of brevity I usually say I'm from Chicago. I was born in Chicago and grew up in Cicero. I do actually reside in Chicagoland, a geographic area that includes Chicago proper and all of its suburbs (I imagine some low level marketing manager dreamed up the name for advertising purposes), but technically I now live in Brookfield, about 13 miles from the Loop

Brookfield is primarily know as being the home of the Brookfield Zoo (hence the dolphins on our water tower), but what many folks don't know is that Brookfield's original name was Grossdale. Glad that changed.

What are you currently reading, or what is your favorite book you have read so far in 2013? 

I'm currently reading This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald and listening to The Passage of Power by Robert Caro. I've also been reading Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor because May is Short Story Month. 

So far my favorite book of 2013 is a tie between Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by F. Scott Berg and The Selected Letters of Willa Cather edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.

Tell us one non-book-related thing that everyone reading your blog may not know about you.

I've lived in 5 states so far: Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, and North Carolina (twice in NC about 10 years apart: the first time when I was in the Marines and the second time when I was an English professor).

I'm looking forward to my first Armchair BEA. 
Thanks for visiting! 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Library Visit: Arlington Heights Memorial Library

Arlington Heights Memorial Library
500 N. Dunton Avenue
Arlington Heights, IL 60004-5910
Date visited: May 10, 2013

Photo from the library's Twitter account. All other photos by me.
The Arlington Heights library traces its roots back to 1887. It became known as the Memorial Library in 1952 when it was "dedicated to the memory of the service men and women of the community." What better library to feature today on Memorial Day.

The original structure of the current library opened in June 1968 and the library has undergone three major renovations over the years, the last of which was recently completed. It is now 130,000 square feet. You'll notice a lack of signs and/or art on the walls in the pictures below and that's because they'll be finishing up with those details in the coming months.

The Arlington Heights Memorial Library is one of the busiest public libraries in the country. Its circulation for 2012 was 2,670,136 items. 

The collection contains over 360,000 items:
  • Over 1,000 newspapers and magazines
  • Over 44,000 movies
  • Over 32,000 CDs
  • Over 3,000 eBooks
The Market Place (see below) is a newer feature to the library. It contains 10% of the library's holdings but contributes 25% of the circulation. Since they've had this feature nonfiction as a category has increased in circulation by 5%.

Click here to read more about the library and its history.

A view of the late 1960s architecture. Note the underground parking. Can you see the taillights under the building? They are near where the drive-up window is.

The drive-up window. Opens earlier than the library so commuters can pick up items on their way to work.

The information desk. Its open design allows librarians and patrons to work side-by-side rather than in the traditional 'librarian behind the desk set-up.'
The circulation desk.
Computer area. To the left where the yellow star balloons are is the computer classroom. To the right, behind the counter where the person with the red shirt is standing is a large area of computers for public use.

Here's the computer classroom. It has a glass wall so patrons will be more aware that computers classes are offered to take advantage of them.
Public computers.

Between the computer classroom and public computer area is a hall way that leads to The Studio which is a suit of rooms where patrons can create their own multimedia projects. There are multiple rooms for a variety of projects. Below are pictures of the largest room, dedicated to musical projects.

The room itself is soundproof to a certain level, but then they have this sound proof recording booth.

A view inside the booth.

Drums, keyboard, and computer to put it all together.
Down the center of the library is this strip of ceiling window. From where this picture was taken, to the left is the computer area, to the right is circulation. Straight ahead to the left is the fiction collection, then all the way back to the left is periodicals. Straight ahead is the business center and next door is the genealogy department. To the right is reference and the nonfiction stacks.
Love these comfy chairs with moveable desktop.

Whoever added the handle to the design was a practical person. Makes them much easier to move around, for patrons and staff.
Comfortable seating in front of the computer area.
The periodicals section. These faced out titles are those with higher circulation.

These periodicals in more traditional shelves are still popular, but don't circulate as much as those in the faced-out section above.

Reading area with fireplace in the periodicals section. I thought only historic libraries had fireplaces. Perhaps they'll make a comeback as libraries recreate themselves as social gathering places.
The business center. Contains resources for small businesses and there is a dedicated business librarian on hand.

The globe! Every library seems to have (at least) one and this is the first large size globe that also lights up that I've seen. I asked Andrea to pose next to it to provide a sense of scale.
The genealogy department. They've had visitors from all over the country and many different countries come to use their resources.

A view of the nonfiction stacks from near the circulation desk.
Due to the rise of electronic databases, this is what's left of the reference section.
The Market Place. One of the new trends in public libraries is to have popular and new items displayed for easy browsing so patrons can easily access what's new and hot. It's great for patrons, but can be a challenge for librarians to decide how best to catalog items in their system that will probably temporarily live in this location. There are books, magazines, DVDs, CDs, and games featured in The Market Place. Some libraries are signing up for a direct subscription service for such a section while other libraries continue to hand-select their holdings.

One of the categories in The Market Place is for subjects that are currently trending in the news or timely seasonal topics.
Cafe area.

Seattle's Best Coffee vending machine. Love SBC coffee! Wish all libraries (or at least the ones I regularly frequent) had one of these machines.
Rotating art display area.
The Hub is a place for teens. Middle schoolers tend to use it right after school and high schoolers tend to be there later in the evening. It's only open after school lets out.

Computers, desks, soft seating. Only Macs are used here as its what kids use in the local school system.

The new "make out" area. Parents needn't worry as the librarian's desk faces this corner.

Work space for creative projects.

Art on the walls.

These tables are scattered throughout the Hub and have paper pads on top. Teens are encouraged to draw on them, then they can take it home, hang it on the wall, or leave it for the next teen to add to the drawing.
Around the corner and down the hall is the children's section. Circles are a theme here.

Age appropriate manga, graphic novels, and comics section.

Fish tank.

Display case that is eye level for kids.

Love that ruler.

Bright primary colors and an analog clock. I've heard from high schoolers that some of their classmates don't know how to tell time with an analog clock because they grew up with only digital.

Fun reading and performance space.

Kid level circular windows were added to doors leading into the childrens' event room.
Near the children's section is a small lobby where The Friends of the Library have withdrawn library books available for patrons to "buy" for a small donation.

A wall of upcoming events.

Heading toward the second floor.
Upstairs is a suit of conference rooms for patrons to use for school or work projects or club meeting space.

Example of a room that would be perfect for a book group, knitting group, etc.

A room suitable for a small group project.
Here's a post-renovation floor plan of the library.
Last but not least is the Cather on the shelf. Love the Willa Cather shelf talker!
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