Friday, December 19, 2014

Truth and the Law by Meldon D. Jenkins-Jones, RPL Law Librarian

Good News! RPL teens are learning good business skills as well as non-profit fund-raising techniques by participating in the annual RPL TAG Recyclable Craft Sale held on December 12th and 13th. For anyone, not just teens, interested in starting their own business or organizing a non-profit entity, RPL is presenting a series of workshops and classes to help you with the legal aspects. The “Starting a Non-Profit” workshop organized by Foundation Center resource person, Reference Librarian Bev Mitchell, was well attended. Taught by local attorney Charles Schmidt, it is almost as popular as the How to Start a Business class, also taught by Mr. Schmidt, which is a part of the Richmond Public Law Library’s Community Law series.

The Law Library, as well as RPL, has an extensive collection of books on both topics. I recently read Build Your Own Life Brand! by Graham Stedman (Oprah’s boyfriend) on the basics of seeing yourself as a brand. The ever expanding number of new business, management, and non-profit organizing books include Reinventing You by Dorie Clark, another brand-building book.

Future classes for entrepreneurs, business owners, and non-profit leaders will include the “Business Entity” workshop on January 12th at 5:30 pm and the Non-Profit Grants Seekers Workshop on January 30th and February 13th at 10 am. There will also be an Employment Law class which is now in the planning stages.

Of course, writers increasingly view themselves as a marketable brand, so in conjunction with the recent birth of the RPL Main Writers Group, we’ll be blogging about the many books the library has on that topic.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What did the Readers of Richmond read this year? Check out the Most Circulated Books of 2014!

I'm sure you're the curious sort of blog reader who wonders what constitutes a "best seller" list at the public library. I mean, what do readers read? I was curious too, so I got to asking*. Well look no further! The RPL blog proudly presents the Top Ten Most Circulated Books in 2014 in Adults, Children, and Young Adults categories!

#1 #2 #3 #4
#5 #6 #7 #8
#9 #10


#1: Gone girl : a novel / Gillian Flynn

#2: The goldfinch / Donna Tartt

#3: The invention of wings : a novel / Sue Monk Kidd

#4: Sycamore Row / John Grisham

#5: To Paris with love : a family business novel / Carl Weber with Eric Pete

#6: The Target / David Baldacci

#7: Ericka Kane : never trust a bitch with power / Kiki Swinson

#8: Still the baddest bitch / Joy Deja King

#9: And the mountains echoed / Khaled Hosseini

#10: Who asked you? / Terry McMillan

This list should come as no surprise. Most of these titles were so buzzed about they buzzed right off the shelves (nobody was injured but several were startled). Quite different from the young adult list at the bottom, only one of these titles was adapted into a film this year. I am also a little shamed to admit that I have only read one of the top ten books. What did you read this year? See any favorites in the top 10? Answer in the comments!

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#5 #6 #7 #8
#9 #10


#1: Tales from a not-so-glam TV star / Rachel Renee Russell

#2: Pete the cat : Pete at the beach / James Dean

#3: One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish /  Dr. Seuss

#4: Wonder / R.J. Palacio

#5: The cat in the hat / Dr. Seuss

#6: We are in a book! /  Mo Willems

#7: Dork diaries : tales from a not-so-fabulous life / Rachel Renee Russell

#8: Captain Underpants and the attack of the talking toilets / Dav Pilkey

#9: Hop on Pop /  Dr. Seuss

#10: I spy Fly Guy! / Tedd Arnold

This list just goes to show you that there's nobody quite like Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat was originally published in 1957, One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish in 1960 and Hop on Pop in 1963. Talk about enduring!

#1 #2 #3 #4
#5 #6 #7 #8
#9 #10

Young Adults

#1: Mockingjay / Suzanne Collins

#2: Diary of a wimpy kid: Hard luck / Jeff Kinney

#3: Divergent / Veronica Roth

#4: Catching fire / Suzanne Collins

#5: The book thief / Markus Zusak

#6: Diary of a wimpy kid: Cabin fever / Jeff Kinney

#7: The fault in our stars / John Green

#8: Diary of a wimpy kid: Dog days /  Jeff Kinney

#9: Allegiant / Veronica Roth

#10: Diary of a wimpy kid: The ugly truth / Jeff Kinney

The Wimpy Kid is the clear winner in the YA category with four titles but the ceaselessly popular Divergent and Hunger Games series are still in the top three. Movie adaptations certainly do a lot to increase or renew interest in a book; the majority of the top ten have been made into films fairly recently. The YA literature market looks to be lucrative for Hollywood for a long time yet.

Don't forget! You can get everything you need for your "nice" list at the Teen Advisory Group's Craft Sale going on TODAY (Friday, December 12th) from 3:30-5 and Saturday, December 13th from 1-4. Proceeds support cool stuff for teens at RPL. Buy handmade!
(*Thanks Donna and Melissa for the lists!)

Friday, December 05, 2014

How Do You Do, Newbie?: What's new in debuts!

Having just reached my goal of reading 100 books this year I can safely say that I've read a whole lot of books this year. When one (one being me) is maintaining an endlessly growing list of things, it makes sense to break that long list down into meaningful categories--categories such as "WOW!!!", "Really Great!", "Meh", "books by women", or "Debut Novels". I'm SO not sharing my Best of 2014 list yet, sorry. You're going to have to wait for the RPL Blog Best of the Best of 2014 post (TBA). Until then you can whet your appetite with the big best of lists over at Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Millions Year in Reading, NPR, etc. (I will slip in how happy I am to see Dept. of Speculation on so many "best" lists). Feel free to ask for book recommendations in the comments! Go ahead and try to stump us. We will blind you with library science.

I will, however, share with you the highlights of my list of debuts. If you happen to be a compulsive fiction junkie like me you know that a first book by a young new author is super thrilling uncharted reading territory, and you feel a little like Lewis and Clark, but without having to pack a bag. Jacket reviews use phrases like "searing debut" or "shattering debut" or "darkly riveting debut novel", always somehow working "debut" into the first line of the description, evidently as a selling point, but perhaps also as a subtle disclaimer. So, hopefully without repeating past or future reviews on this blog, the following are the Really Good!, the Pretty OK!, and the Better Luck Next Time! of 2014 debuts in fiction (that I read).

First, the Really Good! news:

The Transcriptionist
Amy Rowland

OK, I know I'm already repeating myself here since I briefly declared this book a totally awesome debut somewhere else on this blog. Goodreads proclaims it a "powerful debut", and it IS powerful! Rowland brings up a lot in a compact space: ethics in journalism and the decline of newspapers, language and technology, existential stuff, alienation, and a gruesome death under bizarre circumstances. The protagonist, Lena, is a loyal lone transcriptionist, a woman in a nearly extinct occupation within a struggling industry. She is shocked to find out that a blind woman she talked to on the bus just a few days earlier has met a terrible end after climbing into a lion's cage at the zoo. As Lena begins a search for the truth she uncovers much more, threatening the reputation of the paper and her own future. I am anxiously awaiting Amy Rowland's next book.

Cutting Teeth
Julia Fierro

I liked this so much more than the other folks on Goodreads. What can I say? I like a good mean girl and this book is full of 'em. A cast of privileged young parents and their children embark on a weekend playdate at the shore that starts messy and gets messier. If you like Meg Wolitzer, Tom Perotta, Megan Abbott, and Susan Coll you'll be on the lookout for what's next from Julia Fierro.

In brief but also firmly in the Really Good! sub-category are Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob, Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, and Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (more on these coming soon). For now I will just say "total swoon". Also The Bees (Laline Paull), The Girl in the Road (Monica Byrne), Wolf in White Van (John Darnielle), were already mentioned at their respective links, and are all outstanding debuts worth your while.

Now for the Pretty OK!:

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
David Connerly Nahm

Told in non-linear, stream of consciousness prose, this exhausting petite debut clocks in at around 225 pages and I gotta say it took me a while to finish it. The author really gets Central Kentucky (he's from there), and crafts a compelling, though somewhat obfuscating, narrative using small town Kentucky as an effective backdrop for a story about a troubled woman operating a non-profit while dealing with resurfacing memories of her brother's disappearance when they were children. The giant Sense of Place sledgehammer employed so often in Appalachian and Appalachian-adjacent literature can get a little tiresome (see Silas House) and Nahm does his best not to abuse it. It really is quite haunting, and you might find yourself re-reading some of the particularly stunning passages to mull them over and let them really sink in. So, no, it's not a page-turner. I think that in another book or two he will have worked out his need to prose the reader to fatigue and create some pretty powerful fiction. I'll be keeping an eye out for his next book.

I am Having So Much Fun Here Without You
Courtney Maum

I liked this book. I did! But I did not LOVE it like I thought I would--like I wanted to. It was funny and entertaining and light and cute and France meets England by way of New York. In Paris there is a whiny English artist, Richard Haddon, married to a French woman and he's having an affair with an American woman who ends up leaving him for a cutlery designer (forgot his nationality). Richard's grief over losing his lover drives his wife away...and you know what? I really hated that Hugh Grant Christmas movie, Love Actually (2003) and typing this plot synopsis is starting to remind me of that. "Whiny philanderer loses everything due to own selfishness, wants to be forgiven, is sad." Maybe that's why I couldn't love it love it? All the same, it had me laughing out loud and I'll happily consider Maum's next book.

And finally, the Better Luck Next Time!, in which I disagree with the critics:

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
David Shafer

WTF. W. T. F. (Get it?) This book's heart is in the right place but it needed an editor. You were too darn long, book! Too much time is spent being ambiguous about phony, ambivalent, hipstery non-people in this "ooh look at me I'm so cool I can drop in all these winks to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon and William Gibson and Chuck Palahniuk but not be all geeky fanboy about it " way. Trimmed down to its good parts it would be a solid paranoid techno-thriller-comedy and the reviewers would probably have hated it. As it is the reviewers LOVED it and it is on all kinds of the aforementioned "best of 2014" lists--but not mine. Better luck next time, Shafer!

An Untamed State
Roxanne Gay

A beautiful, young, upper-class woman is kidnapped and held hostage in Haiti. The story jumps back and forth between a childish, cringe-worthy description of her fairy tale romance and privileged life (perfect, perfect, perfect), and the brutal, almost prurient description of her torture and degradation at the hands of her captors over 13 days. The narrator's voice is completely baffling. Based on the reviews I was expecting something literary but the whole narrative is very melodramatic Lifetime TV movie of the week. Remember those? I couldn't even handle it but I still kinda want to read Gay's book of essays also out this year: Bad Feminist.

Hey! Wait! One more to look for!
Miranda July's debut novel, The First Bad Man, will be out sometime in January and I can't wait. I mean, I really can't wait. Yes, she has books out, but this is her first novel and I'm so excited I just can't even. January is so far away! So, if you love her films or her stories you'll surely be in for a treat now that the inimitable and odd Miranda July has finally made her way into novels. Me and You and Everyone We Know is one of my all-time favorite movies so I have high hopes for the literary version of that experience.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Meta: Reading and Writing about Reading and Writing

I love to read books about reading. I’m not a writer, but I also love to read books about writing, especially if they inform my enjoyment as a reader. Here are a few of my favorites (plus a new one still “on my TBR list”): two about reading and writing fiction, two about reading and writing creative nonfiction, and two about writing in general.

James Wood, Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University and staff writer for the New Yorker, saw a need for the literary equivalent of John Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing. He may have filled it with his deceptively slight How Fiction Works (2008).  In concise numbered paragraphs, Wood discusses those elements of modern realist fiction he considers most important, especially narrative style, and most especially the narrative style called “free indirect.” Using examples from Flaubert to David Foster Wallace, he demonstrates its power to let the reader “inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.” New Yorker readers will recognize Wood’s often professorial tone (“But to repeat, what is a character?”) and his sometimes contrary and always certain opinions (“I find this deeply, incorrigibly wrong.”), but the depth of his understanding of and his passion for the modern novel are irresistible.

Francine Prose (what a great name for a writer!) is the author of seventeen novels (including one of this year’s RPL favorites, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932). In her Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (2006), she, too, looks at how fiction works. But Prose is more concerned with the lessons great fiction can offer an aspiring writer. She advocates a return to “close reading”: a word by word, sentence by sentence examination of a writer’s choices and the meaning those choices convey. Appropriately, her book is organized into building-block chapters, beginning with “Words,” “Sentences,” and “Paragraphs.” Chock full of lengthy textual analyses of passages from the greatest authors in English literature, she draws our attention to the craftsmanship that underlies their work.  Although I would not want all my reading to be this close, Prose’s observations have helped me identify what it is about a book that makes it good, or not.

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, further subtitled Stories and Advice from a Lifetime of Writing and Editing, is a collaborative effort by an author, Tracy Kidder, and his editor, Richard Todd, who have worked together since 1973. They discuss three main nonfiction forms -- narrative, memoir, and essay -- and suggest strategies and techniques for each. They also address the ethical issues confronted by nonfiction writers, the challenges of making a living as a writer, and the rapidly changing realm of publishing in an internet age. Although the authors write mostly in a single voice, each also offers his individual perspective and experiences in italicized passages that introduce each section.Good P rose is on its surface a thoughtful how-to for writers of nonfiction, but the evolving relationship of its authors and their appreciation for one another are at its heart.

Chief among the caveats Kidder and Todd offer is, to paraphrase, “Don’t make stuff up.”  They cite the example of essayist John D’Agata, who at the end of his book, About a Mountain, admits that “for dramatic effect” he has changed the chronology of events and conflated characters. This dismays Kidder and Todd, who “can rely on the accuracy of almost nothing we have just read.”

The debate about whether or not a creative nonfiction writer may, or should, alter facts to serve a literary goal is a lively one. Whichever side you favor, The Lifespan of a Fact (2012) is a must-read. Like Good Prose, it is a collaboration, but of a different sort: it is a seven-year email correspondence between the essayist whose reliability is questioned by Kidder and Todd, John D’Agata, and the intern, Jim Fingal, who fact-checked an article of his for the literary magazine Believer.  When Fingal introduces himself and questions a number cited in the piece, D’Agata responds that he doesn’t even think his article, which is about the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas, needs a fact-checker: “I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the “article,” as you call it, is fine.”  The book reconstructs, paragraph by paragraph, the original article, sandwiched between the correspondence they agreed to continue in order to debate whether D’Agata owes fealty to the truth while pursuing his art. Between Fingal’s meticulous and sometimes sanctimonious insistence on “fact” and D’Agata’s arrogant conviction that he may disregard it to convey a greater “truth,” it’s hard to like either one of them. Nevertheless, Lifespan of a Fact is a fascinating read, and a valuable contribution to our understanding of the role and responsibilities of creative nonfiction.

I suspect all writers have read or or at some time referred to The Elements of Style, written in 1918 by English professor William Strunk, published in 1935 and updated by E. B. White in subsequent editions in 1959 and 1972. Almost a century old, it was for most of those years the definitive reference for the writer seeking the correct form of a personal pronoun (covered in “Elementary Rules of Usage”) or deciding whether to use “less“ rather than “fewer” (under “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”). The advice in its “Elementary Principles of Composition” is still sound: “Use the active voice.” “Omit needless words.”  In the last section, “An Approach to Style,” Strunk muses that although being “correct” requires adherence to certain rules, “style” in its broader sense is a more elusive target. Instead of rules, he includes a gentler “List of Reminders”:  “Do not inject opinion.” “Avoid fancy words.” A lot of Strunk and White seems dated, but it is still amusing and helpful. Browse the illustrated version of its fourth edition (2005). Maira Kalman, known for her New Yorker covers and New York Times blogs, adds wit and whimsy with her 57 colorful drawings.

Strunk notes, “Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion,” an observation which brings me to the recently released The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works). I had hoped to read it before I wrote this post, but other readers got in line ahead of me for the two copies at RPL. Its title suggests, correctly, that it is intended to be kind of an anti-Strunk. Pinker, whose specialties are visual cognition and the psychology of language, believes that language is instinctual: a biological adaptation for communication in a social group.  As such, it is still evolving, however “disturbingly” to purists. Although he acknowledges that some rules are necessary, he shrugs at nitpicks such as (ahem) the use of “like” for “such as.”  An occasional dangling modifier doesn’t alarm him, as long as it does not confuse. He wants us to use science -- modern grammatical theories and research on cognitive psychology -- to understand how rules developed, and recognize when they may be broken. He warns against “The Curse of Knowledge” -- the failure of writers to recognize that their readers may not know all they know.  In some respects he approaches writing like (“as”?) Prose does: word by word. “Good writers acquire their craft not from memorizing rules but from reading a lot, savoring and reverse-engineering good prose, and assimilating vast numbers of words, idioms, tropes, and stylistic habits and tricks.” I can’t wait to get my hands on this book, as soon as I finish rereading Woods and Prose.