It’s all Christmas

For those who want to use these last 10 days before Christmas to get themselves in the mood (or to dwell in a more traditional head space in the midst of this unquestionably nontraditional year), I thought I would remind readers of all the many holiday short stories, novellas, novels, and nonfiction offerings out there. I did a pretty comprehensive overview last year of a bunch of alternatives, so let me just give you those urls with a brief explanation and you can explore your options!

For a classic Christmas, check out this list of beloved read-alouds and come-back-tos:

For a book-length experience, here are some novels and true-life experiences:

And for those who want something unsentimental, here are some that are a bit more tart than sweet:

Finally, to hark back to a recent find, read Connie Willis’s latest Christmas offering:

Have yourselves a lovely reading holiday, while I attempt to finish Troubled Blood in time to make it #130 on my Goodreads Challenge for 2020!

Guest blog: NF

As you may have noticed by now, nonfiction is not really my friend. I seldom choose to read it, and when I do make the attempt I seem to have a recurrence of the selective narcolepsy that has plagued me on and off for years, never making it past the first few chapters.

How lucky am I, therefore, to have friends who read, and friends who are also willing to write something about what they have read and allow me to share it here?

The review to follow is by Mary K. Chelton, a well known advocate for young adults and libraries. A retired professor of library and information studies at Queens College (New York), Dr. Chelton is co-founder of Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) journal. and has published more than 60 articles in library literature. She has 20+ years experience as a public librarian, serving as a voice for all underserved library populations. One of her particular specialties is readers’ advisory, over which we recently bonded online. I am honored to share her thoughts about her reading.

Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. (Crown Publishing 6/30/2020, 272 pp.)

The chair of Princeton’s Department of African American Studies, who teaches a seminar on James Baldwin as part of that program, has done an exhaustive, critical examination of Baldwin’s writings, letters, interviews, and travels, to see what his thoughts and experiences might say to those of us trying, once again, through Black Lives Matter, to restart the Civil Rights movement.

Baldwin comes across as a tortured individual, in part because of his emotional and intellectual involvement in the movement, but also because of his sexuality and estrangement from both black and white politics in the United States. For example, he did not support the Black Power people, and he grappled intellectually with whether Black activists had to “become white” to achieve anything. He also became an unwilling celebrity as his writing was published and reviewed. Twice he tried to commit suicide, the first time after Martin Luther King was murdered.

Glaude follows his life and offers a rich interpretation of it with insights for those of us suffering through the Trump era, followed by a personal journey himself to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama to experience “the Lie” as he calls America’s underbelly of racist origins and structures. Begin Again is a wonderful work of scholarship, with something thought-provoking on every page.

# # #

There are people who have words for a particular situation, and James Baldwin is one of those. Although the things he said were certainly applicable during his lifetime, they also seem peculiarly addressed to us in our current situation. I sat through the so-called presidential debate Tuesday night watching the man in charge of our collective welfare bully his opponent and lie through his teeth with a confident smirk, and my response was this statement from Baldwin: “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

It also, of course, addresses the other revolution taking place in our country right now, which is the effort to see what we do to the black lives among us and choose to do better. Dual purpose Baldwin, if you will. —ME

The Dog Days of Summer

Yes, indeed they are, in California. Unrelentingly hot and humid, not to mention smoky…

So many idioms, positive and negative, in our eclectic language, relating to dogs!

     “Going to the dogs.”
          “Sick as a dog.”
               “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
                    “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
                         (and its opposite) “There’s life in the old dog yet.”
                              “Dog in a manger.”
                                   “A dog-eat-dog world.”

They go on and on. But the one appropriate to this blog post is:

Every dog will have its day.

Why? Because it’s National Dog Day!

In celebration of that, you could read and enjoy a book about a dog! There are many from which to choose, encompassing the preferences of all ages and popping up in all genres. Here are a few suggestions…


Just Life, by Neil Abramson
Here is my review:

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
On the eve of his death, Enzo, a terrier/lab mutt, reflects back on his life. A philosophical dog, Enzo believes that he will be reincarnated as a human, so he has spent much of his life closely observing his human, Denny, and the rest of his family, so that he will have a head start in his next life. Charming, sad, insightful.

Suspect, by Robert Crais   
In this departure from his Elvis Cole series by this popular mystery author, Crais examines the relationship between two broken cops, one a person, the other a dog. Scott is an LAPD cop with PTSD, trying to recover from a violent assault in which his partner, Stephanie, was murdered. Maggie is a sniffer dog, formerly with the Marines, who lost her handler to an IED and is equally traumatized. Eight months later, the two are paired as Scott tries out for the K9 unit as a way to stay on the job. [mystery]

The Plague Dogs, by Richard Adams   
This is a tough one to read, heart-wrenching and tragic in parts, but so beautifully written. It’s the story of two dogs who escape from the horrors of a medical testing laboratory, and attempt to learn to live in the wilderness with the help of a fox named Tod, after the lab puts out a public alert that these dogs may be carrying bubonic plague. Find out what happens to Snitter and Rowf.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski   
A young mute boy and his family happily live and work on their Wisconsin farm that they have turned into a dog-breeding kennel. Then the incursion of an ill-intentioned relative and a personal tragedy send the boy running away into the Wisconsin backwoods with three loyal dogs he helped raise. This seems to be one of those books that people either love or hate…which will you be?

Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo   
India Opal Buloni, 10, is sent to the market (the Winn-Dixie, a southern supermarket chain) by her father, the preacher, for two tomatoes, a box of macaroni and cheese, and a bag of white rice. She comes back with a dog. The inadvertent acquisition of Winn-Dixie (the name she gives the dog in a moment of panic when she claims him for her own) helps Opal befriend a quirky group of locals, and also to deal with the loss of her mother, who left when Opal was three. A Newbery Honor Book. [children’s fiction]


Travels with Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck   
In September of 1960, John Steinbeck set out on a road trip in his pickup truck, Rocinante, accompanied by his distinguished French poodle, Charley. It was a quest to reacquaint himself with the flavor of the country’s identity. Given the decade in which this autobiographical work was written and lived, the identity (at least in the southern portion of the trip) was tumultuous. But it’s also a thoughtful firsthand account of the beauty of the country and the character of its varied people.

Travels with Casey, by Benoit Denizet-Lewis   
America has the highest rate of dog ownership in the world. Denizet-Lewis, secretly insecure that his dog, Casey, didn’t like him, decided to explore both his personal relationship with his own dog and the relationships of other Americans with theirs by taking a four-month, 32-state, 13,000 mile trip in a rented motor home, interviewing dogs and their owners in every setting and profession. This Steinbeck-lite journey is entertaining and often hilarious.

Dog Years: A Memoir, by Mark Doty   
A poet celebrates the 16 years he shared with his two beloved dogs, Arden and Beau, during a period of devastating personal and human tragedy. Beautiful and sad.

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean   
Allegedly found in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel in France during World War I, then brought to Los Angeles by Lee Duncan, the soldier who found and trained him, by 1927 Rin Tin Tin had become a Hollywood star. Orlean researched both the dog and the legend; her book spans 90 years and explores both dogs and Hollywood.

The Genius of Dogs, by Brian Hare     
A scientific study of how dogs think (and their genius at getting along with people). What motivates your dog, and how much has he learned through cohabitation with you? “Dognition” has some surprising aspects!


The Trouble with Poetry, and Other Poems, by Billy Collins
Not all of the poems in this book are about dogs, but the ones that are…are not to be missed.

Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver
“But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit. For wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also the good attachments of that origin that we keep or restore. Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world. The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of the forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him.”

Please note that this list is not necessarily “the best” (who decides that, anyway?) and by no means complete; it is an eclectic sampling of all sorts of books about dogs, from every viewpoint (including their own), but there are hundreds more. Just Google “best books about dogs” or search for lists on Goodreads and you’ll see what I mean!

If your inclination on National Dog Day is to go beyond the act of reading a book, here are some other ideas:

  • Adopt a dog
  • If you can’t adopt, volunteer at a dog shelter or rescue organization
  • If you can’t volunteer, donate to one
  • If you’re broke, you can still give old towels and blankets
  • Help out an ill or elderly neighbor by walking his or her dog
  • On a lighter note, have a party for your dog, or go for a long walk in a new place

If nothing else, greet the dogs you meet along the way today with a hearty “Happy Dog Day!”

What? You say you’re a cat person? Then here’s a final read…

Dog vs. Cat, by Chris Gall

Bringing closure (not really) to history’s greatest battle…

Reading culture

I thought I would “publish” the remarks I made for a panel with Antioch University Library Director Lisa Lepore and Adult Services Librarian (LAPL) Eugene Owens at the California State Library Convention on Friday. Our topic was “Creating a Reading Culture in Libraries.” My part was about public libraries.

When I was a teen librarian, to get kids reading we started a program one summer called Book Café. We set up round tables that seated eight; we served cappuccino and cookies; and we introduced the idea of book-talking. We asked the teens to bring whatever they were reading, and to sit at a table labeled with their favorite genre—fantasy, mystery, or whatever. Our idea was that they would go around the table, each book-talking the book they had brought, and then maybe trade books at the end if someone else’s sounded appealing.


After we did a demo of a book talk from the front of the room and told them to get on with it, a sixth-grader named Harrison came up to me and the other teen librarian.

“Listen,” he said. “I just read a book that was so good, I KNOW that if they heard about it, everyone in this room would want to read it. Can I share it from the front of the room?”

We gave him the microphone. He book-talked his book, everyone applauded, and he sat down. Several hands went in the air. “Yes?” I asked. “I have one I want to do too!” another kid said. So I motioned her up to the front and handed her the mic, and for the next two hours, the mic was handed off from one to the next for about 24 teens. It had become like Open Mic Night but with books.

After this, Book Café became our most popular program. Teens would stop us in the library to request more sessions. Teens would ask other teens, Are you coming? You’ll like it! Attendance for the program climbed from the 30s into the 60s. And the teens clamored to select a book from our stash of teen fiction as prizes for summer reading club drawings.

We had created a culture of reading.

In the 1990s, when online search engines and databases began to accumulate and hold the knowledge formerly accessible mainly in books, librarians had to meet the challenge of information-seeking in a different arena. They had to learn, and they had to teach, adapting to new technologies and formats. Many librarians succumbed to panic. Their relevance was challenged with the familiar phrase, “Why do we need the library when we have Google?” The frantic and continually changing evolution of the library had begun. Books felt less relevant. For decades now, librarians have been like sharks, constantly moving into some next phase of justifying their existence. But a friend of mine, a professor in the UCLA MLIS program, said recently, “Libraries have Shakespeare, we have Toni Morrison, we have all the riches of literature—why are we running from that? We are the keepers of the books, and if it’s education that we want to promote, how better than to do so by creating a culture of reading for our children? Why do we not trust reading, and trust ourselves not only as its collectors but as its purveyors?”

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In 1932, Margaret A. Edwards, the first teen librarian, said essentially the same thing to her colleagues, who were holding fast to the information standard and shunning the idea of devoting their education as a librarian to learning about and giving people books they would enjoy reading. I propose that the same thing is still true
87 long years later, and it’s past time for us to wake up.

In marketing pamphlets and in some online promotions, this year’s summer reading program has for the first time been changed to a summer “learning” program. Children’s librarians are being encouraged to do educational programming. The iREAD theme for 2020 is “Dig Deeper,” and its promotional language no longer encourages reading for the simple—and profound—pleasure of reading. It seems that everything must tie back to STEM.

The CSLP theme for 2020 is “Imagine Your Story.” This sounds more promising until you read the slugs underneath each age group: Building reading and language skills. Motivating teens. Preparing children for success. This is the language of business. Success to me is the kid who’s reading three grades above his age level because he loves books.

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CSLP has published an impressive white paper on their website in which they review all the studies made of students and summer learning loss, and the advantages of participating in a program to combat that loss. One of the things they note is that public libraries face increasing accountability standards and scarce funding, and therefore must resort to evaluation of their programs. But this clinical review of best practices leaves the heart and soul out of the reason for cultivating reading in children and teens: to promote a love of reading that will be of lifelong benefit and advantage. If we persist in equating libraries with school, and take the pleasure component out of reading, we will lose those children.

Dr. Stephen Krashen, the leading expert on the subject of free voluntary reading, reminds us: People who read because they want to, with no assignment components—no book reports, no questions, no tests, no analysis—do better in school by far than those who don’t read or who only read under compulsion. Krashen’s premise, which has been broadly verified, is that the source of a wide vocabulary, good grammar, spelling skills, and competent writing ability is free voluntary reading. He goes on to note that students who participate in sustained silent reading programs go on to read more on their own than those who do not.

By contrast with the curriculum-based initiative to push school children into reading with education and information as an end, some progressive library systems are taking note that a return to our roots—to the philosophical underpinnings of library culture—might actually be the most modern and up-to-date course we could pursue as librarians. The Sacramento Public Library has recently created an initiative for its entire staff, one in which that staff is expected to place reading and readers’ advisory at the top of their list of job priorities as they create a culture in which literature is as important as information and technology, and readers are valued.

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Sacramento PL took an in-depth and global approach to this goal. First, they created the culture within their system by involving their entire library staff.

  • They incorporated books into library meetings as icebreakers;
  • They sent out weekly emails asking what “you” are reading, and actually expected an answer;
  • They encouraged reading through staff challenges;
  • They provided time during the workday for reading;
  • They incorporated reading into job performance evaluations;
  • And they provided formal readers’ advisory training.

Then they expanded to consider the library itself:

  • Reading displays and staff picks were created for every section of every branch, and staff were assigned to maintain them;
  • Books became central on all fronts, using merchandising standards;
  • They made sure that everything from library events and programming to social media posts reflected their new initiative.

Finally, they started taking the initiative outside the library with outreach events.

  • They hosted a readers’ advisory table at the state fair;
  • They did a Chamber of Commerce mixer with stacks of ARCs on each table as décor, so people could take books home with them to keep.

Their new unofficial motto became “books are the hook that get people in the door,” and everything reflected this.

In other key places across the country, this is also beginning to happen. Libraries in Colorado and in Chicago have readers’ advisory interest groups or committees, and belong to such global initiatives as the Panorama Project, a coalition of readers’ advisory professionals who offer support for librarian networking and training and are also involved in ongoing research on the impacts of such activities as community reading events.

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As librarians, we cannot afford to view our entire function as transactional. Our intellectual lives are important and should be valued. Public libraries, unlike academic settings, have not traditionally promoted time for librarians to take in reading and to produce new knowledge, but this needs to change, especially in an educational climate that has eliminated school libraries and teaches to the exam. As a public librarian for 11 years, I know what we are up against, besieged by both small tasks and large social concerns, until our work-day is so fragmented that we are in danger of losing focus. But I am asking you to make reading your priority, for the simple reason that no one else is doing or will do it.



No matter what other services you offer, when you observe your work space you realize that you are sitting in the center of a great big box full of books. And although librarians religiously keep up with their collection development, buying the worthy and the popular each year and expanding their collections, we need to acknowledge that sometimes we forget it’s our job not just to maintain our collections but to have deep knowledge of them and know how to present them to our patrons.

Let me share some statistics with you:

  • According to a 2017 Pew Research survey, 64 to 73 percent of patrons say they come to the library to find a good book.
  • For a 2016 Materials Survey for Library Journal, Barbara Hoffert discovered that FICTION accounts for 65 percent of print circulation and 79 percent of e-book circulation in libraries.
  • In 2015, NoveList conducted a “secret shopper” survey. The main question was, “If the book the patron was seeking was not in the library, did the librarian then suggest an alternate title?”
    75 percent of patrons answered NO.

In the face of these figures, are we not derelict in our duty as librarians if we fail to create opportunities around books? What better way could we serve our public than to realize that reading and advising are a skill set, to enable ourselves to be readers, and to advise our community that we are not only able but eager to connect them with the books they want?

The sad truth is that most library patrons don’t even know this is a service we offer. If people don’t know what we have and we don’t tell them, we are and will remain invisible. When we choose to adopt philosophies imposed upon us by schools, by business, by those who don’t understand what a library can be and what librarians can do,
we weaken our impact.

I would like to challenge you to take these ideas back to your home libraries, to consider the benefits of a community rooted in a love of reading, and to share your knowledge and expertise with them by creating a pervasive reading culture in your community. I believe the benefits of truly “making story our brand” will be immeasurable.

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The power of flowers

TulipsBecause of an extraordinary amount of rain and snow this year, many parts of the country (mine included) have had a particularly colorful spring when it comes to both wildflower superblooms and the overflowing roses, peonies, and daffodils in cultivated gardens. Observing this bounty has caused me to take a look at some books, both fiction and nonfiction, that deal not only with the appearance but also with the language of flowers.

Although flowers and other plants have had symbolic significance for centuries, the full blossoming, if you will, of the use of flowers as symbols for emotions was in the approximate 75-year span of the Victorian Era in England. Restrictive social conventions prohibited direct expression through conversation between those whose interests were loverlike, so whatever was deemed unacceptable by etiquette to share openly was encoded in the giving of particular flowers or combinations of flowers to convey specific meanings. This practice became so commonplace that the language of flowers was christened “floriography.” The practice has also captured the imagination of various authors, who have used it as a vehicle to tell their stories. Among them:

diffenbaughThe Language of Flowers,
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

From the title, you’d think this book would be soft and romantic, but it’s not at all. The main character, Victoria, is an 18-year-old who has just aged out of the foster care system. She has no friends, no family, no history, no prospects, and no skills, and soon she is homeless. Once she had a foster parent who taught her the language of flowers (i.e., asters = patience, red roses = love, etc.), and since she left that home, she has pursued her knowledge further. Based on this, she finds a florist willing to give her some under-the-table work, and creates for herself a small, regular life—for awhile. The book is told in alternating chapters between the one good foster home she was in at age 10 and her present existence, and the level of tension maintained as you wait to find out what happened that brought her to her current fix keeps you eagerly reading. The protagonist is engaging despite herself, and you don’t know whether you feel sorry for her or want to shake her. It’s a poignant story, and although Victoria isn’t always a likeable character, her courage is inspiring.

whiteForget-Her-Nots, by Amy Brecount White

While researching the Victorian language of flowers for a school project, 14-year-old Laurel discovers that the bouquets she creates have peculiar effects on people. Her mother hinted at an ancient family secret, and Laurel suspects it has something to do with her new-found talent, but her mom was never able to share either the gift or its use with Laurel. Unfortunately, Laurel uses this  talent to meddle, and a string of incidents that involve the misuse of flowers threaten to mess significantly with everyone’s prom night experience. Clever, fun, and informative, too. (Young Adult fiction.)

BranardThe Art of Arranging Flowers, by Lynne Branard

Ruby Jewell grew up in a harsh environment, her only comfort being her close relationship with her sister, Daisy. Daisy’s death when Ruby was in her early 20s was devastating as well as life altering. Instead of pursuing her studies to become a lawyer, Ruby just wanted to curl up and die, too. It was the flowers that saved her. For 20 years now, Ruby has created floral arrangements at her shop in the small town of Creekside. With a few words from a customer, she knows just what flowers to use to help kindle a romance or heal a broken heart. However, Ruby has a barrier around her own heart and is determined that she will not allow it to be broken. It takes an extraordinary group of people to bring Ruby out from behind her wall.

If reading any or all of these causes you to be intrigued by the background these authors used to create their floral fantasies, you can read about Victorian identification in…

greenawayKate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers   

This is a charming reproduction of a rare volume by a 19th-century illustrator that includes a full-color illustrated list of more than 200 plants and their supposed meanings: tulip = fame; blue violet = faithfulness, etc.


And if you feel further inspired, you can read some germane nonfiction delving into the scientific significance of blooms:

PollanThe Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World,
by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan has a vision in his garden that leads him to question the interrelationship between humans and plants. He postulates that the plant species humans have nurtured over the past 10,000 years may have benefited as much from their association with us as we have from ours with them. He decides to investigate four plants—apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana—and he digs into history, anecdote, and personal revelation to do so. It’s entertaining, philosophical, and smart.

BuchmannThe Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture,
Biology, and How They Change Our Lives
by Stephen L. Buchmann

This is a comprehensive examination of the roles flowers play in the production of our foods, spices, medicines, and perfumes. Buchmann also goes into the cultural history of flowers, examining everything from myths and legends, decor, poetry, and esthetics to their basis for various global industries. From the flowers to the pollinators to the people who pursue the many intertwined careers sparked by these natural wonders, Buchmann inquires about it all. A fascinating volume, liberally illustrated.

If you want more, there is a 17-book list on Goodreads on the subject of floriography.

Here’s hoping your next tussy-mussy conveys the emotions you desire!

Cheese and crackers

I’m not much of a nonfiction reader—I’m almost never in the mood to tackle some massive tome that tells me everything I (or anyone) ever wanted to know about a particular subject. But sometimes I like to graze a little. You know those days when you don’t want the lunch entree with the salad or fries alongside your giant sandwich, you just feel like making a snack plate with some crackers and cheese, maybe a pickle or some olives, and following up with a cookie? On those reading days, I seek out the essay.

There are many books of essays out there, and they encompass every topic under the sun. Some are serious, some are humorous. Some are lyrical and poetic, others are stark and matter-of-fact. Many writers of longer fiction and nonfiction also have thoughts that don’t extend to an entire novel or treatise but demand to be expressed, so they collect these short nuggets of thought and when they have enough to share, they publish them as books of essays.

ursulaOne essayist who is a favorite of mine is multiple award-winning science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. The things I enjoy about her science fiction–that it is rooted in philosophy and ethics and deals with controversial topics–are also what I enjoy about her essays. But they are not all super serious; in her book The Wave in the Mind, she ranges from literary criticism to anthropology to the power of the imagination, and then dips into thoughts on aging, on being a woman, and on libraries. An eclectic but thoroughly engaging collection.

starhawkAnother interesting essayist whose writings I enjoy is the Wiccan leader, ecofeminist, permaculture instructor, and novelist Starhawk. She has written three books of essays, but is probably most well known for Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics, which she wrote almost 20 years ago but which still resonates today. The book is political theory grounded in intuitive terms, an examination of hierarchies as structures of estrangement and the consideration of the collective theory of organization as an alternative. If you are a person who is put off by, as one reviewer called it, “hippy dippyness,” you may not enjoy the terms in which she couches her political philosophy; but she has much to share about organizing and empowerment, topics that are currently relevant to many.

GurwitchWhen you want wryly funny stories of everyday life, Annabelle Gurwitch is a good choice. After being fired by her idol, Woody Allen, she began back in 2005 by collecting other people’s stories about being fired from a job, and parlayed those into a gig on NPR, a live stand-up show with friends in L.A. and New York, a documentary film and, finally, a book of essays called Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, and Dismissed.

Gurwitch2She followed those up with I See You Made An Effort, her humorous essays about aging towards 50, and Wherever You Go, There They Are, stories about her family of “scam artists and hucksters.” Conversational, sarcastic, but also sweet, Gurwitch hits a common human note that many will enjoy.

oliverRenowned poet Mary Oliver is best known for her award-winning poetry, in which she celebrates all aspects of the natural world in lyrical yet concise verse. But Oliver was also an essayist, and although she preferred to write poetry, citing prose as “the softened, fleshy story, while poetry remains the stark revelation in writing,” her essays are also a treat. Since she generally mixes essays with poetry in all her books, check one out and you can experience both! Her essays are primarily contained within Long Life and Upstream.

harderIn 2003, author and editor Dave Eggers started publishing a magazine called Believer, an eclectic mix of pop culture and literature. Essays originally published in that magazine were later collected into two volumes, Read Hard, and Read Harder, a delightful collection of the profound and the absurd by such writers as Jonathan Lethem, Nick Hornby, Lev Grossman, and Susan Straight.

keeganIt’s bittersweet to realize the power and poignancy of the essays in The Opposite of Loneliness, by Marina Keegan, because this is the only book we will ever have from her; she died in a car crash five days after graduating from Yale University, just weeks away from taking a position at the New Yorker. But her essays live on, defining and discussing the struggle we humans face as we try to figure out who we are or want to be, and how that will be expressed in our lives. Her best known essay is “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” about the odd career aspirations of her fellow classmates after Yale.

carrIn Utopia is Creepy, and Other Provocations, Nicholas Car, author of The Shallows (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”), discusses the various social aspects of technology, looking with an educated and somewhat jaundiced eye at everything from Wikipedia to Snapchat. The essays are interesting for both inveterate tech lovers and those who fervently wish that Tim Berners-Lee had never invented the World Wide Web. His final conclusion? “Resistance is never futile.” See what you think.

There are hundreds of collections of essays out there in the world—do you have a favorite?




Theories, bees

It strikes me that the difference between a nonfiction vs. a fiction reader is subject vs. type. That is to say, a nonfiction reader may be intrigued by a particular subject and then read widely and eclectically on that topic for information, whereas a fiction reader is more driven by the type of fiction that she likes.

For instance, in my most recent rare burst of serendipitous nonfiction reading, the subject was bees. The peril to pollinators has figured prominently in the news recently, and I have been distressed to find more than one dead bee in my driveway. While I haven’t used a pesticide in my garden in 38 years, I am confident that my neighbors and their gardeners are not so nice in their gardening behavior. Now that this is becoming a worldwide problem, with colony collapse disorder threatening not just the bee population but also the pollination of essential crops, I wanted to know more.

tellingbeesBeing primarily a fiction reader, I first instinctively gravitated to a recent novel on the subject. The author’s mentor is Elizabeth Gilbert, and it was blurbed by Elizabeth George and heralded as a national bestseller. But I found Telling the Bees, by Peggy Hesketh, a disappointing read, not so much because it didn’t contain some information that I wanted, but because of the fictional aspects. The details about bee-keeping were surprisingly well detailed and quite informative, but the way the main character was written seemed so far from reality that I was dumfounded when I realized, more than halfway through the book, that he couldn’t have been more than 50 when the flashback part of the story began, while I had assumed he was in his late old age based on his affect. The book took more than 170 pages out of its 300 to get going (a murder takes place early in the book and then isn’t addressed again except tangentially for more than halfway through), and even then the progress of the story was glacier-like. There is a “secret” that is revealed to the clueless protagonist at the very end, but I guessed it less than halfway through, making the time spent waiting for this guy to “get it” an excruciating exercise. The story was also rather depressing, being a tale of missed chances, miscommunication, and a life not lived to the full.

The reason I had picked up this book was the recollection of a memoir I had liked almost 20 years ago. I was hoping for a similar experience to reading A Country Year: Living the Questions, by Sue Hubbell, but alas. The only thing I took away from Telling the Bees was some rather riveting folklore about communicating with bees, which I did enjoy.

countryyearI then decided to go back and reread the Hubbell book, and received nearly as much pleasure from it that I did the first time. The seasonally dictated round of farm, field, barn, and house, as she cares for her bees and harvests their honey, accompanied by her minute, delighted and delightful observations of the wildlife surrounding her acreage in the Ozarks of Missouri, was simultaneously soothing and inspirational. It led me to consider moving to the country to pursue bee-keeping, or at the very least made me want to drive immediately to my local nursery and get busy planting some bee-friendly foliage.

After this, having had a lengthy discussion with my cousin about a book she had recently, coincidentally, read, I addressed myself to a polemical debate that claims to reveal the inner lives of bees and calls for their better, more sensitive treatment. I found Song of Increase, by Jacqueline Freeman, a bit of a tough sell, even though my cousin asked me to keep an open mind to the end. I was quite impressed with Freeman’s observations and understanding of bees, and liked and appreciated her “bee-centric” approach to beekeeping, putting the welfare of the bees ahead of their “product.”  She shows a lot of insight and makes intelligent observations, and her writing is pleasant and evocative.

songofincreaseWhat I had trouble with was her interpretation of the spiritual aspect of her relationship with them. I understood that she believed she was “channeling” messages from the bees, and I think I could have swallowed that content more easily if it had been presented as such—the bees as communicators with her as interpreter. But when she divided the book into parts and implied that the bees had literally and directly communicated certain parts in human words (in one case she uses phrases such as “the bees call themselves” this, and the bees “use the word” that), it put me off. The information about the bees was sufficiently fascinating that I didn’t believe there was a need to embellish by giving them human language or feelings. It’s not hard to believe that humans can be attuned with bees; I have read enough anecdotal evidence from other beekeepers who can translate the sounds the bees make into specific moods and intentions and who can figure out from pitch and intonation when, for instance, a new queen is about to start a swarm. But the way Freeman writes about it will set off some people’s BS meters, which is a shame.

Looking at the differences between these three books was instructive. The first, although fiction, was obviously written by someone who had a fair knowledge of bees and bee-keeping, and was filled with rather clinical descriptions of procedures accompanied by the aforementioned folklore. Sue Hubbell’s book was an interesting contrast to Jacqueline Freeman’s, in that both authors spent extensive time living with and trying to understand bees, but Hubbell’s conclusions were more along the line of “the longer I keep bees, the less I understand them,” while Freeman’s were to claim specific knowledge communicated to her directly by the bees themselves, which was seductive and in some cases completely plausible, but ultimately somewhat suspect. Also, Hubbell’s humility in disclaiming knowledge was contradicted by her humane practices, which agreed with  Freeman’s conclusions, such as refusing to kill an old queen once a swarm was rehived, despite common commercial wisdom that to do so was the only way to promote an efficient honey yield. Hubbell was willing to do without that yield for a year, in order to accommodate the bees’ natural processes, which was precisely the kind of behavior being advocated by Freeman. I imagine if you could put the two authors in a room together, they would have much to share and agree on.

givebeesI rounded out my curiosity by checking into how the subject of danger to pollinators is being addressed in children’s books, by reading a charming one by Bethany Barton, called Give Bees A Chance. Although the book goes into much factual detail about kinds of bees, their physiognomy, the process of making honey, and their essential role in the food chain, one gets the feeling that the primary reason for writing and illustrating this book was to squash the first impulse of some children to, er, squash whatever they don’t understand! The book acknowledges children’s fear of and focus on a bee’s stinger, but tries to distract from and diminish that fear by presenting all its good qualities. Let us hope it succeeds!

All of this ultimately moved me to a search online for organizations that discuss the specifics of how to create a pollinator-friendly environment within your home landscape, and ways to enlist your neighbors in this campaign so that yours doesn’t prove to be a tiny island of safety in a perilous ocean of neonicotinoids. I noted down upcoming sales by local growers of native pollinator-friendly plants, bought a book on turning your lawn into a more natural, critter-friendly environment, and got ready to start digging, once the winter rains have (finally) subsided. Who knows, once the environment has been created, whether I will decide to add a hive or two?


Back to the theory about which I began this post… By contrast with the relative randomness of a nonfiction reader seeking information, the fiction reader may be more driven by type, and by type I don’t necessarily mean by genre. Although there are fiction readers who stick by preference to just one genre, be it mystery, fantasy, or science fiction, there are others who read widely in many genres. My theory here, however, is that if you are a particular type of reader, you seek out, within those genres, books with a similar feel to the writing.

That is, despite the fact that you have switched from mystery to fantasy, the appeals of the fiction you enjoy may stay constant across genres. So if you like a mystery in which there is a plethora of descriptive language and a resultant leisurely pace, perhaps that is also the type of fantasy to which you will gravitate. Likewise, if you are fond of thrillers with lots of action, you may seek out science fiction in the form of space opera, rather than reading something more clinical or philosophical.

Based on my own experience, I would say that this idea may be only partly true and not completely consistent; I am a mood-driven reader, and sometimes enjoy leaving behind the torturous detail of a Tana French for the three-page, adrenaline-fueled chapters of a James Patterson. But for the most part, I am a consistent reader who seeks out the same type of appeals regardless of genre.

RSMThis is an interesting concept to test out, first with yourself as a reader, and then with those for whom you advise, to see if it is legitimate and common. In her book Reading Still Matters, Catherine Sheldrick Ross remarks that “the varieties of ways to experience reading seem to expand the longer we consider the question, as do the dimensions along which readers may vary in their reading practices.” On page 168, she provides what she calls a “model,” which is a series of questions she uses to capture the experience of avid readers. It’s a query well worth exploring in our quest to become better readers’ advisors.

Graphic dilemma

In the library masters program at UCLA, certain classes are only offered once every two years, because there are so many paths these days for a librarian to take that equal time must be given to covering all those avenues. One of these is my class on Young Adult Literature, which I last taught in the winter of 2017 and am going to be teaching during this upcoming spring quarter, beginning two weeks from now.

Since the last time I taught it was my first, I have been going back over my syllabus, assignments, and lectures to tweak them in ways suggested by the feedback I received from my students, and to update them, since much YA literature has been written in the interim!

Although I have read widely in teen lit for the past 12 years, the one area in which I am weak is graphic novels. Being an artist myself, one would think that I would enjoy this format more than most; but on the contrary, I find them difficult to follow. Even though I am a visual creator, apparently I am not a visual learner, and the effort to go from frame to frame seeking out the text and trying to understand the continuity of the story is daunting. (I honestly don’t know how the kids and teens read manga, which is also much of it read right to left!)

When I realized that I needed to choose some new graphic novels, both fiction and nonfiction, as the required reading for that week’s lecture, therefore, I turned to three of my students from last time who were enthusiastic about the format and asked their advice. Helen, Christina, and Alex were generous with their recommendations, and I proceeded to order about half a dozen for my Kindle and chose several afternoons to page through them in a search for good examples for my class.

Last time out, one of the GNs we read was the classic Smile, by Raina Telgemaier. I wanted something similar in terms of age level, which is middle school, and also a book that was autobiographical and “coming of age” oriented, so the first book I read was Real Friends, by Shannon Hale.

realfriendsIt’s a fairly simple story, and it’s probably nearly everyone’s story, depending upon your point of view. It’s easy, when you’re in kindergarten or first grade, to make a friend: You turn to your left or your right, you focus on the person sitting there, you ask “Will you be my friend?” and they are. This was the case with Shannon and her friend Adrienne. It’s harder, having been best and only friends together for a couple of grades, to confront the concept of popularity and to realize that while you are perhaps the one-loyal-bff-forever type, your friend would prefer to run with a crowd, a crowd that is happy to leave you behind because you don’t quite fit. The combination of the judgment made by the group and the betrayal by your friend, whose reluctance to go against the group outweighs her loyalty to you, is heart-breaking.

While there is much to appreciate about this memoir, including the myriad ways Shannon finds to cope and hold her own against bullying and her own OCD, the conclusion I came to after having read this was that it was well done…and reminded me way too much of my own grade school experience! The issue with reading books like this is that the level of angst, while probably completely true to life for that child in that moment, is a little much to read about after you have passed through it. (However, Susie Benveniste, if you are out there somewhere, read this book! I was Shannon, you were Adrienne, and Lori was the evil Jenny in our scenario.) The illustrations are adorable, and seem directed towards the younger end of this age group.

The next book I read was recommended by Christina as one that addressed similar themes: Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson.

rollergirlIn this story, there are also best friends (Astrid and Nicole) who have done everything together for years. Their twosome has been a little more long-lasting than that of Shannon and Adrienne, but they have reached a place (the summer before middle school) where their interests have diverged, and for the first time they are not in agreement. Nicole is a ballet girl, and is beginning to gravitate towards others who share her interests (in dance and also regarding boys), while Astrid has become fascinated by the prospect of skating with the local roller derby team, after seeing them play. Although Astrid’s skating skills are definitely lacking, she is so enthusiastic about this idea that she wants to sign both of them up for the summer for roller derby camp. She’s devastated when Nicole chooses, instead, to go to ballet camp, but grits her teeth and pursues roller derby alone. The rest of the book is her personal journey, including meeting new friends who are quite unlike her and her previous circle, and painfully gaining a new skill.

This was a really cute story, both verbally and visually. The illustrations were a little more adult and modern, and with more energy and pizzazz than those in Real Friends. It had just enough about changing friendships, growing pains, and growing apart to be entertaining, without quite so much self-obsessed angst; and all the roller derby details were great fun. I ended up agreeing with Christina that this might appeal to a wider range of readers.

MarchOneThe third book I read was also memoir, but nonfiction this time: March, Book One (of three), by John Lewis. March begins in 2009, when Lewis is a prominent Senator, and then flashes back to his beginnings on the farm and in small towns as he began his lifelong struggle for civil rights and human rights. This first volume looks at his youth in rural Alabama, his first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the beginning of the Nashville Student Movement, and their nonviolent protests at lunch counter sit-ins across the South. It poignantly references the 1950s comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as an influence on Lewis, whose own comics now enliven that history.

It was a powerful, emotional read, and the stark black-, white-, and gray-toned images were an excellent choice to convey the importance and the emotions of the theme. I will go on to read the other two volumes with pleasure.

Although I have a few more graphic novels to read, Roller Girl and March are both definitely going to be part of the curriculum for my class.