Monday, February 28, 2011

Welcome to SnowCal!

We've actually had something that passes for winter in Southern California this year...and this past weekend, we got SNOW! Well, we didn't here in my town, but they did over in the San Fernando Valley.

Actually, there are places not too far north of Los Angeles - but at rather higher elevation - that get snow pretty regularly. This photo was taken at Fraser Park a few winters ago. 

Hey, in just a few more weeks, it'll be spring!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading Plans, and the lack thereof

 The Sunday 

We’re entering the ninth week of 2011, and I’ve read and reviewed nine books this year...a perfect book-a-week pace! I’m not projecting that it’ll continue that way, but by my standards, it’s not a bad start.

However, I knew going into it that my reading for the first couple of months of the year would be somewhat regulated by commitments; I had books to read for the category I was evaluating in the Indie Lit Awards, the first Faith and Fiction Roundtable selection, and a blog-tour review all on the calendar before the end of February. But the commitments gave me some focus, as well as something to focus on while recovering from the shoulder surgery I had in January. (Side note for those of you following the Shoulder Saga: I’ll be out of the Ultrasling and starting physical therapy next week. I’m literally counting the days, y’all!)
At this point, that particular set of commitments has been fulfilled, and I don’t have any more to speak of until late March/early April. However, I DO have towering TBR stacks all over the house, an e-reader that is far easier to manage one-handed than physical books are (a genuine point in its favor right now) and which holds at least a dozen unread books that I don’t count in TBR Purgatory...and no real plan of attack for most of it.

Oddly, I have more solid plans right now for books I’ve already read (and for those who were interested in reading or re-reading Bird by Bird and/or The Handmaid’s Tale with me, I will be posting details in early March). But there is one thing on the horizon for an unread book: the oldest book in TBR Purgatory is on the verge of being liberated! When Melissa posted that The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen was one of the books she planned to tackle for the Chunkster Challenge, I asked if she’d consider making it a buddy read. Having moved that book through four homes in nine years without cracking it open, I clearly needed some motivation - fortunately for me, she agreed. We’ve discussed tackling it during the second half of March, but haven’t formalized anything yet.

Most of my life as a reader hasn’t involved much planning; in fact, up until a couple of years ago, I resisted thinking more than a couple of books ahead. Although I do gravitate toward structure in many areas of my life, reading really wasn’t one of them - so I’m now a bit surprised to realize, after several weeks of very planned reading, that it seems to have become one. I’m more surprised - and a bit dismayed - to realize that I like it that way, and that not having a plan for the vast, largely unstructured wilds of TBR Purgatory (current population: just under 300, not counting books for review) is unsettling me. Review obligations and reading projects do give my reading time a framework; I’m just a bit at loose ends right now about how to fill the gaps in it.

How much do you plan your reading, and what dictates those plans: review dates, reading challenges, book clubs, or other commitments? Or do you resist planning it at all?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

F'n'F Roundtable #1: Talking about *Certain Women*

Members of the Faith and Fiction Roundtable - a reading and discussion group that I talked about earlier this week - are discussing our first read of 2011 today; if you’ve also read it, or have thoughts on the themes it brings up, we’d love to have you join in on any or all of our blogs:

We started the year with Certain Women, a novel by Madeleine L’Engle (my review posted on Wednesday). L'Engle’s best-known work is the Newbery Award-winning A Wrinkle in Time, a classic for all ages that incorporates elements of science fiction and fantasy and considers matters of philosophy and morality. She also wrote a number of nonfiction works concerning religion and spirituality, and spent much of her life active in the Episcopal Church, making her church home at New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Certain Women is very different from Wrinkle; it’s realistic, contemporary adult fiction, and contains some elements that could not be described as appropriate for all ages.

While there are any number of examples of literature that makes symbolic use of Biblical references, L’Engle makes the connections in Certain Women more overt; in conversations between her characters on topics of theology and morality, there's a lot of quoting from the Old Testament and discussion of the motivations of Biblical characters. The central plot of the novel is modeled on the Biblical story of King David, and one of the secondary characters is a Southern preacher.

The novel is an example of “the Bible as/in literature” (also a unit in my ninth-grade English class), but it’s not “Christian fiction,” which seemed to be a bit of a sticking point for a few Roundtable members. I’m not the most Biblically-literate person - although I do appreciate it “as/in literature” - but that conversation made me wonder about the Biblical elements that one might expect to find in Christian fiction. The stories of King David are found in the Old Testament; by definition, that’s the “pre-Christian” Bible. Christians believe that the life and teachings of Jesus Christ are a New Testament, and while they speak of the same God as the older books, they present and teach about that God a little differently - more loving, less smiting (an oversimplification, but you get the idea). By definition, isn’t that the Biblical context Christian fiction would draw from? If it is, than this novel doesn’t fit. Having said that, I thought that L’Engle didn’t do a bad job of making Old Testament stories meaningful in the context of New Testament beliefs.

I liked the way L'Engle's managed to make conversations between her characters on topics of theology and morality sound natural and context-appropriate, and not preachy or sermon-like, and I was drawn into her depiction of a particularly complex blended family, but other members of the group were struck by different things. We’ve talked about some of them among ourselves, and we hope you’ll join our conversation today!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Week-End Review: Fill-ins, Facebook, and Finds on Friday

1. Ooooh, I have just over a week left wearing the Ultrasling!.

2. The Academy Awards-related street-closure traffic jam around my office - I can't stand it!

3. How the heck did I end up with so many books in TBR Purgatory?

4. The orthopedist’s office is NOT one of my favorite places to visit.

5. I'm not a helpless one-armed invalid, I'm not!

6. If it’s covered in chocolate it has to be good.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to seeing if we really DO snow in SoCal, tomorrow my plans include getting some writing and some shopping done and Sunday, I want to see which movie wins Best Picture (and who wears the weirdest outfit to the awards)

If your female Facebook friends have been posting “fruity” status messages lately, here’s why:
We are playing a game. Someone proposed that we GIRLS do something special on Facebook to help with Breast Cancer Awareness. Last year it was about writing the color of the bra that your were wearing in your Fb status and it left men wondering for days why the girls had random colors as their status. This year it has to do with your relationship status. You will state where you are, by posting one of the codes below...(relationship status to be signified by a fruit)
I’m not listing the codes, because I’m not playing. I understand that this is well-meant, but in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness, I’m referring you to WhyMommy and her response to last year’s game, and recommending you read that instead. And if you’d really like to help the cause, join the Army of Women.

Found Around the Blogiverse

A life without books - even if embarked upon briefly and inadvertently - loses all its flavor

An author’s reflection on the difference a day makes - when it’s the day Borders declares bankruptcy

Guess what? Library users and book buyers...are often the very same people

Is it the book - or the reviewer - that determines whether or not you read a review?

For your consideration: a list of the 20th century’s Great American Novels, one per year

If you’re a stickler for reading the book before you see the movie, here’s your 2011 reading list

**Speaking of movies, which movies are you hoping will win Oscars this Sunday?**

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Talk: *Devotion*, by Dani Shapiro (TLC Book Tour)

Devotion: A Memoir
Devotion: A Memoir
Dani Shapiro
Harper Perennial (2011), Trade Paperback (ISBN 0061628352 / 9780061628351)
Nonfiction/memoir, 272 pages
Source: publisher, for TLC Book Tours
Reason for reading: blog tour, personal interest

Opening Lines: “A woman named Sandra was cradling my head in her hands. We were in a small room - just the two of us - and it was so quiet I could hear the ticking of her watch. The air smelled faintly of eucalyptus.”
Book Description: Settling into the responsibilities and routines of adulthood, Dani Shapiro found herself with more questions than answers. Was this all life was—a hodgepodge of errands, dinner dates, e-mails, meetings, to-do lists? What did it all mean? Having grown up in a deeply religious and traditional family, Shapiro had no personal sense of faith, despite her repeated attempts to create a connection to something greater. Set adrift by loss—her father's early death, the life-threatening illness of her infant son, her troubled relationship with her mother—she recognized the challenge at the heart of her anxiety: What did she believe? 
Devotion is a spiritual detective story, a literary excavation to the core of a life - it is the story of a woman whose search for meaning in a constantly changing world ultimately leads her home.
Comments: There’s something about entering parenthood that can prompt those who’ve drifted away from the religion of their upbringing to consider a return to it. In my own story, the wish to make a religious framework part of our son’s education led my first husband and me back to the Catholic Church around the time he started school.

The decision wasn’t quite as cut-and-dred for Dani Shapiro. Raised in an observant Orthodox Jewish family, she’d left behind most of those practices in young adulthood, and the sudden loss of her father after a car accident when she was twenty-three was a further break with them...but a space grew where those traditions had been, and a yoga practice that was more physically than spiritually effective didn’t fill it. As other losses followed - her mother, the pre-9/11 New York City she’d made her home - and parenthood was threatened to be cut short by the rare seizure disorder that overtook her infant son, Shapiro became increasingly aware that she lacked a sense of faith in God, and increasingly focused on the questions that raised for her. Among those questions: was there a place for the Judaism she was raised with in her life, and that of her family, now?

Devotion explores Shapiro’s learning to live with, and within, the questions - exploring Torah study and mediation, finding a synagogue for her family in the Connecticut countryside far from the urban Jewish community in New York, attending yoga classes and Buddhist retreats. She comes to understand that her personal history will always make her “complicated with Judaism;” it will always be part of who she is, and will always color her worldview. This is a concept that makes sense to me, and appeals as a way of characterizing the continuing Catholic influence on my own perspective.

This isn’t a conventional faith memoir. It has a unifying theme, but it really doesn’t have a strong narrative outline or linear structure, and there’s no particular epiphany that provides a climax. The writing shifts back and forth across various timeframes and experiences over more than 80 brief chapters, sometimes reflective, sometimes philosophical, sometimes reporting and sometimes speculating...but, to me, never sounding anything other than authentic and honest. I related to Shapiro’s questioning and did get a sense that she was finding a way to live comfortably with it; seeing that happen for someone else helps me feel a bit more comfortable living with my own.

Dani Shapiro continues to explore the questions on her blog, Moments of Being. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter, and is eager to discuss Devotion with book clubs via Skype chats.

Rating: 3.75/5

This book counts for the Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge.

Other stops on this TLC Book Tour:
Tuesday, February 8th: Chefdruck Musings
Wednesday, February 9th: Kelly’s Lucky You!
Thursday, February 10th: Book Club Classics!
Monday, February 14th: {Mis}Adventures of an Army Wife
Tuesday, February 15th: Books Lists Life
Wednesday, February 16th: nomadreader
Tuesday, February 22nd: Coffee and a Book Chick
Wednesday, February 23rd: Colloquium
Friday, February 25th: Books in the City
Monday, February 28th: English Major’s Junk Food
Tuesday, March 1st: she reads and reads
Tuesday, March 1st: The House of the Seven Tails
Wednesday, March 2nd: Boarding in My Forties
Thursday, March 3rd: Man of La Book

Buy this book from an Independent Bookseller 
Buy this book from an Independent Bookseller

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book Talk: *Certain Women*, by Madeleine L'Engle

Certain Women: A NovelCertain Women: A Novel
Madeleine L'Engle
HarperOne (1993), Paperback (ISBN 0060652071 / 9780060652074)
Fiction, 368 pages
Source: purchased/personal copy
Reason for reading: Jan./Feb. 2011 selection for Faith and Fiction Roundtable discussion; personal re-read

Opening Lines: "The Portia, a shabbily comfortable fifty-foot boat, was tied up at the dock of a Haida Indian village a day's sail out of Prince Rupert. Emma Wheaton perched on the side of the bunk in the pilothouse, where her father lay propped up on pillows.

"'I see Death as somewhat like Goliath," David Wheaton said, "but I am not allowed even a slingshot as I go to meet him.'"

Book description: Emma Wheaton has interrupted her own successful acting career to attend to her dying father--the legedary stage actor David Wheaton. As the master performer grapples with an obsession over the one great role that has eluded him--that of the biblical King David--Emma confronts both the painful and healing memories of her tumultuous past. The stories of these two Davids and the women in their lives are simultaneously woven together and unraveled in a narrative rich in theatrical tradition and archetypal wisdom.

Comments: I've read a lot of Madeleine L'Engle's fiction, and generally prefer the novels that are targeted to a young-adult audience. Having said that, I think Certain Women may be her strongest work of "adult" fiction. I first read it in the mid-'90s and found it memorable; now, re-reading it for a Faith and Fiction Roundtable discussion, I'll declare it my favorite of her adult novels as well. There's an abundance of thematic meat to this novel, but L'Engle does not sacrifice creation of distinctive characters or a compelling storyline in order to mine it; rather, she employs them well in exploring it.

At the age of eighty-seven and facing his imminent death from cancer, renowned stage actor David Wheaton can't let go of the one role he never had the opportunity to play: his Biblical namesake, King David, in a play to be written by his son-in-law Nik Green and co-starring his actress daughter, Nik's wife Emma Wheaton. The much-married actor has often dwelled on the similarities between his life and the king's, and as he gradually brings his remaining family members together to say their goodbyes, his reflections stir memories and conversation about their past, present - and particularly for Emma, their future.

This novel was originally published in 1992 and takes place in the mid-twentieth century, but the Wheaton family is a strikingly modern one - a highly blended one, in particular. Perhaps it's because different social and moral rules have long seemed to govern the acting world in which the family lives, but there's little flinching from David's many marriages, or over the children that several of those marriages produced. The children know each other as siblings and spend a fair amount of time together - although, as in any family, some are closer than others - and a few of the wives and ex-wives have even managed to become friends, as they are involved in raising one another's children. A few have remained close to their former husband, as well. Due to the early departure of her mother from the scene, daughter Emma grew up closest to her father, and is the first of David's children to join him and his last wife, doctor Alice, on the houseboat where he is spending the last days of his life.

Those days are spent in reading and reminiscing, frequently returning to the topic of Nik's aborted King David play and flashing back to how it developed. There's a lot of quoting from the Old Testament and discussion of the motivations of Biblical characters in these scenes, accompanied with efforts to draw parallels between the two Davids' stories. In other hands, this could bring the story to one expositional stop after another, but L'Engle makes it work in character for her characters, and it adds depth. On this reading, I was more impressed than I recall being previously by L'Engle's skill at making conversations between her characters on topics of theology and morality sound natural, and not preachy or sermon-like. One way that she makes it work is by giving her characters different worldviews...and while some of her women (and men) may be "certain," they're not inflexible. And in trying to make Old Testament stories meaningful in the context of New Testament beliefs, I think it helps not to be too overly certain in one's thinking.

Madeleine L'Engle wrote a number of nonfiction works concerning religion and spirituality, and spent much of her life active in the Episcopal Church, making her church home at New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She also acted on stage prior to becoming a writer, and was married to a stage and television actor. Certain Women draws on her familiarity with these two seemingly opposed worlds, exploring themes of family, forgiveness, and the meaning of marriage in a Biblically-inspired but thoroughly contemporary story. I'm glad I had this chance re-read it, and pleased that I'm able to appreciate it better this time around.

Rating: 3.75/5

Shop Indie Bookstores
Buy this book from an Independent Bookseller

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I Believe in Questions; or, Why I Joined the Faith and Fiction Roundtable

I was honestly a bit surprised when my application to join the 2011 Faith and Fiction Roundtable was accepted. After all, Amy has heard me call myself a heathen. But she’s also heard me - sometimes, still - call myself a Catholic, although it’s been a while since I’ve been active in the Church where I was raised. However, I've found that you can take the girl out of the Church but you can't take the Church out of the girl, and my spiritual questioning continues to be filtered through that perspective. I’ve known people who call themselves Jewish, but it’s a matter of cultural tradition rather than religious practice for them - they might observe the High Holy Days, but maybe not even that. I suppose I identify as a cultural but non-religious Catholic, although I don’t think there’s a name for that.

I think I've attended church about a dozen times during the nine years since I moved to California, and at least half of those times have been connected with a family event (baptism, First Communion, funeral) and not simply going to Mass. And while I probably won't get ashes on the appropriate Wednesday, I still give up something for Lent every year; on March 9, just over two weeks from now, I'll give up buying books until Easter. (This truly is a sacrifice, folks.) I have significant disagreements with church teachings and practices in a lot of areas, and while I do appreciate that the church does some good in the world (yes, seriously), I can't make peace with taking what I like and ignoring the rest...and so I question.

The questioning has gone on for a long time, despite years of Catholic education. Maybe it’s gone on partly because of years of Catholic education. Maybe it’s gone on because my Catholic education took place during the decade or so following Vatican II, a period when a lot of Catholics were questioning a lot of things.

The Faith and Fiction Roundtable is one of the ways I’m exploring the questions this year. Most of the other group members seem to believe differently than I do, and to be much better grounded in traditional religious texts; for all my reading, I have never read much of the Bible beyond the chapters and verses in the Catholic lectionary - and I haven’t felt much need to remedy that, to be honest. Perhaps because I come from a tradition that interprets the Bible rather than takes it as literal, word-for-word truth, I tend to be a little more receptive of its teachings and themes when they’re presented in the context of other literature. The Roundtable’s reading list this year contains some of that, but it also explores a range of faith traditions via a mix of genres; if this were a “Christian fiction” reading group, I wouldn’t have been terribly interested. We’ll be reading and discussing these books:
Certain Women by Madeleine L'Engle (discussion 2/26) - general-market adult fiction with Biblical references and story elements

What Good is God? by Philip Yancey (discussion 4/30) - nonfiction about one journalist’s search to answer what might be the practical value of belief in God

A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller Jr. (discussion 6/11) - speculative/science fiction in a post-apocalyptic setting (and if it blends SF and religion in any way similar to The Sparrow, odds are that I’ll like it)

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker (discussion 8/11) - YA fiction featuring Evangelical characters from a general-market publisher

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster (discussion 9/24) - classic fiction featuring themes of class and religious conflicts in colonial India

Forbidden by Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee (discussion 11/12) - first in a new series, a futuristic thriller in which humans have lost all humanity
I told someone several years ago that I’d become more of a religious-studies person than a religious person, and I think that still holds true. The truth is that I like the questioning. I like exploring the variety of possible answers to the questions, and not feeling that only one of them can be - must be - the right one. I’m OK with the uncertainty. As the magnet I was given by author Hope Edelman to promote her last book says, “I believe in the possibility of everything” - at least, I’d like to believe in the possibility of a lot of things. And I want to keep finding opportunities to learn about the things people believe...and about how and why they sometimes change what they believe. But at this stage, I don’t believe I want to settle rigidly into any particular belief system; I believe I’ll keep exploring, and questioning, and sometimes - still - calling myself a Catholic, because I also believe it helps to start from some belief.

This post was inspired by BlogHer.com’s year-long, conversation-changing Own Your Beauty project and its February theme, Spirituality.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Appearances can be Deceiving

A California Winter Scene...in Summer
Mammoth, CA
June 2006
(Yes, that's the correct date. In one of the photos I didn't post, we're throwing snowballs...and wearing shorts.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday Salon: On the Border(s), in a changing bookstore climate

 The Sunday 

Some time in the mid-1990s, the way I shopped for books changed. Borders Books and Music opened their first store in the Memphis area. Just inside the Germantown
city limits, it was located at Carrefour along Kirby Parkway, between the Poplars (Poplar Avenue and Poplar Pike), I’d never seen a bookstore that offered its variety of titles and genres - and it was a five-minute walk from the apartment I lived in at the time! It wasn’t long before I became a regular shopper there, and it became hard to fathom that I’d once been content with mall bookstores. The store was always bustling but rarely felt crowded, and you didn’t feel like a loser hanging out there on Saturday night.

I haven’t been to my first Borders in nearly nine years - since I moved to California - but I’ve shopped in plenty of other ones, and it’s remained my favorite of the big bookstores. I was excited when a new Borders - the first “real” bookstore in Simi Valley - opened not long before I moved here. Every now and then I’d read something about some business challenge they were facing at the corporate level, but it seemed unlikely that they wouldn’t pull through. And although the range of selection in the stores seemed to be changing a bit - more non-book merchandise, a little less quantity and variety in the books themselves - there didn’t seem to be much for the average customer to worry about.

The average customer, therefore, was probably taken by surprise when Borders filed for Chapter 11 (reorganization) bankruptcy this week and released a list of 200 stores slated for closing. Those of us who follow the book business a bit more closely were probably less shocked, but not necessarily any less saddened. I checked out the closure list (sortable version, via the Wall Street Journal) and was relieved to see that “my” Borders will stay open, but it will soon be the only one in the county, and that’s bittersweet.

Meg’s Borders isn’t closing either, but she’s still sad about the company’s troubles:
“I started my part-time shifts (at Borders) with the idea that I would work there until I graduated from college and had to seek out full-time, career-related employment. Well, I got a full-time job. In 2007, I was hired as an assistant editor at the newspaper where I still work and write. But when the time came to break ties with Borders, offering myself fully to the paper that was my ‘big girl job,’ I just couldn’t do it. The idea of leaving the bookstore was unfathomable...More than anything, I just looked forward to being there. The smell of fresh books, stripped open from heavy palates, was intoxicating....In our town, which has no other bookstore, Borders is the epicenter of life. I didn’t want to leave. When I visit the store now and see many familiar faces, I feel a jolt of sadness and whimsy for life back at the bookstore.”
Unlike my town, and Meg’s, some towns do have other bookstores. The LA TimesJacket Copy blog featured the soon-to-close Borders in Pasadena as its "Bookstore of the Week" on the day of the bankruptcy announcement, while its neighbor, the historic independent Vroman’s Bookstore, recognized that it would be affected too:

“Despite them being local competition, those of us here at Vroman’s are saddened. Any bookstore closing is a loss for the community; our thoughts go out to the booksellers who find themselves without jobs, the customers who find themselves without their usual bookstore, and of course the publishers. Some of our current employees came from a Borders background, so we can attest to the excellence of their staff, and we wish them the best.
On the other hand, Vroman’s has been here for 116 years, and we plan to keep that up. We’re very sad to see Borders go, but we’re also excited for the future. We’re excited to have those customers who have been displaced by the loss of Borders discover our store – just a few blocks from the Lake St. location – and all we have to offer!”
ElleintheCity, who works in publishing, also notes the ripple effects of losing bookstores:
“Let me tell you about a woman I met in a focus group a few years ago. She talked about how she typically bought 4-5 books a month when her local bookstore was next to her grocery store. When the store, an independent, went out of business, she had no regular place to go for books. Her estimated number of books purchased after the closure was 8-10 per year...
Books aren’t like groceries. If your supermarket closes, you find another one. But when a bookstore closes, customers learn to do without. Sure, there is the must have book that comes along that causes a bookstore visit, but when the store is out of the way, maybe it becomes less of a priority...You can’t argue that the fewer outlets there are for books, the fewer books are sold. We lose customers, but more importantly, we lose readers.”
Granted, there are still bookstores to be found. Borders is NOT closing ⅔ of its stores, and Barnes and Noble seems to be holding on well enough. And if you are losing a Borders, you may be gaining an opportunity to discover a nearby independent bookstore. However, while I’m an IndieBound affiliate and all for supporting indie bookstores, I should note that they’re not all equal;not all indies offer the wide selection of a Vroman’s or a Chaucer’s, or the carefully-curated inventory of tiny Portrait of a Bookstore. Some indies are genre specialists (e.g. mystery/crime fiction, children’s books), while others sell a seemingly random mix of new and used books; they may not be interchangeable with Borders for the more general-interest reader, or for those who find searching in used bookstores frustrating (confession: that’s me, unless the used bookstore is Housing Works).

Still, for those of us who love the browsing and discovery, the bookstore experience is irreplaceable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation with a bookstore cashier, as I did in Kramerbooks last summer:
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. That’s usually when I have the best luck finding things” (as I pay for three or four new additions to TBR Purgatory)
The Borders store-closing sales started this weekend - I think I’ll be hitting the one up in Oxnard today. It’s too late to save them, but it may help one of the others. It’s a long weekend in the USA. Will you be getting yourself to a bookery and supporting bookstores in the way that helps them most - buying some books? Clearly, this is not the time to take their continued presence for granted.

Photo sources: Borders.com Store Selector (stores #114 and #589), Vroman's Bookstore Blog, The Other Day At Portrait (Portrait of a Bookstore's blog)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Week-End Review: Friday Fives, plus a quizzical bonus

Five things to tell you:

I went back to the office for three days this week (worked at home the other two, since I didn’t have transportation). I’ve found I’m productive in different ways in each space.

On my second day back, I invited you to my workplace and asked for your help - a simple online vote - to get a new program off the ground. If you haven’t done that, there’s still time... (and honestly, I’ll never know if you did unless you decide to tell me)

As of today, it’s been four weeks since my shoulder surgery. I have an appointment with my orthopedist on Monday, the 21st (exactly one month after the procedure). He had told me I’d need to wear the sling for four to six weeks after the surgery, and as you can see, I’ve done the math.

I am trying not to get my hopes up, but if he tells me I can stop wearing it - or at least not wear it all the time - on Monday, look for a very happy Twitter update from me late Monday afternoon!

Considering that I’ve been “off” for the better part of the last month, you might not think I’d be all that excited about a three-day weekend, but a weekday at home when I’m NOT working will actually be pretty nice!

Five (well, I made ‘em LOOK like five) things I found this week:

A rather timely reflection in light of the current campaign to keep public broadcasting alive - either you listen (to non-commercial radio) or you don’t. And as Borders struggles to keep itself alive, Jessica remembers how a chance find in one of its stores changed her life. (I’ll be back on this topic in this week’s Sunday Salon.)

Valentine’s Day follow-up: Two reflections on the intersection of literature, feminism, and romance

If, like me, you’re old enough to remember black-and-white televisions and 8-track tapes...well, maybe we all belong in a museum. More musical memories: behind the music with the Pixel Chick

Seen on the street somewhere near Boston (thanks to Dawn for the photo AND caption of the week!)

And since I haven’t shared a Blogthings quiz lately:

Are You Fiction or Non-fiction?
You Are Nonfiction

You are mentally sharp and clear-minded. Facts matter to you, and you remember them well.

You are curious about the world, and many subjects interest you. You have a real thirst for knowledge.

You are willing to listen to any point of view, as long as it's backed up with facts and logic.

You have nothing against fiction, but you definitely feel like the real world is interesting enough as is!

Considering that most of my book reviews lately have been nonfiction, this probably sounds about right, doesn't it?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bullet Points; or, me and a gun

shooting rangeImage by ksbuehler via Flickr
Whenever there’s a newsworthy shooting somewhere in this country - most recently, the one in Tucson earlier this year - the debate about guns gets revived. America is a nation born from war; it wouldn’t have come into existence without firearms. Our Constitution’s Second Amendment was meant to ensure our right to bear arms in defense of ourselves, our families, and our country. However, all too often, they’re used for purposes pretty much unrelated to that right, and activities that, being against the law, are unprotected by the Constitution.

My parents were both victims of gun violence associated with criminal activity. When I was twelve years old, they were both shot in an attempted robbery at the liquor store they owned at the time; my father’s knee was shattered when he came out from behind the counter, and my mother sustained a flesh wound when she chased the robber out of the store. (By the way, he didn’t get any money - but he did get arrested a few days later.) My sister and I were in the store at the time - a Saturday evening, the night before Easter 1976 - and witnessed it all. In the years since then, I’ve thought we were fortunate that this happened when it did, the mid-1970s; now it seems like criminals are more concerned with not leaving witnesses, regardless of whether they get what they came to steal, and my parents might not have made it out with just the injuries they got. And those were disruptive enough; by the end of that year, my parents had sold the store, our house, and most of what we owned, and we moved from Connecticut to Florida to start over.

As you might imagine from that experience, I’ve been quite strongly in favor of gun control most of my life. On the one hand, I actually do get the NRA’s “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” position; on the other hand - yeah, people kill people, but it shouldn’t be easy for them to get guns to help them do it. Granted, I should note that it’s actually not as easy as it sometimes seems; there are laws in place to prevent someone with a felony criminal record from purchasing a firearm, which is why criminals purchase them illegally (or steal them - which shouldn’t surprise us, as they are criminals). Then again, some places do make it easier than others: proposed legislation in South Dakota - which is considered unlikely to pass - would make owning a gun for self-defense mandatory for all adult citizens.

I was one of those parents who didn’t want my child to play with toy firearms, although I did make exceptions for the occasional water pistol. However, I observed what many parents of little boys do; if they want to play “shooting” games, they can pretend anything is a gun. (I don’t mean that as a sexist statement - girls may do it too, but I only know from raising a boy.) My son wasn’t all that interested, fortunately, but he did engage in that pretend play every now and then. And he spent most of his growing-up years in the South, where gun culture is pretty well entrenched; although we really didn’t know anyone who used them, the awareness is definitely there.

When my second husband and I were in the e-mail phase of our relationship - we were introduced online, and corresponded for a couple of weeks before we met in person - he told me, shortly before that first date, that one of his favorite hobbies was target shooting and that he had an interest in collecting firearms. He hadn’t wanted to mention it until I’d gotten to know him a bit - and had a good sense of how non-aggressive he was - but he did feel I should know fairly early on, as it was the kind of thing that might affect my feelings about him. He was well aware that people can have some prejudices against gun owners - but since I hadn’t yet told him about the robbery, he didn’t yet realize that I might be someone with those prejudices. I surprised myself by how calmly I took this revelation; I told him that it was his thing, and as long as he didn’t expect me to participate in it at all, I wouldn’t bother him about it.

And I really haven’t, although I have joked occasionally about the irony that I would leave Tennessee and move to California before I lived with a guy who owned a firearm.
I am the last person I ever thought would live with firearms in the house - but now I do. They are kept in a safe, unloaded, and I do not know the combination. They’re removed only for my husband’s trips to the shooting range (and occasionally for cleaning). No one touches them without his supervision, and while he’d be happy to teach his children to shoot, he’s never pushed it with them; his daughter has gone shooting with him once or twice, but currently, his son is more interested in archery.

My husband is exceedingly responsible about firearm ownership and usage, serious about safety, and he’s fundamentally nonviolent. He has no interest in hunting or any other uses for firearms. Not surprisingly, he’s not as averse to toy firearms as I was when my son was little - my stepson owns a few Nerf dart guns, which he’s not permitted to point at any living creature - but he doesn’t allow violent video games, particularly those of the “first-person-shooter” variety.

Because he’s the only firearms owner I’ve had a close relationship with, I have no idea whether he’s “typical” or not, but I suspect he may be. I don’t think we hear much about people who own guns legally - and only own the sort of guns they’re legally allowed to - and handle them responsibly and carefully...although they probably are the majority of firearms owners. We just don’t hear much about the gun owners who don’t fit the “NRA gun nut” image.

We hear about the people who do criminal, or dangerous, or just plain stupid things with guns. I think the odds are that at least some of those people would do criminal, or dangerous, or just plain stupid things even without guns - but I think that using a gun makes those things that much more criminal/dangerous/stupid, and they have little to do with the Second Amendment and its intent. My husband believes that those who are most determined to obtain guns for criminal/dangerous/stupid activities will obtain them, finding ways around the law to do it. He’s probably not wrong, unfortunately, largely because that’s true of almost any prohibition.

Living with firearms hasn't made me like them any better, but perhaps it has given me more understanding of the complexities surrounding gun-control issues. I can accept that the Second Amendment has its place, and I'll respect your right to exercise that right in compliance with the law. But I'd rather you didn't exercise it around me, and I hope you respect my right not to exercise it at all.

(NOTE: Because I made reference to some of my husband's thoughts on this topic, I asked him to review the first draft of this post, and I incorporated some of his recommendations. However, all opinions stated as mine are indeed my own.)

Cross-posted at BlogHer.com
Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Book Talk: *At Home: A Short History of Private Life*, by Bill Bryson

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Bill Bryson
Doubleday (2010), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover (ISBN 0767919386 / 9780767919388)
Nonfiction (reference/domestic life), 512 pages
Source: purchased (e-book for Amazon Kindle: ASIN: B003F3FJGY)
Reason for reading: Independent Literary Awards non-fiction short list

Opening Lines: "In the autumn of 1850, in Hyde Park in London, there arose a most extraordinary structure: a giant iron-and-glass greenhouse covering nineteen acres of ground and containing within its airy vastness enough room for four St. Paul's Cathedrals. For the short time of its existence, it was the biggest building on Earth. Known formally as the Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, it was incontestably magnificent, but all the more so for being so sudden, so startlingly glassy, so gloriously and unexpectedly there. Douglas Jerrold, a columnist for the weekly magazine Punch, dubbed it the Crystal Palace, and the name stuck."
Book description: Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has fig­ured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture.
Comments: I've occasionally reflected on the pace of change during the 20th century, but in this "short history of private life," Bill Bryson makes a convincing case that the magnitude of change may have been more striking during the 100 years preceding it. Domestic life as we know it today didn't really exist until pretty recent times, and Bryson explores its development via a room-by-room ramble through a 19th-century English country home - the former parsonage he lives in with his family. And "ramble" is the appropriate word, as it applies to the style of the book as well - there's really not much in the way of a strong narrative thread here, and that makes reviewing it a little challenging.

Bryson's writing is highly descriptive and very conversational. I could easily imagine I was hearing it as narration for a documentary miniseries - and, by the way, I think it would make a very good one. It might actually be more effective in that format, come to think of it. It's full of interesting facts, figures, and individuals, with one digression after another. With a chapter devoted to each room of the house, the author does manage to bring his stories around and tie them back to whichever room he's talking about before he moves on the next - and that's helpful, because all the digressions made it difficult for me to remember which room we were in at times!

The book falls a bit short of being "a history of the world without leaving home," as its focus is more narrow than that. Most of the discussion is focused on British history and society - as might be expected when one's vehicle is a particularly British country house - with a few side trips to America, continental Europe, India and China (countries whose histories are entwined with England's at one point or another), and is heavily concentrated on the years between 1600 and 1900. Bryson's attention isn't on the big events, but on how people lived - and how very differently they lived at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, since during the last couple of millennia, most people were at one end or the other. The evolution of domestic private life rather coincides with the establishment and growth of the middle class, and this is traced through new inventions, discoveries, and social practices. A few examples:
  • The dining room wasn't part of most houses until Victorian times, and is the site of discussions of etiquette and upholstery
  • The dressing room inspires talk about fabrics, fashions, and wigs
  • The nursery prompts consideration of how the concept of childhood has changed over time
And here's something to keep in mind when you arrive at the "bathroom reading" portion of your house tour, tweeted from my own personal experience:
"There are some things that should NOT be read during lunch. Descriptions of 19th century pre-indoor-plumbing London are on that list."
This was my first exposure to Bill Bryson, and I intend to read more of his work. At Home is both entertaining and informative, and its lack of a strong narrative through-line makes it a book you can readily pick up and put down; I read it straight through, and I'm not sure that was the best approach. But however you approach it, it will fill your head with lots of new factoids to share with friends and family.

Buy this book from an Independent Bookseller 
Buy this book from an Independent Bookseller

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

NECHAMA. The word means "comfort." Help those who need it find it.

I went back the office yesterday for the first time since my surgery, so the timing is just right...
I usually talk about my job in pretty vague terms here, but today is different. Today I am taking you where we've never gone before on this blog - to my workplace. I promise I won’t make a habit of dragging you there with me, but it’s for a special project, and we need your help!

The Los Angeles social-services agency that employs me as Controller is in a competition to get funding for a new program. The Next Big Jewish Idea is being sought by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which wants to celebrate its Centennial by finding and funding an innovative program that will strengthen and benefit the greater Los Angeles Jewish community. And because it is the 21st century, the choice will be made with the help of social media and online voting. You need not be Jewish or from Los Angeles to vote in the competition!

Aviva Family and Children’s Services - founded in 1915 as the Hamburger Home - is just a few years away from its own centennial, and while it provides needed assistance - such as mental-health services, group home and foster care, and after-school programs - throughout the region, its historical ties to the local Jewish community run deep.

Our “Big Jewish Idea” is Nechama - a Hebrew name meaning “comfort”. In Los Angeles, the Jewish population is spread out, separated into various denominations, and lacks a single point where any Jew can come or call for whatever assistance they need. Nechama will be that point - a source of comfort. Nechama will be a vehicle to connect all the members of the Los Angeles Jewish Community to one another by providing a single stop for assistance and/or referrals to private and governmental agencies in the greater Los Angeles area.

Our proposal states that
Nechama is designed to provide a comprehensive information and referral source with a specific focus on and outreach primarily to the Jewish Community. Nechama will maintain direct communication with sectarian, non-sectarian and public entities and create a huge base for referrals. While there are many information and referral programs throughout Los Angeles, often they are fragmented, not comprehensive in their knowledge of the Jewish community or not staffed by live, specially trained responders.

Nechama's staff members and volunteers familiar with the Los Angeles Jewish community will provide free live information and referral services during normal business hours. Provision will be made for providing information in crisis or emergency situations at night and on the weekends. In addition, an internet site will be maintained which will contain information which will be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Nechama staff will collect and disseminate information about everything that is important to the Jewish community that will include, but is not limited to:

  • social services
  • mental health and medical assistance for children, adolescents, families, seniors, and the disabled
  • monitoring of K-12 and post-secondary educational or vocational opportunities
  • job training and employment opportunities
  • financial assistance resources
We will also provide referrals for:
  • legal assistance
  • interpreters
  • those seeking assistance with religious or spiritual matters
Nechama will make referrals to both public and private sources of assistance that provide no cost, low-cost or fee for service programs. While Nechama's focus is on the Jewish community, anyone within our County's diverse population who contacts the project will be served.
Nechama will be an excellent resource for the entire Los Angeles area, regardless of race, creed, or color. Will you help Aviva make it a reality? As I said, you needn’t be Jewish or live in SoCal to vote - we need all the support we can get - but you do need to visit our Big Idea page at The Next Big Jewish Idea! You can submit your vote there, and use the Twitter and Facebook buttons to help spread the word. Voting in this round will be open until March 31 If we make it to the final six Big Ideas, I will take you to work one more time for the last round of voting!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

Send your own NPR Valentine!

Packing my Bags - With Books! (Weekend Assignment #357)

When you go on a trip, do you travel light, or try to make sure you have everything you might conceivably need? Specifically, what do you bring along by way of electronics?

Extra Credit: What's the most important thing you ever lost, broke, or forgot to bring on your trip?

I don’t usually pack for a trip until the night before I leave, but I'm thinking about what to pack weeks in advance. One reason for the early start is so that I’ll have plenty of time to buy things that I think I’ll need. Do I have pants that look good and are comfortable enough for a cross-country flight? (I live on the West Coast. Just about every possible domestic destination is cross-country in one direction or another.) Is the weather going to be different, and do I have appropriate outerwear? (We don’t really have weather in Los Angeles, so the answers are usually “yes” and “um, maybe?”) What will I be doing while I’m there? And what if I decide I don’t want to wear that outfit to that place after all? I’ll need options in case I change my mind!

No, I don’t travel particularly light. I’m just lucky that I’m small, and my clothes and shoes take up less space than most adults’ do. That leaves me some room for the books. And yes, I absolutely plan those in advance too. It’s a tricky thing timing-wise; it’s not that hard to set aside a few books as designated travel reading, but scheduling my reading so that I don’t have an unplanned in-process book that I have to bring along to finish is a delicate enterprise.

But I have an e-book reader! Shouldn’t that meet all my reading needs? I’ll definitely be bringing my Kindle, but it’s highly unlikely that a couple of print books won’t be in my bag too. Besides, I left my Kindle on a plane once (but I got it back - thank you, Virgin America!), so I’m not about to put all my books in one basket, thank you very much. (I think that answers the extra-credit question.) Luckily, my laptop’s big enough that I don’t think I’d overlook it and leave that anywhere, and my iPod and cell phone - still two different devices, as I have not yet joined my husband on Planet iPhone - are pocket-sized and stay right at hand.

When I’ll be making my home away from home for a few days, I think I bring just enough of home along with me - or maybe just a little more than enough. How about you?

You can find the topic and participation guidelines for this writing exercise on the Weekend Assignment blog.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Salon: I Am Not a Professional

 The Sunday 

Hey! Who are you calling “unprofessional?”

That was the Question of the Week, directed at a romance novelist who responded to a couple of reviews that didn’t please her with a post on her blog, Authors Helping Authors, advising her fellow writers to steer clear of “unprofessionals” who “set themselves up as reviewers” and probably “never wrote anything themselves other than a grocery list.”

I’m not linking to it myself, because plenty of others already have and I’d rather link to some of them instead.

Pam was quick to fire back:
“It would seem to me that any author who sets their self up to ‘help other authors’ would know that the rule of thumb is especially dealing with us peon bloggers is: you don’t respond to our reviews...All of us do this kind of book promotion in our spare time and for free. For you to throw around the words ‘unprofessional’ and ‘trashy’ and then link to them is unfair and elitist (note: the links were later removed)...Are you saying that bloggers who just willy nilly set themselves up can’t work very hard at their craft? I know how many hours I spend. I also know I can’t write a book, or a poem, or a haiku.”
Karen (a/k/a Sassymonkey) responded with a “Dear Author” letter:
“I realize that you believe I am an “unprofessional reviewer” due to fact that I do not review for the New York Times. I write about books, and my opinion of books I’ve read, here in my personal book blog — a blog that was never intended to be your personal marketing ground...I’m sure that you’ve never uttered anything that was not nice at all on the internet. Oh wait! You just wrote a post calling all book bloggers unprofessional and slammed the entire romance genre by calling it predictable. Good job! Way to take your own advice!...I shall, however, thank you for writing what you did. It allows me to make sure that I never read or purchase your books.”
Amanda primarily reviews books by dead white guys, but she wondered:
“THING ONE- HOW IMPORTANT ARE BOOK BLOGGERS ANYWAY? Important enough that this author solicited a review and pitched a tantrum when the review wasn't glowing. Important enough that many of us- myself included, though my niche is limited- receive numerous review requests from authors and publishers alike...THING TWO: WHAT DO WE OWE THE AUTHOR? As a classics blogger, I say we owe authors just this: not changing their work, an issue that has been discussed at length since the Huck Finn censorship deal. Aside from that? Jack squat.”
Jeanne proposed a simple solution to the “problem” of unprofessional reviewing:
“It's nothing new, but let's go over it again for Sylvia's benefit. Bloggers, if you don't want to shill for publishers, go to the library and buy your own books, for the most part. If you find publishers who will continue to send you advance review copies even when you review some of them negatively, stick with them. Authors, if you want honest reviews, look around and find some bloggers whose views you generally agree with and whose taste you trust.”
And Kim had some cautionary words for both sides:
“First, I think the author’s characterization of bloggers is unfair and plays on stereotypes that are just not true. And second, I think she’s actually giving some decent advice, but it’s just getting lost in the noise...In my opinion, anyone who reads is qualified to review a book. Not everyone chooses to write their thoughts in a public place like a blog, but everyone who reads is a book reviewer. They can tell their friends about it, they can pass on opinions to colleagues, they can put a note on Facebook or Twitter. While not formal and often subjective, these are reviews too...While ‘facts and objective criticism’ might be what this author wants from a review, I don’t think objectivity is necessarily what an author should expect when asking for a blogger to review a book. You should expect that your book be treated fairly and that the blogger gives it the same consideration they give other books they read.”
I follow a LOT of book blogs, and I think it’s safe to say that a significant number of us - myself included - are “unprofessional.” I say that because the following apply to many of us:
  • We have no special training in literary criticism or analysis (unless we were English majors, that is)
  • We have not had to take exams or obtain a certification to do what we do
  • We do not (or only occasionally) get paid for what we do
I’m a professional accountant - that’s where these criteria apply. I make no claims to be a professional book reviewer.

Having said that, I’ve encountered very few book bloggers who are anything less than professional in how they do what they do. Most of us take this seriously, and we take the time and effort to write reviews that are informative, enlightening, and fair. We disclose where our books come from - which, for the record, most “professional” reviewers are not required to do - and state our honest opinions about them.

I really don’t know how we can be more professional than that.

Books reviewed since my last report:
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Upcoming reviews:
At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson (Indie Lit Awards)
Certain Women: A Novel, by Madeleine L‘Engle (Faith and Fiction Roundtable)
Devotion: A Memoir, by Dani Shapiro (TLC Book Tour)
Mary Ann in Autumn: A Tales of the City Novel, by Armistead Maupin

New Additions to TBR Purgatory:
Dreaming in English by Laura Fitzgerald (LibraryThing Early Reviewers)
The Three Weissmanns of Westport: A Novel by Cathleen Schine
My Life from Scratch: A Sweet Journey of Starting Over, One Cake at a Time by Gesine Bullock-Prado
True Grit by Charles Portis
The Murderer's Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer (TLC Book Tour)