Thursday, December 22, 2011

Vikings, and the best book I ever gave up on

So, I'm ashamed to say that on my trip back to the library, I also turned in "The Vikings" by Robert Ferguson with 100 pages to go. I had had the book in my posession since late August, and had renewed it a bunch of times. I read a fair amount of it, but finally just faced facts that I was hopelessly bogged down and needed to give it back.

I bogged down because it wasn't what I was looking for. Military history has never interested me much, and that's what this was. I was hoping that the books would focus more on the belief systems and daily life of the Vikings. To make myself get through some of the military stuff, I used a trick so simple, I can't believe I never thought of it before: I took notes. Every time I found something interesting, I wrote it down.

The book made me realize, first of all, how little I really do know about some eras of history. The narrative we get in school tends to start with the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans, and pick up sometime in the Middle Ages, where you learn about the Magna Carta, the War of the Roses, the plague, Queen Elizabeth and King Henry. In 1442, the story begins its move across the ocean but stays sort of vague until the American Revolution era. But you're missing a good 1200 years of human history, between the fall of Rome and the point where the story gets picked back up.

So, this book was fascinating from that perspective. Ferguson considered the "Viking era" to begin in 793 with a violent attack on a monastery in Lindisfarne, and to end circa 1066. The most striking aspect of Viking history is the lack of evidence and narrative. They were an oral culture, more or less, and left behind mostly artifacts that are still being uncovered today. One of the most striking discoveries was in 1816, of a ship burial with tons of grave-goods. It was at this point, as a new museum was being developed expressly for it, that the Stone Age/Iron Age/Bronze Age divisions were created by the new museum's curator. It was initially just his means of sorting the artifacts, until he took a step back and discovered that there was a real progression there.

A chapter is devoted to their beliefs, but most of the book is devoted to their military adventures all across Europe and even into the Middle East a bit, it seems. Like I said, I'm not reallly into accounts of battles and conquest, and this book was not exactly written in an entertaining way, not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, But I enjoyed the book a great deal for what I did get out of it, and I'm looking forward to tracking down other books that may focus more on the aspects of that era that I do find interesting.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

We wear the chains we forge in life...

Not long after I vowed to quit going to the library for a while and catch up on what I had here, I decided to go after all.

This time, I had a purpose. A few weeks ago, I posted that reading "A Christmas Carol" at Christmastime was on my bucket list. A co-worker had just taken his girlfriend to see a production of the play, so it was even more on my mind. I made the trek, partially on foot after picking up a poster for him from the theater company, and at first I thought: everyone else had the same idea.

I couldn't find the book, and the irritating parents of small children were making it harder. As part of the reconfiguration, the children's section got moved into the fiction section. It used to have a separate room. When I first saw that, I was worried about kids being loud. It turns out, I had to worry about parents being loud. The kids were as good as gold. When they raised their voices above a whisper, however, they'd get very loudly corrected. I was about two seconds away from saying something when I discovered that the book I wanted was in the other part of the library, with the literary criticism.

I looked it over carefully. I've been duped more than once by a book that says "George Eliot's Middlemarch" or something similar on its spine, and it turned out to be ESSAYS ON George Eliot's Middlemarch. I happened to get a wonderful edition, an Everyman classic with pen-and-ink sketches and other of Dickens' Christmas stories, too. I'm excited. I finished up to Ghost of Christmas Past last night, and although I kept picturing Daisy Duck breaking up with Scrooge McDuck, I quite like it. It reminded me how much I like Dickens. I'd been planning "Crime and Punishment" for after Christmas, but maybe I will go with "The Old Curiosity Shop" instead!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A very straightforward Booking through Thursday

I didn't post yesterday, because I had no ideas. I wasn't going to post again today, because I was still struggling to come up with something. Then, I remembered what day of the week it was!

Today's book question is about as straightforward as they come. For your consideration:

Mystery or Love Story? December 8, 2011
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:04 am

All things being equal, which would you prefer–a mystery? Or a love story?

Well, both are pretty well outside my usual realm of reading. When I was about 12, I decided I was going to get into romance novels, because it seemed as if real adult women read them. I got a couple that were geared for my age and historical. I liked the first one. The second one was the exact same shit set in a different time period. I haven't returned to the genre since, and maybe it's unfair. On my trip through the blogosphere, I noted a trend: romance novelists and readers are trying to skirt the "r-word." I don't blame someone for not wanting their book lumped in with a genre so prolific and consumable that a lot of used bookstores refuse to take them, even if their book is the definition of a romance novel.

Mysteries are also outside my usual fare. A lot of them strike me as extremely formulaic as well. But I was also a teen Agatha Christie devotee, and still cherish my leather-bound copy of what must be her greatest book, "And Then There Were None" (alternately "Ten Little Indians"). More recently, I enjoyed reading some of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books. They're pretty light reading, but they're funny, as they chronicle the work and love life of a Jersey girl who became a bounty hunter in her cousin's bail bonds business after losing her job as a buyer at a lingerie store. The guy who's been her on-again off-again boyfriend since high school and her mysterious, dangerous co-worker vie for her affections, although maybe at this point in the series, that's been resolved.

So all in all, I guess I would generally prefer a mystery over a romance. However, if the choice was more literal -- say, if I found myself with a lot of time to kill in a confined space with just one romance novel and one mystery novel, I might pick up the romance first, just for the novelty.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Animal story

If you've ever taken any sort of communications class, you've probably heard confirmation of something you've already observed for yourself: people love animals. Stick one in your commercial, or on the front page of your paper or magazine, and people will gravitate towards what you're offering.

It works on me, definitely. I'm a total animal person. My county has managed to reach zero-kill countywide, partially through satellite cat adoption centers at the local malls. I stop in every time I'm there. I have two cats. I know all of the neighborhood dogs and cats, sometimes better than I know their people.

And I like animal books, too. For today's post, I thought I'd compare a few that stand out in my mind.

"My Dog Skip" by Willie Morris is sort of the classic American animal tale. It concerns a pet, and follows the arc of the pet's life, complete with the very sad end inherent in all stories about a bond between a human and one of the small, furry creatures with the short natural lifespans.

It's a wonderful book, though. It explores very well the actual bond between Willie and Skip. Growing up in a large Southern town in the 1940s, Willie and Skip did most things together. Skip could, and did, play football and baseball. They had a gag where Skip would drive a car, with Willie operating the pedals and controlling the steering wheel from the floor. They had near misses and adventures. Skip was a part of the community. He was known by everyone and was a regular customer of the butcher, when Willie would send him for bologna with money under his collar.

A series of animal books that breaks out of that mold was written by James Herriott, Yorkshire country vet. He tended to not just dogs and cats, but horses, sheep, pigs, cows and anything else found on farms. His stories are also delightful. He told his tale over several volumes, which take their titles from different lines of a hymn: "All things bright and beautiful," "All creatures great and small," "All things wise and wonderful" and "The Lord God made them all."

These books can't help but explore small-town country life, and the various characters and idisyncrasies of the owners of the animals. Herriott can't help but laugh at himself, and many of the stories involve him facedown in the mud, chasing after recalcitrant patients, or tangled in the nightmare red tape of tuberculin testing. They also can't help but be hopeful. One of my favorite tales involved a man whose calves were dying of a common but fatal virus. Herriott said that he wanted to try something, that he'd read of this new drug that could do wonderous things, and persuaded the farmer to allow him to give it a go. He returned the next day to find the calves much on the mend. The whole lot of them were saved. And penicillin had come to the Dales.

A darker, much less happy book is titled "Zoo Story: LIfe in the Garden of Captives" by Thomas French. Covering the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida, it's an enthralling, depressing, fascinating read. French goes behind the scenes at the zoo, as they attempt an incredibly ambitious renovation featuring an elephant exhibit as its crown jewel. But as humans attempt to subvert nature, bad things inevitably happen.

It's upsetting for anyone who likes animals, or is even just concerned about the direction things are going in, to contemplate the "Fifth Extinction" that is currently underway. Animal species are disappearing at a tremendous clip as their habitat is gobbled up to make way for fields of corn and soy, coltan mines, and other such things. That topic is discussed extensively in the book. At the beginning of the book, he talks about an elephant refuge in Africa that actually succeeded too much. Elephants were happy there, and multiplied, and soon began to strip out all of the vegetation at such a clip that the park was becoming a barren wasteland. If some elephants weren't put down or moved or something, none of them could survive. As four of them are airlifted to Tampa and Lowry Park, French notes that humans are the only animal that can modify their environment more, and leaves us to chew on that.

What are some other thought-provoking or heart-warming animal books that you've read?

Monday, December 5, 2011

EvMo is NaBloPoMo

So, astute readers may have noticed that this year, the amount of blog posts did not take a nosedive after Nov. 30. So smart, you are!

This month, for the first time, I really got interested in how to build an audience for a blog. I'd never thought about it much before. It seemed as if I heard about the various sites I frequent just by magic. A friend would say, "Hey, you've gotta check out Regretsy, hilarious stuff." Or, I'd see a magazine article that referenced it. So when I started this blog, I waited patiently for the Internet to sprinkle its magic fairy dust over my page. And waited. And waited.

Do I have it even close to mastered? Hardly. The Internet seems very "mushy" to me. People read the paper I work for because it's available everywhere. When people in my community ask where they can get a copy, I don't even know what to tell them. To me, it's like asking if I know where they can dig up a sample of dirt. We have free drop boxes all over the place. On street corners, in grocery stores, in restaurants and coffee shops (I still love going into the one closest to the office on the day the paper hits the stands and seeing everyone reading what I wrote). But on the Internet, there's nothing like that. You control your online environment, so how does one sneak their own content in there?

I'm clueless. The wife of one of my friends and followers here works at a marketing firm and I know digital strategy is a big part of her job. I can't even imagine how she makes that happen.

But one fundamental piece of advice I've read on sites that give advice on how to get readership is quite simple. It's the same piece of advice I've been hearing from sources as diverse as my second grade teacher, a smartass McSweeney's columnist, and the woman I posted about yesterday: just write. Just keep posting things for people to read. You'll never become a better blogger by not doing it. You'll never garner more readers by not posting. So, I'm going to try to keep going with this, every day. I may not make it through some of the holidays, but I'm going to try. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, December 4, 2011


I try to avoid talking about work on here too much. Getting "dooced" is the fear of every blogger, even when they're saying innocuous things. But I was having trouble all day Friday with a story that I really want to be good and meaningful, and I thought maybe writing from the heart would help when it comes time to wrap it up and write it like a feature story tomorrow.

On Tuesday afternoon, I got a call from an area resident who had written a book and was wondering if the paper would be interested in covering it. I said sure. I've done quite a few similar stories. The fact that people can self-publish for much less money has led to an explosion of people making their authorial dreams come true, which is cool. It used to be that in order to ever see your work in print, it either had to be judged marketable by a large publisher, or you had to have enough cash to afford old-school self-publishing, where you assumed all of the risk (the chief one being spending thousands of dollars on books that would molder in your garage until your descendents threw them out after your death) and reaped (generally meager) rewards yourself.

Now, someone wants your book, and your e-publishers make them one. And in my two years at the paper, I've interviewed a variety of area residents who have taken advantage of this new way to make their voices heard. There was the man who wrote a memoir of his father, a well-known OB-GYN in the area, after his own days as a doctor. There was the fascinating woman who homeschooled her children because she didn't think public schools provided enough experiences, and was trying to position her children's book as the next Flat Stanley. There was the artist and all-around neat old man who wrote a historical fiction novel about the earliest days of this area.

So I met with the woman with interest. She was older than I expected her to be, and in the course of the conversation, I learned that she had a college-age grandchild and had retired in 1988. She got inspired to write her book when her own children were young, and went to summer camp. Since then, she's worked at it on and off, throughout the changes in her life. She's seen those children grow up, get married, move away and have children of their own. Since she started writing, computers went from the provenance of NASA to being carried around by everyone, the country flipped from Republican to Democrat and back again several times, the Cold War ended and the War on Terror began. Some people would have said that society has changed so much that a mystery novel written for her children would hold no appeal for today's children.

But she kept going. Whether her breaks from the book lasted two weeks, two months, or upwards of two years, she never gave up on it. I think a lot of people, when pressed, will confess to having something like this in their lives. The quilt they started for the baby that's now in first grade. The dollhouse kit they bought with babysitting money that's half-built and has survived multiple moves. Or even, the novel they started ages ago. I think most people view them as a failure, but meeting this author has given me a new way to look at it: that they're just successes that haven't happened yet. Because her book is now complete, and now available for purchase.

She's definitely inspiring. She probably won't make a lot of money off of these books, but she has had her say. She felt that she had something to share with the world, an idea that would motivate children to read. She felt that she had the power to make them laugh, make them think, give them something to respond to. And I'm sure that more than a few children will respond this way. I haven't read her book. I don't know how a critic would judge it. I don't know if a major publishing house would say that they could market it. But the fact that she never gave up on it, throughout all of the changes her life brought her, from being a working mom of young children, to an empty-nester, to a retiree and a grandmother -- it can't help but inspire. So I encourage anyone reading this to take what's left of their Sunday and dig out an old project of theirs, or even just knock a small one off their to-do list. It's never too late.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Batavia: This Place Matters

When I started Bill Kaufmann's "Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette," it struck me mostly as an angry rant. Bill Kaufmann is angry about homogenization, the failed policies of urban renewal that left us with soulless, empty buildings and saplings were ancient trees once stood, and the death of civic life and small towns. He's angry that society seems to believe that success only comes when you leave your small town, that "communities of exiles" like New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco are glamorized while the Batavias of the country are mocked and ignored. He's angry that more people gravitate towards a mass culture that has nothing to do with them personally while the culture created by their neighbors begs for an audience. It's a lot to be upset about, and it comes through in the first fifteen pages of the book.

But if you stick with it, the angry rant sweetens into a love letter to a flawed small town. Bill Kaufmann achieved success in the larger world, but returned to his roots simply because he liked it better there. But Batavia is a tough place to love. I have visited it a few times. I've seen its soulless "brutalist" mall, which (if Kaufmann is correct) is venerated in planning textbooks as an example of what not to do. It's so awful that it's not even online anywhere. I tried finding a photo of it to show you how ugly it is, and there just aren't any. A lot of its historic buildings have been torn down, and driving around, you don't get much of a sense of place. He's right in saying, too, that the community did it to themselves.

But it's still home to Kaufmann. It's where he went to high school, where generations of his family earned a living, where he grew up watching the single-A baseball team play. And there's that sweetness about the book, too. Kaufmann has been busy since he returned, and sits on the boards of several Batavia organizations, so he's known, and he knows lots of the local characters.

I initially was going to suggest skipping this book. Now I think it's a quality read for anyone who loves small towns.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Stories of the Season

You can tell it's getting close to Christmas in several ways. The stores have all of the decorations out, which you can see in the tiny gaps between the mobs of people. Christmas events are everywhere: I set a 20-inch story on this week's events alone for my paper, and have one of comparable length ready to go for next week.

And, inevitably, one of your Facebook friends will post an angry rant about the phrase "happy holidays," something I've never understood. Most of us grew up with that phrase, which is said to either people you don't really know that well who may be of a different faith than you (like someone who cashed you out at the supermarket), or people who you won't see with enough frequency to issue separate greetings for the two to four holidays that happen within a week (like the co-worker who requested vacation time starting with Christmas and ending on New Year's). It's not some mid-1990s PC-police invention designed to somehow supress Christianity. I'm always surprised that some people actually believe that, and always irritated when I wish someone happy holidays and they say "Merry Christmas" back in an aggressive manner.

But at least they're fighting. The worst is when people say, in a resigned manner, that they're "not allowed" to say Christmas anymore. By who? Are the cops now issuing tickets to anyone overheard using the word? Some people not only act like the word Christmas is literally outlawed, but like they're resigned to that fact. You'd hope that people would fight. I believe that other religious communities, even the atheist community, would join the fight if there was an attempt to literally outlaw Christmas.

It's just that some people would like the celebration to be more inclusive. They'd like to have the Christian kids at least be aware of what happens in the homes of their Jewish classmates who are singing about Santa alongside them. Or their Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh classmates. And really, doesn't it matter more how Christmas is celebrated in the churches and in homes than at Target? Retailers just want to make as much money off the holiday as they can, and the sole belief system they promote is the belief that you should buy big expensive gifts for people. So, take the greeting in the spirit it was offered, and say whatever you feel comfortable saying, is my philosophy.

But look at me. This was supposed to be a nice post about Christmas stories. The holiday has spawned many things and looms large in literature, and I'm wondering what everyone else enjoys reading around this time of year.

Probably the ultimate literary Christmas classic is "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. Reading it around this time of year has been a feature of my bucket list for the past few years, and I'm hoping to make it happen this year. But my personal favorite Christmas tale is "A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas.

My sister has taught this story to her English classes as a wonderful lesson in imagery. And it is. You can taste, smell and feel everything in this sweet, humourous story, from the "snow coming down in buckets" to the dead robin the young Thomas finds in the snow, "all but one of its fires out, and the last burning on its breast." The late Dylan McDermott starred in a late-1980s television adaptation of it, as the grandfather who narrates for his grandson a tale of Christmases past. If you ever see it on television or can find a copy on DVD, Netflix or anywhere else, it's worth a watch. A family viewing is usually the last thing we do on Christmas day.

What are your favorite Christmas stories?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mood music, mood books

Awww...remember Booking Through Thursday? So do I. I figured today would be a great day to revisit it, it being Thursday and all! So, here goes:

Do you find that your mood affects the things you read? Like, if you’re in a bad mood, do you tend to indulge in reading that will support it or do you try to read things that will cheer you up? Do you pick different types of books on dreary, rainy days than you do on bright sunny ones?

For that matter, does your mood color what you’re reading, so that a funny book isn’t so funny or a serious one not so deep?

I think mood definitely colors what you read. How can it not? It affects everything else, which is why I find "It's a Wonderful Life" to be a heartwarming story about our interconnectedness in years when things are going well for me, and a tragic story about a nice man who gets screwed out of every dream he has at every turn through no fault of his own during other years.

Sometimes, when I'm in a bad mood, I really just want to wallow. I pull a bunch of books that have depressing scenes in them off my overcrowded bookshelves, make a cup of tea, and crawl back into bed and read all of the sad parts. Other times, I actually do want some cheering up, and I choose something that always makes me feel good, like my James Herriott books.

And by the same token, when things are going well, the last thing I want is to find the biggest downer possible, so I tend to try to find things that reflect my mood. I gave up on a very sad book about a man with terminal cancer and his suicide plans one fine spring when the snow had melted and skies were blue. So I do think mood affects reading habits, and vice versa, at least for me.