For the Love of Libraries

At the Corky Gonzales Branch of the Denver Public Library, I just added a fifth to my collection of library cards. This place is welcoming, convenient, big and air conditioned. Another no-sweat afternoon, despite the Colorado heat. I can see the mountains, lush green trees and a blue and white sky. Sigh, all this and a new building full of green energy and good books.

I’ve loved libraries since I was seven and Grammy Cole took me to the tiny Harmony RI library, one room at the back of the fire station. Now Harmony has a proper library in what was once the elementary school. In my tiny Maine high school, our library doubled as the principal’s office. I was sent there often, not because I misbehaved, but because I was the only college-bound senior and had to listen to recordings of Chaucer that would have driven my classmates to despair. For a time in college I had a job shelving books in the University of Maine Portland library. One summer my friend Marcia and I did library tours. We visited at least half a dozen, noting the amenities and the layout.

My local library, the Mamie Doud Eisenhower in Broomfield CO, has outgrown its space and I long for the day when we can expand. Meanwhile, I use any available library as a refuge from the heat and the hustle. Thursday at College Hill Library in Westminster CO, I plunked down in front of a west facing window, my back to the other patrons, just to sit and admire a view of the Rockies, and to browse through a Simone De Beauvoir book from the sale table, The Woman Destroyed, a great buy at 50 cents. Then I headed to the stacks and there! Facing me, a book on my wish list, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk–a birthday gift in July although I was born in December.

Given the joy of libraries, I should sing hosanna to Benjamin Franklin, who started the first such thing the colonies. He established in 1731 The Library Company of Philadelphia, originally a subscription library in which he and friends pooled their books and shared the purchase of new reads. He hired our first librarian, Louis Timothy, who was paid to work a few hours twice a week. We had a library before we had a country. I hope Ben is looking down from his cloud and marveling at what’s ensued. Thanks, Ben, many thanks.

Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

Reader’s REvision

magusSince my first year in grad school I have read John Fowles’ The Magus repeatedly. I’ve read the original version and I’ve read the revised version he published twelve years later. There’s no counting the copies I’ve owned, including at one time a first edition and a signed paperback. They have all gone away, sold or donated or lost. I think with each reading that I’ve sucked out all the juice and don’t need the book anymore. And I’m always wrong. After a year or two, I drift back and realize that I want to read it again. That happened within the past couple of months, so I picked up a used paperback with ugly, forbidding cover art and opened it. Immediately I realized that the font was too small and that I had to hold it at arms length or suffer the consequences.

Because here’s the rub: pulp paper in newspapers and cheap paperbacks triggers asthma-like attacks where I cough uncontrollably. I got about ten pages into the book and had to give up, wrap it in a plastic bag and vow never again to be careless about buying a book. But I needed to read The Magus again, so I ordered a hardback, used but in very good condition. It’s on my coffee table with a book mark at Chapter 16. I’m going slow, savoring it. And making this copy uniquely my own. And finding new things to ponder and admire.

Back in love with the story and the style, I have penciled in an asterisk where Fowles quotes a brief passage from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. That bit of poetry is crucial to the arc of the story. I’ve adding underlinings, squiggles in the margins, and dots to mark phrases I like. No one else will want this book. There’s a stain on the first page of the introduction where I dropped salad dressing. I think I’ll keep this copy. It’s still juicy and feeds the reader/writer in me.

Please, Read for Equality: catalog of unabashed gratitude by Ross Gay

BETA READERS APPLY HERE

I’ve been on a mini sabbatical, letting the ms in progress marinate in its own juices. Tomorrow I’ll do a blitz read through to mark the places that need attention. I think there’s plenty of work left to do. Then I’ll put the book into readable form and start looking for beta readers. If you’re not familiar with that term, it just refers to the folks who agree to read a nearly finished ms and respond in some detail as to what they think of the book.

As with so many things in life, the 80/20 rule seems to apply here. With the previous novel, only a small percentage of those readers who agreed to help actually did so. But feedback is important before the work goes public, so I’m compiling my list of potential betas. (No, not the Siamese fighting fish, humans who read novels.) Betta_spawningI have many friends who write and I will certainly welcome their opinions, but I also want those of readers, the people who settle in with a book in hopes of enlightenment, entertainment, distraction–whatever makes them turn the pages. If folks reading this post are interested, please look up to the menu bar here on the blog and let me know via the “Get My News” link. In the space with your name add the word beta. Sometime next month I will distribute the ms electronically and hope to have the feedback not later than mid-March.

Beware the Bimbo Sleuth

Early January is list time–resolutions, good intentions, tax forms to get, etc. Here’s one of my lists: Things I Don’t Like to Find in Mystery Stories.

Anonymous_Gun

1. Bimbo sleuth–a sexy female amateur who breaks the law to show us how inept the professionals are; (When she’s not meddling in police procedure, she has a job that would otherwise bore her to tears. Often she’s a widow or a divorcee, mother of one snarky teenager.)

2. A police official cast as the bimbo’s Significant Other; (He–almost always the professionals are male–will have two responses to her, annoyance and smarmy forgiveness.)

3. Sex reduced to recreation or manipulation so that the S.O. won’t be mad at the bimbo for meddling in his investigation; (These folks never run out of libido or hot showers, often together.)

4. Plot slowed by insignificant obstacles, like wardrobe failures, rain, running out of wine; (It’s like untangling fishing line or yarn, time consuming with little payoff.)

5. Man-eating pythons; (Yes, I did find one of these. Yuk! Where’s the human element in that?)

6. A host of named minor characters who are otherwise indistinguishable distractions; (They buzz around like mosquitoes.)

7. Reliance on classic mysteries for decoration; (Let Ms. Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle RIP.)

8. Shallow characters, self-centered, jealous, and/or insecure; (The bimbo is often well-known in her community for her crime-solving rather than for her quiet, generous   contributions to society.)

9. Static series characters who never learn not to open the cellar door; (Or the closet, the shed, the garage, wherever that gun-toting, axe wielding baddie might lurk.)

10. Empty dialog that fills the word count but does nothing to advance character development or plot. (Blah, blah, blah.)

Reading at Random

Every week I shop the new-book shelf at the library, almost always finding half a dozen books that interest me. Occasionally, I make myself branch out from my preferred mystery-as-escape selections. I start at the biography section and I check to see if there is new poetry. This week I found a  biography of Sylvia Plath, American Isis, which a friend had recommended, so that went into the bag, along with a memoir by Jacob Tomsky, Heads in Beds, his insider account of the luxury hotel business. Add a memoir by a Kenyan writer, a book about water shortage and misuse, a Sidney Sheldon novel that proved to be too gory for my taste, and a delicious history of cooking utensils by Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork. Just for to avoid an ugly withdrawal, a mystery, Marjorie Eccles’ After Clare.

My random selections most often run about 60/40 worth reading to DNF (did not finish). I like the surprise of discovering a new read. But, ah–you knew there was a but, eh–after reading about Plath’s very purposeful reading habits, I feet a little guilty. Sure, she went to Smith and I didn’t. She did her graduate work at Cambridge and I didn’t. (Of course, she also committed suicide and I . . . well, obviously.) I have known about the books mentioned in that bio, and I now regret my promiscuous reading habits. Then I skimmed materials I’m gathering for teaching a fall semester course on the techniques of contemporary poetry. There, like a jury of my peers, I faced the accusation of having been dissolute in my reading. It’s a long list of poets to master. If I start at the beginning with Caedmon (c. 1000) and read through the English language poets I’ll be brain dead before I finish. Then there are those to read in translation, Akhmatova to Tsvetaeva. Too much, too much, I have to go lie down. With a good book. Or ten.