The art of summarizing great works, or “trucks turn in”

Pssst, do you ever read the New York Times bestseller list for children’s picture books?

Have you realized that each picture book listed includes a one-sentence summary?

(The one in the title is for Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site)

Take a look, either online or the next time you’re reading the NYT book review over Sunday breakfast. You might laugh into your coffee. . .

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In Arcadia

Twin Valley beach
Twin Valley Beach at Governor Dodge State Park, via wonder_al on Flickr (Creative Commons)

A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of discovering a new bookstore, Arcadia Books, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. (Why yes, the URL for the store’s website IS readinutopia.com – they are obviously able to laugh at the fact that some parts of southern Wisconsin don’t really seem like the real world). We were in Spring Green looking for a place to eat lunch before we headed to Governor Dodge State Park to go to the beach. Our lunch was so-so (if you can call a swiss-cheddar-cheeseburger with fried onions on toast grilled like a grilled cheese sandwich so-so), but our visit to this bookstore certainly made up for it.

The first sign that Arcadia Books was my kind of place was evident when we first entered: they have a large range of children’s book-cover t-shirts from Out of Print Clothing hanging above the shelves in the children’s section. I’m a huge fan. There is also a nice little cafe in the store. After we had done our shopping, we enjoyed sitting down and drinking an iced cold-brew coffee. I have found that cold-brew coffee is much more common in Wisconsin than it was in Toronto when I was visiting this summer, so I was excited to share the joy with my sister, who was visiting. Try it yourself! It’s got a much better flavour (less bitter) than iced hot coffee.

And, what did we shop for? My sister was looking for some children’s books, being as its birthday season in my family. We had a great chat with the store manager, who obviously has a great knowledge of children’s books, and a great memory for titles! The selection of children’s books in the store, especially chapter books for ages 6-12, is one of the best I’ve seen. And I visit A LOT of bookstores! They had some old favourites, like The Great Brain and many many Tintin books, but I was mostly impressed by the great selection of children’s books I’ve never heard of, including many many series. Two that books that stood out were:

Shoeless Joe and Me, part of the Baseball Card Adventure Series of stories about kids and baseball heroes in historical context, and

The Mysterious Benedict Society, the first in a series about four kids who answer an ad in a newspaper asking “Are you a gifted child looking for new opportunities?”

As everyone who was a voracious reader as a child knows that as soon as a kid finishes one book, he or she is bound to ask “What’s next??”. The store manager not only knew which series were likely to be attractive to kids of a certain age, he also knew which books came first in each series, and which books they had in stock for each series. Excellent!

We also received several recommendations for adult books, and my sister picked up a copy of The Night Circus. I had the chance to look at their great selection of NYRB Classics, a reprint series from the New York Review of Books which I had never seen “in person” before. They are very aesthetically pleasing but somewhat daunting. I’m not sure I’m ever going to pick up my own NYRB classics edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton – only 1392 pages of light reading! The store also keeps on hand a full set of all the plays being performed during the current season at American Players Theater in Spring Green, and, as one might expect, has a large number of books on Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived at nearby Taliesin.

Me, I opted for some beach reading, and picked up a copy of F in Exams: the Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers. I had browsed through this book earlier in the summer in a bookstore in Toronto, and I had been kicking myself for not buying it. I was not disappointed, and I sat in the cafe at Arcadia Books and laughed so hard at this book that I started crying.

I’ll definitely be back to Arcadia Books!

 

A book, or just a thicker magazine?

When it’s hot outside, and my brain needs some rest, I sometimes think I need to read a magazine. And often I do – a few weeks ago, for example, I read the May 21st issue of the New Yorker, which was particularly jam-packed. I was especially fascinated and touched by the story in that issue about the career and death of the Kenyan Marathon runner Samuel Wanjiru.

But often, I have to say, I don’t find magazines very satisfying. Too many ads, too few articles, too much of same-old, same-old. Although I have to say that I almost always buy the Oprah Magazine before going on long trips, I am getting sick and tired of being told by Dr. Oz how anti-oxidants will change my life, and Oprah’s mixed messages are annoying: am I supposed to be content with what I have, or am I supposed to buy more stuff?

(Note to self: I should probably read Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk)

So, what to do when you’re too hot and tired to read anything longer than 20 pages, but you can’t stand to buy a magazine? Short stories work for some (and I can recommend The Penguin Book of Summer Stories as a start). But this weekend, I read non-fiction instead: A.J. Jacobs’ Guinea Pig Diaries, which is a compilation of humorous essays about various experiments the author has tried on himself. The experiments include

  • being as rational as possible for a month (which Jacobs defines as avoiding cognitive biases)
  • acting like George Washington for a month (by following the list of 110 Rules of Civility, compiled by Jesuit instructors, on which Washington was known to model his behavior
  • outsourcing tasks in both his personal and professional life to two women working for companies in Bangalore (Jacobs  notes that his article on the subject preceded the enormous popularity of the 4-Hour Workweek craze
  • posing nude for a magazine
  • doing everything his wife desires for one month
  • “living as a woman” – or so the book cover claims
  • uni-tasking for one month, while musing on Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Of all of these tasks (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few), the only one which failed to either make me laugh and think a little (mainly because I was too annoyed) was Jacobs’ quest to “live like a woman.” This is misleading – Jacobs simply spent a month collaborating with his single, 27-year old babysitter (who, he reminds us repeatedly in a way that even he acknowledges might be a little creepy, is very attractive) in her quest to find a boyfriend through online dating. Sorry, A.J., or more likely, A.J.’s publisher, if all that “living like a woman” entails is a stream of mild rejection, some embarrassment and a whole lot of complimentary emails from men, sign me up. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Jacobs does get into a few more of these complications, in fact, in the essay for which he did everything his wife desired for a month. He acknowledges (as does his wife, in an interesting coda), that the most eye-opening moment of this experiment came when the couple sat down, and Jacobs’ wife simply wrote down every household task she completed every week. Surprise! She was working the second shift. As a person who is lucky enough to read reference books and talk about information behavior for a living, I also found Jacobs’ chapter on multitasking, or the avoidance thereof, to be both funny and extremely interesting. Mostly, though, it just made me feel incredibly focused. I don’t, for example

  • watch TV while eating dinner
  • listen to the radio in the shower
  • do anything except knit or surf the web while talking on the phone (my husband and I, to the shock of some of our friends, own a landline phone, just one, that plugs into the wall, without a portable handset, as our primary phone, and rarely use our (one) cellphone)

That being said, I could connect to, and laugh at, Jacobs’ essay on multitasking because I have struggled with focusing my attention and with decisions about where work begins and “not-work” begins (I am, after all, a librarian writing a book blog “for fun”). The themes examined in all of these essays, whether superficially or occasionally a little more deeply, are ones that will interest most readers: how do I work? how do I relate to my family? how do I treat my spouse? what makes me unique? how do I feel about my body? am I a good parent? how do I think? how do I present myself to the world?*

Some might claim that this book is disjointed; the quality of the essays is certainly uneven. But for the price of 3 magazines (or none, if you get this book from the library!), you’ll get a satisfying reading experience. I should say, though, that if you haven’t read anything by A.J. Jacobs, I wouldn’t start with this book, and I would opt instead for The Year of Living Biblically, which, to my mind, is a much better book, because it allows Jacobs to explore one particular experiment (to follow biblical rules strictly for one year) at much greater depth, with deeper research and a more interesting personal transformation.

*(tip: George Washington presented himself to the world with his shapely right foot and calf extended, and never, never, never, wiped his nose on the tablecloth)

Warm weather reading

beach

(July will be spent reading on this beach on beautiful Lake Huron)

A colleague of mine, who is studying to be a children’s librarian, was slightly flummoxed the other day when she happened upon an online book list titled “Warm weather fiction for boys.” I suppose the author thought that boys wouldn’t like the term Beach Reads?

I have a confession: when I said the other day that the semester was over, I wasn’t telling the truth. I haven’t finished my grading (or, as us Canucks call it, marking) yet. So I will let The New York Times recommend the reading for today, in an excellent article about Beach Reads.

I should mention, though, that in case you liked the sound of the Bachelor Brothers Bed & Breakfast, you can find more Canadian humour (with a U, naturally), by perusing the list of past winners of the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. I’ve certainly enjoyed several books on this list during summer camping trips and cottage visits, and in the wintertime too:

Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies (1955 winner)
The Fencepost Chronicles by W.P. Kinsella (1987 – Kinsella is, of course, the author of those two other great summer baseball books: The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Shoeless Joe ), but his short stories are less well-known, and hilarious)
Prayers of a Very Wise Child, by Roch Carrier (1992)
Barney’s Version Mordecai Richler (1992)
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (2008)

Four diversions for a sunny Wednesday

It’s the end of the semester! That means that I get to spend more time here:

IMG_1924

and here:

IMG_1912

and here:

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and, lest you think that I spend all my time in wholesome outdoor activities, it also means that I get to spend more time poking around the internet. Four recent favorites:

Do I have room for one more nerdy t-shirt?

bookish t-shirt

SMBC — Bookish shirt.

There’s always time to admire great authors with enormous teddy bears:

ernest hemingway with a giant teddy bear

Flavorwire » Extremely Silly Photos of Extremely Serious Writers.

and little girls in nice stockings checking out books from a librarian behind an enormous desk:

vintage photos of librarians

15 Vintage Photos of Librarians – Mental Floss.

Wait! What’s that you say? That there are more awesome old photos of librarians in the University of Wisconsin’s “Historic Librarians and Benefactors Digital Collection? Including a photo of Melvil Dewey (without beard) that’s worthy of inclusion in My Daguerrotype Boyfriend?

Excellent! Until the next post, I’ll leave you dreaming of a time when the American Library Association conference included a collegial boat trip from the Thousand Islands to Boston via Quebec and Halifax:

ALA expedition to Boston

(from here

Out of Print Clothing, or Reason #342 why I Love Being a Librarian

I love being a librarian because . . .

I can wear a Harold and the Purple Crayon t-shirt to work whenever I want, and what’s more, my students (future librarians all) will give me compliments!

Harold and the Purple Crayon t-shirt - Out of Print Clothing

My Harold and the Purple Crayon t-shirt is one of two t-shirts I own from the excellent Out of Print Clothing, a company based in Brooklyn that sells t-shirts, sweatshirts and accessories (think tote bags and ereader covers) emblazoned with book covers; sometimes the cover is of the first edition of the book, sometimes of a later cover with interesting design. They’ve recently expanded their line of t-shirts based on children’s books, hence my new Harold t-shirt. I first saw these shirts in an extremely out-of-the-way coffee shop in Ucluelet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and bought my first shirt, The Origin of Species last fall. The shirts are well-made and they fit stylishly, unlike a lot of other librarian/book-themed garb – the fit is slimmer than my radical militant librarian t-shirt made by local Madisonian Maureen O’Grady, which also rocks.

Hmm, is Charlotte’s Web next on my list of acquisitions? Or perhaps, in light of Maurice Sendak’s recent death, it might be time for In the Night Kitchen. Perhaps I could wear it while listening, again, to Sendak’s beautiful, funny and sad interviews with Terry Gross on NPR over the years.

Oh, and before I forget, for each t-shirt bought, Out of Print donates one book to Books for Africa, an established charity that aims to alleviate the book famine in Africa.

PS This is not a sponsored review, at all. I just love these t-shirts.

Listen [list]

Do you know about the RUSA Listen List?

I hadn’t heard of it until recently: it’s a new award established by the Reference and User Service Association of the American Library Association, to honor excellent audiobook narration. While it’s really difficult to see if you like the narrator of an audiobook until you actually listen, this list is still an excellent idea, I think. I especially like the way that “listen-alikes” for each book are suggested, so that if you enjoy the winner, you can find three more titles with a similar style or content.

I will admit that, compared to many people I know (especially knitters!), I’m not a huge listener of audiobooks. This is likely to do with the fact that my commute is only a short bus ride, if I do take the bus, and I often ditch the bus and ride my bike. But I think, also, that it’s because of the way that I consume text: I find it hard to maintain my attention while someone is reading a complex text (or giving a complex lecture), without having something to look at: it’s hard to explain, but I feel like I consume text in chunks, rather than in lines, and I like to be able to go back and forth between pages often as I read. That being said, I do enjoy audiobooks in specific situations, like during long car trips or when I have a tedious household task to complete. In fact, I first listened to Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast while hand-sanding the finishing touches on a wall that my Dad had installed in my teenage bedroom!

I also know, from experience and from professional reading, that it can be difficult to find e-audiobooks to borrow from your public library, since they are often listed along with print ebooks in catalogs that can be hard to use. Here are a few of the titles on this year’s RUSA Listen List that I’m looking forward to taking out of my public library – I’ve linked each one to WorldCat, where you can enter your zip code or location and find a copy in a library near you.

All Clear by Connie Willis. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren

Bossypants by Tina Fey. Narrated by Tina Fey.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley. Narrated by Dominic Hoffman.

Middlemarch by George Eliot. Narrated by Juliet Stevenson.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. Narrated by Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Narrated by Simon Prebble. Blackstone Audio.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde. Narrated by Emily Gray