Tag Archives: library

Book bullies: When that novel just won’t leave you alone

black and white of child throwing a tantrum

I don’t wanna read this book! Don’t make me! — CC image “Tantrum” courtesy of demandaj on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve picked up a book that I’m beginning to find intrusive.

This book is really getting in the way. I see it there, on the floor next to my bed, with the bookmark sticking out of its spine, and narrow my eyes at it. I know for a fact that beguiling cover is only a smokescreen for total entrapment. If I start reading again, I’ll be unable to stop for at least a few chapters, and then what’ll I do? Not much else with the rest of my day, that’s what!

Plus, I’ll get agitated. Terrible things are happening to the main character all the time. The book thinks it can fool me, because it starts out with a backdrop of lyrical words and natural beauty. Then it likes to hammer me and tear my guts out, before sending a few more soothing droplets of peace my way.

Keeping this book next to my bed is a bad idea. I want to know what is happening next, but on the other hand, I also want to sleep. I’ll lie down and get all cuddly with my book, knowing I’ll keep turning pages until the next emotional crash. At which point I will lie awake, fretting about the uncertain (fictional) future, as emotionally invested in the characters as if we were related.

I was browsing at the library (always a dangerous pastime) when I found the book, although I should only have been returning items and rushing out before my car meter expired. Intrigued by the cover and the title, I checked out the jacket flaps. Then I started reading the first chapter. I have a rule of thumb which says, if I am standing in a bookstore or a library for more than 10 minutes reading a book I only thought about “checking out” briefly, I need to pick up a copy for myself to read at home. The rule applied, so I took this dangerous novel back to my place with me, little knowing the emotional time-bombs it was going to set off in my psyche.

I knew the author, too; I’d read some of her short prose. That was destructive, also. In a beautiful way. This should have warned me, had I paid closer attention to the byline. But I was snookered by my own oversight.

Ooh, shiny pretty cover design!

I’ve had the book for a couple of weeks now — I usually read MUCH faster than this — and have made my painful way to the final third of the story. I had another book from the library waiting for me to read — the new Khaled Hosseini, which, since it was new, was only being lent for a limited time and I wasn’t allowed to renew it — which I didn’t get to read AT ALL because of Book Number One.

I had to return a book without reading it.

That never happens.

But, Alex, you might point out. All of the characteristics of the book you are complaining about — these sound like GOOD things. And you’d be right, of course. Don’t all of us want to create a world that’s so real it rivals the tangible surroundings of our readers? Don’t we all yearn to create characters who haunt our readers just like they haunt us? Don’t we all want our prose to be described by adjectives that we synonomize with “beautiful”?

Now, I like immersive fiction. After all, that’s kind of the point. I just like to be the one in charge, and right now, I’m not.

Book bully.
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When was the last time a book grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and dragged you kicking and screaming? Share in the comments!

Sweating the small stuff:

how to get creative work done

golden retriever makes a snowman

But I like making stuff! — CC image “Chevy Worked Hard Building His Own Snowman” courtesy of Chevysmom on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Going to the library should not have been a big deal.

It’s pretty small stuff. Question: where will I do my writing today? Answer: the library.


It’s like the dilemma about changing the channel on the TV when you can’t find the remote. Truly, not worth thinking about for more than 2 seconds. Library: quiet, air conditioned, no distractions. [1] A good place to do thoughtful work.

Except I questioned that should take that step, and almost got zero writing done that day as a result.

The easy way out of creativity

Have you ever known you needed to do something, but were looking for the easy way out?

Like most creative people, I’m fairly bruised from falling off and jumping back on the wagon of disciplined work. On a recent foray into more structured creative behavior, I came across this article from the Huffington Post outlining five bad habits that freelancers fall into. Number 5: Working From Your Bedroom caught my eye particularly.

“Working in your bedroom is only one step away from doing the laundry, two steps away from taking a nap, and three steps away from cooking in the kitchen,” #5 says. “Studies also show that working from your bedroom can cause you to have problems sleeping and resting when you’re not working.”


I’ve written before about the benefits of literally taking a new perspective — sitting in a new seat in your room or office when you work, for example. So I responded to the common-sense nature of Voakes’ advice right away. Great, I thought. Today I’ll go to the library!

Then I thought, If only it wasn’t 90 degrees outside…

Artists’ no. 1 excuse: If only…

Beware this phrase. Have you ever caught yourself using it? “If only” is the number one way our Inner Procrastinator brainwashes us. “If only [XYZ condition were met], I’d have this all taken care of…”

Which really translates into, “I’m letting myself off the hook by choosing a precondition that I know won’t be met. Sorry, art!”

Who cares if it’s 90 degrees outside? The library is air conditioned! Staying at home, faffing on the computer, would have been just as absurd as refusing to change the TV channel because I don’t want to get up out of my chair and the batteries are dead in the remote.

I had a goal to do creative writing work. I had decided to take both my own good advice on changing my physical perspective, and the accepted wisdom of freelancers everywhere that sometimes, we really do need to get out of the house to get things done. Going to the library would accomplish both goals.

Except getting there meant walking for nearly half an hour in the heat, getting even more hot and sweaty than I already was.

Now, I ask you, is that really a bad thing?

Work should make you sweat

Michael Phelps didn’t become an Olympic swimmer by sitting on his hands. Charles Dickens didn’t publish more than 30 books (but who’s counting?) by fretting about the temperature. And neither will you or I ever get where we want to be, creatively, if we’re afraid of a little sweat.

Which is why I think sweating the small stuff is a great strategy for getting creative work done. Working at the library versus working at home? Not a big deal, really…

Getting zero words on paper versus three hours of focused, dedicated writing and nearly two completed drafts?

Definitely worth the sweat.


What did you sweat creatively this week?

1. Unless you count books, of course. Those distract me all the time, but ironically, the otherwise siren call of literature becomes a soothing hum when I’m doing my own work surrounded by hundreds of tomes.
Back to the text

The problem of judging a book by its cover

What happens when there isn't one?

Happy 2013!

After my long holiday break, I have a few thoughts about books to share — partly because of the awesome number of them gifted to me and weighing down my suitcase after the holidays.

library stacks

Word goodness! Image courtesy of geekphilosopher.com

The wave of digital readers and e-books that is swirling into publishing-dom, tsunami-style, consistently creates existential ripples among traditionalists (yours truly included) and those affiliated with the traditional order, along the lines of, “What is a book?”

This isn’t one of those existential ripples.

It’s a different ripple. What’s going to happen to the community of reading as the phenomenon of book covers dwindles and vanishes?

The NY Times Travel section published an article in mid-December 2012 about literary haunts in Manhattan. The author, while visiting a “literary” bar recommended to him by friends, observes:

“Most of the women looked like extras from an episode of Lena Dunham’s HBO series, ‘Girls.’ I would report to you the books they were carrying, but the only readers in the bunch were grasping Kindles.”

The author is sad because he can’t hit on the ladies based on what they might be reading, but I’m sad because not glimpsing what they are reading takes a lot of the community out of reading!

The best way to find new books: as gifts

I’ve always thought that books make the best gifts.

I’m talking as the recipient (although I do enjoy giving them, too). I’ve gotten a lot of good ones over the years, for birthdays and Christmases, and other big life events, such as when I left for my two-year sojourn in New Zealand. It’s how I found some of my favorite books of all time: Anne of Green Gables, the original Earthsea trilogy from Ursula LeGuin, Jane Eyre, Mary Higgins Clark’s thrillers, Juliet Marillier’s Light Isles and Sevenwaters books, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter books (I swear I read male authors too), German young adult mystery and fantasy novels, thick with detail and glorious language…

The tradition was kept up this year, when I received Stephen King’s On Writing, possibly one of the best books, on, er, writing, that I’ve ever seen (and also on my All-Time Favorites list. A male author. There). As well as a few other tomes.

I’ve killed my favorite books with love. The hard covers have stood up well, but the paperbacks are falling apart. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read them — I used to read the Earthsea books and Anne of Green Gables about once a year. If I ever wanted to offload them on the Amazon used-book marketplace, they would near-universally have to be rated as in poor condition. The corners are dog eared and frayed; the cover art cracked and barely recognizable to an unknowing eye; the bindings are pulp; the front covers are coming off and so are some of the opening pages; other pages are yellowed with age and exude an old-book smell. The only kind of used-book defacement missing is writing on the pages — I never ever wanted to scribble in my books! Even after they succumb to the ravages of love, they’re kind of sacred.

Now, I flag my books with crazy-colored sticky notes. I still can’t bring myself to create messy marginalia.

Over time, I’ve received fewer titles that I haven’t requested by title or author name in advance. Instead of books, I tend to get recommendations.

The next best way: educated guesswork

In my case, book recommendations — a form of educated guesswork by the recommender — translate into trips to the library (I’d be eating Ramen noodles every day, assuming I wasn’t buried by a collapsing pile of books in my hoarder-style apartment, had I actually purchased a copy of everything I ever wanted to read). One author or style leads to another: I quickly amassed a “to read” list that outstripped my power to ever complete.

red book on a shelf

Standing out from the crowd
image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

My primary strategy for adding to the list consisted of browsing the “new fiction” shelves at our local branch, looking over the spines of all the shiny new volumes — a form of less-educated guesswork (this time by me). Unless it was clear from that superficial view that the book was not my cup of tea, I’d read the dust jacket… and if that was promising, the first few lines or paragraphs of the book itself. I knew I had a winner when I got to the third page, standing in front of the shelves, and I was still reading.

We’ve all heard the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But it’s hard. I picked up Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves based solely on the title, for example. Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Peter Høeg) caught me with the eye on the cover, enigmatic, as well as the taste of winter suggested by the white background.

I agree a book cover shouldn’t be everything, but it’s a logical place to start. Especially if we don’t know the author or have never of the book.

Unsurprisingly, the modern book marketing machine revolves around the cover. The cover is the cornerstone of the book’s “branding.” This holds true even when the visual is virtual: online book stores use cover images as icons to flag books for would-be purchasers, and author websites feature an image of the book for sale.

But there really isn’t any cover on an e-book.

After we’ve purchased the digital copy or borrowed it (depending on the current state of wrangling between libraries and publishers), it resides solely on our flickering little screen. Once we start reading, the cover, visible only to us in the first place, effectively vanishes.

And the reading community goes with it.

Because books aren’t only just for us to read

worn blue journal

the gift of a story
image courtesy of freedigitialphotos.net

Sure, we think we’re engaged in a solitary activity when we’re reading… it’s hard to have a conversation with someone else at the same time and actually remember a word of what we read… but although I’m not a betting woman, I’m willing to bet cold hard cash that I’m not the only one who’s relied on the recommendations and book suggestions of family, friends, and strangers. And let’s not forget the literary community at Goodreads, more than 13 million users strong. It’s a community built up explicitly around books! And interestingly, the fulcrum of this social media hub, digital and virtual though it is, involves seeing what other people have on their “shelves” (welcome back, cover icons) …and what their comments on these books are.

We lose the human connection when there is no way to tell what someone is reading — or to show anyone else what we are reading. Users of electronic devices could just as well be checking their email, or surfing Facebook, as reading any kind of book.

In an example of classic book interaction, the lady next to me on the plane last month struck up a conversation about the book that I was reading — because she had just caught a glimpse of its cover. Not to browbeat the Kindle, but this conversation would surely not have taken place if I had been holding a computerized version of the book. I then saw she was holding a book of crossword puzzles, and so we went from food (my book was Consider the Fork) to writing to families — one of my grandmothers was a prodigious crossworder in her day.

There we were, two strangers, discovering a common bond by virtue of our book [covers]. As I said, the cover is a good place to start. Not just for marketers, but for the rest of us, too.

Have you stumbled across any good new books recently? How did you find them?

How likely are you to ask somebody reading a Kindle or a tablet whether it’s “any good?”

Oh They Could Sell It

An Evening of Song at Denver Public Library

I looked around me.  I kept thinking I was going to make a comment to someone next to me — a friend, or my theater-mad relatives — but of course that wasn’t possible.  I had gone to the show alone.

image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Part of the reason for that was I only found out about it approximately twenty-four hours before it was set to take place.  My discovery was a total accident — a concert? at the library?  It would never have occurred to me.

The description sounded like a gas: “songs with the flirt built in.”  The program featured songs from the 30s through the 50s, with lyrics crafted to duck censors and standard bearers of the appropriate.  The setlist (provided below) reveled in examples of bawdy humor and sly digs at the foibles of human relationships.  And best of all — it was free!

It was too outrageous to pass up.

I turned up at the top level of the Denver Central Library early.  Balloons were scattered festively across the floor, and paintings along the gallery walls added to the color (and artistic je ne sais quoi).  A group in period-ready dresses and heels chatted off to the side — these, I presumed correctly, were the performers.  Well — most of them.  A few fashionable ladies broke off from the group later to join us in the audience.  A phalanx of black plastic chairs filled the space that opened from the center of the main gallery, and I easily found a seat.  Had I come much later, it would have been a different story: nearly every seat was taken; of all ages and dressed in all kinds of ways — including the aforementioned ladies in costume solidarity.

The 8 female performers were decked out in a set of amazing ruffles, bodices, and gowns of every description, and the 2 male “backup” singers were resplendent in tuxedos.  All of the ladies (but none of the men) went through costume changes throughout the evening.  I don’t know where — but we were all so distracted by what was happening on “stage” that I suppose they could have swapped kit in the gallery itself and we never would have noticed.  Everybody could sing — or play.  The performance was backed by a band consisting of piano, upright bass/ukelele, and drums.  In keeping with the tenor of the show, which was arranged as one extended series of sketches holding together the musical numbers, the musicians were drawn into and became a part of the performances.

Numbers included sultry songs such as “A Man What Takes His Time,” show tunes, such as “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls, naughty flirts like “Always True to You,” and jazzy numbers like “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and “When You’re Good to Mama.”  Most of the numbers were solo spots, a few were duets or trios; some had chorus, and a big group number concluded the show: “I’m Tired.”  The audience, though, was definitely NOT tired.  My personal favorite was “If I Can’t Sell It,” a naughty way to play with the paradigm of marriage as a financial transaction between a man and a woman.  That’s right, Mae West!

It’s becoming less and less of a surprise to me, the more performances I see, of any kind, that everyone seems to have so many talents.  Once you get started, it’s contagious, I think.  Singing means dancing means acting means creating stories…

I wasn’t the only one laughing and applauding uproariously throughout the evening, and I wasn’t the only one standing for the ovation at the end, either.  A good time was had by all.

So kudos to the events programming at the library.  The library as performance space — who knew?  But it was brilliant.  And kudos to all the performers, who really threw themselves into it, purely out of joy — their work for the event was all “volunteer.”  A show absolutely worth paying for.

Have you been to any good shows lately?

Setlist for Wink! Songs with the flirt built in:
The Girl in 14G
Come Ona My House
Frim Fram Sauce
A Man What Takes His Time
I Enjoy Being a Girl
Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby
Always True to You
Adelaide’s Lament
One Hour Mama
Whatever Lola Wants
Mambo Italiano
If I Can’t Sell It
Mop Song
My Handyman
Nobody Makes a Pass at Me
When You’re Good to Mama
My Heart Belongs to Daddy
Too Old To Cut the Mustard Anymore
Love For Sale
Glitter and Be Gay
I’m Tired

Vocalists: Jennifer Adams, Marta Burton, Elizabeth Caswell-Dyer, Abbi Chapman, Dee Galloway, Ken Parks, Chuck Stevenson, Nancy Stohlman, Cora Vette, Marnie Ward
Piano: Nick Busheff
Bass and Ukelele: Mike Fitzmaurice
Drums: Ed Contreras
Written and Directed by Marta Burton