Friday, November 28, 2014

in cold blood

Truman Capote was a reporter as well as a writer, and did quite a few short stories as well as novels. I think that mixture of writing talents helped him hone his craft. In Cold Blood is basically a long newspaper story. That's the ways its written anyway. Matter-of-fact, emotionless recitation of the way the story happened, with an eye toward careful unrolling of how it happened. Capote comes right out at the beginning and tells you what happens in the end. Everyone knows at that point, its been in the news for years. There isn't a person in America that hasn't heard what happened to the simple, proud family of four late one November night in the cold Kansas moonlight.

What Capote's readers want to know is how it happened, and maybe more importantly, why it happened. Capote did the research, read the court documents, and I think he even talked to the killers, multiple times. In fact, I think he may have been there throughout the court proceedings and the penalty. Capote had access to their own words, through testimony, interviews, personal correspondence, and he used it whenever he could to fill in the blanks. He even included letters from their families,* sometimes complete, to tell the story of these two men, the lives they led, and how they came to be at the home of the Clutter family, in Holcomb Kansas that night.

The take away: these two men were there to rob the family, based on bad information that there was anything in the home to steal. Apparently, killing the family wasn't the prime objective. That's what makes it so horrifying, there was no money to steal. So how did it happen? And why did these people have to die?

Capote does a good job explaining those points, as best he can. The thing is, normal people just can't understand why people are murdered in cold blood. You can read about it--and you should, this is a good book--but I'm not sure there ever will be a good understanding of why people do what they do. Capote seems to think its because they have no feelings for anyone else but themselves. Maybe 55 years ago they didn't have a name for that, but they do now.

Read this book. Maybe leave a light on. Maybe lock the door, too.

 * Capote changed the family names of the killer's families when he could, presumably to protect the family member's privacy.

Saturday, November 22, 2014


I'm glad to say that the heaviness of the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy, which lightened up in the second, stayed that way in the third. I was wondering what could happen after the first book that would make a sequel and an eventual trilogy worthwhile, but Suzanne Collins managed to do it. She's transformed the story of the first book into the horror that spurns on the next two books. Maybe that was the plan from the beginning, I don't know. I was under the impression that The Hunger Games was a one-off that turned into a trilogy, but as usual, I haven't done the research to either confirm or dispute that hypothesis.

Mockingjay is a good story, and nice ending to the saga. Solid YA SF. young adult speculative fiction Again, call me crazy, but I think and company did a lot for the book sales, and I think they got lucky that she was so well received in her role in Silver Linings Playbook, which came out in the same year. Silver Linings put Lawrence on the map as a quality leading actor; she won the Oscar for her portrayal of Tiffany. And I have to think that helped with The Hunger Games movie, which came out in the same year. Last movie tie-in note: Suzanne Collins did the screenplay too.

Mockingjay follows Katniss Everdeen through her growth into the reluctant hero, and a figurehead for the people, who are fed up with the oppressive government which holds the Hunger Games each year, and sacrifices their children to violence and death. Good on you, Katniss. Its easy to get behind a hero who has so much evil to fight against. Its great to establish a real nasty in a storyline, so that it becomes easy to dislike the bad guy and get on board with the ass whoopin' which we all know is coming down the pike. It really moves a story forward, don't you think?

This was a fun trilogy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

library as third place

In his popular book, The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg gives us this idea of a 'third place' as a place we can gather, talk, socialize and build community. If your home and those you live with are your first place, and your workplace and co-workers are your second, your third place is the place you go to exchange ideas, spend time, think, and talk. Together.

image: Stanford University's Peer Community of universities in graph form, from the  Stanford University Libraries Digital Humanities, used without permission.

This is not a book review. I have yet to read Oldenburg's book myself,  but I understand the concept. Its not that hard after all; Oldenburg is essentially telling us something we already know instinctively. But by drawing our attention to this third place, and discussing how it fulfills a critical function in society, he has raised this term to the level of a generally accepted nomenclature in fields of study such as urban planning. And lots of examples are cited, from pubs to coffee houses to churches to barber shops. In fact, coffee houses are often cited as the incubator of the Age of Enlightenment across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. There are even some geeks out there talking about--and using--virtual third places. The point is, these are spaces we need, and if we don't have them, we make them.

I've done some projects in Western Massachusetts in towns that are strictly residential. There is no general store, no gas stations, no coffee shops, or pubs. I hear stories from the people there who tell me, in all seriousness, that they see their friends an neighbors once a week and the transfer station or town dump. This is a public place, and its outdoors, and normally open for a few hours each week on a weekend, and that's where people chat, catch up, trade gossip and town information, and lots of times there is a place for swapping items that a little too good to throw away. I know of one small public library that gets lots of their puzzles from theirs.

Which is a good segue to my question: why aren't public libraries included in the normal list of 'third place' examples? It seems like a natural. Even those small towns I talked about have a church, temple, synagogue, etc. where people can gather, and religious facilities are often included on the list of third places, even though they aren't strictly, in my opinion, a third place unless you consider their extra-curricular activities such as social hour. The library doesn't have the structured worship that calls for the attention of its attendees on a particular subject, patrons are free to do what they choose, making it perfectly suited to be our third place. The only thing I can think of is a mostly outdated notion that the library is a quiet place, and not meant for discussion, debate, and the exchange of ideas that make a third place and build community. If this is really the case, we need to fix that.

I agree that especially in world where connectivity, increased pace of living, and the electronic barrage of attention seeking stuff in our lives, having a truly quiet place is important, and I believe that public library can fulfill that roll AND be a vibrant, active and engaging third place. There is no reason why quiet spaces for study, projects, and reading can't live in the same building as, noisier activities. In fact, public libraries have always had areas that are louder than others. The entrance, and circulation or information desk, and the surrounding lobby areas of libraries have always been more active and noisy. The opening and closing of doors, foot traffic on the often harder and more durable floor finishes in front of doors, patrons speaking to circulation librarians, hunting through catalogs, whether computerized or (ugh) card! The cafés that have begun to appear in libraries, thanks to forward thinking librarians like Nolan Lushington, have capitalized on this idea, but some libraries have been slow or skittish to adopt them for fear of messes to clean and coffee machines to operate. Automatic coffee machines have been a boon for dispelling this notion, and we are now beginning to see folks sitting at the library, sipping coffee and chatting with their neighbors and friends.

We're almost there, so what else can we do to get the word out? How can we leverage this need to build community into building support and patronage for the library? Outreach. In a recent discussion with several public librarians I was involved in, it was the consensus* that public libraries are poor self-promoters. They do very little advertising, other than on their website or their blog. Some use inexpensive ways to get the word out, such as program notes on bookmarks they make and insert into checked out materials. But  these types of strategies have the same failing: they only reach existing patrons. Who else goes to the library's web site?

I'm not an advertiser, so I'm not sure what the solution is for librarians, but I do know that as patrons we can help at the grassroots level. We can ask our friends and neighbors to meet us at the library. When we say to our friends, do you want to go for a cup of coffee, what are we really asking? We're asking to spend time, to catch up, maintain our connections. The coffee is just a facilitator, and the coffee shop is just a place to meet. Its our third place. Lets take our friends to the library. Our library, or their library. Heck! They may even have coffee there. Or a talk, lecture, author reading, musical program, or learning event. If we're lucky, we may even introduce our friends to the library they didn't know they had.

And establish our library as a third place, and increase its worth in our communities. Its got to be better than the town dump.

* It was the consensus of our discussion group, which included 16 public librarians from 4 states.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


What’s a guy like me supposed to say about a guy like Dante Alighieri. Not much, but what I can say is that I didn’t read what Dante wrote. What I did read was small portions of the best guess on what Dante wrote, because his original manuscripts are gone, as is any agreed upon, concise copy of his original work. And of that work--the Italian version, edited by Giorgio Petrocchi in 1966-67 used by the Hollander's for their translation--I only read portions of it for two reasons: my Italian is poor, and Dante’s Italian is even more difficult for me to comprehend.

What I can tell you is, I did enjoy the translation of Inferno by Robert and Jean Hollander, which was complete with copious end notes after each canto. yeah, I read them The end notes give the whole experience a kind of scholarly endeavor feeling, and after I was about have way through, I felt that I should have probably just read through the poem first so I could maintain the story arc with less interruption, then I thought I would go back and re-read the poem by itself when I finished, but gave up on that after spending weeks on this book seemed like enough.

Inferno is the first of the three parts in Dante's Comedia, normally called The Divine Comedy, in English. I don’t have any immediate plans to read the Hollander’s translation of the next two books, Purgatorio and Paradiso, but maybe someday. Because this was a scholarly translation, the Hollander’s didn’t try to rhyme the poem as Dante did. This was one of the main reasons I read any of the Italian, which was printed conveniently on the verso, so I could get a little taste of that. The pronunciation of Dante’s Italian also complicated that little project; his version of Italian is difficult for me to read straight through so the cadence was a little choppy.
Robert and Jean Hollander are the husband and wife team who did the translation. They've worked on a number of Dante translations. Robert is a professor at Princeton and has been working on Dante since I was born, he also has a major hand in Princeton's Dante Project. Jean Hollander is a poet and a professor of writing who has also taught at Princeton as well as Brooklyn College and Columbia.

This book took me weeks to read, as I said. I took a break in the middle of this one to read another book, and since then I've read the third in that series without getting around to writing about this one. I'm glad I read it, but what a slog.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

cathing fire

I've been pounding through the first book of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy--Inferno--which is a newer translation, complete with end notes for every canto; pretty dense. So I took a break in the middle of it to read Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy. Its been a while since I read the first book but I didn't discover the books until after the movie was announced. A bunch of books were sold after that, and after the buzz blew over, my library had a load of copies in the book sale. I should have picked up one of each at that point because when I was looking for copies after I read the first one, there was a waiting list and then I forgot about it until the next movie was announced. I'll have to keep my eye out for the third one.

This second installment is definitely the middle book; it extends the storyline, deepens the backstories, fills in some of the questions from the first book, and then leaves you hanging for the third book. That's not a bad thing, but I guess it would be nice for this story to stand on its own the way the first one did. This one does come to a close, sort of, but its a cliffhanger.

This is prime young adult science fiction, its got angst, action, teen love, dystopian future, class warfare, and like a lot of recent YA SciFi, death. At least the constant threat of it for the main characters, and lots of blood and death of those around them to remind them of how bad it is. Collins certainly understands the genre, and just like the librarian who originally recommended this to me said, its a fast read. I burned through this is 3 or 4 days. that's quick for me

Dante is good, and I'm even reading a little of the old Italian version. But man, are the end notes dry. Fascinating and informative, sure, but... [yawn.]

This one is not as up close and personal with the death of children. It seems like that may have been a little harsh for some folks in the first book. Collins has found an interesting way to calm that down, and to also pull back from it so its not so immediate to the reader. I'll keep my eyes out for the third book at the library. Maybe I'll get it before the third movie comes out.

Monday, October 6, 2014


Simplicissimus is a 15th century German novel that is often called the first bestseller. Personally, I'm not so sure that's even possible. The book that came before this one that sold the most copies would be the previous bestseller, even if the copies sold amounted to 12. Perhaps what is meant by this is that this is the first book that sold in large quantities, very quickly. That, I can understand.

This book is funny, baudy, crude, and very entertaining. It's written in first person, so Simplicius gets to tell his own story, and because he's so vulgar the first person allows the author to separate himself from this character, and because Simplicius is so simple, he can get away with much more than any polite member of society would be allowed, simply because he doesn't know any better. Quite a trick. It may also help explain why this book became so popular; well heeled folks could laugh at it because the protagonist is so simple. And make no mistake, given the literacy profile of the population  in the 15th century, it's definitely the upper classes who are buying and reading this book.

Simplicius Simplicissimus follows the life story of this young man from his ignorant peasant upbringing through his various trials in all the walks of life, driven by the engine of the ongoing 30 Years War. As this simple boy is tossed by the war raging around him, each place he falls places him in a different situation, which then allows the author to commentate on each of these stations from the point of view of a simple young man who is surprised by almost everything he sees, thus allowing him to point out what he sees at the outrages that swirl around us without our focusing on them.

The author is listed on the title page as Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, but it seems that he is known as Hans rather than Johann, in English, I also saw one reference to Jacob vs. Jakob. While we're at it, the original title in German is "Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch." In English, that's translated as The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus.

The translation is marvelous and I think it his work that allows this story to resonate so powerfully today. The ideas themselves deserve credit however, and observations made then could in many cases by made much the same today. Human nature is indeed immutable. Mike Mitchell did this translation in 1999. Mitchell is described in the frontmatter as "one of Dedalus's editorial directors as is responsible for the Dedalus translation programme."

Who knew 1668 was so much fun in Germany! Read this book!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

magician's land

Quentin, you old dog!

Quentin Coldwater and the gang--well, some of them--are back for Lev Grossman's third and final book* in the Fillory Trillory. yeah, I made that up Brakebills has only a supporting role is this book, much like the second. We pick up Quentin's story a little while after the end of the second book. Quentin is beginning to heal, deal and un-feel some of the damage done to him, and as always, damage he has done to himself. Both physically and emotionally.

Quentin gets his feels on more deeply and complexly than his archetypes, Harry Potter and  Peter Pevensie. Everyone knows who King Peter is, right?  What makes Grossman's characters so much more compelling is that they DON'T fit the standard fantasy story mold. Grossman's characters, settings and personal interactions are just as fun, magical, and fantastic as Lewis's or Rowling's, but they are more real, adult and complicated like Tolkien's. I think that's because Grossman's audience is not kids, or even young adults, I think he's writing for adults.

Its been a little while since the second book came out and I found that I remembered the first book very well, but I had forgot a lot of the details in the second book. So I went back and read both of those after I finished this one. If I had more time, I might have put this one down and re-read them first, but my daughter was waiting for me to finish, and she was headed back to school.

The Magician's Land--the whole trilogy--is about finding your dreams. About making your dreams come true, because, in the end, that's the only way we find them. Quentin Coldwater is normal guy, who works hard, and knows what he can expect from his hard work, but above all, Quentin never quite knows whether or not he's good enough or deserving enough. In this book, I feel like he is finally making headway. Everyone has to grow up, and it seems like Quentin has done that too. And maybe his dreams came true, or maybe they didn't. But if anything is true, I think he's grown up enough to dream new dreams now.

Read this book. Read all of them, and then write me a note and tell me I was right.

* if you ask me, and I know you didn't, Grossman left room for more books if he decides to revisit Quentin and Co. 

... and I know you didn't ask me this either, but the Fillory Trillory one would make good movies, if done right.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

hitchhiker's guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is another book that I've had on my reading list for a long time. If I had know it was as short as it was, or as funny, I might have read it a little sooner. They made a movie a little while ago, but I didn't see it and I got the impression it wasn't well received, but I'm not sure.

The book has that British humor twang to it, that is so funny, but somehow not really identifiable, unless its the sarcasm. The Brits do sarcasm better than anyone. The storyline is big, and it jumps in pretty quickly. The galaxy is filled with inhabited planets and a great way to get around is by hitchhiking. Its not easy, so there is a fair amount of street cred that comes with it. But once you get out there, its not too long before you find that many of the same problems that we have to deal with on earth, are also problems just about everywhere you go.

That's what sets this book apart I think, and some of the other sci fi stories like it, its written in opposition to the two main trends in sci fi: utopian futures and dystopian futures. There aren't a whole lot of sci fi stories that predict a future that's pretty much just like the day-to-day crap we deal with now. But if the expanses of the galaxy are the same where ever you go, why would anyone travel? The answer is simple: the more things stay the same, the more they change. Each of their adventures is wild, screwy, unpredictable, and funny. And the funny, often verges on the ridiculous. Like a lot of British humor.

Read this book. Its funny and relevant now, just as when it was first written.

Then read it again in 20 years.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

princess bride

I've had The Princess Bride on my reading list for a while. I saw the movie years ago, and its was fun, romantic, swashbuckling, and over-the-top in every way. The book is almost the same as the movie, scene for scene, and nearly word for word, as much as I can remember the movie. This isn't a case where a movie was inspired by the book, or vice versa. The only thing that really differed was the narration.

In the movie version, and grandfather reads the story to his grandson when he is sick in bed, as his father or grandfather read to him. There is a similar but much more convoluted narration story in the book, designed to frame the story as true historical fact. I get how that could be fun--its another fairy tale--but in my opinion it was overdone. William Goldman seems to have beat on the factual history aspect so much as to make that also seem absurd.

The fairy tale itself, is just the same, and its a great story full of the traditional fairy tale story bravado, magic, monsters, heroes, fair maidens, and bad guys. This fair tale is tongue in cheek throughout, the author smiles at us even as he tells the story, as if to say, yes, I know isn't it hard to believe.

Goldman does a good job on this, even if he's a little heavy-handed on the history part. He's warmed up the best parts of our favorite stories from childhood, and brought them back to an older crowd; a crowd that the original stories he's celebrating, were probably intended for.