Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - by J.K. Rowling

Last year I started a tradition of posting about Harry Potter on his birthday. Until 2017 I will re-read one of the books in the series each year, after that I will either have to start a new tradition, or re-blog, or figure out something else Potter related to blog about on July 31. But, anyway, as for this year I can write about book three.

While our friends appear to use the library less often in this work than in books one and two, and that nasty old stereotype Madam Pince doesn't show up at all, we do know that Harry and Herminone occasionally studied there. The library often offered a convenient excuse as a place to go for refuge, or as an easy lie. We also know that Hermione, Ron and Harry did use it to research legal information as to how they might save the poor old hippogriff Buckbeak from execution in his case against the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures.

Well, here's hoping book four is more library-centric.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Borrower - by Rebecca Makkai

An unlikely "buddy" story, The Borrower tells of Lucy Hull, an "accidental" librarian, who "accidently" kidnaps ten-year old Ian Drake. Ian had run away from home and found refuge in the beloved stacks of the Hannibal, Missouri Public Library. Lucy and Ian wind up taking a road trip across the mid-west and then into New England in order to give him a break from his parents and their insistence that he attend classes with "Pastor Bob", who "helps" young boys who might be questioning their sexuality.

Lucy had previously been told by Ian's mother not to let him check out books about witchcraft, magic, the occult or anything by "Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry, Harry Potter, and similar authors". Lucy doesn't bother to point out that Harry Potter is not an author.

Although the main character is a librarian I am hard pressed to give it either a "Gold Star" or "A list" rating (see my "A Word about the Labels" note to the right). Lucy mentions several times that she doesn't really like her job except for Ian and her co-worker, Rocky. She never intended to be a librarian; it is simply what she fell in to after she graduated. Most people would not be able to get a job with the title "librarian" with those kind of non-credentials, but the library "needed a children's librarian fast after the old one was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer." And while Lucy does recognize this, she continues to make efforts not to identify herself with this boring profession, and disparage it when she can, even in her daydreams. After reading her alumnae magazine and finding out what exciting things her former classmates were doing, she imagines what it might say about her:
Lucy Hull, class of '02 courageously checked out The Pushcart War to a ten-year-old patron today, despite the preponderance therein of peashooters and the fact that the book does not in any way contain "the breath of God."
"It really wasn't a choice", said the 26-year old Hull, who has done very little with her adult life besides stamping books, re-shelving books, and reading books with funny voices. "It's basically illegal to deny a book to someone with a library card. I'm not quite sure why you're interviewing me."
Who does she think is responsible for lobbying for laws that allow anyone to check out whatever they want? I am happy to pay my American Library Association dues to help pay for such things.

Lucy berates herself on several occasions for her wardrobe. "I hated that I'd started looking like a librarian" she pouts after her co-worker Rocky points out that she is wearing a cardigan. And she has this to say about the library fundraiser she attends:
Once a year all the librarians in the county wedged themselves into high heels, tried to pull the cat hair off their sweaters with masking tapes, and smeared their lips with an awful tomato red that had gone stale in its tube, all to convince the benefit set of the greater Hannibal region that libraries do better with chairs and books and money.
I did laugh when she mentioned buying a dress at L.L. Bean that looked like something a librarian would wear. My co-workers and I will all admit to having a preponderance of clothing from that venerable retailer in Maine, along with good ol' Lands' End, of course.

When Tim her cool, gay actor landlord doesn't invite her to join in his reindeer games, she laments that he'd clearly "mistaken [her] for a librarian". He discovers he is wrong about this assessment many months later when he assists her with a scheme to communicate with young Ian without his parents knowing. "This is amazing...It's just like, amazing. I mean, we thought you were this mild-mannered librarian and everything. And there you are, all vigilante and shit..." says he.  Of course only a "fake" librarian would do these things. We real librarians would never stick our necks out for anything.

Lucy briefly dates a musician who tells her he "was a librarian an undergrad, [whose] main job was to erase pencil marks from the last season's orchestra scores". Lucy, who is not a real librarian herself, doesn't bother to point out that there is a big difference between being a librarian, and working as a student employee in a library building. The irony of her dating a musician does not escape her, though. She points out that she'd "seen The Music Man enough times as a child to be wary of smiling musicians."

Additionally she mentions one of my favorite library movie scene from It's a Wonderful Life.
And there she runs in thick glasses, clutching books to her useless breasts. This nightmare Mary Bailey has ruined her eyesight from long hours reading alone in the dark.
 How strange, that this one profession should be so associated with loneliness, virginity, female desperation. The librarian with the turtleneck sweater. She's never left her hometown. She sits at the circulation desk and dreams of love.
 Not really so strange when we have Makkai still using the same stereotypes in the 21st century.

Even young Ian understands that librarians are really just a bunch of frustrated old maids. He suggests to Lucy that the library is haunted by the "ghosts of dead librarians. Not like [Lucy], but like old ladies who never got married."

The two visit a public library in small-town Vermont where they talk to a the reference librarian "blank-faced woman with dull hair" who answered her questions in a rather bored manner. They also lie to the young circulation clerk in order to check out some books without a library card.

Ultimately, Lucy gives up her life in Hannibal, Missouri for a job in Chicago at the college library where "the borrowers already know what they're looking for" and all she does in stamp out books. Really? As a college librarian I can assure readers of this blog that not all of our users know what they want already. We have enough trouble convincing people our jobs are still relevant without the Rebecca Makkai's of the world making up this kind of stuff. I mean, I've been known to make some profession-deprecating remarks myself, but sheesh!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go - by Dale E. Basye

Although I tend to enjoy young adult fiction, I generally don't read books intended for "tweens" (10-12 year olds). I remembered reading a review of this one a few years ago though and was intrigued by its irreverent premise: a brother and sister, Milton and Marlo, are "darned to heck" when one of Marlo's escapades leads to their untimely deaths. Although Milton has an otherwise spotless record, his one indiscretion, only moments before his death lands him in the same circle of heck as his more spirited sister. And, as if dying were not enough of a punishment, the two must also go to school in their afterlife. Their education in heck is overseen by spiteful Principal Bea "Elsa" Bubb. The siblings team up with overweight Virgil and the three make a plan to escape their nasty eternity.

This book is actually pretty fun, and the puns are rather clever. I even found myself laughing at the scatological humor, which I usually just find puerile. Of course a place as bad as the sixth circle of heck would not have anything like a good library, nevertheless, Basye manages to demonstrate their importance.

Milton is a nervous child and we not only learn that reading anything including toothpaste tubes and cereal boxes calms him, and that he "only felt truly safe when tucked between the covers of a book", but also that when his therapist told him to go to his "happy place" whenever he felt anxious he imagined himself in a "musty library full of books". While in heck he must also "pretend that the powerful stench that prickled his nose was intoxicating perfume of paper, dust and old wooden desks...simply a case of mind over fecal matter."

Finally we see this library metaphor near the end of the book: during a standoff between Milton and  Bea "Elsa" Bubb she as "stood still as a gargoyle on top of an old library".

A quick fun read, clearly written to appeal to middle school boys, but middle-aged librarians may also find it to their liking.

Monday, July 1, 2013

He Reads/She Reads...Librarians

In June, Booklist Magazine's regular "He Reads/She Reads" column features librarians writing about "library" books. In David Wright's "Guybrarians" we learn about some fiction and some non-fiction books featuring men librarians, including two featured on my blog Quiet, Please by Scott Douglas, and The Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines. Likewise in "Marian the Contrarian" Kaite Mediatore Stover provides titles of both memoir and fiction for me to add to my reading list. I have not yet read any of the books she writes about, but have already downloaded an e-copy of The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai. I will start reading tonight!

The Happiness Project - by Gretchen Rubin

A few years ago I did a year long project called "My Year of Reading 'Year Of' Books" during which I read books of the sort of "stunt lit" genre that Rubin writes in her year-long quest to become a happier person. She does a fair amount of research about how to be happy and takes action on it, keeps track of her own progress with a chart, and keeps her own blog throughout. As with the other "year of" books I read, the author does see changes in herself, and in this case, becomes a happier person. She does recognize that it does take a lot of work to be happy.

One thing I noticed while I was reading so many "year of" books was that they so often referred to each other, or more interestingly, unintentionally referred to similar themes or lessons. And so it was with Rubin's book. She specifically mentions two books that I read during my "year" (Julia and Julia by Julie Powell; and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion) and also discovers what A.J. Jacobs did in his Year of Living Bibically about "fake it 'til you make it" - essentially smiling even though you don't feel happy. Both Rubin and Jacobs found that it did work to some extent.

Every once in a while, I lose a book that I'm reading, and therefore lose the bookmarks I had placed to remind me what I wanted to write in my blog (see my posts on The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Peace Like a River). Such was the case with this one. The difference here was that I was reading The Happiness Project as an e-book. I had downloaded it from my public library, and then after I'd read about 3/4 of it dropped my iPad in the driveway. I was able to replace the machine, and all my apps were transferred, but the two books I had downloaded onto "Overdrive" were gone. I was able to download them again without incident, but, alas, all the bookmarks were gone. Fortunately, I had also made some notes in blogger, so I can readily write about the two most significant library bits of this book. Most importantly this is the first non-fiction book I've read in which romance blossomed at the library: Rubin met her husband at the library when they were both in law school. And, almost just as important, Rubin writes poetically about how happy the library makes her
Returning from vacation made me appreciate my beloved library anew. This library, just one block from my apartment is perfect: a beautiful building, open stacks, internet access, a terrific children's section, and a quiet study room in which to do my writing...I'd been going...several times a week for seven years - but my brief absence reminded me how much I loved it...
It seems that whatever else I may have marked about libraries would have paled next to these.

Read more about Rubin's project and find out how to conduct your own "happiness project" at