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October 2013

Sean, Standley Lake Library

I despise puns, which will surprise people since I make so many of them. I chalk up my penchant to self-loathing.

Yet there’s something I hate even more than myself, and that’s a novel with a food pun in its title. These show up on the library shelves more and more. Cozy mystery authors are especially guilty. It’s like they’re all auditioning to be the guy who names those special Ben and Jerry flavors.

All the same, I understand the reasoning. Puns are catchy and the sleuths in these books are often cooks, food consultants, or caterers. Many writers even include recipes, letting readers cook whatever delights the characters make in the story. The novels are fun, well-written, and—the proof is in the pudding—very popular.

Still, it’s getting to be a bit much. Feast your eyes on the following examples:

The Butter Did It
Second Thyme Around
Murder Takes the Cake
One Foot in the Gravy
Gruel and Unusual Punishment
The Wurst is Yet to Come
Glazed Murder
The Long Quiche Goodbye
Never Say Pie
Rest in Pizza
A Good Day to Pie
Fatally Frosted
State of the Onion

And the list goes on for another 4,000 books.

One of my personal favorites is The Crepes of Wrath—which reminds me that The Grapes of Wrath works pretty well on its own. That visionary John Steinbeck saw the future of fiction titles and got in on the action early.

Perhaps if the trend continues, publishers will spice up the classics by updating their stale titles to give them that garden-fresh feel. I know I’d read Samuel Taylor Coleslaw’s “Rime of the Ancient Marinara.” And F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tenderloin is the Night just screams bestseller.

Imagine the lines on Broadway to see Eugene O’Neill’s The Icecream Man Cometh! Could bookstores keep William Faulker’s As I Lay Frying in stock? Hemingway’s The Sundae Also Rises would fly off the shelf. While we’re talking desserts, we should note the only foils found in Alexandre Dumas’ new and improved Three Musketeers will be candy bar wrappers.

Well, now I’ve done it: I’ve started punning and I can’t stop. We have a veritable cornycopia on our hands. I really hate myself right now, probably as much as you do, and we better switch topics if we’re going to stay friends.

Say, did you know the Standley Lake library has circulated like five million items this year? I think that’s a correct statistic. Then again, I might be fudging the numbers.

Sean, Standley Lake Library

A couple of things have me thinking lately about memory loss. One is the renewed interest in a book called Still Alice, written by a neurobiologist named Lisa Genova. This affecting novel about a woman diagnosed with early-onset dementia was published four years ago, but seems to be enjoying a resurgent popularity. I finished reading it last month and definitely recommend it.

The second, more personal thing is my wretched performance in team bar trivia. I turned 40 in June, and my ability to recall stupid bits of information—like the name of a song—sure isn’t as iron-clad as it used to be. It’s gotten me fretting about mental deterioration.

So the other day I discovered the peanut butter test. Have you heard of this? It’s been all over the news of late. Researchers are claiming the inability to sniff out peanut butter is a predictor of early-onset Alzheimer’s, as sufferers show decreased sensitivity to odors.

Fearing the worst, but zealous for the truth, I decided to self-diagnose and drove to Walmart. I remembered I was going to Walmart after I found myself in the parking lot at King Soopers; but since they both sell peanut butter I figured no harm, no foul. I bought a 2-liter of Coke Zero and returned to the car. At that point I remembered I meant to buy some peanut butter, and went back in.

I soon broke into a heavy sweat. There were so many brands—Peter Pan, Skippy, Jif, Krogers, Planters, Smuckers. God, what if one wasn’t as strong as another? What if sniffing Peter Pan gave me a false-positive? I also wrestled over all the types: smooth, crunchy, unsalted creamy, no stir crunchy, chunky, extra chunky, nutty natural, all natural. Crap! With my mental health on the line, could I risk leaving any jar unopened? Choosy mothers may choose Jif, but I went to the cashier with 15 different jars heaped in my arms.

Back in my kitchen, I wondered why I had all this peanut butter. Was I about to bake something? I hate cooking, and I don’t like peanut butter, so why would I combine two of my least favorite things into what figured to be a massive undertaking—based on the sheer number of jars on the table?

Whatever the reason, it could surely wait until morning. I went to bed and started reading this great new book called Still Alice. Did I tell you about it yet?

Chris, Standley Lake

Sometimes, a movie trailer tells you everything you need to know about a film.  When I saw the promo reel for Rush, it was jam-packed with sleek automobiles, intimations of wrecks and rivalries, and more than one shot of grown men chugging champagne from a trophy cup.  As the trailer cut away to whatever I’d been watching before, I knew I’d seen enough.  After all, what’s not to like about guys in flimsy metal boxes orbiting a racetrack at high speed?  That alone makes it worth the price of admission.

The brainchild of famed director Ron Howard, Rush depicts the real-life racing rivalry between British playboy James Hunt and his more cerebral opponent Niki Lauder.  As the film opens, Hunt is driving for a barely-sponsored team in Formula Three (which is to racing what Triple-A clubs are to professional baseball), drinking and carousing until the small hours of morning and racing on third-rate provincial tracks throughout Europe during the day; at the same time, an equally unknown Niki Lauder is rejecting his wealthy father’s overtures that he must grow up, quit racing cars and join the family business.

As you probably guessed, hijinks ensue.  And beautifully photographed hijinks at that.  One thing you have to give Ron Howard: his movies are visually sumptuous.  Usually, a reviewer will call something beautifully photographed when he can’t think of anything else to say about it, but this reviewer actually puts a lot of stock in movies being well-shot.   And why shouldn’t they be?  More cash goes into making Hollywood films than was used to bail out the financial sector.  If you can’t get something visually pleasing from all those millions, then capitalism has truly failed.

But in all seriousness (ahem), there’s actually some good acting in Rush.  Nobody who looks like Chris Hemsworth could do badly as self-centered James Hunt, radiating false confidence while ducking into the pit just before every race to throw up, sick from worry.  For my money, Daniel Brühl turned in the best performance as the brooding Niki Lauder, whose high seriousness served as the perfect counterpoint to Hunt’s devil-may-care demeanor.

Even if you’re not nostalgic for the days when cars were big and men were macho, you’ll find Rush a good afternoon’s diversion.  In fact, it may make you want to run out and buy a new car, preferably a red one, with all the whistles.   I’ll leave any additional playacting to you.

Rush.  (2013). Directed by Ron Howard, starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, and Olivia Wilde.  Rated R.

Sean, Standley Lake Library

I started working in libraries in the late 90s, but made it a career after getting laid off as a financial news editor in 2001. I’m one of the few people you’ll meet whose work was outsourced to England rather than India or China. Not that it matters.

Being jobless is scary and therefore a good Halloween topic. I know unemployment gave me many weird and intense nightmares.

One in particular stands out to me even years later. I walk into the Belmar library for an interview. A man and a woman greet me in the lobby. The woman holds a slim, red book called Auto Mechanics Fundamentals.

I know nothing about auto repair, either in real life or in my dreams. Oh my God, I think. What does reference librarianship have to do with knowing the wiring diagrams of a 1978 Mercury Zephyr?

Grinning, my tormentors lead me into the building. Now, the Belmar library can accommodate around 200,000 books. Fiction is shelved alphabetically by the author’s last name; non-fiction is shelved according to the Dewey Decimal system. (The auto repair topic happens to be around 629.2). The shelves have end-panel signs indicating the number range they contain, so even with 200,000 books the system usually lets you find what you want just by looking at the spine labels on the surrounding items.

But what if there were no end-panel signs—and no surrounding materials?

Here is where the nightmare begins. My mouth gapes when I discover every single book is gone. Hundreds of empty shelves confront me.

Cackling, the woman thrusts Auto Mechanics Fundamentals into my hand. “So you want a library job, fat boy?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well then! Taking into account 200,000 books, with an average dimension of 25x20 centimeters and shelf lengths of 120 centimeters, with 6 shelves per segment and 5 segments per row, adding up to 70 rows in all; and keeping in mind that we don't put any books on the top and bottom shelves; and remembering that auto repair makes up 1.4% of our non-fiction holdings—with ALL THIS in mind, place the book in the exact spot it would be if all of these shelves were full.”

Her mocking laughter booms behind me as I take the book and meander through aisle after barren aisle, my mind reeling with trigonometry formulas while trying to imagine each shelf filled with books of different sizes, shapes and colors. This futility goes on for two hours before the man and woman turn into stalking werewolves. Crouching behind empty shelves, I'm pretty easy to find.

At least it was a quick death.

Reality proved to be much better. I actually got an interview with Belmar—a completely rational one—and was hired two weeks later in February 2002.

The manager did end up being a werewolf, though.

And her hair was perfect.

Chris, Standley Lake

Even after a few years, most of us probably remember the big dustup that pitted Oprah Winfrey against writer James Frey.  Frey had just written a bestselling book called A Million Little Pieces, which was marketed as a memoir.  Frey’s book dealt with an addict’s long, slow descent to the bottom, and because it had the requisite amount of tragedy (as well as a healthy dose of redemption), it seemed a perfect choice for Oprah and her book club.

Winfrey had Frey on her show, only to later discover that some of the elements of A Million Little Pieces had been fabricated.  This so offended Winfrey’s sensibilities that she initiated a very public shaming of Frey, in which she castigated him for lying to her (and by extension, his audience).  To Winfrey, fiction was fiction and memoir was truth, one hundred percent, no exceptions.  In Winfrey's view, if a writer invented parts of his memoir, than it was tantamount to lying to your face.  The feud ended with Frey’s publisher taking the unprecedented step of offering full refunds to readers who felt deceived by the book , as well as a contrite Frey being summoned to make a second appearance on Winfrey’s show, where he made all of the correct noises about being sorry, not meaning to deceive his readers and so forth.
I won’t bang on about Oprah Winfrey anymore, but that entire affair did pose some interesting questions about the nature of biography.  Memory, as we know, is an imperfect thing: just get two people together who share a common memory and you’ll likely get two very different accounts of the same experience.  But committing an experience to paper and calling it memoir changes people’s expectations about what is permissible, and this leads us into a discussion about the value of truth in literature.

Regardless of where you stand on that issue, Lauren Slater’s Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir is a book that’s certain to throw you for a loop.  Slater recounts having grown up as an epileptic in the care of her over-attentive mother, and the frequent seizures she suffered as she went through various stages of childhood and adolescence.  It’s through the lens of epilepsy that she relates to her mother, a woman with aspirations of living a good life that never quite materializes.

As she grows older, Slater discovers another tendency in herself: she lies.  At some point in the book, the reader is left to question whether her epilepsy—which is detailed in minute and sometimes disturbing detail— is an actual condition or a psychosomatic crutch that she uses in order to deal with her mother’s expectations.  The book, which follows Slater from childhood through young adulthood, suggests that what Oprah Winfrey might call lying is simply an act of literary imagination, and as such, it can often reveal a literary (rather than a factual) truth.

I could tell you I have my doubts about any book that would deceive me, but that would be a lie.  The only question worth asking is whether the author offers us a convincing lie.  If the answer is yes, then you might just be holding a great book in your hands. 

Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater.  New York: Random House, 2000.

Sean, Standley Lake Library

“What the heck are you doing up here? Did you get demoted or something?”

I get this joke a lot of late when patrons discover me working the Accounts Desk (that’s the "Circulation Desk" if you’re from the old school). I understand why. For the last ten years, they’re used to seeing me at the Information Desk (AKA the "Reference Desk" in antique parlance).

We’re implementing an ambitious new service model to maximize use of everyone’s capabilities. Part of this means Circulation staff learning reference work and Reference staff learning circulation tasks, with the goal of fulfilling our patrons’ basic information needs in as quick and seamless a way as possible.

What an eye-opening experience! Reference transactions tend to be time consuming and messy. We delve through databases and teach people to use technology. The Accounts desk is more precise and often far more hectic. Also, it’s the place where people pay fines. I hate handling money. This stems from a bad and unlikely three-month stint I did as a bank teller about 20 years ago. I lost almost $2,000 on my first day of work—I swear I’m not making that up—and was at one point even accused of stealing it.

So my fingers go shaky around cash registers. Thankfully the average patron’s fine seems to be about $.60. I can handle that.

Patrons probably don’t realize how much they’re touching on a pressure point in library culture when they joke about “demotions.” Like many occupations, librarianship long has been stratified between the “professionals” (those with a Masters degree in library science) and the “para-professionals,” who often get lumped together regardless of their job or education.

There are librarians out there who consider the very idea of doing “Circ work” offensive and demeaning. This attitude ignores economic realities and job contraction. We’re leaving the rigid concept of departmental duties behind—as we should.

Take reader’s advisory as an example. It’s a joy to recommend books to people, but in the past only Reference staff were allowed to do it. How does that make sense? If you seek my recommendation for some good mystery novels, I can use databases and websites to generate a list, but I won’t have first-hand knowledge because I don’t read mysteries. Yet I know a Circulation clerk who devours mysteries like candy. Wouldn’t you be better off getting your mystery recommendations from her? Under the past model, she wouldn’t be allowed to help you.

Now she can.

And everyone is better served.

Sean, Standley Lake Library

Librarians everywhere hear many of the same complaints. Two of my favorites involve pencils. The first is: “Why do libraries buy such little pencils? And why do they suck?” (The answer: they’re made in China). The second complaint goes like this: “Why doesn’t your pencil sharpener actually sharpen anything? This feels like I’m trying to skin carrots with a flint knife.”

They have a point—certainly more of a point than you’ll find on our stubby pencils. At Standley Lake, our electric pencil sharpener somehow makes pencils duller than they were before. The hand crank sharpeners of my youth were far more effective, but that was in the Reagan era when pencils were American and eager to be honed to a fine, fighting tip.

If you’re one of those people in search of the perfect pencil point, fret no more! David Rees, formerly a nationally-known political cartoonist, now has a business based on artisanal pencil sharpening. Yes, you read that right. Much like how the skilled blacksmiths of old forged weapons of exquisite design from hammered steel, Rees will sell you a pencil sharpened lovingly by his own hand, and all for the low, low price of $35.

Is this guy serious? Looking at pictures of him at work on his website, you’d assume it’s all an elaborate hoax concocted by The Onion. But somehow Rees has sold almost 2,000 pencils over the last year!

P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It might be time to revise that number up.

But do I want one of these pencils? Absolutely! In fact, I wish I’d had one back on Feburary 8th, 1990. I bet I wouldn’t have scored a 12 on my ACT if I’d tackled the Scantron with a $35, hand-sharpened pencil. Such a formidable weapon must be good for an additional 10 points just in terms of its psychological value.

But I probably would have applied too much pressure and broke the tip on the first question, ruining all that craft.

David Rees has a book on the subject, incidentally, called How to Sharpen Pencils. We don’t own it, but you can order it through Prospector.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to design a new type of pool cue. I just need $10,000 and a 3D printer to get started. Anyone want to help me out?

Sean, Standley Lake Library

Like most people, I loved being read to as a child. What are bedtime stories except the audiobook experience with the people we most love and trust acting as the narrator? At some point, we all seem hardwired to enjoy oral narratives. Maybe it harkens back to mankind’s early communes around a fire with some spellbinding bard.

But somewhere along the way I simply lost the ability to enjoy listening to stories, leaving me a bit envious of people who can absorb audiobooks while they’re driving—or exercising, for that matter. Thanks to digital downloading and Playaways, enjoying audiobooks at the gym is easier than ever. It was pretty hard to pump iron while trying to keep that Sony CD player from skipping, after all.

What’s interesting to me in light of recent technology and publishing developments is the opportunity for almost anyone to lend their voice to a story. For example, Youtube, better known for hosting millions of videos, is also a popular audiobook venue. Some of the titles are uploads from professional recordings such as Recorded Books; but others are just recordings of a person or group of people reading a book they like. These books may or may not be in the public domain—when it comes to Youtube, copyright laws get abused like a red-headed stepchild.

With even amateur recordings getting thousands of Youtube hits, it seems like there’s potential money to be made here if you can read well out loud. Audiobook narration used to be the exclusive domain of people with professional broadcast experience and equipment. But just as has helped spear-head a rise in self-publishing, their digital format allows those authors to contract for audiobook services. Companies like ACX connect freelance narrators with writers looking to have their books recorded. While some of the most popular audiobook narrators have been Hollywood voice actors, an increasing number of them are average Joes.

If you’re of a more charitable bent, you can also volunteer your vocal talents as an audiobook narrator. Librivox is always looking for volunteers to read public domain books. Closer to home, you might volunteer your talents with the Colorado Talking Book Library (CTBL), a state-funded resource that provides audiobooks on special equipment for the blind. CTBL often needs people to volunteer their time reading in a professional studio. It’s a win-win situation, as you get experience in the art of narrating audiobooks while helping needy members of the community.

So if you want to be an audiobook narrator, give it a shot and put yourself out there. Who knows, you just might be the voice that gets me listening to stories again.