Did you miss the moment?

“Did you miss the moment? And, would it kill you to miss it for good? I think it would.”

This is, according to my memory, the beginning of a prose poem inside the liner notes of a CD by a band called Chamberlain that I discovered when I was fifteen or sixteen. The song lyrics were printed in the booklet too, in the obligatory tiny font, but this wasn’t a song, and yet it’s lodged in my head all the same.

The teen years are an incredible time to encounter new things, a time when you feel things intensely (“more feelingly feel,” as Rilke would have it), absorb them, adopt them as your own. You are, to some extent, a product of your time, but you also pick and choose from what’s on offer to construct your identity: do you listen to the Top 40 or do you scavenge punk rock records made before you were born? Do you read Jane Austen or Stephen King (or both)?

But the real question is, as an adult, do you latch onto books and music in the same way? Do you feel, at twenty-six or thirty-six or forty-six, the way you did at sixteen? If you didn’t hear The Smiths as a teenager, are you likely to love them as passionately as someone who did, or does it just sound morose and kind of whiny? (For the record, I discovered The Smiths at the perfect time, thanks to Stephen Chbosky’s including the song “Asleep” on a mix tape in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which led directly to my purchase of Louder Than Bombs.)

Cover of A Wrinkle in TimeMore to the point for book lovers: If you didn’t read A Wrinkle in Time or Anne of Green Gables or The Perks of Being a Wallflower or The Golden Compass or Alanna at “the right time,” did you miss the moment?

I’m not sure. When I began dating my now-husband, we kept having these conversations where I would mention a book that I just assumed “everyone else” had read, and he would say he hadn’t read it, and my jaw would drop, and I would lend him a copy or, if I didn’t have it on hand, buy one at a used book store and give it to him to read. He was very good about reading them (see: now-husband), but it was hit or miss. A Wrinkle in Time simply isn’t and never will be part of the fabric of his mind in the same way that it is woven into who I am. The Golden Compass, on the other hand, he liked so much he read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass without any prompting from me (and then he nicknamed our dog “the subtle knife” when she tried to nose between us on the couch).

Cover of Alanna: The First AdventureEvery reader misses some things that “everyone else” has read, and I am no exception. Recently, I read Alanna by Tamora Pierce, which had been recommended to me by a friend who couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it (sound familiar?). I read the other three books in the Song of the Lionness quartet as soon as possible. My adult mind cheered for feminism (a fantasy novel with birth control!), while my tween mind (though we didn’t have that word then) inhaled the characters, the story, the world-building and mythology, the romance.

I wish I’d read Alanna when I was twelve or thirteen, but I enjoyed it immensely as an adult too. It is rare for me now to lose myself in a book in the way I did routinely when I was younger, but it still happens – and it happens more often, I’ve noticed, in books with a fantasy, dystopian, science fiction, or magical element, books like The Night Circus or The Bone Clocks or Station Eleven. These books are worlds in which I’m immersed, rising out of them at the end only reluctantly and regretfully. But of course, I can always read them again.

In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, the title character writes a note to his adopted daughter about “the necessity of encountering stories at precisely the right time in our lives.” He urges her to remember that “the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.” The perfect time to encounter a book may be when you’re thirteen, or it may be when you’re thirty; you may read it once when you’re thirteen and once when you’re thirty and discover different things the second time, or simply enjoy it all over again.

Though some books and some readers will never be a match – and that’s okay – it’s worth keeping an open mind and going back to books you may feel you’ve missed. Now might be the perfect moment.

Book Club Books

In the fall of 2008, when I was living in Brooklyn, I helped to start and run a book club. We met consistently (once a month, give or take) for about a year. According to my records (i.e. a post-it note), here’s what we read:

October 2008 – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
November 2008 – On Beauty by Zadie Smith
January 2009 – Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
February 2009 – The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts; Matrimony by Joshua Henkin
March 2009 – Watchmen by Alan Moore
April 2009 – You or Someone Like You by Chandler Burr
May 2009 – Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
July 2009 – Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
August 2009 – All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
September 2009 – Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

11 books total: 8 novels, 1 essay collection, 1 nonfiction, 1 graphic novel

In the spring of 2010 I moved from Brooklyn to Massachusetts. It took me a little while, but I found a book club again that fall, and have managed to keep it together, more on than off, since then. According to my records (i.e. a piece of yellow legal paper and, more recently, a google spreadsheet), here’s what we’ve read so far:

November 2010 – The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
December 2010 – Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
January 2011 – A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
February 2011 – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
March 2011 – Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
May 2011 – Room by Emma Donoghue
June 2011 – Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
July 2011 – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
August 2011 – The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard
September 2011 – Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
February/March 2012 – Bossypants by Tina Fey; Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling; Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen DeGeneres
April/May 2012 – The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
August 2012 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
December 2012 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
January 2013 – Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
March 2013 – The Receptionist by Janet Groth
April/May 2013 – We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen
June 2013 – Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman
August 2013 – Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters
September 2013 – Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer
October 2013 – Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Nov 2013 – The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
January 2014 – Longbourn by Jo Baker
February 2014 – Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History by Andrew Scott Selby; The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser
March 2014 – Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings by Craig Brown
April 2014 – Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
May/June 2014 – Orlando by Virginia Woolf
July 2014 – The Haunting of Hill House and/or We Have Always Lived in the Castle and/or “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
August/September 2014 – Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
October 2014 – Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
November 2014 – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
December 2014 – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
January 2015 – Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell
February/March 2015 – Breasts by Florence Williams
April 2015 – The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

37 books total: 28 novels, 10 nonfiction (including memoir), 1 short story, 2 repeat authors (Virginia Woolf and David Mitchell)

After this many years of book club experience – plus over a year of co-leading a book group in the library – I stand by my “What Makes a Good Book Club Book?” post from 2012. A book should have a little conflict or a central dilemma, be thought-provoking or eye-opening, prompt readers to consider the past, present, or future in a different light. Page count and availability are also important practical considerations.

Are you in a book club? What have been your favorite and least favorite books to discuss? Do you have tips for moderators or facilitators? Do you start with a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down? How do you choose what to read next? Leave a comment!

Lynne Truss at the library

Late last year, I saw that Lynne Truss (author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves; cue grammatically justified string of exclamation points) was publishing a novel this spring. I requested the e-galley, and received not only the galley itself, but a note from an acquaintance asking if I’d be willing to write a blurb for it. (Claire and I met in 2007 at the Columbia Publishing Course; after a stint at Knopf, she’d landed at the excellent Melville House, whereas I had left publishing after a few years and gone into libraries instead.)

I wrote the blurb, and then I asked if, by any chance, Lynne would be doing a U.S. book tour, and if so, would she like to come speak at the library where I work? Indeed, as it happened, Lynne would be coming to the States, and incredibly, she did make a special trip to the library. And I have to say, Lynne is one of the loveliest authors I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, as well as one of the funniest. Below is a little summary of the event.

Cross-posted at the Robbins Library blog.

Lynne Truss read to an audience of more than twenty people at the Robbins Library this past Monday night, inspiring much laughter and a few book purchases. Lynne read from her new novel, Cat Out of Hell, and she read from two sections near the beginning, “So you don’t have to know quite so much.”

Cat Out of Hell 300dpi (2)Lynne told us that the novel was commissioned by Hammer, a publisher of horror in the U.K. “I only wrote it because someone wanted it….Anything I’m asked to [write], I’m more likely to [write]….I like to write for a person.” She had never written in the horror genre before, but knew right away she wanted to write a comic gothic novel exploring the origin of the common phrase “cats have nine lives.” (Originally, her idea was for a story called Nine Lives, about a cat who had killed nine people. That’s not quite what happens in Cat Out of Hell.)

She knew from the beginning she wanted to use a pastiche structure, as she has long been a fan of “the phony documentary element of gothic novels,” which are often represented as a collection of letters and other documents (or, in the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, typewritten – a new technology at the time).

One concerned potential reader asked Lynne, “Does the cat die?” to which Lynne replied, “You’ll be much more worried about the dog.” (The dog is called Watson, so that his owners, Alec and Mary, can use Lynne’s favorite Sherlock Holmes line: “Come at once, if convenient. If not convenient, come all the same.”)

Lynne's American publisher, Melville House, made a video for the book's release. What do the cats think of all this?

Lynne’s American publisher, Melville House, made a video for the book’s release. What do the cats think of all this?

As for humor – Cat Out of Hell is quite funny – one audience member asked if Lynne laughed at her own jokes as she is writing. “Yes!” But humor is “high-risk: if people don’t find it funny then you’ve failed completely. And humor is very subjective.”

Structure aside, Lynne didn’t have the content of the story plotted out before she began writing. “If I don’t know where it’s going, the reader can’t possibly be ahead of me!” I’ve read a fair few mysteries in my time, and I’d agree with the author here – it would be rather difficult to guess where the story is going. You’ll just have to read it for yourself!

Other Lynne Truss books:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the zero-tolerance approach to punctuation

Talk to the Hand: the utter bloody rudeness of the world today, or, six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door

Making the Cat Laugh: one woman’s journal of life on the margins

The Lynne Truss Treasury: columns and three gothic novels

The passing of Terry Pratchett

Yesterday, the prolific and beloved fantasy author Terry Pratchett passed away. I found out late in the afternoon, and scrambled to put up a display of his bio and books before I left the library. Despite the fact that I’ve never read a whole Terry Pratchett book, I felt the loss, in that distant but no less real way one feels the loss of people one knows of but doesn’t know.

Except, with authors, we do know them: we know the output of their minds, their imaginations, their thoughts and ideas and convictions and feelings. Pratchett wrote some 40 Discworld books, as well as about 30 others, for adults and for teens. Readers will be discovering and re-visiting Pratchett’s writing for years to come, and even though he will not be writing any more, there is still a significant wealth of material to read and re-read. The existence of Pratchett’s books may or may not console his family and friends in their grief, but for readers, he still exists in thousands upon thousands of pages.

I am trying to think of writers that I have loved who have passed away, but, fortunately for me, many of them are still alive and writing (or were dead long before I came to their books). I remember hearing that Barbara Robinson (author of The Best School Year Ever) passed away in 2013, and of course there was Maya Angelou last spring. Musicians come to mind more readily: George Harrison in 2001, DeeDee Ramone in 2002 (I remember this only because I was supposed to see him in concert two days later), Levon Helm in 2012.

But like authors, musicians leave a legacy behind. The mind and talent that created a book or an album may be gone, but the words and the music remain.

goodomensSo although, when a friend lent me a copy of a Discworld novel* during my second year of college, I didn’t get into it, I’m going to try again: perhaps with Good Omens, perhaps with Dodger. If you have a favorite Terry Pratchett book to recommend, let me know in the comments.

*The same friend lent me Neil Gaiman’s American Gods right around the same time, setting me on course to enjoy many more of Gaiman’s books since then: Neverwhere; Stardust; Fragile Things; Coraline; The Graveyard Book; The Ocean at the End of the Lane; Fortunately, the Milk; Instructions, and, currently, Trigger Warnings.

3/14/15, edited to add these additional tributes:

What to Do When Authors Die,” Swiss Army Librarian (Brian Herzog)

On the Passing of Terry Pratchett,” Gavia Libraria, the Library Loon

Terry Pratchett,” xkcd (Randall Munroe)

4/13/15, edited to add: I have now read Good Omens and enjoyed its blend of fantasy and British humor immensely. Not sure what the next Terry Pratchett book will be but I’m open to suggestions.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Cover image of Dead WakeOf the now three Larson books I’ve read, I believe this was my favorite. The two main narratives – that of the Lusitania’s passengers and crew, and that of U-20’s captain, Walther Schwieger – are more closely intertwined than the two parallel (but never intersecting) narratives of Devil in the White City. The story itself was more compelling and clear than that in In the Garden of Beasts (in that book, I remember being frustrated with the main characters’ inability or unwillingness to read the writing on the wall).

As in many disaster narratives, there are so many “what if” moments and missed opportunities, from seemingly small ones like a two-hour delay leaving New York on May 1, 1915 (which would have meant sailing through the dangerous area off the Irish coast in the fog, when the U-boat couldn’t have attacked the ship, instead of in clear weather), to truly staggering ones like the information that the Admiralty withheld from Captain Turner and the Cunard line, and the protection they denied the Lusitania.

The additional story threads – that of President Wilson’s ultimately successful wooing of Edith Galt and his reluctance to enter the war, and the existence and activity of the secret Room 40 in the UK (a sort of Bletchley-before-Bletchley) – were relevant additions, particularly the latter. The Lusitania disaster could have been avoided had the Admiralty acted on any one of several pieces of knowledge; the fact that they didn’t does seem, in hindsight at least, to implicate them as attempting to bring the U.S. into the war on the Allied side, even as they tried to keep the Germans from knowing they had obtained their code books.

Late in the book, there is a damning quote from naval historian Patrick Beesly: “On the basis of the considerable volume of information which is now available, I am reluctantly compelled to state that on balance, the most likely explanation is that there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the Lusitania in order to involve the United States in the war.” If this was the British intention, it didn’t work, at least not right away; the U.S. didn’t join the war until 1917.

Well-researched as always, Dead Wake should please Larson fans, as well as Titanic and WWI buffs. My ARC didn’t include the map at the beginning that the final copy is meant to have, and some images would have added to the story, but it was still quite satisfying.

I received an Advance Reader’s Edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I was not compensated for this review in any way, unless you count the free book.

TBR shelf check-in

It’s two months in to the 2015 TBR (To Be Read) challenge, and of the fourteen TBR books on my list (twelve books plus two alternates), I’ve read five:

  • God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet: More of a memoir than I realized – not a bad thing – but centered around the idea of “slow medicine.” The author makes a good case for allowing doctors enough time with their patients; a correct diagnosis can save a lot of money in the long run, which insurance companies would be smart to recognize.
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain: Also a memoir, one that takes the reader behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens. Bourdain is a writer with a great voice, and he’s got some tips readers would be wise to heed as well, in terms of dining out.
  • The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: This novel came highly recommended by at least two friends, and while it didn’t send me out into the streets to press copies into strangers’ hands, I did enjoy it. It was more of an ensemble cast than I first thought it would be, and each character is equally well-rounded, from baseball star Henry, to workhorse coach/player Mike, to lovestruck college president Guert Affenlight, to his daughter Pella who has fled a bad starter marriage.
  • Invisibility by Andrea Cremer and David Levithan: I adore David Levithan and a friend sent me a galley of Invisibility before it was published; by all rights I should have read it right then, but I didn’t. Like Levithan’s Every Day, Invisibility has a unique premise: Stephen is invisible, due to a curse from his grandfather. No one, including his parents, has ever been able to see him – until Elizabeth moves in to his apartment building. The two of them fall in love, and together – along with Elizabeth’s brother Laurie – try to break the curse. Chapters alternate between Stephen’s and Elizabeth’s perspectives.
  • Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell: A friend at the publisher sent me a copy of this just before it came out, but I didn’t get around to it till I chose it for my book club for January. In a small Appalachian town, teenage narrator Kate dreams of getting out, and fears turning into one of the “wild girls” who go on dangerous rampages. Though the author made the connection between the powerlessness of girls and their rage, I felt that she could have delved more deeply into this issue. However, it was still an enjoyable read, with a great sense of place.

Aside from my official TBR list, I’ve also finally read a few books that have been on my unofficial TBR list for a long time, including Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, a galley of My Sunshine Away that I got at BEA last May, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth (recommended to me by at least two colleagues), Howards End (which has been sitting on my shelf for years), and This Wheel’s On Fire by Levon Helm. All of these were good, though the standouts were the nonfiction titles, specifically Breasts and Don’t Make Me Think. (The joke there just writes itself.)

Are you participating in a TBR challenge, officially or unofficially? Which books have made you say “Why didn’t I read this sooner?!” and which ones weren’t quite worth the time?

 

 

Don’t Make Me Think! by Steve Krug

cover of Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug, 2014 editionI first heard about Don’t Make Me Think! by Steve Krug in grad school, but as William Goldman wrote in The Princess Bride, “What with one thing and another, three years passed.” (Actually, it may even have been four years; long enough, anyway, for a new edition to be published, so you see, every now and then procrastination pays off.)

That said, I highly recommend you make this book the next one you read. Don’t Make Me Think! is about usability, and specifically about usability as it pertains to websites (and now mobile sites and apps as well). While usability has many attributes – a website may be useful, learnable, memorable, effective, efficient, desirable, delightful – Krug’s definition of usability is as follows:

“A person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can figure out how to use the thing to accomplish something without it being more trouble than it’s worth.”

Krug’s writing is accessible, clear, funny, and peppered with relevant examples and illustrations; he cites many sources, including Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman (author of the excellent The Design of Everyday Things), and Ginny Redish (author of Letting Go of the Words). He explodes the myth of “the average user” (“All web users are unique and all web use is basically idiosyncratic”) and shows the value of usability testing as a way forward when designers and developers don’t agree. Krug writes, “Usability testing tends to defuse most arguments and break impasses by moving the discussion away from the realm of what’s right or wrong and what people like or dislike and into the realm of what works or doesn’t work. And by opening our eyes to just how varied users’ motivations, perceptions, and responses are, testing makes it hard to keep thinking that all users are like us.”

In addition to explaining why usability is important, Krug suggests some specific guidelines. For example, format text on your site to support scanning by:

  • using plenty of headings
  • keeping paragraphs short
  • using bulleted lists
  • highlighting key terms

Krug highlights the importance of site navigation, which, as he sees it, has three important functions:

  • It tells us what’s here (“Navigation reveals content!”)
  • It tells us how to use the site
  • It gives us (the user) confidence in the people who built [the site]

Krug also advises using clear language – no specialized jargon or cutesy labels – and making the information you know people will be looking for, like contact information, available in a logical place. Ultimately, “Usability is about serving people better by building better products.”