30 May 2011

Post 387: The Earth Moved

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart. ISBN: 9781565123373.

I never thought I would find earthworm sex fascinating. I'm sure I've seen earthworms copulating on an especially rainy day, most likely as a child, when I actually had the time and inclination to go stand out in the rain and just look at things. And it occurred to me during my reading that it had been ages since I had actually just looked at an earthworm and longer since I had held one. What can I say, Amy Stewart made it sound compelling.

My mother's yard has pretty crappy soil. I doubt I would have found any worms if I had chosen a random spot to dig in, but as it was I went straight for the compost pile. Even then, most of the dirt was more a mixture of dirt and clay, not the kind of rich topsoil you really want. Despite the soil, my mother has managed to grow more than a few vegetables this year already, and she does have a worm population in the compost pile.

It's been a bit dry here recently, and my mother has only been in this house for two or three years, so she is still working on the soil. One of the things I found out you can do is to "plant" worms more or less like you would anything else you find desirable in a garden. Part of my desire to dig through the compost pile was to transplant some of the worms. The other part just wanted to play with some dirt.

So yes, I went to the compost pile, which is open aired and mostly consists of garbage at this point having just been installed recently. I found a spade and scooped through the upper layer to get to the soil. There were a few earthworms in amongst the dead leaves and coffee grounds, but I soon scraped the fairly tough, gritty soil. The holes I dug in the middle of the pile were definitely more active, but the ones on the end showed signs of new worms, which is excellent. The fact that they're breeding is a good sign and I even saw a cocoon or two.

I have always loved worms. As a child I often spent time looking at the ground. It was what I was closest to, after all, for those years before I got my first real growth spurt. I was fond of rocks as well, and always looking for a new one to add to my collection. I wasn't afraid to touch things, and picking up an earthworm only seemed natural. It wasn't until I read this book though that I realized that last time I had touched an earthworm was in 10th grade biology class during a dissection. It was close enough to Valentine's day that my lab partner (and close friend) remarked that they would make an excellent gift since they had five hearts.

But as fascinating as cutting up a worm is, there is nothing quite like holding it in your hand and actually observing it. We forget to look at the small things and though an earthworm is small, it is somehow much bigger than its size. Here is a creature that has no eyes and no ears, but has managed to spread itself across the globe. They are everywhere, yet we rarely think about them, and we know so little about the different species, even in our own backyard. Most of us are familiar with the red wriggler, but there are small white worms that live and work at the roots of trees and woody plants and others that have more specific tasks. The worm is an animal that is delicate, requiring specific temperatures and soil balance, and while its skin is easy to harm, it is still a tough creature. It is tougher than dirt.

The thing I like most about watching the earthworm? Its heartbeat. Few animals are as transparent and open, but with an earthworm you can see as the blood circulates through the ventral vessels, a tiny red squiggly line appearing and disappearing with each beat and running from the head of the worm to its tail. There is something about that exposure, the transparency, that makes them seem more alive than the rest of us, as if our very skin requires that we hide who we are, and deadens and disconnects us from life. Hide. The word itself is telling in its double meaning.

I found this review from another Goodreader very charming. From the blogging world, I enjoyed the stay at home bookworm's review.
LibsNote: Library Copy.

26 May 2011

Post 386: The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. ISBN: 9780061537936.

It is hard to describe exactly how much this book resonated with me. I am neither a dog, nor a racecar fan, but wow. Enzo managed to peg exactly how I feel about the uselessness of my situation. While he lacks thumbs and an articulate tongue, I lack a means of fully contributing to the world. Sure, I could volunteer somewhere, but volunteers are hardly given the skilled tasks or responsibilities I would need to actually feel rewarded by my services. Even part time workers at least learn some sort of skill that is difficult to adequately replace. That's why customer service sucks so hard, all the people smart and talented enough get out of it as soon as possible unless they actually happen to like it (few do). Here, let me show you what I mean:

"It's frustrating for me to be unable to speak. To feel that I have so much to say, so many ways I can help, but I'm locked in a soundproof box, a gameshow isolation booth from which I can see out and I can hear what's going on, but they never turn on my microphone and they never let me out." Page 63.

While Enzo is merely talking about his inability to speak or effectively communicate with the people around him at the surface, there is also the broader problem of being able to improve or affect the world around him. And that is exactly where I am. I feel that my potential to affect change has been severely limited by my financial circumstances and unemployment. While I have the time to volunteer right now, I often lack the motivation to do so because much of my energy is tied up in trying to find a job or being depressed at not finding one. This blog has been more of a (necessary) distraction from both of those problems, but it is once again time consuming and my audience is perhaps not wide enough to really cause any change. But here I will let Enzo's words speak for me again:

"Gestures are all I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while i occasionally step over the line into the world of melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively." Page 1.

Maybe I can't make the change I want to make, in the way I want to make it, but I can keep writing my blog. Maybe it isn't useful for everyone, but it has been beneficial to me. And really, I would be happy to know that it led to one person thinking about their reading a little differently, or even just becoming interested in a title I've read. Already it has exposed me to more books which will hopefully someday help me be a better librarian. This is really all I ask.

After reading this, I would say that the New Dork Review of Books pegged this perfectly. So we'll stick with that review. If you don't think you're into dog books or racing metaphors, I would highly encourage you to give this a try anyway.
LibsNote: Library copy.

23 May 2011

Post 385: The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson. ISBN: 9780553049848.

So, I gave this a three star rating on Goodreads (I liked it). And I did, though it was by no means well written by any stretch of the imagination. Taken as a work of fiction, which seems to be the consensus these days, some of the incidents are more laughable than scary. The narrative is jumpy and poorly written, and the omnipresence actually takes away from the story. We are given too many details about what is actually happening, even though we don't know exactly why it is happening. But, this is exactly the kind of narrative you would expect from people who have been experiencing weird shit and documenting it.

Having said that, it would have been better if this had been written as a kind of diary, or if it had been based on "recordings" from home movies, etc. Instead we have a plain narrative, and while there are moments that are scary if you're able to suspend your disbelief, it is much more difficult to do that if you already accept that this is a hoax.

So the question is, do we get pissed off at the Lutzes and Anson for having deceived thousands (?) of readers in order to give them a real scare? Or do we accept that, haha, they got us, and be grateful for the entertainment value and the brief moments of belief we experienced? To be sure there is enough malicious and even unintentional misinformation that is spread on a daily basis, but the kind perpetrated by individuals seeking to improve their personal lives while providing a source of entertainment is relatively harmless in the long run.

And why do we want to believe these stories anyway? Wouldn't it be better if there were no demons to infest our houses and possess our bodies? Or is it better to believe in them and try not to piss them off or invite them into our homes and lives? Even if there aren't demons it might at least lead to better lives just based on a more thoughtful and possibly healthier mindset. The fact that some people have to have the bejesus scared out of them to remind them not to do things they damned well know they shouldn't says more about who we are as a social species than being upset that someone lied to us. The fact that this story was created and perpetrated as being true was a breaking of that social contract, but we are pissed only because someone profited from it rather than receiving the hellfire we think they deserve for doing so.

However, as far as lies go, this is a small one. And it is easy enough to believe that there are strange things that happen to people in other places. This is just another overly exaggerated ghost story that got blown even more out of proportion because there was fame and money to be had. It seems to me like the audience was given what they really wanted: the chance to believe a fantastical story. That there was deception involved is really an extension of the storytelling, if somewhat questionable ethically.

A reasonable personal comparison between the movie and book can be found at PelleCreepy. According to the (self-proclaimed) World's Strongest Librarian the audio version is hilarious. 
 LibsNote: This was sent to me by an international man of mystery who prefers to remain mysterious. He responded to my call to help me out with stuff on my wishlist.

21 May 2011

Post 384: a general update

So I decided not to blog about the "I Hate the 21st Century" Reader. To be honest, many of the topics covered were startlingly out of date. I was sort of hoping for more of a speculative look at where we might be headed. Instead it was kind of, "It's only 2005 and here's why things suck," with a few notable exceptions. It was okay, but I would have ended up reflecting on the somewhat recent capture and death of Osama bin Laden, and I just don't feel like making that corpse dance any more than it really needs to. I also finished up The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell on audio recently and was pretty much blown away by it. Once again, this is one of those books I don't really feel the need to blog about, but if someone wanted to have a discussion about via email or in the comments section, I'd be all for that.

Uh... I had an interview on May 11th (today for me, not so much for you). I'm excited about the prospect of working again, even if it will only be part time and minimum wage. Sigh, where are all those librarians who were supposed to retire/die, ALA? Huh? Oh well, maybe I'll figure something else out in the meantime. Anyway, you don't read my blog for that kind of thing. Books! 

Amityville Horror by Jay Anson.
I don't feel like I read enough horror stories and the movie was decent enough. I haven't read something cheesy in awhile either, so if it ends up headed in that direction I will not be overly disappointed.  

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.
I added this to my list because Greg over at The New Dork Review of Books really liked it. And uh, I gotta say, this is a REALLY appealing cover to me. I think there must also be some nostalgia factor to this for me as well. Pet books in general bring me back to reading The Yearling which was my first real adult sized book and also the first that didn't make me feel like I was being patronized. It had complex topics and emotions and fully expected me to cope with them. So, yeah, I've been wanting to read this for almost a year now. 

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earth Worms by Amy Stewart.
I have always liked earth worms. My favorite thing to do is go outside after it's rained and just watch them. Their movements are so...earthy. And I find it interesting that a creature that moves so sensuously is hermaphroditic. I mean, if you translated those movements to a lithe young woman, you'd be calling her a slut in seconds and then rushing to find an ATM that dispenses dollar bills. Not to say that worms are sexy, but that are infinitely fascinating for a creature so basic and underfoot. It is easy to imagine that they are hiding something from us in their dark underground world. 

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale.
I saw this on the shelves of the Kent Free Library when I was returning a DVD after visiting my fiance. It's the story of a chimpanzee who develops human-level communication as well as the ability to express deep thoughts and emotions. He falls in love with his researcher. I'm interested to see how far this book goes with this premise and how delicately it's handled. I could see this going from "aw" to "ew" very quickly...but then, how wrong is it to love an animal that reaches that level of sentience? I'll let you know if I was grossed out.

19 May 2011

Post 383: The Namesake

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. ISBN: 9780395927212.

At it's root, The Namesake is about a young man trying to find out who he is. However, Lahiri has done something amazing by combining not only the coming of age story, but also the first and second generation story, and the complexities of an "inherited" name for lack of a better word. Gogol's reaction to his name throughout the story is remarkable in that it accurately reflects where he is on the path to his adulthood.

During his childhood he only knows that he is Gogol and refuses his parents' attempt to give him a good name. Gogol has only known his pet name, and his American teachers don't understand the Indian custom. In this way both Gogol and his parents adapt to American culture. As Gogol grows older he is confronted with his differences. Now at the age where differences don't seem to matter, social skills are developing along with the inevitable hierarchy. While Gogol's name is not yet a hindrance to him, he decides to change it when he turns 18.

This could be seen as a declaration of adulthood, but rather it signifies a further step along the path. In some ways it is a late blooming teenage rebellion, the throwing off of parental ideals. It is not until Gogol returns home to his mother's house, after losing his father, that we see he is finally on his way to accepting who he is and becoming an adult and a complete person. It is when he finally picks up that long neglected volume of short stories given to him by his father that he realizes he is Gogol and Nikhil and his father's son. A child of India and of the United States. Both and neither and everything else besides.

That Gogol is lucky enough to have a name through which to track these passages into personhood makes him very lucky. While most of us at some point decide we hate our name, few of us have names that carry the same weight. We are lucky if we're not named after a parent's favorite actor or if our name is not picked out of one of the thousands of baby name books. The rest of us unlucky schmucks usually have to go through a lot of heartbreak with relationships, and while Gogol does have his fair share, it must be nice to be able to define oneself through one's relationship with one's name versus how they handled various breakups.

I talked a lot about the book in context, so I don't think it really requires a review link. In fact, I think this pretty much qualifies as a review, but it's an aspect that I haven't seen covered elsewhere.
LibsNote: Library Copy.

16 May 2011

Post 382: The George Carlin Letters

The George Carlin Letters: The Permanent Courtship of Sally Wade by Sally Wade. ISBN: 9781451607765.

I don't think it's really necessary for me to link to a review on this one, because it's pretty obvious what it is. Either you're going to want to read it, or you're not.

Portions of this book are absolutely mind bogglingly saccharine and weird. But they are also touching and relatable, because relationships are somewhat saccharine and weird. I have yet to have a relationship in which bizarre pet names and in jokes weren't a thing. Maybe Danny and I don't call each other the Jupiter Twins and insist that our dog "talks" to us, but we do have our own pet names that are equally weird when viewed from outside of the relationship. We fight in a very specific way. We communicate in a variety of different formats, and each of them has its own language and tone.

Earlier in our separation we started writing letters to each other. It probably sounds strange in our ultra-connected world to bother with the energy and slowness involved in hand writing and mailing a letter. But there are things that don't translate well in any other format. For instance, if I wanted to include a doodle in an email it would be a big huge production. I'd have to find or make an image, save it in the appropriate file format, and then I wouldn't even have control of how it would appear alongside the text.

But there's more to letter writing than how it appears. It says more about how you feel about someone than an email or a phone call. Those are all very effortless means of communication. There is little to no work involved in the delivery or the composition of the message. Few people even pause to correct their spelling or grammar when writing emails to their friends, but as one of my favorite bloggers stated over Twitter, "Using correct grammar shows readers you care that they understand what you are writing. It's exhibiting politeness with language."

But it's not only politeness, it's also a sign of care. I care enough about what you think to try and have grammatically correct blog posts. I do not always succeed, some things get past me and my editor, but I value you enough as a reader and this is one way to show my care regarding our tentative relationship. In the same way, handwriting letters to my fiance is a sign that I care about him. It is a romantic gesture in a world where many people break up through text message.

It is also a means of at least having some physical piece of me with him and vice versa. It is not holding my hand through a movie, or kissing me good night, or giving me a long, much needed hug on a bad day, but there is comfort in seeing familiar hand writing. There is solace in feeling the dryness of the paper and the indentations where the pen has pressed. And there is joy in knowing that fifteen or so minutes were taken out of his day to write a few thoughts down and then a few more to find an envelope and stamp. In this way I feel I am spending time with him in a way that is more involved even than talking to him on the phone for an hour. A relationship should have these moments of effort, whether I am 200 miles away or 800 or 20 feet.

LibsNote: Library copy.

12 May 2011

Post 381: Malled

Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail by Caitlin Kelly. ISBN: 9781591843801 (eGalley - published April 14, 2011).

So I applied for a job at a local bookstore. I was called in for an interview and as of writing this blog post (April 30), I am due for a second interview as soon as my background check clears. This will take awhile since I've been out of country in the past ten years, but the manager I spoke with was very positive about hiring me for something.

The whole interview came as a bit of a surprise. In fact I barely had time to get nervous about the interview because I didn't have any time to prepare for it. I applied for the job on a Monday, was called around 10 AM on Wednesday and asked to have the interview at 12:30 PM the same day. I was more freaked out about getting ready for and getting to the interview than I was about screwing it up. I have a much better in-person personality and in some ways my size and bearing make it easier for me to appear confident and in control. Being 5'8" has its advantages, even if I don't have the supermodel slimness to go with it.

I have to admit, I am not looking forward to the idea of working general retail. But a large portion of the work I would be doing is very similar to library work anyway: reader's advisory, looking up books in our catalog, ordering books we don't have on hand, answering phones, and otherwise providing customer service. And, my interviewer assured me that I could move up quickly in the ranks if I could learn the job fast enough and was motivated to do so. The fact that I already have a college education was probably appealing in an area where very few get advanced degrees and those that do prefer not to stay in the area.

I am looking forward to the prospect of working again, even at a measly $7.25 an hour. At the very least I will have fewer expenses living with my mother, and the opportunity to get managerial experience is a big plus. And I can stop looking for work, at least for awhile. I can take a break from the demoralizing, soul crushing thing that is looking for work in a field that is simply not hiring right now. Maybe I won't get promoted, or if I do, maybe it will only be because I'm an educated white woman in an area that still has some very strange ideas about race. I am actually worried about that. But I could do worse for myself than working in a bookstore with a Master's degree in library science. I mean, it's not Walmart, our customers at least have some interest in improving their minds, even if they choose to do so by reading dreck. They are in a bookstore, and when they are done with the dreck, maybe they will come back and get something a little better, and something a little better after that. And maybe I can help with that instead of letting my skills languish. Because no matter how good I've become at blogging (so my friends tell me, at least), it does me no good if I can't transfer that to a work experience.

So retail. It is not the worst thing that could happen to me. And maybe it took nearly two years of unemployment to come to that point, but I have learned that lesson. If you or someone you know is in need of learning that lesson, this book is a much safer way to do so, but by no means do I expect retail to be as fulfilling as the job I truly want. But then, I still have my blog.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Free review copy provided by NetGalley.

09 May 2011

Post 380: S'Mother

S'Mother by Adam Chester. ISBN: 9780810996458 (eGalley - published April 15, 2011).

My mother and I have a tenuous relationship at best, which explains some of my reluctance at moving back in with her due to my finances and general lack of success in finding a job. The truth is, our relationship works best at a distance, particularly when I am also able to completely support myself. It has been incredibly difficult to go from Successful Grad Student Paying for Program on Own with $10,000 in My Bank Account to Broke Ass Dead Beat Mooching Off Family and Friends.

My mother and I are both very... particular people. We like our lives, especially our private lives, to function a certain way, and having someone else around the house automatically interferes with that set plan. It does not help that both my mother and I are hypercritical of each other. We are still more or less stuck in teenager mode, and that has caused both of us to be very defensive when we point out Things That Make Us Nuts.

However, I am trying to be better, and I think my mother is trying too. I have only been out of my teen-ages for 7 years now, and my mother is still dealing with that. She has gotten a lot better at recognizing that I am a mature adult, meaning several things: I drink, I have sex, and I pay taxes.* My mother has had some problems with those first two in the past. There was the time she caught me (at the age of 18) with my first boyfriend naked in bed together. That was a huge blowup and resulted in us having sex in much riskier places than we would have otherwise. Her un-adult reaction to my adult behavior resulted in me...well, fucking like a teenager in a parked car to be honest. While I now understand why she reacted the way she did, it was not healthy for any of us as it put me in danger of being arrested for indecent exposure among other things and of completely destroying any hopes of having a good relationship for the next three or four years. I also took the opportunity to throw my sex life in my mother's face at the drop of a hat, and had quite a bit of fun at her expense when I was dating multiple people. Capricorns can be bitches like that.

In 2005, I moved in with my mother for a 10 month stint in order to complete my co-op program. I was in Germany. I was 20 years old. I drank like a fish. Now, I am a fairly moderate drinker, but there was this bar in Mittelbrunn within walking distance and I had something of a "sponsor" who bought me drinks frequently (so I drank more than I usually do). This resulted in me staying out far later than my mother was comfortable with, but since it was within walking distance, she really couldn't do anything about it except trust my good judgment and hope I came home at night. She was pissed that I often came home late, but really, what could she do about it? Kicking me out of the house would only mean I'd be on the streets in a foreign country with no one to stay with and not even a car to take shelter in. These are the ways in which I grew up and forced my mother to recognize that fact.

My mother and I are doing better living together this time around. There will be problems. I will occasionally have to confront her with the fact that I am an adult, most likely in a shocking and unpleasant manner in order to get it through the whole Steve Martin Father of the Bride seeing daughter as a child haze. Desperate times and all that.

But as desperate as my times have been so far, I don't think I would ever say or publish something as hurtful and demeaning about my mother as this book is. And if I ever have, I am truly, truly sorry. I love you, mom.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by NetGalley.
*Taxes representing all the things adults are supposed to do because they're supposed to do them.
Hope you all had a wonderful Mother's Day.

05 May 2011

Post 379: The Girl Who Was on Fire

The Girl Who Was on Fire edited by Leah Wilson. ISBN: 9781935618041.

I don't see the point in rehashing topics I've already covered from the series. And I can't very well just pick one essay, it wouldn't be fair to the others. So I will say this: I like analyses of pop culture. In some ways I think I should have gotten a pop culture degree instead of a BA in history. Strangely, they are not completely unrelated, it's just that the pop culture has to be a little more durable to make it into the realms of history.

Why am I so interested in the analyses of pop culture? I think it says a lot about the general feeling of the time, the collective psyche even. It's been shown that people are more inclined towards escapist entertainment when things are going poorly in the nation. And while that seems to be true, with movies getting bigger and celebrities getting crazier (whether on purpose or not), this does not explain the popularity of the Hunger Games series, which is anything but escapist except in the sense that Katniss' world is much worse than ours and she manages to change it for the better (eventually).

I believe that eventually this kind of book becomes popular because we can only escape from our situation for so long. At some point we do have to face it, figure out what to do with it, fix it, and then move on to the next problem. The fact that there is so much wrong in Panem and that Katniss is able to instigate so much change within a short period of time is very appealing to those of us who feel we've been living in a fucked up world for long enough already. If only the person who could change everything would just step forward and volunteer. But even if they did, I think our problems might be so complicated that we wouldn't be able to recognize that person. We are so busy being distracted by the antics of people who are causing problems that we don't even stop to think that maybe something can be done.

Maybe readers like this will inspire the next generation. Maybe revolutionary literature that sparks deeper thought and conversation will train our teenagers (who are hopefully not as discouraged or jaded as I know I feel) to see apply that kind of thought and discussion into applicable problem solving.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Free review copy provided by publisher.

02 May 2011

Post 378: Extraordinary, Ordinary People

Extraordinary, Ordinary People by Condeleezza Rice. ISBN: 9780307719607 (eBook).

I'm going to reflect on the memoir genre a little bit here, because I think Rice's memoir is actually pretty good. A lot of people were disappointed that it wasn't a tell all. There were a lot of reviews complaining that it didn't reveal who she was as a person, as if she is somehow obligated to bare her very soul to us just because she's actually written a book about her life.

Instead, what we have here is a very good example of a traditional memoir, one in which there is little, if anything at all, that might upset a family member or close friend if they were to stumble upon this collection of writing. Indeed, it is the kind of thing you want your friends and family to find when you die so that they have some pleasant vignettes to read at your funeral or at the very least brief remembrances of you that don't involve a fifth of Jack Daniels, an existential meltdown, and a subsequent trip to see a midnight Rocky Horror showing. Uh, yeah, that totally never happened to me.

It seems that now memoir is expected to be totally sensationalized. We want to know all of the gory details, and by god if there isn't at the very least a skeleton somewhere we aren't happy. But what person in their right mind would willingly publish that kind of account about his or her life, especially someone in politics? I don't know what she's up to nowadays, but I'm sure she knows better than to flash her metaphorical panties (or lack thereof) at the not so metaphorical paparazzi. I mean really. If you want tell-alls, read the memoirs by 20 year olds, they're the ones who will tell you all about the sexcapades and how they stole a bronze bulldog from their rival high school because that's all they've done.

Meanwhile, the kind of memoir that Rice has written is one that we can all easily accept and digest as an account of her accomplishments and the people who helped her get there. She does recognize some of her faults, but like anyone who's good at interviewing, she turns them into positive experiences. But that's not the only thing I like about the throwback memoir. It is a form that all of us can use.

We may not have had all of the middle class opportunities that Rice had, and she had quite a few despite her upbringing in segregated Alabama in the 1950's and -60's, but we do all have people and moments and things that have influenced who we have become as people. Perhaps it is a bit self-serving and not a little narcissistic, but in the end we all want to be remembered for the good things we did in our lives and attribute those who have helped us along the way. And why not? We all receive enough abuse during our lives, that it would be a great kindness to be remembered well when we're gone, even if we have to write the propaganda ourselves.

I feel that Marcus Miller's review on Goodreads is fairly accurate and non-politicized.
LibsNote: Library eBook via Overdrive Media.
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