Tag Archives: Authors

On Margaret Atwood, Flawed Characters, and Connection

This blog post was written by library patron Dana Bell, after the recent Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures visit from Margaret Atwood. Thanks for sharing your impressions, Dana!

At sixteen years old, most of my friends were spending afternoons draped over their beds singing with MTV’s Total Request Live while dreaming about Gavin Rossdale (I hear he is currently free again, although it be weird to drape yourself over a twin bed and dream about him while reading Tiger Beat). I would be lying if I said that that sort of activity hadn’t taken up a small portion of my time as well, but a far larger portion of my time was spent escaping my own personal dystopia by immersing myself in the speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood.

This is something for which I have thanked my English teacher, Judith Totty, numerous times. You see, when I selected Ernest Hemingway for my end-of-semester author project, and she nicely but firmly denied my request, I was forced to select Margaret Atwood. She said to me, “Dana, I know you like classics but you need to read Margaret Atwood. I’ve already assigned her to you.” She couldn’t have predicted how life-shifting this author would be in my world.

bookcover (1)Margaret Atwood is a hero. She writes stories about real people. People who have been broken. People who have defined “resilience.” People who have faced pain and hurt and kept moving even though the situation is less than hopeful.

In writing real people, she captures what it means to be human and to have the human experience, because — let’s face it — humans are not “all good” or “all bad,” as she stated in her lecture on October 28, 2015 at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Lecture Hall, after someone in the audience expressed concern over HBO picking up Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.

The questioner wanted to know how much creative control the author would have and stated that her major concern was that they would potentially make the character Jimmy (the protagonist of the first book in the series, Oryx and Crake) a “good guy” instead of a “bad guy.” Atwood contested that Jimmy was merely human and hadn’t the questioner ever “met someone like him in real life?”

While she shared in the concern of feminist undertones and meaning potentially being stripped from the story (something she admits she has little control over), she disagreed that her characters are definable as good or bad, saying “I have no interest in writing angels.” She even discussed how she’d had a young man read through Jimmy’s character to give her tips on his authenticity, of which the young man could only come up with two: the first being the semantics of how to use profanity, and the second being how to properly smoke a joint. Otherwise, the young man was curious as to how she had pinned him down so well.

One might wonder how Atwood knows us (fans, ordinary people, broken people, etc.) so well. Perhaps it is because she is so in tune with us and our world. She tweets regularly (with nearly a million followers), remains tied to environmental activism and is always aware of the most current political news; in fact, she is often tied to that political news bookcover(check out #hairgate on Twitter in conjunction with the article “Stephen Harper’s Hair Problem”).

And, as she highlighted on October 28, she spends a large portion of time researching. For her current novel The Heart Goes Last, she came back to research she did for Alias Grace (one of my favorite books) that involved the for-profit side of prisons.

Although all of that should give her substantial insight into the human condition, I myself know from studying anthropology that historical research is not nearly enough to hone in on the essential nature of a culture, nor the way we as humans respond to it, and neither is watching the news or discussing politics or ideals with people. Someone who truly wishes to understand people will collect so much more than the passing opinion. They will collect the motive, the connections, the psychology behind all that they do and encounter. They will absorb elements of a culture and turn those elements over in their head and think about the significant roles they play.

I think Margaret Atwood’s skill in character writing comes from her ability to listen and remain open and engaged in her research and in life, and in some ways she succeeds in forcing us to do the same. She is changing the world by placing her readers in the role of anthropologist. Her books are a catalyst for processing a number of feminist and ethical quandaries. By showing us realistic, albeit dismal, situations, we observe humans like ourselves facing actual issues, making logical mistakes and thinking sometimes disturbing thoughts. We are forced to witness and remain open for the entirety of the story (which we don’t often do in real life) and are often left with more questions when the final page is turned, which allows our wonderful brains to mull over the more philosophical questions raised.

I think it is her firm grasp on reality and human nature that draws so many of us in. The lecture on October 28 sold out in about six hours, and there was not a single empty seat in the lecture hall that evening. I told my mother that morning, when expressing that I was on day two of a migraine, that I would have to be in an ambulance to miss seeing and hearing Margaret Atwood speak. No one forces me to think quite as freely and deeply as she does, and it is refreshing.

It was also refreshing to be at an event with literally hundreds of people who feel as much admiration and appreciation for an author as I do. I was no longer the girl sitting on my bed reading, aware of how different I was from my peers. I was surrounded by people who are just like me and just as excited.

As my husband and I made our way to the signing line, I struck up several conversations with other admirers. There is something about talking to another person who reads what you have read that breaks the awkward barriers of being a stranger. We’ve walked to the Paradice Dome together, we’ve witnessed Offred’s longing for human touch, we’ve peeled apples with Grace Marks at midnight on Halloween and lived to tell the tale.

Conversation between nerds of the same fandom is truly a beautiful thing. Some of the people I spoke with stated that this was one of the most epic events that the library has hosted, and I have to agree. While I have been to past events, there is nothing like having a classic author in your city, at one of your most beautiful libraries, making you laugh and think and talk with strangers. It was beyond wonderful to hear Atwood read from her latest book but also to be connected with other people with similar interests I might otherwise have passed on the street without a word.

Collage of photos taken at the Margaret Atwood lecture and signing on 10/28/15, provided by Dana Bell.

Collage of photos taken at the Margaret Atwood lecture and signing on 10/28/15, provided by Dana Bell.

The signing line was fairly quiet, reverent even.  I watched as she quietly signed hundreds of books, interjecting wit here and there as people spoke to her, though many were rendered speechless. When I made it to the front of the line, I am pretty sure I was anything but articulate (I may have even said “Wow” or “Oh my god”), but she smiled and seemed to appreciate my sincere thank you and the small gift and card I sheepishly gave her. In her own open and understanding way, she allowed me to be my weird brand of human (in this moment a total fangirl, complete with loss of speech, something I am not used to). That night, I fell back into who I was at sixteen, draping over my now queen-sized bed and diving into The Heart Goes Last, very happy in the knowledge that this time, I would not be alone.

-Dana Bell

I want to say a very special thank you to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures for hosting this event. Meeting Margaret Atwood has been on my bucket list for a very long time, and it is because of these associations that I had the chance. I also want to thank Classic Lines Bookstore. I lost my copy of The Blind Assassin years and years ago and was so happy you had it for sale at the door.

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Mystery Authors Revealed!

I recently attended the Public Library Association  conference held in beautiful downtown Indianapolis. In spite of the fact that I’ve been a gainfully employed professional librarian  for 20 years now, this was my first attendance at a national library conference. I have to say that it was one of the best experiences of my career thus far. I was able to go to sessions about readers’ advisory and collection development, as well as programming, merchandising of books, and ways to increase circulation. If you visit the First Floor, in person or on Facebook, sometime in the next few months you will likely run into my ideas that have been put into practice in some way.

magglassBut by a wide margin, my favorite two sessions focused on mystery books. I am the librarian responsible for purchasing the mystery books for the Main Library and I also am the facilitator for the Red Herring Book Club. I am also a lifelong lover of mysteries, beginning with Encyclopedia Brown and moving on to Agatha Christie by the time I was in my early teens. So, you can see why the opportunity to talk about mystery books and authors, and to meet some of them in person appealed to me immensely.

My Friday morning session was entitled, “Mystery Authors Revealed.” On the panel were 6 mystery/thriller authors, some new and some that have been writing for a while. Each author had exactly 10 minutes to introduce themselves and their book(s). Of course they all talked in some way about their love of libraries and librarians. One even mentioned that a library conference would be a GREAT setting for a mystery, which received a resounding laugh of approval from the audience.

Now, I’d like to present to you the authors I met at that session. You may be familiar with some, but hopefully I can find you at least one new person whose books you’d like to check out. In alphabetical order…

Jeff Abbott – This guy is funny, with a capital F and UNNY! He’s an established author who’s written a few series, as well as some standalone books. He wanted to make sure all of us librarians in the room knew that his very first book, published in the mid-1990s and winner of both the Agatha and Macavity awards, was about a murder in a library. But he was with us to talk about the latest book in the Sam Capra series, Downfall (This series started with Adrenaline, in case you’re like me and prefer to begin at the beginning).  The protagonist is an ex-CIA agent who is about to become a father, when everything goes terribly wrong. Sam needs to use all of his skills to track down the bad guys. He suggested that these books may appeal to reluctant readers, because they contain LOTS of action.

Sophie Hannah – Sophie is British and witty, that dry wit that the Brits tend to have. She likes to create suspense and writes scary thrillers without a lot of gore. She told us that her latest book, The Orphan Choir, was so creepy it scared her as she was writing it! One of the things that excited me most was when Sophie told us that Agatha Christie’s family commissioned her to write a new Hercule Poirot mystery. It will be coming out this September!!!

Frank Lentricchia – This author is also a literature and film studies professor at Duke University. During his few minutes with us, he read a passage from his latest book, The Dog Killer of Utica (to be published in April 2014). This man is a wonderful reader to listen to and a master wordsmith. This series starts with The Accidental Pallbearer.  Eliot Conte is a PI in his mid-50s who has a short fuse, which leads to a checkered past, but his motives and intentions are usually good. These books are really a love story for the down-and-out Utica, NY.

M.L. Longworth – Mary Lou is a Toronto native who resides in France with her husband. She is absolutely charming and I enjoyed hearing her tales of the French countryside. She actually wrote about speaking with us in her blog . Mary Lou is a fellow foodie, so both her talk and her mysteries resonate with me. Her mystery series is set in France and the latest in the series is Death in the Vines.

Laura McHugh – She is the debut author of The Weight of Blood, which is set in Ozarks in southern Missouri. Like many rural places, blood ties are the law above all else. This can lead to some terrifying situations. Laura grew up for a time in that area and always felt like an outsider in her own town. She was very gracious and as a first-time author, very excited to be talking with us.

Peter Swanson – Peter is another debut novel author, but is already an extremely accomplished poet. His first book is The Girl with a Clock for a Heart. This is a dark, suspense-filled book about what happens when the one you never forgot is the one you should stay away from, but can’t. It’s based on a short story/novella written previously, that an editor/agent wouldn’t let him forget about. Peter came across as very sweet, even a little shy, but spoke very passionately about writing and his first novel.

-Melissa M.

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Top Ten Books Written by Librarians: AbeBooks

We human beings seem obsessed with counting.  As a subset of that, we like to rank what we count: prettiest beads first, average beads, demurring beads.

Why we rank things, all glittering aside, seems to be an obsession within an obsession: The Best, The Worst, the Most of This, the Least of That.  At the bottom of all this weighing and ticking off seems to be an almost alchemical urge to quantify quality.  This, of course, is as absurd, as misguided, as ill-fated an urge as any base metal-into-gold boondoggle man has ever concocted.

One of  my own personal obsessions is with the website List Universe.   It’s a site that rates things, measures things, compares things, all the while managing to mold  them into the ubiquitous end product known as the “Top Ten List.”    Generally the site is very informative, occasionally titillating, sometimes downright not-pc.  Part of the obsession with lists of these kinds is the fun of disagreeing.

The other day I ran across a Top Ten List from another location, however. AbeBooks, one of the very best antiquarian books sources on the web, recently posted a unique Top Ten List on their “Reading Copy Book Blog: Top Ten Books Written by Librarians.” 

Less Deceived by Philip Larkin
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The Aleph and Other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges
Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
Star Man’s Son by Andre Norton
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot by Angus Wilson
At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor
Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

Being an antiquarian book site, AbeBooks has leaned here rather heavily on older books, two of which are no longer in our library system but might be acquired via Interlibrary loan (WorldCat, an online database that contains citations for libraries worldwide, has links to the bibliographic info you will need here and here).  Some other well-known authors who were librarians who didn’t make the cut for this list include Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Benjamin Franklin, Mao Zedong, Golda Meir, Giocomo Casanova, Beverly Cleary, Jacob Grimm, Stanley Kunitz, A . J. Mojtabai, Jessamyn West, Audre Lorde, August Strindberg, David Hume, Archibald MacLeish,  and Marcel Proust, to name a few.

So, the next time you come into the library, give us a call, email us, or chat with us via Ask Here PA, who knows, you might be interacting with someone who qualifies for just such a list.

– Don

PS  Know of any librarian authors not listed above?  Drop us a line.

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