Tag Archives: LeighAnne

Pace Yourself: The Paying Guests

Whenever library workers chat with you about books, we try to figure out what kind of book you’ll like so we know what to recommend. We ask you a lot of questions designed to tease out certain kinds of information we call “appeal factors.” That’s fancy library lingo for “must-haves and deal-breakers” and they’re different from person to person.

Some readers care about the plot: how exciting it is, whether or not it makes sense, and–in the case of mystery readers–how hard it is to figure out whodunit. Others insist on complex characters, both likable ones and those you love to hate. You get the idea. The thing that makes or breaks a book for me personally is the pacing: if it’s not hitting certain dramatic beats in what I consider a timely fashion, I just can’t finish it. Usually this happens when a book is moving too slowly: there’s a big difference between tease and snooze, and some authors just haven’t figured it out.

Sarah Waters is not one of those authors. I’ve just finished part one of The Paying Guests and am impressed with how well it’s put together. In fact, its three-part structure and gradually unfolding action lend itself nicely to filming; I wouldn’t be surprised to see a TV version on PBS or BBC America at some point, particularly since it’s set in the same time period as Downton Abbey, and would have, I think, massive crossover appeal.

It’s helpful that the protagonist, Frances Wray, is both sympathetic and interesting: a payingguestsyoung woman who’s quietly sacrificed all of her own dreams and desires to take care of her elderly mother. She’s not a martyr about it; in fact, she’s extremely practical and pretty much resigned to her losses (which include both brothers, killed in WWI). Because they’re a bit down on their luck after the death of Mr. Wray, Frances and her mother rent out part of their home to a young married couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber. After the Barbers move in, however, Frances finds a passion for life … and Lilian.

Frances and Lilian’s feelings for each other unfold at just the right pace. There’s an art to these things, and Waters understands it. Given the time period, and the fact that Lilian appears to be happily married when we first meet her, it would be absurd if they fell into each others’ arms immediately. Frances doesn’t even notice anything special about Lilian the day the Barbers move in; she’s annoyed that the Wray finances are so bad they have to share their house with others (something that’s definitely Not Done in their social circles). Frances’s slow warm-up, and Lilian’s even slower thaw, thread the narrative with a delicious energy: are they going to get together, or not?

Waters makes the sensible choice to answer this question, and raise new ones, by the end of Part One. This works well because dragging out the will-they-or-won’t-they question over the course of a 500+ page novel is both cruel and unfair (there’s a difference between tease and torture, too). The resolution of Part One ups the ante for Part Two, creating even more tension with new questions: what obstacles will Frances face going forward? Will Lilian hold to her decision, or choose a different road? Is Leonard going to find out about any of this, and what will he do if he does? And what role will poor Mrs. Wray play as the action unfolds? Though she’s a somewhat minor character, she’s still got the potential to be either an obstacle or a gateway to happiness, and it’s exciting to wonder which way it will go.

I’m indulging myself in a little more speculation and dramatic tension before I dive into Part Two; honestly, by the time I finished Part One I needed to stop and catch my breath. If this kind of reading experience sounds fun to you, and you’d like to spend some time in post-WWI London with a pair of conflicted young women from different social classes, you’ll really enjoy The Paying Guests, which you can read in print, large print, audio book, and digital audio.  I’m tempted to try an audio option next, to compare/contrast; I’m a bit fussier about pacing in audio, though, because I can’t control the speed at which the narrator reads. Still, the story’s so good, it’s worth a shot.

What makes or breaks a book for you? What does a story absolutely have to have in terms of character, plot, pacing, setting, etc. for you to really enjoy it? What else can we call “appeal factors” so they don’t sound quite so formal and stuffy? Let us know what you think in a comment below!

–Leigh Anne

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Stretch Goals: Nobody’s Jackknife

Poetry is a lot like yoga: it asks you to stretch out of your comfort zone, and the level of difficulty varies from situation to situation. Nobody’s Jackknife, the first full-length collection from Pittsburgh’s own Ellen McGrath Smith, functions as a master class for advanced readers and a challenge to motivated beginners. Like the best classes, it is by turns gentle and fierce, and by the time you get to the end of it, you should be glowing and panting a little bit; if not, you might be reading it wrong … or, at least, not wholeheartedly.

The yoga metaphor fits because Smith used it first: an entire section of Nobody’s Jacknife is made up of poems that bear the name of specific poses. These pieces explore the nature of the pose and its relationship to the world in which one poses, as explained in “Downward Facing Dog (adho mukha svanasana)”:

Each posture some kind of creature. Each minute
some kind of creature. Each creature is some sort
of time but not waiting (67).

In this particular poem the nature and performance of downward dog are juxtaposed with the damage done by Hurricane Katrina; like a good teacher, Smith urges the reader to explore the relationship:

…Or is the dog the stretch itself
and not the body that could bark and growl if only

it could see a city under water,
under a lid that the leaders don’t lift
until it’s too late. In the beginning,
keep the eyes open. Then you will know
what you are doing and where you go wrong–(ibid).

As readers move through the sequence of poem-poses they’re asked to consider their internal and external worlds, how they’re held in tension, how to reconcile them through awareness and effort. It’s fine if you’re wobbly because you don’t have to get it right the first time; in fact, it’s better if you don’t: as you read and reread each poem, new levels of connection and meaning rise to the surface, just as continued yoga practice will, inevitably, change you.

Though they work well on their own, the yoga poems take on greater depth and resonance when read in context. Each of the three previous sections of Nobody’s Jackknife is an invitation to experience life as Smith does: full-throttle, no apologies, level-headed and clear-sighted. Her emotional range is wide and honest, as if she not only would not, but could not lie to the reader.

“The Locust: A Foundational Narrative,” for example, which stands alone as part one, will knock the breath right out of your chest. It’s pretty clear just why the poem won a 2012 Orlando Award from A Room of One’s Own Foundation, but you’ll need to read it six more times to fully absorb its impact (and really appreciate the rest of the volume). Part two  revolves around drinking, with most of the poems named after beverages (“Absinthe,” “Port,” “Rolling Rock Beer,” etc.). In this sequence, booze consumes you, but the final poem in the series, “First Communion,” with its shift towards sacramental consumption ends the section on a hopeful note:

Every tongue awaits the body.

Every body is a word.

Every word a possibility (37).

Section three has a gentler, more introspective tone and a somewhat experimental style; the imagery glides by like waves, lapping over the reader and lulling her into reflection. When linear narrative returns near the end of the sequence, it’s no surprise that it manifests in a few yoga poems, preludes to the deeper exploration in section four:

...now I was nothing
     but a body--good or bad--
          and it was something
               they could draw--
          it had mass; it was not
filthy 

("Camel Pose (Ustasana) 48).

I never feel like I’m doing the poets I review quite enough justice, but this time I’m telling you straight up: I am not doing this volume justice. Perhaps it’s not fair to you to review a work that cannot be neatly encapsulated in a few sound bites or fully appreciated on one reading. Then again, if you’ve made it this far into the essay without running away screaming, a stretch reading goal might be just what you’re after.

If I’ve guessed correctly, you can reserve your own library copy of Nobody’s Jackknife here. Are you in the mood to challenge yourself these days? Or do your summer reading plans err on the side of calm and chill? Leave us a comment and let us know where your comfort zone is.

–Leigh Anne

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Read the Manual

The main appeal of religion, philosophy and self-help is that, as disciplines, they promise to lay out a framework for how to live a good and meaningful life. The fact that there’s no consensus between–or even within–fields as to what “good” and “meaningful” actually are is mostly delightful, and occasionally frustrating. As you pursue each path, though, a funny thing happens: searching for the answer becomes more important than finding the answer, and before you know it, boom! A life well-lived.

Sharon Dolin’s Manual for Living holds a triple boom between its covers, three sets of poems inspired by philosophy, art and religion. Each set imposes meaning on life using a different set of standards and poetic techniques, offering the reader a choose-your-own-adventure series of poems to compare, contrast, mull over and memorize.

Cross-section of the cover of Manual for Living. Spotted at University of Pittsburgh Press. Click through for source page.

Cross-section of the cover of Manual for Living. Spotted at University of Pittsburgh Press. Click through for source page.

The first section, “Manual for Living,” especially lends itself to memorization and reading aloud; it’s musically clever, with consonance and assonance for days, as in “Desire Demands its Own Attachment”:

Daunted by disastrous consequences?
Don’t be. Everyone–even you–
delights in devil-scape. Do you
rue more than revel? (11).

The poems’ titles are direct quotes from the stoic philosopher Epictetus, one of the original “suck it up and deal” guys, whose main piece of advice, in contemporary terms, best translates to “Dude, chill.” Dolin has a lot of fun restating the original epigrams in clever, musical phrases designed to stick in your memory:

Great that he gamed you. Grand
she’s gone gloomy, gorged on hemlock.
Colossal you’ve got no guy, no gig, no granita.

Greet each gravity with gratitude like a cavity

(“Everything Happens for a Good Reason”, 11).

Dolin’s framework for section two, “Black Paintings,” is a series of artworks created by Francisco Goya near the end of his life. If you’re not familiar with the works, it can be useful to click back and forth between the poems and the paintings as you read, to get the full effect. Even if you are familiar with the paintings, though, you’ll benefit from consulting them together, as the somber, introspective tone Dolin uses in this set of works mirrors the darker colors and themes Goya explores.

Calling them meditations on death is, and is not, an oversimplification. Consider “Atropos, or The Three Fates”:

O you in the back with your mantic
mirror, how do you know

how long to spill my skein–
black blood of me when I shall

no longer be? (48).

There’s a big difference between accepting fate and questioning it; the chirpy stoicism of section one has been replaced by a moody, almost resentful, challenge to the powers that be.

This challenge is resolved in section three, “Of Hours,” which is modeled after a popular form of medieval prayer book. As the name suggests, there’s a prayer-poem for each hour of the day, and each poem addresses a specific spiritual concern expressed through the beauty of the natural world observed at the given time. The speaker’s day begins at dark-thirty with a request for guidance:

…I am thrumming

your praises as the only way to hear
with the soul’s inner ear.

Tell me what you desire of me
(“Psalm of the Flying Shell (4:30 a.m.)”, 53).

As the day progresses, the style becomes more and more experimental, mirroring how a day can begin in order and gradually succumb to chaos. The prayers are what keep the speaker–and the reader–anchored to the world. Consider the dreamy images and style of “Moon Lilies (5:30 p.m.)”:

In the suffering hour >>
                        sky
                              oozing blood
                        orange

pages gone dark
             Sabbath will be starlit

(Help me find you in time) (83).

Just as there is no one answer in life, there’s no one “right” way to craft poems in Dolin’s work. It’s obvious she takes great pleasure in playing with sounds and forms, not so much concerned with truth as with the search for it, and the many ways one can search. If you consider yourself a spirited or philosophical person, or if you like playful explorations of thought and language, you really should read the Manual.

You can do that quite easily by clicking here to make a reservation in the catalog, and having these poetic devotions sent to the library location of your choice. How do you make sense of everyday living? What forms of consolation, poetic or otherwise, have helped you grapple with the many challenges of adulting? Leave us a comment and share your wisdom.

–Leigh Anne

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Failed Passes With Flying Colors

If you’ve never heard of the Paterson Silk Strike (1913), you’re not alone. The strikers died mostly forgotten, overshadowed by other actions from the eight-hour workday movement (most notably the Haymarket Affair). Martin Espada’s new poetry collection kicks off with a sonnet cycle that brings this tiny moment in labor history back to life, praising the men and women who put their lives on the line for workers’ rights.Vivas to Those Who Have Failed–the title of both the cycle and the book–is taken from Whitman‘s Song of Myself. Like their namesake, the sonnets ask that we praise the unsung heroes and common people who, though not widely remembered, and perhaps loved by only a few, did their best to make the world a better place.

One example:

Hannah left the courthouse to picket the mill. She chased
a strikebreaker down the street, yelling in Yiddish the word
for shame. Back in court she hissed at the judge’s sentence
of another striker. Hannah got twenty days in jail for hissing.
She sang all the way to jail (“IV: The Little Agitator,” 22).

Espada could have stopped there and this would have been a great chapbook. We’re very fortunate, however, that he continued on in the same thematic vein and delivered a full collection. The other poems also tell tales of everyday heroism, and most of the people honored are Espada’s family, friends, and professional colleagues. A great deal of the work is dedicated to his father, Frank, who died in 2014. Reading about Frank’s life and adventures will make you envy Espada more than a little for having such an outrageous, courageous dad:

He spat obscenities like sunflower seeds at the driver
who told him to sit at the back of the bus in Mississippi, then
slipped his cap over his eyes and fell asleep. He spent a week in jail,
called it the best week of his life, strode through the jailhouse door
and sat behind the driver of the bus on the way out of town,
his Air Force uniform all that kept the noose from his neck (“El Morivivi,” 85).

Martin Espada, during a visit to Pittsburgh's City of Asylum in 2015. Click through for source page and interview with Sampsonia Way.

Martin Espada, during a visit to Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum in 2015. Click through for source page and interview with Sampsonia Way.

Reading about Frank Espada is like sitting around the kitchen table listening to the grownups tell “back in the day” stories. Bold and yet at the same time restrained, Espada’s tone conveys the true nature of paternal loss: a virus that ebbs and flows through various emotions, restrained by the codes of manhood. The overall mood is somber, but defiant.

Other standouts in Vivas include “Hard-Handed Men of Athens” (wryly funny), “On the Hovering of Souls and Balloon Animals” (not funny, but true), and “Chalkboard on the Wall of a Diner in Providence, Rhode Island the Morning After George Zimmerman Was Acquitted in the Shooting Death of Trayvon Martin, an Unarmed Black Teenager” (which makes its point like an arrow hitting the bullseye). Vivas to Those Who Have Failed is a solid poetry collection that will resonate most strongly with anyone who has grieved a loved one, but will also strike a chord with readers who like their poetry socially conscious and defiant.

Click here to reserve a copy of Espada’s book. Who are your unsung heroes? What brave deeds should everybody know about? Tell us all in the comments below.

–Leigh Anne

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

After Jessica Jones

Congratulations: you made it through all thirteen white-knuckled, soul-crushing episodes of Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix. Now you need either bibliotherapy or the hair of the dog that bit you, depending on how much you enjoy psychological torture. Here are some Library experiences you can have to either calm yourself down or extend your terror buzz.

If You Just Can’t Even: The Gentle List

Right now you need sunshine, laughter, and reassurance that people are still essentially good. Snuggle up with one of the following suggestions:

Step Aside Pops / Kate Beaton –  Laughter is good for the soul, and this collection of literature and history-inspired comics will make you laugh until you can’t breathe.

Doctor Who: The Complete Second Series – You need to wash Kilgrave out of your head, and fast. Watch David Tennant at his best and most lovable.

This Christmas / Aretha Franklin – What could be better than the Queen of Soul singing seasonal songs of peace and joy? Crank this up and hit repeat.

Modern Romance / Aziz Ansari – Healthy, true love is a real thing! And getting there is more hilarious than heartbreaking. Let Ansari walk you through it.

Bridget Jones’s Diary / Helen Fielding – Because somebody named Jones should get a happy ending, right?

 

"Ida B. Wells," from Step Aside Pops, pg. 118. (c)2015 Kate Beaton. Click through to read more amusing comics.

“Ida B. Wells,” from Step Aside Pops, pg. 118. (c)2015 Kate Beaton. Click through to read more amusing comics.

 

If You’re All Fired Up: The Grrrl Power List

Pumped up and ready to fight the good fight?  Keep your adrenaline levels high and take these to the checkout desk:

Alias / Brian Michael Bendis – If you’re not familiar with the source material, catch up with all things Jessica.

Bitch Planet / Kelly Sue DeConnick – It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you. And boy, are they out to get you.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Feminism, rage, explosions, catharsis.

The First Two Records / Bikini Kill – Loud, stomp-around-and-break-stuff therapy. Play it until your neighbors hate you.

Reign of Terror / Sleigh Bells – contains the song “Demons,” a/k/a That One Awesome Song in That One Scene.

Shadowshaper/ Daniel Jose Older – Urban fantasy about a gutsy teen discovering her own special powers.

Your turn:  did you, or will you, watch Jessica Jones? Have you got additional suggestions for post-viewing stress relief (or villain stomping)? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section, but please keep it spoiler-free!

–Leigh Anne

 

11 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Remember

I find it absolutely hilarious that the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh shares its birthday with V for Vendetta day (a/k/a Guy Fawkes day for those of you who don’t speak geek). For starters, V. and Carnegie would not have liked each other at all. Also, V. was concerned about helping the common man by blowing up powerful institutions; Carnegie, for his part, was often unkind to ordinary folks, but was still interested in building institutions for them. The irony is more than a little palpable.

So, in addition to everything else you need to remember today, take note that Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh turns 120 years old this November 5th. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed; much has changed, but many things have remained the same. Governor Daniel Hartman Hastings, one of the speakers at the Library’s 1895 dedication ceremony, had this to say of the enterprise:

The public library is equally a public necessity and a public blessing. Its unfolding and spreading influence for good is beyond calculation. This community already thrills in anticipation of the blossoming and the ripening fruit to come from the tree this day planted.

Here is a temple of enduring stone which will stand through the ages, whose grand and graceful proportions will be a constant source of pleasure to the beholder. Here, Music will charm the ear and gladden the soul. Here, Art will welcome and inspire her devotees. Here, Literature will sit upon her throne and the children of men will gather wisdom at her feet. Here are assembled the representatives of the greatest industrial community in the land to receive the trust committed to their keeping by a benefactor and a philanthropist.

Today the temple of stone is still, indeed, standing*. She’s had a bit of work done, but is all the better for it. Music is still here, and still charming. Art remains welcoming. Literature has expanded her kingdom by leaps and bounds, in ways Carnegie himself couldn’t have predicted. And the Library has consistently—most recently through its current strategic plan—proved itself both a blessing and a necessity to the Pittsburgh region. One of the city’s biggest, best fruit baskets, so to speak.

Nothing there anyone could complain about. Not even V.

Super Science @ CLP - Squirrel Hill, circa 2012 - photographer unknown. Click through to learn more about STEM programming at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Super Science @ CLP – Squirrel Hill, circa 2012 – photographer unknown. Click through to learn more about STEM programming at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Will the Library still be here 120 years from now, when we all have internet chips in our brains and we finally get those hoverboards we were promised? I think so. It might look different, but the mission will still be the same: to engage our community in literacy and learning. Complex characters both fictional and historical will still be here, whispering reason—or revolution—as you walk by. And of course, through our programs, services and community engagements, the Library will still be planting, and harvesting, all sorts of fruit for you to enjoy.

The grandeur of the past, the excitement of the present and the hope of the future. Who could ask for a better gift? If you feel the same, please share your Library story and tell us how CLP has affected your life. To learn about other ways you can remember the Library on this momentous occasion, click here.

–Leigh Anne

*Does this make library workers Stone Temple Pilots?  Hm.

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Some Books Are

Nothing rockets a book faster to the top of my TBR list than the news that it’s been banned or challenged by somebody somewhere. That’s how I found myself burning through Courtney Summers’s YA novel Some Girls Are, which was recently removed from a South Carolina honors English summer reading list at the request of a parent who found it objectionable. The school’s principal pulled the book from the list without subjecting it to the normal review process, which is exceptionally disturbing since Some Girls Are was just one of three books the students could choose from (ironically, Summers’s book was replaced with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, another YA novel that frequently turns up on banned and challenged lists for its frank discussion of uncomfortable topics).

Some Girls Are tells the story of a popular girl’s fall from grace and subsequent bullying at the hands of her former friends. Regina is one of the Fearsome Fivesome, the clique that rules her small town’s high school. But staying in a clique can be just as hard as getting into a clique, as Regina discovers after her BFF’s boyfriend tries to rape her one night at a party. When the friend she confides in proves untrustworthy, Regina finds her reputation smashed to pieces and her membership in the Fivesome revoked…possibly for life.

“An Abstract Exploration of Bullying,” student artwork from Beyond the Book. Click through to learn more.

One thing this book does exceptionally well is examine the relationship between being bullied and bullying, examining how a person can shift back and forth from one state to the other. It’s not an easy read: not content to explore one teenage challenge, Summers throws the entire kitchen sink of adolescent problems at her characters at once, including eating disorders and the death of a parent. Every child in this novel is a hot mess, and their teachers and parents are pretty much either oblivious to what’s going on with their kids, or deliberately turning a blind eye.

I could see where that might make a grownup reader feel uncomfortable.

Summers mounts an eloquent defense of the book on Tumblr that, I think, gets to the heart of the matter:

I have made a career out of writing young adult fiction about difficult topics. It’s my deepest hope teenagers living the harsh realities I write about–because they do live them–will read my books and feel less alone. It’s incredibly powerful to see yourself in a book when you’re struggling. Not only that, but gritty, realistic YA novels offer a safe space for teen readers to process what is happening in the world around them, even if they never directly experience what they’re reading about. This, in turn, creates a space for teens and the adults in their lives to discuss these topics. Fiction also helps us to consider lives outside of our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic toward others.

Including Some Girls Are on a summer reading list for students entering West Ashley High School could have been an opportunity to send a message about the types of shaming, language, and bullying that would not be tolerated as well as increase students’ awareness of the effects this type of behavior has and open up critical lines of communication about it.

Summers understands intuitively that the most offensive thing a teenager can experience in a classroom is silence.

Some books are hot potatoes nobody wants to touch. Some books push us out of our comfort zones. Some books remind you that some things never change, and never will change unless they’re brought out into the sunlight. Some books are the only means by which a teenager in trouble can reach out for a lifeline. Some books might be the only opportunity some children will have to develop compassion for others who are less fortunate. And every book is one somebody’s “some books are” list. Read them before somebody decides you shouldn’t be allowed to.

Truth-telling time: were you bullied in school, or were you a bully? Both? Neither? Do you think bullying has gotten worse in the digital age, or does it just seem that way because it’s more widely reported? What would you want your high school classmates to know about you now?

–Leigh Anne

If you are a teen being bullied, or in an otherwise violent or abusive situation, the Teen Services staff has put together a resource guide with information to help you cope. Parents who would like to talk about bullying with their kids and teens can consult the information available through the National Bullying Prevention Center. The American Academy of Child and Educational Psychiatry also maintains a resource page for parents and clinical professionals who work with bullies and their victims.

8 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized