The Messiness of Contemporary Media

A fancy title for something that I suspect has been going on for awhile but only really hit home with me today.

I get an email from the Chester County Book Company about books and today’s edition included a link to this amazing book trailer for Mosquitoland:

The description shows the blending of words, music and images: “Book and music written and produced by David Arnold.” No longer does a writer just put words on a page; he is able to create his own imagery as well. I was struck by the power of the video to make me want to read the book. I suspect it would be even more powerful for the young adult audience for which this book is really written.

Video book trailers is not a new idea for educators: they’ve been making them with kids since video became readily accessible. But they seem to have also found their way into mainstream in a pervasive way.

And, for me, it is a reminder of one of the ways I tend to seem old in this very new world. In the old world, books were books, movies were movies, created by different people and often not the same story in the end. What happens when authors “produce” the whole range of their work from written word to soundtrack to video. In this short clip, we get a visual of the main character, something we would normally have to create on our own out of the words themselves. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I am also reminded of the wealth of media resources out there around books from interviews to recitations. This review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book is a great example as it mixes words, images, audio and video into one page. Wonderful and yet, again, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I want to engage with the author at the level of the work he has created. I don’t want to hear too many interviews that ask him to explain it or too many reviews that try to explain it. I’ll check all this out afterwards, but for now, I just want to sit with the book itself.

Labor Organizing Now and Then

I’m reading Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig, the third is his Morrie Morgan series. Morgan returns to Butte, Montana, in the early 20s and writes commentary for the pro-union newspaper. Doig does a great job of showing how the company-run newspaper answers Morgan’s arguments for better wages and safe working conditions. Ultimately, we are encouraged to support the union as Doig describes the unnecessary deaths in the mines and the violent suppression tactics of the company.

It is tempting to believe that these arguments ended with the success of labor unions. But a headline in Salon caught my eye this morning: The One Thing That Can Save America. Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer in Chicago, describes a country very different from the one in which Morgan lives and works where more and more companies are using “non-employees” to do their work, thus freeing them from any responsibility for health care and retirement. He wonders labor unions need to change to help support these new kinds of workers.

There is still a role for traditional unions, too. I follow a local school division on Facebook and the teachers are fighting for better wages and working conditions. It’s a tough fight in a state that doesn’t include collective bargaining. One poster indicated that she would no longer sponsor clubs or grade papers on her own time. These kinds of work stoppages harken back to the kinds of union actions described in Doig’s book.

Vocabulary Lesson: Tsundoku

It turns out there is a word for my habit of buying books that I don’t read: tsundoku.

I have made the no new books pledge in the past only to break it pretty quickly.

This year, I am  making the same promise although I’m already thinking about a trip to Chester County Book Company next week when I make a trek to Pennsylvania to visit old friends. I love their newsletter and really think I should support indie book stores, right?

I joined two LibraryThing groups for the new year: the 75 Book Challenge and the ROOTS 2015 (Reading Our Own Tomes). The latter is just for people like me who have lots of books on the shelf that they haven’t read. I started 2015 with The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro as part of British authors reading challenge. It’s been on the shelf since April 2012.

I managed to get in 71 books in 2014: here’s the list.

Baking and Books

I’ve been reading…I’ll get to 70 for this year.

And, I’ve been baking: whole wheat bread in various forms, cornbread with cheese and jalapenos, and, tonight, Gingerbread Cupcakes with Cinnamon Icing from King Arthur. They showed it with a ginger cookies and I substituted shortbread. These are ready for the wonderful staff at our local Farm Credit office. They financed us when the regular banks said no.

Gingerbread cupcakes with cinnamon icing and a shortbread cookie

The Accidental Pilgrimage: On Being Aware

Work took me to San Francisco. I was fortunate to have an afternoon off and, at one point in my pre-trip planning, checked the location of possibly the most revered of all United States bookstores: City Lights. I have been there once, in 1987, and can still remember that I bought Mother by Maxim Gorky. I thought I was staying in the Presidio and the store was pretty far away from there so I decided I probably couldn’t make it this trip. Although now that I’ve been to San Francisco, I’ll say that it is very walkable and, while I didn’t use it, there seems to be abundant public transportation so even if I had been staying in the Presidio, I could have gotten to the store without too much trouble.

What I didn’t realize is that my hotel was on Union Square, much closer to the bookstore, just a mile away. But, I never rechecked and planned a walk through Chinatown to the Coit Tower and then lunch at the Ferry Building on the Embarcadaro without thinking about the store.

So, I set out on the planned journey. As I climbed the hill on Grant Avenue and moved further into Chinatown, I came upon a bronze dedication to Jack Kerouac at the entrance to an alley that featured several stunning murals. I took some photos before heading back to Grant Avenue and continuing my journey.

I was tired when I got back to the hotel room but decided to check out my photos. On the edge of a photo of the Vida y sueños de la cañada Perla (Life and Dreams of the Perla River Valley) mural, I noticed a yellow banner that said City Lights Books. I was a bit taken by surprise. In my zeal for photographing the murals and then following the plan, I simply didn’t see the banner.

Mural at City LIghts with Banner

It turns out that I also missed the pavers in the alley with quotes from authors like Kerouac, Felinghetti and Angelou. In fact, I discovered that I had wandered down Jack Kerouac Alley, the brainchild of poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It turns out the mural was painted on the wall of the bookstore.

There really was no choice but to go back. Despite having already walked several miles on the city concrete, I knew I would forever regret not making this pilgrimage. So, I trudged up the hill to China Town once again, found the alley and entered the bookstore. It is small, crammed with books, yet inviting with simple wooden chairs where one can ponder the shelves or turn a few pages. The past is very much present as you walk the same creaky floors where the Beat Generation founders read and wrote and talked. This is more than a place to buy books; it is a place where wrestling with the ideas found in books is a sacred act.

I picked up several volumes including two Ivan Doig novels I hadn’t seen before. A few others piqued my interest. But I had sort of decided I would just buy one book, probably one published by City Lights Books.

Then, I walked the stairs to the Poetry Room. I fingered some Kerouac, took a few photos of the Poet’s Chair and then found the Wendell Berry section. I own a lot of Berry, have read some, but would love to spend more time with him. I picked up Farming: A Handbook, a new printing of poems written more than 40 years ago, focusing on Berry’s experience of farming. Right beside it was the real find: a copy of a volume of letters between Berry and Gary Snyder. It was autographed by both authors. The covers shows a laughing Berry with Snyder by his side in front of Grimblefingers Bookstore in Nevada. I knew I had found my purchases and headed downstairs. These just seemed the perfect two books to buy in this special place.

Then, I discovered they would ship books. The box of other choices is on its way. It includes the two Doigs but some other more unusual volumes that I wouldn’t have looked for such as Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society edited by Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith and John Law.

I am grateful for whatever higher power may have intervened here to direct my attention. I would have been really upset if I waited to look at my picture until I got home. It is a lesson in being completely aware. I find cities very distracting with all their people and sounds and smells. So many places to look and sense that it is easy to lose track of it all. I focused on murals and missed banners and the ground under my feet.

May Reading Round Up

May was a wonderful month of reading.

I delved back into the tragedy that was the reign of Henry VIII with Hilary Mantel’s series told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell. When a friend recommended the books and loaned me the second one, I was a little hesitant to get started. After all, I’ve read a lot of fiction and nonfiction about the Tudors including Alison Weir’sThe Lady in the Tower: Anne Boleyn. But something about this series–both its prose style and its point of view–pulled me in. The first book dives right into the controversy as Henry tries to put aside Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn. But the real focus is on Cromwell’s complicated relationship with all the parties involved, especially Cardinal Wolsey. Mantel paints a sympathetic portrait of this leader of the Reformation, a man often portrayed as an evil manipulator. He was a man who lost his family but, at least for a short time, gained the support of a monarch.

Here’s the whole list for the month:

Hollow City
Wolf Hall
Tell The Wolves I’m Home
Her Royal Spyness
Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership
English Creek
Bring Up the Bodies

Small Print, Lots of Names, Too Many Details

During March, I plunged into reading, tackling some two serious reads as part of several challenges on LibraryThing. I blogged about the idea of reading challenges on my education blog. “Gamifying” reading can be a way to expand your reading options or, in my case, dig into some of the many books I have purchased and never read. There are lots of books on the shelves these days.

Here’s the list. I’ve marked the challenge books:

Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men were both long, serious books, but also incredibly engaging. Well written narratives with, whether fiction or non, compelling characters who show the full range of human emotion, inspiration and ambition. I filled in with more light reads although Grasshopper Jungle, a dystopian, end-of-the-world young adult book, managed to provide some real insight into the teen heart and mind within its dark comedic tone.

By the end of the month, however, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to finish the last challenge book I had planned for the month. A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin met the challenge of being about someone who was part of WW I but was much longer than I thought. I’m old school that way: I judge a book by its girth in the physical world. I haven’t gotten used to judging it by its dots. I dove in with just two days until the end of the month and enjoyed what I read but then stalled out when it became clear that I was not going to meet the challenge. I’ll get back to it but for now with Spring luring me into the garden, I just don’t have time to dig in the way I need to for such a tome.

Since I try not to bring screens to bed, I needed an analog book to read. In the spirit of World War I and feeling a little guilty about Helprin, I picked up The First World War by John Keegan. I bought this book after reading Ken Follett’s The Fall of Giants, thinking I wanted to know more about WW I. While the content was interesting and the book was well written, it had small print, lots of names, too many details for me to really enjoy it. I’m still not sure I know how the war started except that the nations had all geared up for war so any excuse would have probably led to the disaster. I really felt like I needed an atlas, a primer in pre-WW I nations and a “who’s who” list. I may get back to it some day but for now, it’s way MORE than I want to know.

Fortunately, I was saved by a trip to the Green Valley Book Fair near Harrisonburg, Virginia. My trip yielded a small pile of books, and I started reading The Heart of Everything That Is, a biography of Red Cloud, in the hotel room that evening. It was an engaging, sometimes irreverent history, unbiased in its brutally honest depictions of both white and Native Americans. I finished it quickly and then discovered I didn’t have the energy to go back to the two WW I books that were waiting.

So, prompted by a drive across the state that went through Prince Edward County, I picked up Israel on the Appomattox, the story of a community of freed blacks created near Farmville. It’s been on the shelf for some time now. So, I’m one chapter in and just mired in the small print, lots of names and too many details.

I love history and historical fiction so what’s the problem? Why the Red Cloud bio but not the WW I history? The purpose of the text seems to be the difference for me. The biography included historical details, but the primary focus of the book was to tell the story. Not every thread was pursued, not every moment of every event filled in. We didn’t get a long bio of every person mentioned but followed a few important figures.  And, I didn’t have a sense that there was going to be a test at the end. In the end, I probably remember more of the details that were included in The Heart of Everything That Is (because there weren’t quite so many of them), and I have a good general sense of what happened in the mid-19th century American west.

I may be ready for WW I and Prince Edward County at some point in the future, but not right now…my free reading time is often limited to before bed, and small print, lots of names and too many details are not really appealing. I feel like I am completing required reading rather than really enjoying myself. I want a light but interesting story that is engaging but not overwhelming. Maybe I’ll try WW I from a different angle. At the book fair, I found Elsie & Mairi Go to War by Diane Atkinson. It’s the true life story of two women who worked as ambulance drivers during the great war. It’s got a welcoming cover, a decently sized font, and the first prologue is immediately engaging:

Eighteen-year-old Mairi and thirty-year-old Elise Knocker, divorcee and mother of a young son, were madcap motorbikers who had met while roaring around the Hampshire and Dorset lanes, and had competed in motorbike and sidecar trials for the last year.

Here’s history wrapped in a story with the kind of compelling characters that made Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men such riveting reads.