Friday, March 30, 2012

Top Five Friday: Dystopian Novels

Yesterday, I reviewed Karen Thompson Walker's upcoming novel, The Age of Miracles. Today, I'll continue with the theme and share my top five favorite dystopian novels for "Top Five Friday."

1. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

I included this book on my "A Few of My Favorite Things" post back in December, but I obviously like it so much that here it is again. Lenny Abramov is an enthusiast for those dusty, moth eaten things nobody uses anymore--books. He just wants to fit in and make his 20-something Korean-American girlfriend, Eunice, love him. Through alternating chapters--old fashioned diary entries by Lenny and online correspondences by Eunice--readers are exposed to a future America in which everyone is obsessed with living forever and the superficial, the country is irrevocably indebted to China and the government is controlled by a single political party. Super Sad True Love Story is a thought provoking, and kind of startling, look at how our focus on commercialism, capitalism, and youth can and may lead to the deterioration of the individual to clueless, superficial droids obsessed with pleasure and immortality.

2. The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

I read DuPrau's dystopian novel--the first in the Books of Ember series--with a sense of wonder back when I was in college. Though she wasn't the first to come up with the concept, imagining an entire underground city was fascinating. In the book, Lina Mayfleet, and her friend, Doon, are young citizens of this subterranean city that's beginning to run out of energy and resources because of its aging infrastructure. At their graduation in which they are assigned jobs, Lina, who's assigned pipework labor, and Doon, assigned messenger, are dissatisfied and switch roles. At home, Lina finds an undecipherable letter in a box, which turns out to be instructions on how to leave the city meant to be passed down from mayor to mayor over the span of 200 years. The only ones who seem to be concerned about the imminent collapse of their underground city, Lina and Doon use the advantages of their assigned occupations to puzzle out the dangerous path out of it and in to a world of light of which Lima has dreamed.

3. Forecast by Shya Scanlon

This novel actually started out as a 42 installment serial novel published across a number of online journals. I requested my library purchase it after reading a short synopsis in the New York Times Book Review, interested solely because of its dystopian theme. It tells the story of Zara, a woman who, after a spirited, independent youth, morphs into Helen, a dull suburban wife married to Jack, oblivious and undeserving of her once spirited self. It's the year 2212 and Zara/Helen lives in a Seattle where electricity has been depleted and replaced by power created by negative emotions, farmed by what's called Emotional Transfer Machines, or ETMs. If that's not crazy enough, weather changes by the moment--rain, snow, sunshine can happen all within a few minutes of each other. Told from the perspective of Maxwell Point, a Citizen Surveillant who's obsessively been watching her since her childhood, Forecast follows Helen/Zara as she escapes her mundane suburban life, befriends a talking dog, and seeks something more--something she may have once had.

4. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

How could I not include a classic on this list? I read Atwood's dystopian novel in my 20th Century English and American Literature course back in college, and I still remember its effect on me. Offred serves as a Handmaid in the house of the high-ranking Commander and is only allowed to go out once a day to marketplaces where signs are only pictures because women are forbidden to read. In the Republic of Gilead, the theocracy that has replaced what was the United States, women's value in society depend on their ability to bear children or else they face exile to the Colonies. Offred, remembering a time when she once had a husband, a daughter and a job, must pray that she herself can conceive another child to prevent herself from becoming one of the "unwomen," but she knows that in the nuclear aftermath that is the Republic, sterile men do, indeed, exist too. I found this story particularly frightening simply because of how plausible the premise is--and considering some recent political activity in the U.S.--how close we can come to realizing it.

5. The Giver by Lois Lowry

This is probably the first dystopian novel I recall reading. On the verge of turning 12 years old, Jonas lives in a society where pain and strife do not exist because of "Sameness." However, along with that supposed benefit, emotional depth also lacks therein. This harmony is maintained by the assignment of occupations, the matching of men and women based on personalities, and the limiting of two children, one male and one female, per family. At the "Ceremony of Twelve" Jonas receives his career assignment, chosen by the community's elders, as the next Receiver of Memory. In this position, he is to receive telepathically the secrets of the time before "Sameness" from The Giver. Fear, violence, sadness as well as true love, beauty, joy are all concepts newly revealed to Jonas, who begins to feel alienated from the people around him and critical of the way things are. He comes to the conclusion that "Sameness" is wrong and that something must be done to change the current conditions and enlighten and emancipate his people from their narrow minded world.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Age of Miracles or Mayhem?

The sun exploding, a meteorite crashing into the Earth's surface, a blast from a Death Star ray--these are relatively quick apocalyptic scenarios that would mean the end of human civilization as we know it. But what if it happened slowly--like the gradual slowing of the Earth's rotation? That's exactly what Karen Thompson Walker's upcoming debut novel, The Age of Miracles, imagines. In the year of the supposed prediction of the end of the world by the Mayan long count calendar, it's only fitting that we'd see more stories about the apocalypse. I think this one, however, will stand out.

Julia is a normal 12 year old girl. She goes to school, plays soccer, and has a secret crush on one of her classmates. This normalcy stops when she and her family awake one Saturday morning to find that something has happened to the Earth's rotation: it has begun to slow. As both daylight hours and nighttimes stretch to unimaginable lengths, the effect of gravity increases, birds begin to die off from a mysterious disease, and the people in Julia's life begin to change--and maybe not for the better. Struggling to understand herself anyway, Julia must adapt to these catastrophic changes in her already turbulent life.

Though Julia is the central character, Walker addresses issues beyond the adolescent coming of age story. How would our nation and the world react to the slowing of the Earth's rotation and the resulting discrepancy in our time keeping systems? Would we keep to clock time, or would we be like what Julia refers to as the "real-timers," who adapt their active and inactive schedules to that of the sun? How would governments respond to the damage caused to coastlines as tide levels increase, forcing beach side citizens to relocate? And how would humans acclimate as certain plants and animals begin to die off?

An engaging and powerful portrayal of a dystopian not-too-distant future, this novel is definitely going to be at the top of my favorite books of 2012. The Age of Miracles will be available June 26, 2012 from The Random House Publishing Group, but you can place a hold on the Lawrence Public Library's copy by clicking here.

This post also appears on the Lawrence Public Library's Spotlight Blog.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Top Five Friday: Poets

In anticipation of National Poetry Month (yes still a week away), I've decided to share my top five favorite poets for this week's "Top Five Friday":

1. Jewel

She's my favorite musician, so it shouldn't be surprising that's she's my number one favorite poet. Before the release of her sophomore album, Spirit, Jewel published a collection of poetry titled A Night Without Armor. The fourteen year old, hardcore fan that I was, I wore the pages of my copy out, touched by the honesty, impressed with the intimate detail, and inspired to start writing my own poetry. Though the collection received often harsh critical review, I've always thought of her poetry as brilliant. Some might say I was just blinded by my devotion to the artist, but the effect was still there and that's all that matters to me. I've been eagerly awaiting another collection; however, in an interview, Jewel once said she has actually finished a collection of love poems for her husband, Ty, but she'd prefer wait to have it published until his mother can't read them...

2. Katrina Ottens

This poet's no where near as well known as any of the others on this list, but I must give a shout out to my cousin. When we were teenagers, Katrina shared with me a notebook in which she had written a few poems. Impressed with her work and inspired, I pretty much stole her idea and began writing my own. If it weren't for her, though, I may not have had any passion or interest at all in writing and possibly may not have accomplished what I have. When my grandmother died, I had the honor of writing a poem with Katrina for the program handout, and though the occasion was sad, I enjoyed working with my cousin on the project. I'm not sure if she's still writing or not, but it's always been a secret goal of mine to collaborate with Katrina on a collection.

3. Emily Dickinson

"Because I could not stop for death / He kindly stopped for me..." Probably one of the most memorable lines of poetry to me. I think I appreciate Dickinson a little more for her story than for her work, but she's still one of the first I think of when asked about great poets. Deeply affected by the deaths of friends, she suffered from depression and tended to seclude herself in her room, but she seemed to find solace in the written word. I think that's why I appreciate her so much. Though I may have not suffered from depression to the extent that she did, I can relate to her in the sense that I've found an outlet for feelings and emotions in writing.

4. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

Last year, I came up with the idea to read one title by each of the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature and reflect on them on another blog, What Would Alfred Read--a feat that I sadly admit I have put on hiatus. According to, Mr. Bjørnson was awarded the Nobel Prize "as a tribute to his noble, magnificent and versatile poetry, which has always been distinguished by both the freshness of its inspiration and the rare purity of its spirit." Out of all the readings I've done for the blog so far, I found Bjørnson's poetry the most engaging and easy to read. I liked the rhythm, alliteration, and rhyme sequences that he often utilized, which made is verse fun and enjoyable to read. You can read more about my thoughts on his poetry here.

5. Mark Hennessy

Now, I haven't read much of this last poet's work, but because of a generous gift I received yesterday, I soon will. I invited the local poet Mark Hennessy to do a performance at the library for National Poetry Month, and he decided to thank me by dropping off copies of his two collections, as I described in my last post. I thought that was pretty cool, and thus the reason he's included on today's "Top Five." I'm looking forward to reading his work and seeing his performance at the library on April 4th, entitled The Meaninglessness of National Poetry Month in an Apocalyptic Year, as well as the other things he'll be doing for the series of events offered by the library and the Lawrence Arts Center.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Heritage, poetry, and a thank you gift?

Despite the fact that there were only seven people, I felt last night's "Heritage" themed Poetry Social was another success--filled with great poetry and meaningful conversation. I started the evening by announcing the upcoming events for National Poetry Month, and then passed out little scraps of paper for a writing exercise. I had everyone write on the scraps the first word or phrase that came to mind when they thought of our theme, collected the scraps, had everyone draw one from a cup, and told them to write a poem using that word as inspiration or a starting point. I turned on some music, also for inspiration, and joined the group in writing and then sharing. I was incredibly impressed with the creativity of each who shared, especially the participant who received "ribonucleic acid," provided by a biochemist in attendance!

From a very enthusiastic high school student to an older gentleman who drives 20 minutes to get to the library from out of town, pretty much everyone there was willing to share and discuss openly. I even shared a couple of my own poems, which I think were received warmly. In closing the social, I thanked everyone for their presence and participation, and then talked a little bit about how the library is becoming not just a place to house information and entertainment, but a place to create and share as well. It was my intent with creating the Poetry Social to help gear the library in that direction, and I'm thrilled that our newly hired director, Brad Allen, envisions the same for the library.

When I got to work this evening, I found a package waiting for me at the Reference Desk. Inside were copies of I Lost It All The Night The Day The Circus Came To Town and Cue The Bedlam (More Desperate With Longing Than Want Of Air), collections by Mark Hennessy, the local poet I invited to perform at the library on the 4th of April. Along with the books was a hand crafted note made of construction paper with an Archie comic taped to the front and a drawing inside. Written in what appears to be three different peoples' handwriting was "Dear William, these gifts, humble as they are, are for you with thanks & respect." How nice! For tomorrow's "Top Five Friday" I have been planning to blog this week about my favorite poets--guess who just made the list!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Poetry on the Shelf and Off the Page

My major project for the afternoon was finally setting up my poetry display! Now, I didn't drag any mannequins into the library like I did a couple of years ago. I actually kept it pretty simple.

What I'm even more excited about, though, is the series of events that the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence Arts Center are collaborating on next month. From a performance by a local celebrity and poet, Mark Hennessy, to poetry related computer classes, to an installation of a typewriter in the library lobby, we've got a fun plan for National Poetry Month.

Here's the full list of events and details, written up by the programming librarian:

Wednesday, April 4, 7:00 pm
Library Auditorium
Kick off poetry month with an unapologetically mathematical celebration of the singularity “4.4.2012″ by poet Mark Hennessy, who holds the unacknowledged East Lawrence record for listening to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” by Elton John most times in a row.

Wednesday, April 25, 7:00 pm
Library Auditorium
Kansas poet laureate Dr. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg reflects on a month of poetry with out-loud readings of old and new work.

Sundays April 1, 15 and 29, 3:30 pm
Library Children’s Room
Celebrate the master poets of humor on April Fools Day! “Build” your own poem with Legos. Create a Poetree that will be displayed in the library. Hear the music of words during “Poetry is Music.” Join Miss Becca for poetry storytimes in the children’s room at the library on Sunday afternoons.

Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in April
Lawrence Public Library
Slam poetry and win prizes, from frozen burritos to techno gadgets! Read, slam, or improvise a poem at the library’s laidback Poetry Social. Flaunt your oratory acrobatics at the Teen Tongue Twister contest. Mess around with magnetic poetry in the library’s Teen Zone. Dates and times posted on the library calendar.

Wednesday, April 11, and Wednesday, April 18, 2:00 pm
Library Computer Lab
… In which poetry and technology are happily married. Learn how to make a chapbook using Microsoft Publisher, and find places to publish your poetry on the web. Advance registration recommended; call 785-843-1178.

Lawrence Public Library and Lawrence Arts Center
If you love it, let it go. Drop an original or favorite poem in the Poem Mailbox at Lawrence Public Library or the Arts Center, and be surprised where it turns up — in a book at the library, on a wall at the Arts Center, in a restaurant menu, on the sidewalk, who knows where! Set your verse free so someone else can love it, too.

Lawrence Public Library and Lawrence Arts Center
Exercise your poetic muscles. Knock out a poem on a manual typewriter installed in the Lawrence Public Library and Arts Center lobbies during the month of April. Drop it into the Poem Mailbox to let it out into the world.

Lawrence Arts Center
Bored by Beowolf? Lost in Paradise Lost? Over The Iliad? Move over, Mahabharata — add a stanza to the ongoing epic poem installed at the Lawrence Arts Center beginning in March. The epic poem will be completed in May and published on the Lawrence Arts Center’s website.

Lawrence Arts Center
Notice to all virtuosos of the clandestine couplet: Don’t hide your genius. Hand write your original or favorite poem on the chalkboard wall installed at the Lawrence Arts Center instead. Weekly “best of” will make it into a virtual chapbook.

Lawrence Arts Center
Look for poetry to turn up in unexpected places all throughout Lawrence from March to May. Pay heed: Gorilla Poet sightings possible. Stay tuned to for more exciting poetry antics and incidents.

Lawrence Arts Center
This is not your usual poetry reading. Beginning April 16, the front gallery at the Lawrence Arts Center will house an ongoing installation featuring everything poetry but the book.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Top Five Friday: Indie Musicians

In an attempt to ensure I update this blog at least once a week, I've come up with a regular post that I'll (try to) do each week, "Top Five Friday," in which I'll share five of my favorite things from a certain topic, genre of books, style of music or whatever else I come up with. And today, I'm going to start with my top five favorite indie rock musicians! Indie music derived its name from the trend of bands and artists with do-it-yourself attitudes releasing their music from small, independent labels beginning in the 80's. In the 2000's, indie musicians gained a lot of attention as the music industry changed with the development of digital technology and the Internet, allowing several artists to acheive mainstream status ( Anywho, here's my top five favorite:

1. Kimya Dawson

Kimya was probably the first indie artist that I was introduced to. Known first as Adam Green's counterpart in the indie band, The Moldy Peaches, Kimya started recording and releasing music on her own after the band went on hiatus in 2004. Her brutally honest lyrics and her soft, sometimes raspy vocals mixed with typically unique guitar strumming appealed to me. I've always appreciated her passion for making music and touching the lives of people who may have gone through or are going through similar situations as she has. That appreciation grew even more when I first heard "The Library" from her most recent album Thunder Thighs, which I reviewed here.

2. Joanna Newsom

I've always found Joanna's vocals unique, to say the least, but I've always been interested in different sounding voices. Her lyrics and her harp playing are what really attract me to her music, though, especially on her first official release, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Whether its a storytelling song or a ballad, she has wonderful way of describing things and setting it to the relaxing tones of the harp. I was really impressed with her seemingly much more mature style on her latest release, Have One on Me.

3. Noah and the Whale

Charlie Fink, Tom Hobden, Matt "Urby Whale" Owens, Fred Abbott, and Michael Petulla make up this band who's name comes from the band's favorite film, The Squid and the Whale, and the film's director, Noah Baumbach. Charlie's deep voice paired with the occasional ukulele and the vocals of Laura Marling creates a jovial combination, especially with "5 Years Time" from their debut album, Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down.

4. Jenny Lewis

Known first as the primary vocalist for Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis's voice is sweet and attractive. I became aware of her, though, when she collaborated with The Watson Twins on the album Rabbit Fur Coat. Whether it's with the band, the twins, or by herself, I've appreciated anything she's attempted, especially her second solo album, Acid Tongue.

5. CocoRosie

By far the most unique indie band, in my opinion, CocoRosie's music is strange, melodic and sometimes out of this world. From their first album, La maison de mon rêve, to their most recent, Grey Oceans, sisters Bianca "Coco" and Sierra "Rosie" Casady have consistently experimented with different instruments and sounds including children's toys, electronic instruments, and exotic percussion and noisemakers, which gives their music the uniqueness I appreciate.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Douglas Coupland and Shampoo Planet

Having run out of ideas for books to read once, I discovered one of my new favorite authors, Douglas Coupland, when doing a search for similar authors to Chuck Palahniuk using Novelist. An article written by Chuck Wright explained that Coupland's works would appeal to Palahniuk fans because of "their offbeat characters, stylistic inventiveness, and ironic, self-conscious musings on the hollowness of contemporary culture and our prefab zeitgeist." I certainly wasn't disappointed. I started with Hey Nostradamus!, a story about the effects of a school shooting on four characters, the first of which is the pregnant and secretly married 17 year old who's gunned down in the school cafeteria. However, I fell in love with Liz, the overweight, loneliest woman in the world and main character of Eleanor Rigby. In the novel, Coupland tells of how she's reunited with the strange son she gave up for adoption, and this meeting instigates a string of weird events, including reverse sing-alongs and apocalyptic visions of farmers.

My most recent Coupland read, though, was Shampoo Planet, about Tyler, a college freshman who dreams of working for the very corporation Jasmine, his ex-hippie mother, once demonstrated against. The book begins with Jasmine waking up to find the litters D-I-V-O-R-C-E written across her forehead by her spoiled, and now absent, husband. Though he doesn't appreciate her 1960's influenced worldview, Tyler tries to console her in the absence of the rotten stepfather and begins to consider his own position in life. Living in a small, mundane Northwestern town of Lancaster, Washington, obsessed with hair-care products, attending college and dating Anna-Louise, a girl he's known forever, he begins to look for something more. His first step is a trip to Europe where he meets the opportunistic and French girl, Stephanie, who, after Tyler returns home, visits and shakes things up even more by getting between Anna-Louise and Tyler and convincing him to abscond with her to California.

What does Tyler find in California? An escape from quotidian life in Lancaster or disappointment and loneliness? I have to admit that I wasn't as in to this title as much as I was Eleanor Rigby, but I did enjoy it and could relate to the story. In the midst of rebelling against our parents and trying to figure out who we are apart from them, we tend to make mistakes just like Tyler does, and it's these mistakes that help define us or strengthen our character in the end. Tyler may learn slowly, but his situation and story is certainly believable, and I'd recommend it if you're looking for something new to read yourself.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Navigating the Facebook Universe

This week's two-part computer class, "Getting Started with Facebook," has proven to be decidedly popular. Because we only have twelve seats in the computer lab, we require reservations and usually limit classes to that number; however, I had sixteen people in yesterday's session. As I've mentioned before, the local newspaper has started listing the classes in their print calendar, but those listings neglect to mention that registration is required. Hating to turn people away, I allowed those who weren't registered to pull a chair into the lab and sit in on the side. Even though they weren't at a computer, they were able to at least watch and learn something instead of having wasted their time coming downtown to the library for nothing.

This particular class is one of my favorites to teach, but I have to admit yesterday's session left me scatter-brained and exhausted. With any of the computer classes, there's always a variance in ability among the attendees, and a lot of the times when I'm instructing, I need to pause to catch someone up or explain something one more time. On top of that, though, when teaching people how to use Facebook, there's so much going on it's hard to stay on one particular path. I'll get to explaining one thing, and a patron will have a question about something slightly related but just off-topic enough to get me going in a whole other direction, and I end up feeling like I've gone in circles. All the while, the patron is sitting there and I'm never quite sure if they've followed along, or if I've left them with their own heads spinning in circles of information overload. I'm really fortunate, though, that pretty much all of the participants in the class were patient with me, and some even felt sorry for me having to be pulled in so many directions.

My goal for Tuesday's session was to get the patrons registered if they weren't already and then give them a tour of their home page and their profile or timeline. I wanted to start slow. A road block, though, was the confirmation of new users' email addresses, which you have to do first in order to access most of the features on the site. After getting around that, I provided an explanation of the difference between the news feed and their own timeline (or what used to be called wall), the different kinds of updates people can post, how to find friends to add and pages to like, and how to send private messages and chat with friends. I made sure to warn them, though, that every six to twelve months, Facebook likes to update, change and rearrange things, so they shouldn't get used to something being the same for too long. By the time I got through all that, I looked at the clock and my hour was up.

I've planned for Thursday's session to focus on uploading photos, editing profile information, and changing account and privacy settings, but I'm sure I'll find myself wandering all over the Facebook universe again. At the end of yesterday's class, though, I let everyone know that even after the second session, the learning experience doesn't have to end. With Facebook, a lot of it is taking the time to explore on your own. However, I did tell them that if they had a question, they could always come back to the library and ask for me, and I'd be glad to help them to the best of my ability.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Fiction o' the Irish

My major project for the day was yet another display, this time featuring Irish fiction! Now, I kept it pretty simple, printing an Irish landscape for the sign and mounting it on foam core. I also cut out some paper shamrocks and stuck them on the shelves in order to catch the eye a little more effectively. I realize I didn't stray too far out of the box with this idea, as it's basically celebrating St. Patrick's Day, but I still had a bit of fun with it.

I'm no expert on Irish fiction, so I simply did a subject search in our catalog for "Irish fiction" and pulled anything that didn't look too dated. While I was in the process of putting the display up, a patron approached and expressed delight. She then proceeded to tell me that the master of Irish fiction is William Trevor, who, she said, is pretty much the forefather to all the other authors I had included. I've never read his work, so I couldn't disagree or disagree, but I thanked her for her input. I was just happy that my display was already attracting some attention.

I have to admit, though, I'm looking much more forward to my next display, celebrating National Poetry Month and promoting the series of poetry events that I've been planning for April. My head's brimming with ideas!