Thursday, December 1, 2016

Polar Book Club, the 2017 Edition: Get the Book and Start Reading!

Temperatures are dropping in the Northern Hemisphere as Old Man Winter tries to settle in for a nice, long visit. (Okay, maybe it's not that long, but it feels like it.) 

You know what that means, right?

It's time to announce the selection of the 2017 Polar Book Club! 

Make sure you have enough hot beverage and snacks, nab the warmest blanket, carve out the best spot with excellent lighting, charge your e-reader, grab this year's tome and settle in for a long winter's read. 

Uber-Reader Karen has chosen the book for the 2017 Polar Book Club: The Bookman's Tale.  It sounds like a doozie!

Hay-on-Wye, 1995. Peter Byerly isn’t sure what drew him into this particular bookshop. Nine months earlier, the death of his beloved wife, Amanda, had left him shattered. The young antiquarian bookseller relocated from North Carolina to the English countryside, hoping to rediscover the joy he once took in collecting and restoring rare books. 
But upon opening an eighteenth-century study of Shakespeare forgeries, Peter is shocked when a portrait of Amanda tumbles out of its pages. Of course, it isn’t really her. The watercolor is clearly Victorian. Yet the resemblance is uncanny, and Peter becomes obsessed with learning the picture’s origins.
As he follows the trail back first to the Victorian era and then to Shakespeare’s time, Peter communes with Amanda’s spirit, learns the truth about his own past, and discovers a book that might definitively prove Shakespeare was, indeed, the author of all his plays.

If you want to join the club, there's only one thing you need to do: get the book and start reading! 

Okay, two things: get the book (from the library, bookstore, thrift store with a book section — or share with a friend) and email me so we can coordinate our discussion.

Let's aim to finish the book by March 5, 2017, so the conversation can begin.

Relax, this is not a book report or a school assignment. It's all about the book and reading, and sharing your ideas with your fellow readers. 

Here are a few things that may stimulate your thinking:

Consider why you liked (or didn't like) the book, and think about how you can express that to other readers to spur discussion. Did you like the characters? Was the story plausible — and if not, was it the right kind of fantastic? What would you do in the same situation? 

Remember, if you liked the book, telling others why may not be as easy as if you didn't like it, so think about specific things you liked: passages, tone, characters or points in the story.

So, are you in? Let me know!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

When Social Media Stopped Being Social

I left Facebook on November 10, 2016, and I am at peace.

I haven't been a fan of Facebook for a while. I joined to stay in touch with my family, and it's true: I could tell where everyone was and what they were doing by their posts. As the family crier (at least for my husband David), I found it helpful. When the grandchildren came along, I reveled in those photos and updates.

However, I never trusted Facebook's algorithms: millions of posts are created and distributed every moment, but I saw only a limited number of individuals' posts in my feed. In return, many of my posts were displayed to fewer than a dozen of my 100+ friends. Why?

You have to be shared to be shared on Facebook.

Yes, I wrote that correctly: if your friends and family don't "like" or "share" your posts, they see fewer of them, until your posts are not even a faint memory in their feeds.

I realized I saw only a fraction of what I had signed up to see, and it narrowed precipitously every time I used the site. I occasionally scoured my "likes" to reset my feed. I created lists of family, close friends and local folks — and promptly saw only a fraction of them on each list.

Facebook also deleted "likes" by the hundreds on non-individual accounts in 2015. (Facebook claims to be looking into this phenomenon, but no word to its customers.) Facebook users who "liked" Oreos and the New York tourism office may have lost that connection.

Facebook evolved from "the biggest time-suck of the century disguised as leisure activity" to unpaid labor to get what I wanted. It remained, however, a huge moneymaker for the owner.

The aggression by Facebook users against Facebook users was the sprinkles on the sundae. Last year, I witnessed an increase in users looking to start arguments, or at least telling the other user s/he is terribly, terribly wrong. I posted a video and was scolded because the video offended a "friend." And it didn't stop there. As a result, I have deleted posts and comments, and hid or unfriended more than one Facebook compatriot trying to save me from my wicked ways.

I am sure I was not blameless. I debunked a lot of fake news before it became a thing (and continued to do so). However, once I realized that arguing on social media is a very aggressive act, I stopped. Instead, I ignored or hid posts. I may have asked my Facebook buddies a question from time to time, but even that stopped. Of course, plenty of people still tried to straighten me out, but at least I attempted to not add to the problem.

In response, I started posting only cat pictures and sharing jokes or photos of friends and family. Even that wasn't safe: I was (gently) scolded for sharing a photo with a caption that was "too personal" to share. Never mind that users set the audience, that the post was shared with hundreds of people aside from me — and that my shares, likes and posts were seen by fewer than a dozen individuals.

Along comes Facebook Messenger, a special app for communicating via Facebook. The work of Facebook increased, and grew more perilous. My brother mistook Facebook for Messenger and— well, let's just say it revived one of my greatest nightmares about electronic communication. Let's not mention the amount of data gleaned by Facebook from those "private" messages. Everything is for sale on the Internet, and nothing is free.

Then came the main event of the Facebook Fight: the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Never did people fling animosity at each other with more gusto than during the nearly two years of that campaign cycle.

The din was unimaginable. I would scroll for a few minutes, see lots of people screaming the same thing, and pass by more than my share of stories about tortured animals. (That was Facebook's analysis of my use, I kid you not.). It became impossible to find photos of cute cats and children. I "unfriended" a few people who wouldn't stop trying to change my mind, and began checking in less often. I use Twitter, I read the news, I have Weather Kitty on my phone; I didn't need Facebook.

Days after the election, I left.

In the ensuing weeks, I have found myself shocked and pleased at the amount of time I have to spend on everything else. I miss the photos, but I view Instagram, which is where most of them originate. My husband shows me videos and images that amuse him, which is fun.  I miss the chit-chat, but I do not miss the animosity.

I haven't decided if I will return. If I do, I will purge the heck out of my "friends" and "liked" list (if Facebook hasn't already done that for me). I will not be the robust user of yore, spending much less time feeding the business that is Facebook (and its dependents).

I've learned my lesson: Facebook is not the coffee klatch it presented itself to be in the early days. Now, using Facebook is like wearing a t-shirt on which people feel entitled to write graffiti. And you know what? I like my t-shirt just the way it is.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Respecting the Office

The results of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election have surprised a number of people, especially those who did not support the candidates who won the election. People are protesting, which may not be a surprise, but it is atypical post-election behavior for U.S. voters and citizens. Then again, the election was atypical, so much of what follows is exceptional as well.

Although Americans have a lot to think about, one thing should not be in question: the respect afforded the office of the President of the United States of America, and the Vice President. The office is supposed to be bigger than the people who hold it.

Elections are held on a regular basis with the expectation of a change in personnel. The nature of elections is that people approve the person for the job. The individual is on the ballot.

So, maybe your person did not win— but the nature of elections is to rule out all but one candidate.

Maybe you have very strong opinions about the candidate who won the election — but a passionate electorate can be indicative of an active, vibrant electorate.

However, disagreement with the platforms of winning candidates does not give voters permission to savage the office.

Personally, I am still trying to understand what the results of the recent U.S. Presidential Election will mean to my nation and the world. The President-elect has very different curriculum vitae than any of his predecessors, and his campaign platforms have been divisive to the American people.

I truly hope the men who currently hold the positions of President-Elect and Vice President-Elect earn the respect the office affords them. Only time will tell. Until then, I must extend the same respect to the office as I have my entire life. I truly hope this administration will make that much easier than it feels it may be in these early days of transition.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Veterans Day 2016: Poppies Grow

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
         In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween: A Poem

Out I went into the meadow,
Where the moon was shining brightly,
And the oak-tree’s lengthening shadows
On the sloping sward did lean;
For I longed to see the goblins,
And the dainty-footed fairies,
And the gnomes, who dwell in caverns,
But come forth on Halloween.
“All the spirits, good and evil,
Fay and pixie, witch and wizard,
On this night will sure be stirring,"
Thought I, as I walked along;
“And if Puck, the merry wanderer,
Or her majesty, Titania,
Or that Mab who teases housewives
If their housewifery be wrong,
Should but condescend to meet me”—
But my thoughts took sudden parting,
For I saw, a few feet from me,
Standing in the moonlight there,
A quaint, roguish little figure,
And I knew ‘twas Puck, the trickster,
By the twinkle of his bright eyes
Underneath his shaggy hair.
Yet I felt no fear of Robin,
Salutation brief he uttered,
Laughed and touched me on the shoulder,
And we lightly walked away;
And I found that I was smaller,
For the grasses brushed my elbows,
And the asters seemed like oak-trees,
With their trunks so tall and gray.

Swiftly as the wind we traveled,
Till we came unto a garden,
Bright within a gloomy forest,
Like a gem within the mine;
And I saw, as we grew nearer,
That the flowers so blue and golden
Were but little men and women,
Who amongst the green did shine.

But ‘twas marvelous the resemblance
Their bright figures bore to blossoms,
As they smiled, and danced, and courtesied,
Clad in yellow, pink and blue;
That fair dame, my eyes were certain,
Who among them moved so proudly,
Was my moss-rose, while her ear-rings
Sparkled like the morning dew.

Here, too, danced my pinks and pansies,
Smiling, gayly, as they used to
When, like beaux bedecked and merry,
They disported in the sun;
There, with meek eyes, walked a lily,
While the violets and snow-drops
Tripped it with the lordly tulips:
Truant blossoms, every one.

Then spoke Robin to me, wondering:
“These blithe fairies are the spirits
Of the flowers which all the summer
Bloom beneath its tender sky;
When they feel the frosty fingers
Of the autumn closing round them,
They forsake their earthborn dwellings,
Which to earth return and die,
“As befits things which are mortal.
But these spirits, who are deathless,
Care not for the frosty autumn,
Nor the winter long and keen;
But, from field, and wood, and garden,
When their summer’s tasks are finished,
Gather here for dance and music,
As of old, on Halloween.”
Long, with Puck, I watched the revels,
Till the gray light of the morning
Dimmed the luster of Orion,
Starry sentry overhead;
And the fairies, at that warning,
Ceased their riot, and the brightness
Faded from the lonely forest,
And I knew that they had fled.

Ah, it ne’er can be forgotten,
This strange night I learned the secret—
That within each flower a busy
Fairy lives and works unseen
Seldom is ‘t to mortals granted
To behold the elves and pixies,
To behold the merry spirits,
Who come forth on Halloween.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Summer Reading: Tried Something New!

As the days get shorter and chillier, I decided to add up my summer reading — and I decided, "Not bad."

Well, not bad for a slacker. I read one less book this year than last year, but I guess we can't all be Karen.

So, without further ado, I bring you...

Chris' 2016 Summer Reading List

  1. Fates and Furies
  2. Summer House With Swimming Pool
  3. Between the World and Me
  4. Ghostly Echoes
  5. Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls 
  6. The Underground Railroad
  7. The Uninvited 
  8. Who Goes There? (The Thing)
  9. Big Magic
  10. Dorothy Parker Drank Here 
  11. A Spirited Tail 
  12. The Goodbyes
  13. Secondhand Souls
  14. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
  15. Everything We Keep
  16. If Books Could Kill
  17. The Bookseller 
  18. Unlikely Friendships
  19. Homicide in Hardcover
  20. Ghostly Paws
  21. The Sleeper and the Spindle 
  22. The Body Reader
  23. Blackout
  24. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 
  25. Vacations From Hell
  26. 168 Hours
  27. Farewell, Dorothy Parker
  28. When Breath Becomes Air
  29. In the Heights
  30. Crenshaw
  31. How Do You Sleep
  32. In the Shadow of Blackbirds
  33. NOS4A2

I tried something new this year. Some titles listed above were e-books, others were printed books — and, new this year, was the introduction of audiobooks to my reading repertoire. Five of the titles above were audio, a mix of Overdrive library books and Audible purchases.

I can hear a bit of a stir in Reading Land: Why audio? Is audio even reading? What the heck, woman?!?

I was once like you, my cautious fellow readers. However, after going to the Audio Side, I have come to realize: reading is reading. With one book, I was getting lost on the page. With another, my only reading time coincided with my trips to the gym (and I don't read visual/print material on exercise equipment). I challenge you to listen to Fisher Stevens read a novel by Christopher Moore and not find the joy in listening to someone (besides Carole) read to you.

There is a danger to reading at the gym: trying to not cry in public during an intense cardio workout. (I am looking at you, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, with the assistance of Lin-Manuel Miranda!)

The books I enjoyed most were both Cat Winters books, every Dorothy Parker (and related) book, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, The Underground Railroad, and Ghostly Echoes. Each taught me something and took me out of my comfort zone.

My least favorites were The Body Reader (not as taut as expected), Summer House With Swimming Pool (not as good of villains as in the author's first book), and Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls (too long in the wrong places).

As always, my summer reading will benefit my community: I will donate $5 per book read to Main Street Child Development Center and I will buy three new books for the Fairfax County Public Library from its Amazon Wish List.

Tell me how you did with your summer reading, and you may win a book!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

All Hallow's Read, An Excellent Tradition — Now with Poetry

So, Neil Gaiman encourages you to — well, let me let him tell you himself.

Long story short, give friends, family — even total strangers — scary books to read.

I think that's a lovely idea.

Personally, I include a Halloween poem with candy for my trick-or-treaters, and take the poem to work for wide distribution.

Stop by Hedgehog Lover on Halloween to see what poem I chose this year.

Can't wait? Check out the poem from last year. Or the year before. Try Halloween 2012. Seriously, I'm a fan, and I know you will be, too.

See you October 31!