Sunday, July 29, 2012

2030 Is Right Around the Corner — And On Your Bookshelf

Albert Brooks manages to hit just about every nerve in 2030.  There are no hovering cars, much to the dismay of sci-fi fans everywhere — but there are plenty of familiar things, and they've all gone awry.

Matthew Bernstein is the first Jewish president of the United States of America.  He is faced with a nation in dire straits: the number of "retirees" is growing unabated, now that many of the diseases that used to kill people are things of the past.  The cost of doing business continues to skyrocket, but the number of people contributing is decreasing.

The "American dream" of having a better, more successful life is a distant memory.  Brooks introduces us to a few of the players in 2030, including the President, his wife — and a surprising new relationship the President never saw coming.  We meet members of every generation — which, now that people have sufficient health to permit them to live comfortably into the triple digits.

What is a little scary is the way these characters are living our future.  Brad is healthy and financially solvent into his 80s, though the same can't be said of all of his friends.  Kathy will never attend college because the financial burdens on her family are too great.  Shen Li has created a modern, efficient and amazing medical future for people in even the most remote areas — and something that will prove to be profitable in this country.

Brooks' strength is envisioning a future that does not include hovercraft and jumpsuits.  He doesn't go too far, just far enough.  The questions he answers are ones that are hot topics today: aging, federal entitlement programs, the cost of college, the power of the AARP, health care and health insurance, whether the U.S. Constitution should be updated to reflect the mores of the here-and-now, national debt and borrowing from other countries — and whether California will slip into the ocean when "the big one" comes.

Find this book, read it and see where we very well could wind up — and what Los Angeles will smell like in 2030.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Woman Feeding Chickens

Her hand is at the feedbag at her waist,
sunk to the wrist in the rustling grain
that nuzzles her fingertips when laced
around a sifting handful. It's like rain,
like cupping water in your hand, she thinks,
the cracks between the fingers like a sieve,
except that less escapes you through the chinks
when handling grain. She likes to feel it give
beneath her hand's slow plummet, and the smell,
so rich a fragrance she has never quite
got used to it, under the seeming spell
of the charm of the commonplace. The white
hens bunch and strut, heads cocked, with tilted eyes,
till her hand sweeps out and the small grain flies.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Releasing Books into the Wild

I buy books for a few reasons. Sometimes I want to read the books, and other times I want to share them with my bookish friends.

Occasionally I duplicate what's in my library, and those books are given to friends and the Lunchroom Lending Library at work.

Then there are the books I purchase because they sound too delicious to pass up and, frankly, someone needs to read them.

My friend Carole is a trouper, reading quite a few titles in the last category. She was unfortunate enough to read part of Plague Dogs, a book that was so gut-wrenching I not only asked her to stop reading it, but to return the book so I could recycle it. (That is the only book I have doomed to that fate, and I'm not sorry.) On the flip side, she read The Heroines, a novel in which an owner of a bed and breakfast encounters the heroines of English literature. I can't wait to read it!

With used bookstores and thrift stores in my path, I find many books that simply need to be shared. After a while, even Carole has to reign me in. So, what is a reader to do?

Read and Release at to BookCrossing.

I was told about BookCrossing by a fellow reader at last year's Fall for the Book Festival. BookCrossing takes book-sharing to a new level: readers give books individual codes when they share them so fellow readers with access to the Internet can chart the book's movement when they encounter them. Sure, it requires people to play along, but it costs nothing. (Okay, I purchased stickers for the books, but I could have done it for nothing.)

Here's the cool part: you put them in places where people will find them and take them home to read. (That's called "releasing them into the wild.") You also can give a book to a friend (a "controlled release").

I thought it was a lovely idea, in theory. Then I went to my local Potbelly Sandwich Shop without a book, and discovered the shop had a bookcase. I borrowed a book — and decided I needed to pay back the book deities who placed a book in my path when I needed it.

Last week, I took a handful of books, coded them and sprinkled them around the area. A few went to the gyms at the nearby university, others went to the library "free book" box, and even more wound up at the pool around the corner. I put one at the community center. I think David still has one for his gym.

I am excited.

Have you tried BookCrossing? Did you like it? Have you ever found a BookCrossing book? (I did once and left it in its natural habitat for a reader to find.) Tell me!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Wise Words: The Lorax

Without a doubt, The Lorax is one of my favorite literary characters. So I share his (and Dr. Seuss') wise words.

Can you do that? I know I'll try.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In Honor of E.B. White's Centennial: Rapping Elements

Only a love of language and grammar could bring English teachers to create a rap song about The Elements of Style.

How can you not chuckle at lyrics " Write for the New Yorker, papers marked up in scarlet / I spin webs with words like my name was Charlotte"? (Wait, does the question mark go inside the quotation marks? See what this does to me?)

Without further ado, and to save what's left of my sanity, I give you rapping E.B. White and William J. Strunk, Jr., the authors of The Elements of Style.

The Elements of Style from Jake Heller on Vimeo.

The lyrics are pure poetry:

My name is Strunk
And they call me White
Here to teach you how to put the pen down right
I see that your writing is a little bit wild
These are the Elements of Style.

Will Strunk in the house but don’t call me junior
Grammatical genius. Number one word groomer.
I teach English 8 at the school of Cornell
Choose your words carefully or I’ll put you through hell.

E.B. White on the mic, former student of Strunk
A story that flows is all I need to get crunk
Write for the New Yorker, papers marked up in scarlet
I spin webs with words like my name was Charlotte.

“In the last analysis”
That’s a bankrupt expression
It’s clear you’re not learning
So listen to my lesson.

Omit needless words. Good writing is concise
When I was in your class, you repeated that thrice
9 times out of 10 ‘student body’ is wrong
Say students instead. Move your story right along.

My name is Strunk
And they call me White
Here to teach you how to put the pen down right
I see that your writing is a little bit wild
These are the Elements of Style.

Split infinitive
Never definitive
Sounds unintelligent
Dumb and inelegant.
Just say it like you meant
Always write with intent
Each word precious
Like Benjamins that you spent.

Do not join independent clauses with a comma.
But I love it, it’s cool.
I don’t care if you wanna.

Jails and schools should not be called facilities.
I hate all these writers with second-rate abilities.
Don’t use dialect ‘less your ear be good
You cover East Harlem, but you ain’t from the hood.

Be clear brief bold with each story told
If it’s your goal to turn ink to gold.

My name is Strunk
And they call me White
Now you know how to put the pen down right
When I read your work, you know I’m gonna smile
Those were the Elements of Style.

Much thanks to Vimeo and Brain Pickings for this gem!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Wise Words: On Becoming

Who you are is better than anyone else you may become. Enjoy being you, and the rest of us will, too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sunday June 17, 2012. Fathers Day. 
Bicentennial Park Beach, Indian Harbor Beach, Florida
I saw a man on the beach.
A  man with skin was so black it shone blue in the sun,
Streached tight  and smooth over hard lean muscles.
He was not a handsome man but his smile lit up his whole face.
He walked the beach tall and confident in jams and flip-flops,
Surrounded by a flock of young multicolored children.
Their skins were brown and tan and pink,
Their heads covered in hair of black and brown and gold
Children laughing up at him,
Vying for his attention.
Hanging on his legs and back like limpets,
Swinging from his hands and arms like monkeys.
Him swinging them around and trying not to trip,
Laughing back down at their turned up faces. 
None of the children shared his deep black skin,
None had his face lighting smile.
Just from looking I do not know if any of those children were his.
Just from looking it doesn't really matter.
All I know of this man is just what I saw when he walked down the beach.
Tall and confident in his shiney blue-black skin, jams and flip-flops
Playing with happy laughing children.
Making me smile from their enjoyment,
Making me smile from the charm and contrast of their appearance. 
Their smiles.
My smile.
All I need to know.
by Stacy McKnight

Monday, July 9, 2012

And I Feel a Little Dirty Afterward

So, I went to Barnes and Noble this week. Twice.

I was lonely.

A friend had given David a gift card. I kept getting their constant, invasive e-mails that told me nothing of interest: buy a Nook, buy a Nook, and get a coupon for your Nook. I don't own a Nook, so seldom were there useful coupons for me.

But I needed a bookstore, a bona fide bookstore. I had trolled the thrift stores, come home with piles of books (some I might even read). I was full — but not content.

I like seeing what's new, what is coming up. I like to touch hardbacks, flip through softcovers, peer at the cover, look at the typeface. I like to be surprised: I want to exclaim: a new Vincenzi already? So that's what Mark Haddon's cover really looks like! I want to find a deal, whip out my coupon for the one I want, buy an extra paperback to leave in the car.  I want to participate.

Amazon is cool: great service, fantastic selection, incredible prices. I have gotten rather spoiled by Amazon: no matter what I order, it shows up nearly instantly, exactly what I ordered, well-packaged and well-priced. I'm not adverse to paying good money for a book. I just don't want to get soaked every time I want to read.

I also don't want to be bombarded with what the bookstore values when it doesn't match my values. And I don't value the Nook.

I love my e-reader. My Kindle (another name for a group of kittens: squee!) gives me Internet service when I want it and a book in my pocket whenever I desperately need fiction. But I also have a library of nine floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, nearly full. I have autographed copies of Good Omens, The Eyre Affair and His Excellency, George Washington (to name a few).  And that's where B&N loses me.

I want my bookstore to show me books, not make the Nook the first, biggest thing I have to squeeze past to get to the books. (I do love the keyring hole in it, though — not that I'd use it, but it is a neat design element, for some reason.) I want the book to be celebrated, not the identity of the store. I don't care if it's called Ham Sandwich: if the store gives me what I want, I will remember what/where/who it is and recommend it at every turn. I am loyal. (Ask Borders.)

Then there's the coupon structure. So, I bought a book for "30 percent off (members get 40 percent off)." I had a coupon for an additional 20 percent off a single item. I bought two books. Here's how the coupon was applied: 30 percent off the original price of the sale book, an additional 10 percent off the now-discounted amount of the sale book, then another 20 percent off that discounted price — of the sale book. And here I thought I was buying one book at 40 percent off and the other at 20 percent off. It was a difference of only a couple of bucks, but I felt just a little cheated.

David is a media guy who shops for music and movies. When he saw a Blu-Ray movie for $40, just a single Blu-Ray disc, his head nearly exploded and he refused to purchase it unless I insisted. (I didn't insist.)

I am all for supporting the merchant who brings you what you want. I have purchased books at absurd (to me) prices because it's what I wanted, the store had it and I wanted to keep them in business. Support the source, right?

And yet...

I just don't like the cluttered store with the e-book counter front and center, a collection of "classics" everyone will buy because they think they should read them, a selection of newly released and pop books people will buy, and overpriced movies. I always walk out of there feeling like B&N has taken advantage of me — and worse, with my permission.

Still, I am hungry for books. There are at least three titles I want right now (but must wait until one is actually published). I want to have a bookstore in town on which I can rely. Do I just "let it go" and try to not feel cheated when squeezing past the Nook counter at B&N (where there is no Marge Piercy, ever)? Do I travel 45 minutes into another state to an independent bookstore and pay full price, plus my time? I don't know. But for now, I will try to just relax, enjoy my new books and decide next week when I "simply must get that book." It's not a perfect world, but it's the best we can do.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Summer Reading Update: Reward Offered

Okay, I'm throwing down the gauntlet: the person who reads the most books this summer wins a prize: a book of her/his choice.

Here's all you have to do:

  • Send me your reading list, or post it in the comments below. (Karen and Stacy already submitted their wish, er, reading lists.)
  • Keep a tally of your books by telling us how you're doing, what you finished, what you liked and what you skipped. (Submit blog comments, e-mail me or tweet me your progress.) Myself, I have posted my progress report on this blog.
  • When autumn equinox arrives, we'll count our reading booty and see who managed the most books.

To be fair, huge, whopping books will count for more than a single book. (I mean, Drood would be worth at least two, don't you agree?)

Thin tomes still count as "a book," but beware: if you read lots and lots of novellas, you'll get a reputation for being a lightweight and all the other readers will kick sand in your face. (Look, I'm not saying it's fair, but it could happen.)

Oh, and as far as the "book of your choice" — within reason. No first edition Dan Browns. (I won't share mine, sorry.)

Check out the original challenge and decide how you wish to share with your community. Remember, time is as valuable in this game as books or money.

So, are there any more takers? Anyone? Bueller?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Declaration of Independence is Poetry

The United States of America is one long-term experiment. We really are revolutionary. Watch this video produced by Declare Yourself and pause to think about it.

Then do something brave. Remember, if we do not hang together, we surely will all hang separately.
Happy Independence Day.

If you can't get to the National Archives, take a gander below: here's what the Declaration of Independence looks like:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Good Fortune: What's the Price of Admission?

This weekend, the mid-Atlantic area was hit with a whopper of a storm. In my previous home, we'd see lights flicker, but that was about it. Only once, after a hurricane last decade, was the power out for an appreciable amount of time.  This time, in our new-to-us (but older than me) abode, the massive trees around the neighborhood took down lines and crushed cars on our street.

We were fortunate: my office had power, so David and I were able to go there. (Thank heavens: I had work to do, the "essential personnel" I am, and finding a building with power was not as easy as it one would think.) The cat stayed in the cool basement. Temperatures were in the triple digits, but between the Kennedy Center (in our workout clothes, how embarrassing, but necessity is a fashion statement), Hard Times (dress code: dressed) and work (dress code: emergency), we were covered. We also could take advantage of local municipalities' "cooling centers" and electrified friends offered their homes.

Yesterday, as we mulled over our options, we knew we were among the fortunate. We had options.

I've had the good fortune of a quality education, employment of my choice and a wonderfully supportive network of family and friends. When mentioning this, more than one person has said emphatically, "It's not luck or fortune. You worked hard. You made this happen. Give yourself credit."

And yet...

I know plenty of people with the same opportunities. I have lived with them, worked with them, befriended them, gone to school and church with them. Some have done better than others, and some have had lives I cannot imagine. When I have mentioned this to friends, more than one has said emphatically, "All it takes is a run of bad luck."

I wonder in which camp I can claim residency.

There is a price of admission to live in either Camp Credit or Camp Luck, and some are more costly than others. I don't call them "sacrifices," but "decisions." Some of the decisions were made for me, but in others I had a modicum of say. I had "power" in some positions, but not in others. I also understand that some elements are out of my control: I didn't choose my sex or race. Also, I am healthy.

Can we say a person who is mentally ill and chooses to live in the woods behind the gas station is choosing that life? What if he had a chance at medication that would stabilize him? What if that medication made him feel dead? What if he didn't have the resources to be treated? What if he fell between the cracks?

The woman with children and an abusive husband: what choices does she have? What if she's been isolated from family and friends, too ashamed to reach out when she can't/won't take anymore and has to save herself and children? What if the shelters are full, she has no transportation, the children are hungry, she wonders if going back (again) isn't the wisest route until she can squirrel away enough resources?

The over-extended family that is upside-down in the mortgage has different choices based on decisions that may have been sound a few years ago. Risk looks different from a seat of opportunity. When payments are escalating, equity is gone, two dimes to rub together are nowhere to be found and investments have vanished, what decisions make sense? What becomes a luxury and what becomes a necessity: climate control (because windows are free), petrol (to get to work), summer camp (summer child care)?

I am grateful for my life and the choices it has afforded me. I haven't always made the best decisions, I'm sure, but I've done the best I can — and I've been lucky. I guess my recipe of luck and action have worked out for me so far.

But we never know. Life turns on a dime, whether we have any in our pockets or not. May we take care of those who need it, and make the best decisions in our power.