book review: shelf monkey

I enjoy reading books that feel like I could have written them. The books I truly love are ones I could never possibly write, but it’s fun to read a book that fits so well with your own experiences sometimes.

Corey Redekop’s Shelf Monkey is a story about a lapsed Mennonite on the run for crimes against purveyors of shitty literature. It’s set in Winnipeg and is about the people who work in libraries and bookstores and are aghast at the taste customers display in choosing things to read. The villain of the book is a caricature of supermarket self-help book pushers, and the heroes form a book-burning cult. Only terrible pieces of shit books, and everyone really gets off on it.

It’s a decent little book. I think it’s a little less relevant to the culture of the 2010s than something like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, but that’s because it still seems to be treating broadcast television as an important cultural force rather than the internet. It’s a little Palahniukish, and the opening few chapters led me to expect more fragmented experimental storytelling than it actually delivered (eventually it settled into a pretty standard epistolary novel). I definitely recommend it to the book-lovers and more importantly to those people who make sure to peel the Oprah’s Book Club stickers off their copies of Steinbeck.

book review: mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore

There are a great many things to love about Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. A great many things. What I love best about it is how perfectly “now” it feels. It’s a book I will use to say “this is how 2012 felt to me.”

The narrator of the tale is a designer who can’t get work because of the economy, and takes a job as the night clerk in a 24-hour bookstore. It’s a weird bookstore though, with three storeys of tomes (and to the delight of library-nerds rolling ladders for access) in the back which are arranged in no clear order and have eccentric people coming to trade for them. And these eccentric folk must be kept track of and observed, written about in the log for each shift. So yes, there is the old and odd to this story.

And then a woman who works at Google walks in (the bookstore is in San Francisco) and the story becomes this beautiful melding of all that old weird stuff with data-visualization schemes and parallel processing power to break codes and dreams of the Singularity. Plus of course the digitization of books.

Put it together with a fantasy novel overlay, that has our narrator using the D&D character name of his best friend since they were 12 when he needs him to really do something and I’m in heaven.

It’s about the intersection of these worlds of tradition and innovation, design and shortcuts that make it amazing. If you liked Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, there are echoes here, but it’s mostly in the shared nerd culture aspects. It’s a much less heavy tale. The narrator doesn’t take all the robes and mumbo-jumbo or the Googlarchy so seriously as anyone in The Magicians would. It’s more like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

It was a quick read. It didn’t change the way I thought about the deep mysteries of life. But it was so damned enjoyable.

penultimate semester complete

I am perilously close to being done my library-student career and getting back to full-on librarianhood (I’m of the opinion that being a librarian isn’t contingent on having a specific degree, but YMMV).

Today I handed in my last paper of the term. It was a really fun one to write because I incorporated analysis of children’s literature and its repressive/educative nature and the kind of books that fight that sort of thing. It’s probably a little more polemical than it strictly needed to be, but I prefer writing with something to defend. I’ll be presenting this paper (after I get it back and incorporate Judi’s edits) at the Stranger in a Strange Land Children’s Literature Conference in a couple of weeks.

I had a very good semester. My courses were fun and informative (even the management course). I have heaps of classic Children’s Literature bibliographies to be working from when I’m in Children’s Departments. My class on Youth Services was supremely interesting and I feel I got a lot of background to dealing with Young Adults, and maybe more importantly learned who to be reading in the professional literature to do a good job working in that kind of role in the future. Also, I got to make my book trailer, which A.S. King linked to on her blog, so that’s a few kinds of cool.

The other thing I did today was go to a talk on Youth Community Informatics by Bertram Chip Bruce. It was an interesting talk about education being difficult to study as part of a community, even though it’s integral to community. Community informatics got some cautionary notes about how putting the technology first can ignore the critical dialogues that need to be taking place in a democracy. They did some interesting projects like helping with Community Asset Mapping for a Chicago neighbourhood that cab-drivers won’t take you to. But my favourite takeaway from the talk was this idea of Community as Curriculum, which states that people need to:

  1. learn about the world in a connected way
  2. learn how to act responsibly in the world
  3. learn how to transform the world – to give back to the community

I don’t think of myself as an educator or anything, but that’s the kind of thing I can see myself being a part of in the library world. I’ve decided that YA services are probably where I want to be working, which is a good thing to have figured out as I start looking for jobs. I’m planning on using skills I learned in my cataloguing, instructional role and social media courses, and I’m definitely not sorry I went to Australia and got some Systems Librarian experience, but YA services feel like they’re where I’d do my best work, and actually be helping to transform the world. Maybe not as much as a teacher, but in a role much more suited to me.

And there we go, my reflections on my semester. I have two-and-a-third more courses to finish by the end of August. Hopefully I’ll be able to find work for when I’m done.

book review: solaris

Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is the kind of science fiction I love.

A scientist is sent to a space station orbiting a planet that has a truly alien ocean. The ocean may be alive. It may be intelligent. No one knows even though they’ve been studying it for a hundred years. He arrives on the station and the other scientists are acting strangely and then he’s approached by a visitor. I’ll leave off any more plot summary for fear of spoiling the book.

Things I loved about this book are how the weirdness of what’s happening in the station and what the planet is like are for the most part inexplicable. Just like in Blindsight this is a first contact tale with something alien that we can’t actually understand, not something that’s just like us in a funny mask.

The relationship between the narrator and his wife and the other scientists are all very tense. There’s a lot of stuff about responsibility and guilt and what we carry around in our heads.

There are good scenes in the library where we learn about the planet’s history. All the paper books and the tape-recorders are the only things that really give it away that this book wasn’t written today. What would a new translation of the book do with that now? If you were translating the book from Polish today would you also translate those technologies? You wouldn’t need to, but I’m not sure how much it would hurt the book. (This is not me advocating for technological revisionism in classic works of science fiction; just an idle musing.)

Solaris has had two famous movie adaptations. One by Tarkovskiy and one remake by Steven Soderbergh (starring George Clooney). I think I’ve only seen the remake and it had a very different feel from the book, which was less ominous and more curious. That’s my impression at least.