Trenton Lee Stewart seems like the lovechild of J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket. However, he is not actually British, which was a surprise to me.

The story is difficult to explain without giving the plot away, but I’ll tell you this: the children who belong to the Mysterious Benedict Society are very lonely and alone. Mr. Benedict saves them from their fate by enlisting them to spy on his nemesis and (perhaps) save the world. The plot zips along, and even though the book is quite long (485 pages), it’s fast reading. Stewart is a funny, sensitive writer.

The illustrations at the beginning of each chapter were charming and fun. These drawings also contained clues as to the events of that chapter, which I liked.

This book could easily be recommended to 5th-10th graders who loved the Lemony Snicket books. The Mysterious Benedict Society has a much happier ending, and there’s even a sequel! Kids sure love series, and librarians love books that foster reading. Hooray for Trenton Lee Stewart! The riddle at the very end of the book still has me scratching my head, and that’s a good thing.

Link to The Mysterious Benedict Society on Amazon: hardcover edition.
Link to Wikipedia entry on Trenton Lee Stewart: he is also mysterious.
Link to Carson Ellis’s website: neato!

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I’m sure many of you have heard about Amazon.com’s new policy regarding “adult” books. I was mad, so I emailed them. And they emailed me back.

Subject: From a future librarian
As a future librarian (I will receive my MLIS in May of 2010), I am disgusted by your “policy” of de-ranking “adult” books. I am extremely disappointed in Amazon. This policy goes against intellectual freedom in every way. Even if you change it back, which would be wise, I will never purchase items from your site again.

Amanda Lanyon-LeSage

Hello,

Thank you for contacting Amazon.com.

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

Thanks for contacting us. We hope to see you again soon.

Sincerely,

Customer Service Department
Amazon.com

DID THEY JUST ADMIT THEY MADE A MISTAKE???


Full disclosure: I adore Stephen King. I have read nearly everything he has written, and I own most of what I have read. He is an intelligent, thoughtful writer. According to John D. MacDonald (a prolific writer himself), a good writer is one who makes the reader forget they are reading a story. MacDonald cautions against writers using awkward phrases like, “His eyes slid down her dress.” When you read something like that, he says, you realized you are in the clutches of a bad writer. And Stephen King is not a bad writer. I would say he is an excellent writer.

Most of the bad press surrounding Stephen King is ignorant. Many people who pan Stephen King have never read anything of his, and don’t intend to. This is stupid. If you are going to criticize someone, you need to know them intimately. I plan on praising Stephen King.

On Writing is part-memoir, part-writing manual, part-fan guide. The first section of the book chronicles the process King went through to become a writer; namely, his life. He recalls humorous anecdotes that shaped his mindset and writing style (I especially liked the one where he “yarked” all over his mother’s shoes).
The second section is a sort of writer’s guide where King informs the reader on how he thinks good writing happens. He isn’t pushy, he isn’t pretentious, and he isn’t preachy. He writes the writer’s guide like he writes his fiction: clearly and to the point. Since I wasn’t really reading the book for the instructional aspect of it, I appreciated this.
The fan guide sort of encompasses the whole work. It is a peek inside a great mind; King would probably hate that phrase. That’s alright. I loved this book because it showed me more of my favorite writer, who I think of as a kind, smart, genuine person. King even invites the reader to complete a writing exercise and email it to him at StephenKing.com. That is very cool.
The scariest part of this book was the section called “On Living: A Postscript.” It details the car accident that sent King to the hospital in 1999 and nearly killed him. I had no idea he had been that close to death. It’s an emotional chapter, particularly if you feel the way I do about Stephen King.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who has the slightest interest in writing. It’s a useful tool and a great read.


Note: This is a paper I wrote for graduate school.

Levy, David M. Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age.
New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001.

Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, by David M. Levy, is a general interest book focused on how contemporary people interact with the documents in their lives. Levy uses a multidisciplinary strategy to discuss this complex topic. Levy’s passion and enthusiasm for the subject certainly comes through the work; this excitement saves the book from becoming tedious and flat.

Levy takes an informal and investigative tone while he explores the logistical and philosophical issues surrounding documents. He poses rhetorical questions, often at the end of paragraphs or chapters, which make the reader feel involved in the work. These questions also indicate Levy’s writing process: by setting his own questions into print, Levy is working out his own uncertainties. This transparent style could be polarizing (some may love its honesty, and some may dislike its tedium), but Levy does not hold his questions back. He continuously poses questions to the reader that might be better answered by the author himself. For example: “I have a strong preference for the bound volume—and for my childhood copy, in particular—over the online edition. This should hardly be surprising. But why? Is there just a sentimental attachment to books, or is there something more? (53)” Levy goes on to write that there is something more to his attachment to his copy of Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, and supports his argument with anthropological literature.

Throughout the book, Levy uses a multidisciplinary approach to the subject of documents. His bibliography is impressive. It includes works by Robert Darnton, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Roger Chartier, Wayne Wiegand, Vannevar Bush, and many other respected scholars. Levy uses sources from book studies, library studies, information science, anthropology, and psychology to bolster his own research.

His multifaceted view of the subject, however, might have detracted away from the meat of the matter. The reader must be aware that this is a general interest book (read: not academic); however, it still remains that Levy should have cited more evidence for many of the points he makes. In the chapter about greeting cards, Levy writes, “Generally speaking, African-Americans and those with lower incomes seem to value the exchange of cards more. (97)” There is no citation with a source for this information. Did Levy observe customers at a drugstore picking out greeting cards, upon which he based this claim? If so, he should have made a note of it.

His introduction, “The Universe is Expanding,” begins the book with an anecdotal, personal style. Levy recalls being valedictorian in college, and how documents shaped that experience. He even writes, “Where was the meaning in life? I had considered suicide, but been unwilling to commit it. (xx)” Although this confession seems inappropriate for a book about digital documents, it is Levy’s way of opening up. He seems to want the reader to understand that he is more “human” than other information scientists.

Chapter Four, “The Dark Side of Documents,” is about bureaucratic forms; Chapter Five, “Reach Out and Touch Someone,” is about greeting cards. These chapters are interesting because most readers do not think about most of the documents they interact with every day. Levy’s interpretation of the greeting card as emotional commodity is apt. These chapters challenge the reader to question the pieces of paper that make up their lives, and to ask, “What is not a document?”

One section of the book that falls quite short of the mark is Chapter Three, “Leaves of Grass.” Here, Levy discusses and weighs the features of a Walt Whitman printed book and a Walt Whitman website. He makes several valid points: that the tactile sensation of reading a printed book has emotive power; that the website has less of Whitman’s intent branded on it; and that there are many intermediaries involved in both works (43). These assertions, however, are not enough to keep the chapter from feeling overly sentimental and artificial. Levy states, “When he [Whitman] turned his gaze on New York City, where I grew up, he assure me that the magical qualities I found there were known to others as well, and in other eras than my own. (42)” This phrase is clunky, and it makes Levy seem starstruck by his poetic hero. The chapter continues to move along in this stilted fashion. It seems as though Levy wrote this chapter simply to write about Whitman; if he edited Chapter Three to suit a more general audience, this could be an interesting stand-alone essay. In Scrolling Forward, it feels shoehorned into place.

It is unfortunate that Levy is not a better writer. To his credit, writing a book about documents in a digital age can not have been easy. This subject is huge and fascinating, but in Levy’s hands turns slightly dull. The chapters seem unfocused, yet passionate, which can create a mess. Levy wants to be a good writer and a good researcher. This is evident in some of his prose, which is visceral and rambling. I liked Levy as an author and as a person, but I did not like him as a writer. In this sense, I mean that Levy succeeds at being likable and at having a zest for his work, but he does not entirely succeed in crafting the actual sentences.

That being said, Levy does ultimately succeed with Scrolling Forward. The book is (mostly) interesting, with underlying humor, humanity, and intelligence. While Levy has hope for the future of the document, he also writes, “And even if documents ultimately fail to solve our crisis of mortality, that they manage to achieve any measure of fixity at all in a world of continual flux is surely a remarkable achievement. Their moments of stolen fixity are like temporary steppingstones in the river of time. (189)” Levy’s simile could be extended to say that even stones, which are thought of as immovable and rigid can be washed away by the river, or chipped into smaller stones, or dissolved over the centuries. That is, even those documents that are canonized in a reader’s mind, such as the Constitution, the Bible, Ivanhoe: all of these documents have been and will be changed as time progresses. This is somewhat reassuring, if simultaneously frightening. Nothing will be the same forever, implies Levy, so enjoy these “moments of stolen fixity” while they can still be pinned down.

I would recommend Scrolling Forward because it gives the reader a concise overview of documents and documentation in the context of digitization. The bibliography at the end of the book would be useful to a researcher who was looking for citations on the topic. Levy ties the book together with personal anecdotes and an inelegant style that becomes endearing. This book is not a canonical tome, but it provides a good introduction to this salient topic.

Amanda Lanyon-LeSage, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, The School of Library and Information Studies


I know, I know, long time, no post. Hush. I graduated college and got a grown-up-ish job, so I’ve been busy.

Marisha Pessl’s novel was recommended to me by one of my housemates. The name drew me in. It’s such a strange, nonsensical title for a book about a girl at a private school.

The main character is named Blue van Meer. I know, strange. She and her father travel around the country because he’s a sort of itinerant political science professor. Each chapter is named after a different classic book, and the content of the chapter relates to the subject of that book. It’s a pretty cool way to organize a novel, and a good way to add new books to one’s reading list!

Blue’s dad is really weird, and he annoyed me a LOT in this book. However, I think his character was supposed to annoy the reader. He’s brash, pompous, and arrogant. He also thinks Blue is a better specimen of a daughter than anyone else in the world. Maybe he’s right, but still, parents should have some humility! /2 cents

The novel focuses on Blue’s senior year of high school at a very exclusive private academy. She meets some “friends” (I don’t know what else to call them) through the school’s film teacher, and thus begins the action. Admittedly, about halfway through the novel, I wondered what else could happen to Blue and her father, but apparently I don’t have the imagination that Pessl has. Three words: international conspiracy and murder(?).

If you can get past the slight pretentiousness of this book, it is quite entertaining and very good. As a University of Iowa alumnae, I completely support public education and state schools. Blue’s father does not seem to agree with me. That’s okay, since I don’t have to pay for Harvard. This book really is a page-turner, just don’t pay attention to Blue’s dad being an ass.


I recently read Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt and I was blown away. Her prose is so simple, clear, and direct, but the things she writes about…. Oof; The Price of Salt is about lesbians in New York City in the 1940s, and The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder is about animals getting revenge on the people who treat them badly. Yes, you read that correctly.

I had read somewhere (I think on Amazon) that this book was very dense, so I should read one or two stories at a time. I think what that reviewer meant was that this book is rich; each story leaves you breathless, slightly scared or grossed out, and wanting to read more. Maybe don’t read this book while eating lunch.

In no particular order, the stories are about ferrets, rats, cats, dogs, hamsters, camels, cockroaches, goats, horses, monkeys, elephants, and chickens. You will find a character here to identify with and cheer for, even if they are eating someone’s face off or trampling someone to death. I think the great part about all of these stories is that it is guaranteed that a human will die at the end of each one. Because of that, you go into the stories with a sense of doom and foreboding… you are just waiting for a dastardly, mean human to get it. And get it they do; strange, strange deaths lie in this book. Also, a lot of squished kittens.

This is a must-read for vegans, vegetarians, and anyone who likes animals. What a cool idea for a book.

****1/2


Thanks!

03Apr07

Thanks to David M. Friedman, who emailed me today about yesterday’s post! I feel super-honored.