Friday, April 23, 2010

Lab: Reader's Advisory, Volunteer 5

My last volunteer is actually a friend of a friend. I had not met her prior to my advisory with her. I was actually pretty happy to work with someone whose reading habits I didn't know and didn't have such a relationship with them that I can tell exactly what they mean regardless of how they say it.

The first question I asked her was what type of book she was in the mood to read. She told me that she was really in the mood for a good fantasy novel and she wanted a whole bunch of titles to choose from. I asked her what made a fantasy novel good for her and she said that she liked those that had a fast-paced story and also a plot that had fantastic elements to them, but also still had some elements of reality. I then asked her to tell me about the last book like that she had read and what she liked about it. Her response was the Harry Potter series. She loved how the books took place in this fantastic world, but that Harry and his friends were very human to her. I then asked if there was anything she definitely did not want and she said that she wanted to stay away from any Christian fiction and anything with any religious overtones. She also wanted to stay away from anything historical. I asked her if she wanted to stay within the adult category or if YA was okay and she was definitely okay with YA titles. She also was very interested in any title that had won awards, particularly the Newbery, as she had enjoyed every Newbery winner she had read.

I used NoveList, hoping they would have a list of Newbery winners, but for some reason, NoveList does not have a straight list of Newbery Medal winners. So, I did a search for read-alikes for Harry Potter. Her favorite was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, so I used its subject tags to find other novels. At first, she wasn't really satisfied with the results, but after talking a little bit more about what she did and did not want, we realized that she wasn't interested in reading about wizards and magic all that much. She wanted just some fantasy fiction. So, I searched for that. We got over 10,000 hits. I then realized that I needed to do some more investigation as to what kind of story she really wanted and went back to NoveList's home page and pulled up Joyce Sarick's outline on Fantasy. I went through the key authors with her to see which ones she had read and which of those might interest her. I figured we could find a few examples and build from there. She seemed interested in the idea of Urban Fantasy and wanted to check out Neil Gaiman's works. She was especially interested in American Gods and The Graveyard Book. I asked her if she wanted to expand to find more books like these or if she wanted to try another search. She said that she would like to expand on The Graveyard Book, so I searched for similar and came across Greywalker, which she was also interested in.

Then she asked me the one question that I did not want to answer. She asked me which fantasy titles I liked. I didn't want to tell her because I didn't want her to read anything simply because I had said I liked it. I tried to avoid the question by saying that I didn't have a particular type of story I liked, but for some reason, she kept pressing. Since she was already interested in The Graveyard Book, I told her that I had enjoyed that one, thinking that would satisfy her. Instead, she just asked what other titles I had liked. Of course, I wanted to tell her how much I loved The Hunger Games, but I refrained. Instead, I redirected and asked what about The Graveyard Book and Greywalker interested her so I could look for further titles for her. She liked the idea of a normal person interacting with the fantastic. Even though both books involved ghosts and other supernatural elements, she was also interested in stories involving different worlds. I asked if she wanted to look for adventure stories within the fantasy genre and she lit up at that. I entered those terms in and looked at the series tab of my results, figuring that if we found one plot line she liked, we would then have a few titles she could work through. Somewhat surprisingly, the series that she seemed most interested in was The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins. With those five books in the series and the previous three titles, she felt set on her reading for awhile.

Before I could check back with her, she contacted me to tell me that she enjoyed Neil Gaiman's books and also really liked SuzAnne Collins' books as well. And then she asked me if SuzAnne Collins wrote anything else. -She had seen a good list of books Neil Gaiman had written when we were looking through NoveList, but wondered if all Collins had written was The Underland Chronicles. I told her that she had written an unfinished series called The Hunger Games. I didn't have to look anything up. I simply described the plot to her over the phone. She said that it sounded interesting, but disturbing. I told her that some people have found it disturbing, but that it was also very popular. She said that she was going to put in a request at the library, but I haven't had a chance to check in with her to find out if she did and if she liked it.

I actually felt kind of honored that she called me back for more suggestions after she got through her first recommendations. I don't know if that means I'm really good or really lucky.

Lab: Reader's Advisory, Volunteer 4

Volunteer 4 was another friend who really put me to the test. The first thing I asked her was what she was in the mood to read and she said that she wanted a "good novel." I asked her to tell me about the last good novel she read and she really only told me the title of the book, The Help. I asked her what she liked about it and she said that she liked that it had good characters and a good story. When I asked her what about the story appealed to her, she said that it was the complex issues. I continued to prod by asking what the complex issues that interested her were and what it was that she liked about them. She really couldn't give me an answer to that. She just said that she wanted a novel she could sink her teeth into and that it was very important that the characters were interesting to her. I asked her if there was anything she wanted to stay away from and she said that she didn't want any sci-fi, horror, or fantasy novels and she definitely didn't want anything "frothy." So, most chick-lit would be excluded as well. She said that mysteries would be okay, but that wasn't exactly what she was looking for.

I worked with NoveList and Fiction Connection to find some possibilities for her. First, I tried finding books that were similar to The Help. Fiction Connection gave me nothing, which really surprised me. I checked NoveList, but had to remove several subject tags at the request of my friend so we could find topics more suited for her. NoveList suggested titles such as and Cotton Song and The Piano. She turned all of the suggestions down saying that they were not what she wanted. I asked her what about them didn't appeal to her and she said that the stories just didn't sound interesting to her.

I tried to keep the exasperation out of my voice when I asked her to tell me specifically what type of story she was hoping for. She said that she wanted to find a story that dealt with the complex issues of a different era. She had really liked how The Help dealt with interracial relationships during the 1960s. I asked her if she was interested in historical fiction and she said no. Since she wanted to look at different eras, I was pretty sure that we were, indeed, going to have to delve into historical fiction somewhat, but I didn't tell her that. She then finally told me about another book that she had enjoyed and I tried using both of those as a base and, after a few more rejections, came up with a few titles. She seemed interested in On Green Dolphin Street, Loving Frank, and Patty Jane's House of Curl.

A week later she called me and told me that she loved Patty Jane's House of Curl and On Green Dolphin Street. She wasn't too thrilled with Loving Frank. To be honest, I still have no real idea what she was looking for. On the one hand, it sounded like she wanted literary fiction with an historical bent. Yet, she seemed to reject almost anything I suggested to her that I could not really say that that was what she wanted. Perhaps I wasn't asking the right questions for her. Maybe she would have been more forthcoming if I had taken a different approach. Regardless, it was good practice for me when I come across a patron who isn't too sure what they want and it also made me aware of how important it is to get the questions right for that particular patron. Since she did enjoy two of the books I suggested, I guess you could call this one a moderate success, though perhaps due mostly to luck.

Lab: Reader's Advisory, Volunteer 2 and 3

Volunteers 2 and 3 are two of my friends who are engaged, so I performed advisories for them on the same evening.

I asked Volunteer 2 what she was in the mood to read and she told me that she was really interested in reading some nonfiction. I asked her what topics in nonfiction interested her and she said that she really wanted to read sociological studies, particularly regarding drug use. I then asked her to tell me about the last book she had read that she would consider part of that topic and she told me that she had really enjoyed Methland and how it looked at what drugs had done to communities. I asked her if she wanted to focus specifically on the affects of meth or if she wanted to expand out to other studies on other drugs. She said it was fine to expand to other drugs both legal and illegal.

I tried NoveList first, but came up with very little. So, I turned to Amazon to see if it had any suggestions. We came up with two results that she was very excited about: Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Highjacking the Global Economy and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.

Because she and I can get really chatty when we hang out, she and I started talking about other things that interest her while I was searching for books similar to Methland. During our conversation, she brought up that she was really interested in reading about religious cults. She seemed embarrassed to admit it even to me, so I can imagine that she probably would not have brought this up to an unfamiliar librarian. So, I was actually really glad that she had volunteered for my lab because she would now get a chance to have some books on that topic recommended to her when she might not have had the courage to ask someone other than me.

I asked her if there were any cults in particular she was interested in and she said the offshoots of Mormonism and the Branch Davidians really interested her, but she was also interested in reading about Scientology. I asked her if she was interested in them as religions and what they believed or if she wanted to read books that exposed the hipocrises of the sects. She definitely wanted books that exposed the religions, so I used Amazon once again. First, I looked into cults based on Mormonism and found mostly books that exposed Mormonism itself, not the off-shoot cults, which was not exactly what she was looking for. I tried combining Mormonism and cults, but that only seemed to give us the same results. So, I typed in simply "religious cults" and finally got what we were looking for. We found several books on religious cults in America including Out of the Cocoon: A Young Woman's Courageous Fight from the Grip of a Religious Cult and God's Brothel. I also found many books on the Branch Davidians and the massacre at Waco. She was extremely excited to read God's Brothel.

Volunteer 3 also wanted to read nonfiction, but he wanted to read history. In particular, he was interested in social history of the Native Americans, the colonization of America, or the Civil War. I asked him if there was anything in particular that he was not interested in reading and he said he wanted to stay away from military history. Given the topics he wanted to cover, I was a little nervous about finding some good books that weren't packed with military history, but since I also really enjoy this topic, I thought I could handle it and find some things for him. I decided to stay with Amazon as I thought I would have better results than with the more common readers advisory tools. I started with Native American history first and found a couple of titles that he said he would be interested in, such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. For the most part, we were finding long books that covered the history of Native American people and even though he was saying that he was interested, I had a feeling that he was just trying to be nice to me. So, I asked him to tell me about the last book of this kind he had read and why he liked it. I probably should have asked that question before I started my search, but I thought I could find him something based on my own knowledge and the database.

He wasn't quite sure how to answer my question, but his fiance stepped in and said that he really enjoyed quirky history and humorous stories. I asked if either of them had any examples and neither could really come up with a title for me, so I felt just a little lost on how to come up with some titles for him. I tried to pull from my own stores of knowledge while searching Amazon and remembered a book I had read about sex during the Civil War. I asked him if something like that would interest him and, for the first time, he looked genuinely interested. I found the book I had read, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War as well as Sex During Wartime: History Under the Covers. He seemed really eager to read both of those and reassured me that he also really was interested in reading the other books I had suggested.

A few weeks later I asked them both if they had had a chance to read what I had suggested and got some positive results. Volunteer 2 had read and really enjoyed both Illicit and God's Brothel. Volunteer 3 had read The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell, Sex During Wartime, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I was pleased to hear that not only had he really enjoyed all three of them, but he also had recommended The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell to a friend.

Again, I had some positive results and I would consider those successful, but Volunteer 2 was a really good friend who I communicate with very easily and she also helped me out with Volunteer 3. So, I was still curious as to how I would do with people who are less forthcoming or who I don't know that well.

Lab: Reader's Advisory, Volunteer 1

The first person who volunteered to be a part of my lab was my mom. Since I knew her reading habits really well, I figured that this would be a pretty easy introduction to reader's advisory. For the most part, I was right.

The first question I asked her was: "What are you in the mood to read?" She said that she wanted to read a good mystery. I asked her to tell me about the last good mystery she read and what she liked about it so much. The last mystery that she really enjoyed was a Harlan Coben novel. She had read all of his work and wanted to find books similar to his. I started a search in NoveList and as I was entering Harlan Coben, I asked her if there was anything that she specifically DID NOT want in the books, such as sex, extreme violence, strong language, etc. She did not have a problem with sex or strong language, but she specifically did not want any story where a child was in danger or any violence towards children. I pulled up Harlan Coben and clicked on the Author Read-alikes tab. She seemed somewhat interested in Don Winslow's Neal Carey series, but really lit up at Sparkle Hayter's Robin Hudson series. She seemed particularly interested in it for the humor.

I found it interesting that she was excited about the humor involved because she had not mentioned that when we were discussing what she liked about Harlan Coben's mysteries. I don't know much about Coben's work, so I asked her if humor was something else she liked about his work. She thought about it for a minute and said that while she wouldn't have put humor high on a list of descriptors of his work, she did find his writing to be witty. I filed that away under "Things to Remember for When I Do This for Real."

After a few weeks, I checked back in with her to see if she had had a chance to read any of the books I had suggested. She had plowed through three of the Robin Hudson series and was reading one of Hayter's stand alone novels called Bandit Queen Boogie while she was waiting for the fourth book in the series to become available.

She was very happy with those books and I would consider this one to be a success, but I wondered if most of that was due to how much I knew about her reading habits and how easily she and I can communicate. The remaining four told me more about my skills and what I needed to improve.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Title: Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Jack Finney
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Pages: 216

Perhaps more famous for the four movie versions of the novel (1956, 1978, 1993, and 2007), Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, nonetheless, a classic in science fiction literature. The story of a small town invaded by lifeforms that look like seed pods is probably very familiar to most people. Alien invasion itself was a common theme in 1950s pop culture. Yet, the emotions behind this particular story are what really makes it all work.

The novel follows Miles Bennell, Mill Valley's local doctor. The action begins when an old flame, Becky Driscoll, comes to see him regarding her cousin. Becky is afraid that her cousin may be going insane as she keeps protesting that her uncle is not her uncle, but a clever impostor. As the story unfolds, more people come to Miles panicked with the same problems as Becky. Then, suddenly one day, everyone is fine. Those who had come to Miles felt so silly for panicking. Everything seems fine until Jack Belicec comes to Miles because Jack and his wife had found what appeared to be a dead body in their basement. The body is of a man, but there are no defining characteristics about him. He has no scars, no birth marks, and no finger prints. Things reach a fever pitch when the body's appearance begins to change.

This is a story about survival and the enduring will to remain true to ones identity. There are a few scientific elements within the novel, but the main focus is on the characters. Most of the story focuses on Miles' attempts to solve this mystery and his inner thoughts regarding everything that was happening around him. Perhaps because the story has been made into a movie so many times, some readers may be frustrated that the characters so long to figure out what is happening around them. At the same time, others may enjoy the process Miles and his friends go through in battling these unknown creatures who are taking the forms of the their loved ones.

I would highly recommend this to any reader who is has never read science fiction before, but would like to try it. Since it is rather light on the scientific jargon, those who may not be as familiar with physics or astronomy won't feel lost or overwhelmed. I would also recommend this to any reader who enjoys character-based novels. Much of the novel is made up of Miles' thoughts and feelings. Those who enjoy getting to know a character will find this novel compelling, yet there is enough action that those who prefer story-based novels will also find it enjoyable. The chase sequence at the end adds a taut thrill. Overall, I found it to be a satisfying science fiction adventure about humanity's will to survive.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Title: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Pages: 235

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is classified as a "gentle read." Generally, these types of novels are considered "nice stories," or as Joyce Saricks calls them, warm milk. In many ways, Smith's novel fits right in. The story focuses mostly on the relationships between Precious Ramotswe, the private detective heroine and the only lady detective in Botswana, and the people in her life from both her past and present: her father, her ex-husband, her best friend, her clients, etc. For the most part, this novel leisurely moves through the story from one client's case to another without many twists. That is not to say that there is no story arc. There is one case that serves as the main motivator for action in the novel: a missing eleven-year-old boy believed to have been kidnapped by witch doctors. However, her interactions with her best friend, auto mechanic J.L.B. Matekoni, and his feelings for her are the true center of the story.

For me, the pacing was too gentle. I would actually call it plodding. I don't mind slow reads as long as I feel I'm reading something I can sink my teeth into. This was not to case for The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Also, while the characters were charming enough, I found myself bored with the fact that there is so little story and so much focus on personal relationships. To be fair, the gentle read is not a genre that I particularly enjoy and this novel is about as close to the perfect example of a gentle read as one can get.

Having said that, if anyone came to me asking for a gentle read, I could recommend this one without hesitation. It is the type of book that one could pick up and put down at their leisure. There is very little upsetting material and it does emphasize traditional values in many circumstances. The ending is happy and upbeat and, as I said before, the main characters are charming and likable. Precious Ramotswe is a character that readers can really root for and those who enjoy gentle reads will find her story to be quite satisfying.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Freedom to Read

Perhaps this blog post will be the biggest insight into just how scattered my mind can actually be. As you can probably tell by my last few entries, I have fallen in love with The Hunger Games series. I read both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire several times while we were on Spring Break. So, the idea of dystopic societies have been really prevalent in my mind. One evening I was settling into bed to read The Hunger Games for probably the fifth time and I started thinking about Fahrenheit 451 and the idea of books being outlawed. While we have Constitutional rights that protect our freedom of speech and the ALA fights for our Right to Read, my mind still ran to the idea that if our society fell apart and was replaced with an extremely oppressive government similar to those in The Hunger Games and Fahrenheit 451, then perhaps we would see books become illegal because they are considered "dangerous."

After thinking about that for awhile, I realized that I was clutching my copy of The Hunger Games to my chest as if I were protecting it from someone trying to take it away from me. What would happen if books were made illegal? How would people react to some government officials coming into our homes and taking our books or sending out a public notice that we must turn all of our books over to the government so they can be "disposed"? I can't imagine my life without books. I personally can't see myself giving my books over to someone to "dispose" of them. I would fight for my books regardless of how futile it may seem. I'm sure these thoughts are not uncommon among librarians, which is probably why we celebrate Banned Books Week.

Then the thought of a list of banned books got me thinking about something else. What if, all of sudden, we were only allowed to read certain genres? What if say Fantasy and Science Fiction were suddenly deemed as not necessary or even dangerous to society? What if Political Thrillers were banned because they might plant bad ideas in people's minds about the ruling government? What if mysteries were banned because they could possibly encourage people to start lives of crime or commit murder? What if we were only allowed to read government sanctioned books? What then? Chances are Fahrenheit 451 would not be on the approved list. The Hunger Games, with its unflattering portrait of government, probably wouldn't be either. Even books as seemingly innocuous as the Twilight series might end up on a banned list because the protagonists dared to challenge the ruling class of vampires. Actually, an argument can be made to ban any book if one argues hard enough. It's really quite a scary prospect that makes me glad that we have ALA. On a more base level, it makes me realize just how important the freedom to read really is to me.

This blog post IS NOT meant to start a debate as to whether or not this could actually happen. Nor is it a paranoid rant about how all books are in danger of being made illegal. I've merely been thinking about what life would be like if they WERE made illegal. Realistically, where would that leave us (both as librarians and as people)? What does everyone else think?