I finished my first book of Summer only 3 days into the break.  BAM!

We purchased a copy of Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly based upon a favorable School Library Journal review earlier this school year.  My most avid reader reported back that it was both “funny” and “compelling.”  And then he checked it out again a few months later.  That was good enough for me.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  Sometimes the characters fell into predictable patterns and sometimes the situations they encountered seemed a little far-fetched.  But, in reality, humans are prone to predictable behavior and how often is it said “you couldn’t make this stuff up” in relation to real-life scenarios?  So, I set aside the critical, nagging gremlin in my head, suspended my disbelief, and barreled in to the story.

Our protagonist is Zoe Webster, a smart, troubled, frustrated child of divorce trying to navigate the incomprehensible social waters of River Heights in upstate New York after moving there from Brooklyn with her mother.  Zoe is not hanging up her hat in River Heights.  She has her sights set on returning to New York City, to a private school, to her father, and eventually on to a conventionally successful life as a Princeton graduate.  So when she gets caught up  Digby’s web of crazy, she is not pleased.

Well, maybe she is.

Just a little bit.

Digby has been dealt a raw deal in life and he has, like a virtuoso, turned his lemons into some seriously epic lemonade.  He reminded me a teenaged cross between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House with just enough of Anton Yelchin’s Charlie Bartlett to keep things zany.  Digby is more interested in solving local crimes than attending high school, following rules, maintaining a healthy diet, or making friends.  Zoe claims not to like him.  And yet she keeps going along with his antics.  And together with Digby’s once-friend, the handsome high school quarterback, Henry Petropoulos, they set out to solve a kidnapping, expose an unethical gynecologist, and take down a cult.

Supporting roles populated with a Vegan cop and his canny, long-suffering partner, a bullied, grade-skipping genius, a threatening Miss Hannigan-like neighbor and her brood of apparently hyper-religious orphans, a truancy officer bent on taking down Digby (his very own Ferris Bueller), and a counselor whose desperation is as permeating as the aroma of the cookies he warms up to offer wayward students complete the cast of characters neatly.  Ultimately, this book is a love letter to one remarkable and entertaining character–Digby.  His idiosyncrasies (he’s constantly eating, he wears a suit and tie, he’s kind of a stalker) make him fun.  His powerful intelligence makes him interesting.  And his all-too-human vulnerabilities make him relate-able.  He’s not just an ill-mannered, socially-maladjusted teenager. He has goals and his actions, while seemingly bizarre in the moment, all serve his greater purpose.

I would recommend this book to anyone aged 14 and older as there are some mature themes that might put off younger readers.  Trouble is a Friend of Mine will find a home among the growing population of insightful, amusing, YA noir.  And its dashes of social commentary keep it from getting bogged down in the potential mire of those more mature themes.

Take it out for a spin and enjoy!


Tunnel Vision cover shotLast night, I recovered my Librarian superpowers and actually stayed up far too late to finish a book.  I was that engrossed in Tunnel Vision by Aric Davis.  This is hardly surprising given that Tunnel Vision  is the sequel to Davis’s fantastic 2011 book Nickel Plated.  When I read that, I was well and truly blown away by something delightfully new and different.  Davis has a talent for combining relate-able, heroic teenage characters with harrowing situations, humor and intelligence.

In 2011, Davis introduced us to Nickel, a tough, smart, survivor of the system who manages to fly under the radar, privately investigate scumbags, and–just to make ends meet–sell some of the sweetest pot Grand Rapids, Michigan has ever smoked.  He has set up a life for himself that insulates him while simultaneously bringing him into dangerous proximity with the very criminals who would victimize him and he’s done it all by the ripe age of 12.  At times, Nickel Plated reads like a how-to manual for avoiding oversight and adult interference.  Davis has clearly given great thought to weaving Nickel’s world so that even this wholly unbelievable premise seems possible.  As a high school teacher-librarian, I can see how a kid could slip through the cracks as Nickel has.  In his first book, our hero successfully rescued a little girl from her kidnappers and lived to fight another day.

In Tunnel Vision, Nickel hits the ground running…and bleeding.  He has escaped after perpetrating a frightening level of Old Testament justice upon the horrific juvenile delinquent camp he’d been sent to after his best dealer turned on him.  Nickel is four years older and more battle-hardened than ever.  He is also more wounded and vulnerable than we’ve ever seen him and immediately Davis ropes us in to his story again.  Tunnel Vision is actually three stories woven into one very compelling knot.  First, we have Nickel who is faced with a dilemma: survive and compromise his ethics or maintain his code of morality and potentially come to even greater harm than ever before.  Second, we have Mandy’s story, told through her diary entries.  Mandy died 15 years ago, strung out on heroin, beaten beyond recognition, and stabbed, presumably by her junkie boyfriend, Duke.  Finally, we have Betty and June’s story.  They discover that Mandy was June’s aunt and they decide to investigate her murder.  Naturally, their paths cross with Nickel’s.

Tunnel Vision is gritty.  It literally pulls no punches.  Davis doesn’t flinch away from extreme situations, language, or characters.  There is murder, prostitution, drugs, violence, identity fraud, and child abuse.  The beauty of Nickel’s world is that the horrible people get their comeuppance.  Oh, man, do they get their comeuppance!  This is a world full of consequences, both good and bad.  In one scene in this book, Nickel defends Betty against her boyfriend who has attacked her and, because he has trained under a particularly brutal streetfighter named Rhino, Nickel wins the fight with extreme prejudice.  The description of Nickel felling a hearty 16 year-old with a full-force kick to the crotch and then finishing him off with a wind-up kick to the face almost turned my stomach even as I punched the air in my empty apartment to cheer him on.  And perhaps this is why Nickel is such a compelling character.  He is socially maladjusted as a result of the abuse he has suffered in his short life but he has a code and he sticks to it.  He can return violence for violence but he does so judiciously.  After making a drug deal with a particularly unsavory asshole, Nickel pedals his bike over to the dealer’s last crash pad and rescues a neglected child he had spotted on his last visit to the house.  His courage and humanity keep him from becoming the very people he fights.  And, yes, the drug dealer gets his just desserts in the end too.  Davis looks out for his reader in this and doesn’t leave aggravating loose ends that scream “SEQUEL!”  Even though we may yearn to read more Nickel stories.

In fact, Davis avoids virtually all of the conceits so common to both procedural crime dramas and YA lit today.  His characters are smart and well-rounded and diverse without being overbearingly and annoyingly “original.”  They seem real and they think through their own situations.  There aren’t obvious red herrings and while, yes, there exists a thread of romance between Nickel and Betty, it is appropriately awkward and beautiful and realistically messy.  And neither character is there solely to prop the other one up.  In fact, each of the main characters in Tunnel Vision could sustain his or her own story and this literary autonomy only strengthens their combined story.  When Nickel, Betty, and June finally team up and start working on Mandy’s murder as a group, it feels as though three master instrumentalists have finally resolved their disparate themes into one rousing movement that is accelerating toward a truly thrilling conclusion.

As a result of this realism, my only gripe about this story is that even so insightful a writer as Davis has lacunae where some of his characters are concerned.  Specifically, and unsurprisingly, I take issue with his high school librarian character.  Betty and June wind up in their school’s library often throughout the course of their research into Mandy’s murder and, inexplicably, the librarian is a cardboard shusher of a character who takes issue with their enthusiastic volume not once, not twice, but three times!  As a librarian, I have never shushed a student.  I have been shushed by a student on more than one occasion.  The potent disdain Davis directs toward the librarian on multiple occasions is most keenly felt in the following passage: “…that remark sent both of them into librarian shush-worthy titters, an affliction they managed to rein in before any actual punishment could be levied on them for daring to be amused in the temple of stacked books” (p.128).  It’s an insultingly inaccurate portrayal of a modern librarian or library and, I hope, it is simply a holdover from an unfortunate stereotype Davis himself ran into as a teenager.  Frankly, though, I almost stopped reading right there out of disgust.  Librarians are not all the same, just as teenagers are not all the same.  Davis does a splendid job of recognizing the latter in his books while completely disregarding the former.  Fortunately, I was able to curb my frustration long enough to get to the very next page where I was once again fully committed to the story.

Ultimately, this book is not for everyone, but it will appeal to far more people than one might suspect, given its content.  Nickel’s world appeals to many reluctant readers, true, but it also appeals to teachers and parents.  I passed along a copy of Nickel Plated to my own parents who firmly abhor violence and crudity and they both devoured it.  There is something special here.  It’s a little rough, a little unpolished, and little off-balance at times.  But the end result, as is so often the case with true new art, is beautiful to behold and deeply satisfying to absorb.  I highly recommend Tunnel Vision.  Just make sure you read Nickel Plated first.  And plan on NOT sleeping until you hit the final page!

BPL view from 2nd floor

I am sitting in the beautiful, expansive, brand-spanking-new Billings Public Library as I write this.  What an exhilarating dream come true—and a long overdue dream come true!  Billings has never before built a library.  It has HAD a public library for over a century but it has never set out to construct a facility specifically to house a public library.  Finally, finally, the city has done so, and it is a sight to behold.

BPL Main Approach

An imposing, confident, two-story edifice of glass, steel, and concrete rises above the January slush and scurf and the bare clacking trees of downtown.  The newly renamed Billings Public Library announces itself plainly and triumphantly, “I am HERE!”  All around outside, families and individuals scurry to and from the main entrance, even as the chilly northern plains wind tugs them in all directions.  This is a special outing for most of them in this the library’s first full week in the new building.  The first floor is teeming with patrons and tourists and the line to the Circulation Desk stretches out into the foyer as people sign up for library cards, many for the first time.  The lines to the multiple self-checkout stations are even longer and denser.  And today is quiet compared to how it’s been all week!  While some of these Sunday library-goers are obviously on a mission to find a specific item, a great many of them are simply wandering around, taking in the new facility.

It’s a novelty for Billings residents, you see.  The old library building, which stands less than 20 feet to the south of the new building, awaiting demolition, was often referred to as the Warehouse.  Arguably the only structural asset in the Warehouse was the oversize, circular stair which patrons could use to access the second floor.  And most did because the tired, cramped, old elevators crept up and down their shafts at a terrifyingly slow pace.

Happily, that circular pattern has been echoed in the new library, which was designed by Will Bruder + Partners.  Above the circular first floor Circulation Desk, a huge circular space cuts up through the middle of the second floor and finishes in an enormous dappled skylight.  To cover such a huge open space in the roof, the builders had to order the skylight from Europe.  It is the same material used to cover the grandiose Beijing National Aquatics Center:

And while you can’t ascend to the second floor here (the stairs are over by the elevators now) you CAN walk the perimeter of the oval and take in the wonderful quotes and BPL sponsors that have been etched into the bright yellow, glasslike sheets that define the space and serve as a balcony at the second floor level.

BPL Second floor looking down

Everything in this new library is about showing the inner workings of the facility.  A perforated metal grate encases but does not hide the elevator mechanisms.  That same metal grating clads portions of the floor-to-ceiling glazing on the second story which provides some shelter against the often-harsh Montana weather and provides a sense of security for patrons within.  It does not, however, obscure the incredible sweeping views of the city of the Rims.  It merely screens it subtly.  The conveyer belt that carries library materials to the back room to be sorted and processed runs behind a translucent red vinyl curtain.  In the fabulous Story Cone in the hugely-expanded Children’s section, unfurnished pressed wood covers the two-story height of the space.  The curving wall that partially shields the Children’s section from the general public is finished with raw boards salvaged from snow fences in Wyoming.  The new building itself echoes the spacious steel hay barns that are so ubiquitous in Montana.

BPL Looking up in Story Cone Story Cone seating BPL Snow Fence Wall BPL Red curtain

It is a design that has proven quite controversial in this conservative burg.  Many detractors have called it overwhelming and ugly.  And, truthfully, it does stand out.  But it does so only because it is the first new building downtown that was designed to reflect both its era and its function instead of merely trying to emulate the ephemeral, quasi-“traditional,” hodge-podge architectural legacy of this comparatively young city.

Personally, I applaud the architects, builders, and Library Foundation for this wonderful new facility.  I had the privilege of touring it while it was still under construction and I know that what the public sees is not even half of the intelligence, wonder, and thoughtful construction that went into it.  It is a game-changer.  Perhaps now, the tourists who are projected to visit Billings for the gaudy, monstrous behemoth that is the new Scheels sports store on the far, developing West End will feel compelled to venture farther into town to experience the more authentic Billings community and its beautiful new library.

There is a Woody Allen quote on the yellow glass balcony here that says, “Reading isn’t fun; it’s indispensable.”  This library wasn’t built on a whim to cater to the passing interests of an unfocused few.  It was built to provide the indispensable function of making information and resources available to the larger Billings community.  Luckily for us, we get to revel in this glorious new environment while we do so now.

Long live the library!


More photographs:

BPL, the Old and the New BPL New stacks BPL 2nd floor looking across BPL TEENS BPL 1st floor BPL elevators BPL Teen section study room BPL Story Cone storyteller's chair BPL skylight BPL glass wall in Children's section BPL 2nd floor view toward desk Old non-entrance to old library BPL Teen section BPL New building, new sign, new name Old Library One Way Do Not Enter BPL 1st floor BPL 2nd floor interior Old book drops Old library BPL Outside East face BPL 1st floor looking up BPL Second Floor The Warehouse BPL Teen section! BPL more 2nd story views Old Parmly entrance

Review of Worldshaker by Richard Harland

In a YA fantasy literature market saturated with vampires, demon-slayers, mind-readers, and soul-crushing, totalitarian dystopias, Worldshaker stands out as a solid steel relief.  This steampunk novel maintains all the comfortable absurdities of the Victorian era while also laying bare the hellish, inhumane injustices and greed of Imperialism and class-driven societal structures.

The novel centers around Col (Colbert Porpentine, if we’re being perfectly accurate).  He’s an intelligent, if impossibly sheltered, favored son of the British juggernaut (which is also all that apparently remains of the British nation), Worldshaker.  He has been raised to believe in a morality that allows Upper Decks aristocrats, like his family, to maintain lavish, useless lifestyles while brain-drained Menials serve them contentedly and subhuman Filthies who live Below keep Worldshaker moving while multiplying shockingly and exponentially.  Col looks forward to a dazzlingly bright future as the named successor to his grandfather, the juggernaut’s Supreme Commander.  That is, he does until Riff (just plain Riff), a Filthy who escapes the lobotomizing process that turns Filthies into Menials, crashes headlong into his life.  She forces Col to acknowledge his own lacunae about his world.  Col’s natural curiosity then leads him to discover gut-wrenching truths about the apparently placid existence he has occupied in his 16 short years of life.  Throughout this journey, Col forges an unconventional but powerful relationship with Riff that will alter their lives, and the destiny of Worldshaker, forever.

Like so many other YA novels I have read in recent years, Worldshaker trades complexity for action.  Harland has obviously created a fully-imagined alternate reality in which ships the size of cities roam the Earth (yes, there is more than one juggernaut), chewing up everything and everyone in their path.  The literal and figurative stratification of Worldshaker’s society serves as an intriguing metaphor for our own culture, both historically and today–as does the callous, dehumanizing treatment of the lowest members of that society by the upper 1 percent.  Personally, I would have liked to read more about how that fully-imagined society functions.  Harland whets the reader’s appetite with brief passages about Graveyard Rooms (where would you put your corpses if you never stopped moving and maintained stringent religious and moral guidelines about the sanctity and superiority of your existence?), great protruding scoops and cranes that denude the landscape of produce and resources as Worldshaker tears past, and the ephemeral presence of other such metal behemoths roaming the planet with apparent impunity.  Unfortunately, the reader’s discovery is limited to Col’s discoveries.  His journey is ours.  And while we can clearly see where his revelations are headed even before he gets there (subhuman, animal-like creatures living without resentment or pain in the treacherous bowels of the ship because they lack the capacity for such sophisticated thoughts and emotions?  Come on!  We know immediately this is incorrect!), we also only learn as much as he does.

Perhaps this is what Harland intended.  It does, after all, mirror the inevitable journey toward societal and self-awareness many young adults take.  From that perspective, it makes sense that the author would not prose on inexorably about the intricacies of this world he has created.  I think both arguments are ultimately valid.

Despite this minor objection, I really quite enjoyed Worldshaker.  It afforded me a welcome relief from the Twilight and Hunger Games knock-offs flooding the shelves right now.  It is not obscenely violent, nauseatingly self-involved, uncomfortably sexual, or ploddingly maudlin.  I can readily and eagerly recommend it to both boys and girls.  Anyone from age 12 and up might enjoy it.  Harland sets out to tell a compelling story and, refreshingly, does not see fit to resort to shock and awe tactics of literary titillation in order to do so.  He succeeds in delivering a strong story with likeable characters and, for me, it came at just the right time.

Georgia Nicolson has a rough life, mate.  She’s put upon by her self-absorbed friends, the thoughtless lads trying to get a piece of her, her dictatorial teachers, her insufferably awkward father, her busy, madcap mother (who may be having an affair with the decorator, Jem), her as-yet-not-housebroken little sister Libby, her half-wild, massive cat Angus, her expanding nose, Mr. and Mrs. Next Door who despise both her and Angus, and her karma, which seems determined to keep her from landing the local “sex god” Robbie as her boyfriend.  Her diary entries lend the reader insight into all the tragedies and triumphs that make up Georgia’s life, never mind that sometimes she write her entries in, apparently, a split second between action-filled scenes.  The inconsistency between actual diary entries and Rennison’s fictional account of the life of one 14-year-old English girl may drive some readers slightly mad, but they are otherwise an often amusing snapshot into the struggle that is adolescence.

Most teenage readers (yes, mostly girls) will appreciate Georgia’s bravery and enthusiasm for delving into the world of dating.  Some may even enjoy her irreverent sense of humor and her wonky priorities (no doubt an intentional move by Rennison to hold a mirror up to the absurdities often espoused by younger generations).  However, some readers may be put off by Georgia’s dramatic homophobia toward lesbians (gay men are not mentioned in this episode), her callous treatment of her family members, her sometimes willful dishonesty, her disrespectful actions toward her teachers, and her single-minded drive to pair-bond with a boy, no matter what the consequences may be.  Her “stalking” of a fellow classmate is also an unpleasant chapter in the book and brings to mind the dire situations that have evolved over the years as a result of such profiling and bullying by teenagers.  At times, I found myself laughing at Georgia’s escapades and turns of phrase (multi-lingual swearing is one of her favorite writing techniques in her diary, it seems).  Mostly, though, I tired swiftly of her self-absorption and shallowness.  She proves herself to be a better person than her id would wish her to be but I am disinclined to continue with the series unless she grows up considerably over the next nine books and develops some depth of character.

Well, I’m back in Montana.  San Francisco was a very unique experience, both professionally and personally.  I learned a great deal about living at a Zen Center and a little about archiving practices.  Mostly, I learned some very practical tips for conducting oneself in a more deliberate way.  Namely:

1. Use both hands!  I cannot stress how vitally important this is in archiving and, I’m increasingly convinced, life in general.  When you start getting stressed and flustered, stop and tell yourself, out loud if necessary, “Use both hands.”  By reminding yourself to handle each situation as it comes, to hold and attend to one thing at a time, you not only calm yourself but you also risk less damage to the work at hand.  In the world of archives, which is full of delicate, unique, and often irreplaceable artifacts, such an approach is much safer.  There is much to be said for the ability to multitask, but at some point you really have to draw the line and allow yourself to focus on what is precisely in front of you instead of the crazy world roiling about your periphery.

2.  Easily half of active archiving is moving boulders.  Okay, not actual boulders.  Although, depending upon the materials within your collection… (check out this rock library in London!)  Truly, though, many archived documents are kept in file folders in boxes that get very heavy.  You end up moving them a lot.  You need some strength, both of body and of heart, to keep constantly moving these boxes.  We often drew comparisons between our box-moving and the practice of moving boulders or creating sand mandalas only to have move or destroy them upon completion of the project.  It will sometimes seem like unnecessary work.  Get over it.  It usually must be done.  In a perfect world the materials would be house in super cool, Ender’s Game style zero-gravity chambers where we could rearrange and preserve them to our heart’s content.  Until humanity conquers long-term space travel and living, we’re stuck with that heartless bitch, Gravity, and her equally heartless cousin, Limited Space.

3.  A long-term plan with carefully laid-out steps of completion, definitive guidelines of practice, and clearly-defined roles for the various participants will go a long way toward mitigating your inevitable frustration at the constant boulder-moving.  We started out somewhat aimlessly in the Zen Center archives, we had 4 different people working on the project, we were hampered by little or no Internet accessibility, and we had no designated space in which to work.  We made it work…it would have worked much more efficiently if we had had all the points I suggest above covered from the beginning.  Be on the same page with your fellow archivists as often as is humanly possible.  A shared real-time spreadsheet (such as a Google doc) can really help with this.  Near the end of our inventory, we spent an inordinate amount of time combining and reformatting our individual inventories.

4.  Don’t librarian the project up.  Yes, I just used my profession as a verb.  We are, by and large, an unquestionably awesome bunch and our zeal to provide access to information is totally laudable and worthy.  If we do our librarian thing in the archives, we will completely disrupt the context of the materials and render more than a few of them meaningless.  Let the context be!  Accept the fact that you cannot control how someone decided to organize this material in the past and simply focus on carefully documenting that organization scheme.  It may not be how YOU would organize the material.  It may not be the best organization scheme for a potential researcher.  You need to let it go!  And, if it really bothers you that much, apply your frustration to your own personal documents and files.  Reorganize your film collection.  Relabel your computer files.  Rearrange your albums on Facebook to make more sense to you.  Paws off the archives!

5.  Don’t lose your sense of wonder.  It’s easy to tire of year after year of line-item budgets.  But the moment you happen upon something that truly captures your interest, you feel like IndianafreakingJones discovering the Lost Ark.  You’ve hacked history!  Primary documents are like a drug that calls you back to the files, the carbon paper, the unreadable, obsolete tech-storage time and time again.  Remind yourself of that when you feel your motivation flagging, when you’re covered in book rot, when you’re caught in a sneezing fit brought on by dust and God only knows what else.

Now that I’m working in the Montana Historical Society Archives, I can confirm that these 5 tips can be applied in more than just the San Francisco Zen Center.  The parallels are very satisfying, to say the least.

Archiving Power!

On Saturday three of us went to City Lights Bookstore.  For those who don’t know, City Lights started off as a publisher and was the original printer of, among other groundbreaking literary wonders, “HOWL” by Allen Ginsburg.  As it happens, the very next day, City Lights celebrated its 60th birthday.  We decided it would be less stressful if we chose to forego the celebration and just go on Saturday instead.  However, the bookstore was still quite busy.  It is tiny.  By comparison to other bookstores in this world, City Lights is a blip on the radar.  By comparison to the impact on literary and social history of other bookstores in this world, City Lights is a freaking giant!  What a wonderful establishment!  Behind it runs Jack Kerouac Alley with great embossed metal paving stones set in the cobbles with quotes on them by Kerouac, Maya Angelou, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and more.  Across the street from the alley is a huge mural depicting jazz and Beat cultures and the street lights that illuminate that particular intersection are formed into the shape of flying books.

So cool.

I know that the Beat poets were often dismissed and vilified by mainstream culture at the time of their greatest activity and I know that “HOWL” at least was instantly banned for its subversion upon its publication.  The obscenity trial that followed could have shut down free speech in the United States and changed the course of librarianship, among other professions, forever.  I am so thankful, so fervently grateful, every day that I am not charged with enforcing morality but with protecting the right to read anything and everything that exists.  It breaks my heart when book challenges are brought to libraries and school districts.  I understand and fully support the right of any reader to opt not to read anything he or she does not wish to read.  However, denying somebody else the right to read something infringes upon their rights as citizens of this beautiful, if often flawed, nation.

Bearing all these implications in mind, I made a few purchases at City Lights on Saturday: a copy of “HOWL,” a postcard of cadets at the Virginia Military Institute reading “HOWL,” and a bumpersticker that reads “HOWL if you love City Lights.”  I consider that a good day’s work for a free-speech-loving librarian.

Happy Birthday, City Lights!  Thanks for 60 years of awesome!