Duck Duck Book

18 – eyre affair
05.17.2005, 12:04 am
Filed under: fiction

The Eyre affair : a novel / Jasper Fforde.
New York : Viking, 2002.
[MCL call number: FICTION FFORDE; 12 copies, one hold;
also CASSETTE Fiction FFORDE [“slightly abridged”]; seven copies, no holds;
and CD Fiction FFORDE [“slightly abridged”]: eight copies, two holds]

Thursday Next lives in the mid-eighties, but not the mid-eighties that you and I remember. In her world, Wales is an authoritarian socialist state, the English are still fighting Imperial Russia in the Crimean War, time travel is normal, cheese is something to riot over, dodos have been resurrected, and the literary “classics” are serious business. Next is an officer in England’s literature police force, SpecOps-27. Her job is to make sure that creators of forged manuscripts, pushers of “lost” Shakespeariana, and other literary criminals are found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. In her debut appearance, Next has to contend with a major supervillan (he stops bullets in mid-air, can’t be photographed, and hears you mention his name no matter where you are) who kidnaps Jane Eyre and holds her for ransom. Hilarity ensues, and the line between the Outland (where Next is from) and the Bookworld (inside fiction) begins to blur a little.

I thought this book was pretty entertaining. Not really riveting, not great literature, but pretty good and certainly funny and worth my time. Then I began to read the next book in the series, Thursday Next in Lost in a Good Book (New York : Viking, 2003) and about 30 pages in, I realized I was hooked. The interesting thing, I think, is that Thursday Next isn’t really a compelling character. Don’t get me wrong, I like her just fine: she’s plucky, she doesn’t give up on what she believes in, and she’s resourceful. But I’m reading book number three in the series now, Thursday Next in the Well of Lost Plots (New York : Viking, 2004), and I feel like I should have gotten to know her pretty well, but I haven’t. Next still feels two-dimensional to me, and it’s the world she lives in that has me glued to her story.

Generally speaking, I have sort of adolescent reading tastes. I like action and adventure in fiction, I enjoy a mystery and I like narrative tension. A tight plot line keeps me eager to see the next page, and especially I love it when the characters in a book are so real that I’m upset to lose them at the end of the book. Fforde’s Thursday Next series doesn’t really meet any of these needs for me; but I am greatly enjoying reading it anyway because the almost-England of the mid-eighties and the world inside fiction are detailed and vast and complicated and amusing.

However, I must say that even this strength isn’t enough to make the Thursday Next books unqualified favorites of mine — Fforde created a very interesting world (with all the time travel and the Welsh communism) in The Eyre Affair, and then shifted focus to another whole world in Lost in a Good Book, which has Next learning how to jump from the real world into a book and then back again, and introduces her to the Bookworld’s version of SpecOps-27, Jurisfiction (“the policing agency that works within fiction itself to maintain narrative stability”). Maybe Fforde is planning on getting back to his 1986 almost-England a bit later in the series (I’m about halfway through The Well of Lost Plots, and another book follows it), but for now it feels like The Eyre Affair was just a launching pad, a place to frame a context for the fascinating world inside of fiction, where characters spend their off-page time in their own pursuits and there is a vast library of all published fiction presided over by the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat (formerly the Cheshire Cat).

Another thing to note is that Fforde’s books rely on his readers’ shared understanding of Anglo-American literary culture. Readers who are not familiar with the works of the Brontë sisters, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, Thomas Hardy, Edgar Allen Poe, etc., will miss most of the jokes. The great world of fiction described in the Next books is really a fairly narrow one including only what you’d be force-fed in a high school English class (I would suppose, not having taken high school English myself), without mention of the vast majority even of well-known modern classics.

So, I’m a little disappointed. I wanted to desperately love Thursday Next, but I don’t. I wanted to be terribly concerned with her welfare and the resolution of her story, but I am not. Instead I became fascinated with a world I’d never troubled to imagine for myself. Next is necessary and she’s competently written but Fforde’s real strength is in the whole of the universe he’s created, not in the narrative or the characters. The Bookworld and its intricacies are amusing to contemplate, and Fforde’s mid-eighties England is both gentler and more horrible than the real one can have been, but fascinating to consider.

You will not find reason to immerse yourself in the lives of the people in Fforde’s books, because there is not enough there for you to step into. But if you are interested in a literary distraction, if you can stand the English Lit. in-jokes with their heavily Anglo-centric focus, and if you like the structure a fantasy can create, these books may well be for you.


18 – poultry house
05.17.2005, 12:03 am
Filed under: technology

Poultry house construction / by Michael Roberts ; edited by Sara Roadnight ; photographs and illustrations by Michael Roberts.
Kennerleigh : Domestic Fowl Research, c1997.
[MCL call number: 690.892 R646p 1997; 12 copies, no holds]

I don’t have chickens, so I don’t have any real need for this book. But I wish I had chickens, and so I do have a real desire to read books like this. Perhaps you share this desire, or maybe you even have some poultry who need new buildings? If so, read on.

The cover of Poultry House Construction includes a subtitle which I think explains the book’s contents well: “A D.I.Y. guide to building poultry houses and allied equipment.” (This isn’t in the citation above because it’s not on the title page — I’m a librarian and have been trained to believe the title page is more authoritative than the cover. But in this case, I like what the cover says.)

The book is a clear and practical guide to safe, comfortable, well-built enclosures for chickens, geese, ducks, and even rabbits. The designs include attention to outdoor and indoor living space, nesting boxes, windows and light, poultry egress, fox proofing, and more. There are plans for all sizes of structures, from nesting boxes you can add to your existing chicken house to the roomy 10-Hen House. The plans are clear, the instructions make sense as far as I’ve taken them (remember, I just looked at the book; I haven’t built any of the houses!), and there are photographs of each finished project.

18 – portland’s little red book
05.17.2005, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Portland's little red book of stairs : the city's ultimate guide to more than 150 curious and colorful outdoor stairways / Stefana Young ; foreword by Moira Gunn.
Portland, OR : Coobus Press, c1996.
[MCL call number: 721.832 Y76p; four copies, no holds; one copy reference only at Central Library]

Yes, it is a little red book, and it is a guide to the public stairways of our fair city. Young's spiral-bound guidebook walks readers from a central starting point in Pioneer Courthouse Square to about a hundred sets of public steps. The focus of the guide is on west-side stairs (where the hills are!), though the stairs that provide pedestrian access to the Willamette's ten public bridges, and stairs at Mt. Tabor and in the Alameda neighborhood in northeast Portland are also detailed. Each stairway's entry includes the year it was built, the number of steps, addresses at the top and bottom of the stairway, and the Thomas Guide reference point. Notes about what you can see from the steps, why the neighborhood is interesting, and historical information about the stairs are included as well.

18 – sister, uncle sam
05.17.2005, 12:01 am
Filed under: articles

“Sister, Uncle Sam wants you too” / By Vanessa Huang.
WireTap, posted 2 May 2005.

A friend of mine recently thanked me, after a political meeting, for expressing some lofty “yes, we’re doing this small thing because we want the world to be a better place in the long run” logic.  This kind of motivation for action is really pretty common — people want things to be better, we want to feel better ourselves, and we are social animals.  Some will argue with me, but I believe we are all of us interested in making our world a better place to live in.  This can be expressed in many different ways, and people argue about what’s important or how to do things, but there are lots of ways to make change. 

Huang’s article discusses the U.S. military’s recruitment strategies for attracting women of color, and provides some analysis of why these strategies are working.  She interviews anti-recruitment activists and conscientious objectors about their strategies to show young women of color other paths to success and fulfillment in their lives.  The article is brief, so it won’t take much of your time, but it gets right to the heart of a very crucial issue and illustrates some of the good work that anti-recruitment activists are doing.

I think it’s worth remembering that what the women quoted in this article are doing is connected to the work that you and I do every day, even if we don’t think of our work as “peace work” or “anti-military work,” and even if we don’t think we’re doing work at all.  The anti-recruitment work discussed in the article is very connected to the small things I know you all do like fostering good relationships with your neighbors, the medium things like helping kids to have a voice in how schools are run, and the huge giant ones like making it harder for the United States government to prosecute foreign wars.  And all of this is more connected when we remember that we’re working together.

[thanks, Walidah]

17 – the last english king
05.3.2005, 12:03 am
Filed under: fiction

The last English king / Julian Rathbone.
New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
[MCL call number: FICTION RATHBONE; four copies, no holds]

A major difficulty of historical novels is that they are not histories. One cannot rely on them to present historical fact — or at least one cannot rely on them to make clear which bits are fact and which are fantasy, supposition, elaboration, or argument. But the person who wants to read a historical novel is often a person who is curious about the history part, and yet unwilling to go to the trouble of discovering which historical work is best for the subject, and further unwilling to suffer through reading the undoubtedly dry and horrible tome. I am often such a person, as I am impatient with dense or overly academic writing, and intolerant of it when it gets in the way of the pleasure of language. So I read historical novels and then I am frustrated by them. The Last English King is a great exception to this rule. It is more of a nice fictional story surrounded by but distinct from an accounting of what might actually have happened. I haven’t actually fact-checked the story, but it fits right with the things I already knew (mostly) and the only sin I can easily imagine historians ascribing to its author is that he does not pretend to be objective.

Rathbone tells the tale of the English or Anglo-Saxon losers of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He manages to make me think of the English as a noble, admirable people, something I’m not used to thinking — undoubtedly because I am more familiar with their more recent history than I am with the bits before the Norman Conquest. (I don’t despise the English, but if I am going to worry about the rehabilitation of a nation of imperialists, I like to start at home.)

The story is told through Walt, son of a minor landowner from who is part of King Harold’s inner circle of bodyguards and is with him at his death at the Battle of Hastings. Walt loses his hand, but fails to block the blow that kills Harold. Shamed by this, he flees across the channel and wanders all the way to what is now Turkey, where he meets a traveling companion to whom he tells his story.

We all know how it ends — Harold dies, Walt loses his hand, William the Bastard becomes king of England, and he and the Normans steal the harvest, salt the fields, burn villages, rape all the women, murder the men and the babies, and sell the children as slaves. Languages and cultures clash and foundations are laid for a thousand years of tensions between the English and the French. But what makes The Last English King a worthwhile read is that it is an engaging tale. Walt’s journey across Europe to the Black Sea and into Turkey is entwined with the story of his childhood and the way of life in Wessex during the reign of Edward the Confessor, and with the story of how Harold became king of England. Family, politics, sex, the everyday workings of society in England, Normandy, and on Walt’s journey, and the relationship between the humble and the powerful figure greatly in the narrative.

The Last English King tells the losers’ story, and is therefore necessarily a tragedy. The stories of victors are adventures, the kind of accounting of history that is taught by the strong to the subjected. But tragedies — failed causes, doomed love, bungled genius — are stories of people who kicked ass against the odds but didn’t quite hit every high note. Tragedies are glorious but not perfect, like the difference between a hero and a saint, and very, very human. This one is a wonder.

17 – encyclopedia of the stateless
05.3.2005, 12:02 am
Filed under: social sciences

Encyclopedia of the stateless nations : ethnic and national groups around the world / James Minahan.
Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 2002.
[MCL call number: R-320.5403 M663e 2002, one copy reference only at Central Library]

I think if you understand what makes reference books fascinating, you will begin to understand what makes many reference librarians tick. An abiding interest in reference materials is part of what drove me to begin this booklist, and the joy that I feel on learning of a new source that provides valuable information in a logical, useful arrangement — well, it is considerable.

When librarians go out to happy hour and make drunken conversation with each other, we often confess and discuss the reference books we have at home (more than one of my librarian friends, for example, has the full set of Library of Congress Subject Headings, four or five enormous red volumes — and I personally own the surprisingly useful Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1998). A good reference work has a perhaps odd combination of facts, figures, and opinions in a useful, accessible arrangement. Great breadth or perhaps great depth can be found there, but the really important part is that you can find what you’re looking for easily — the contents are arranged in a sensible order, the index is good, the appendixes compliment the main text, etc.

Maybe what makes a great reference book is just that when you need it, nothing else will do. In the first number of this booklist, I described a book that was nothing but a compilation of facsimiles of famous people’s death certificates (Celebrity Death Certificates, compiled by M.F. Steen; Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland, c2003). It’s hard to imagine why anyone would need such a book, but my guess is that if you did, there would be no substitute.

Librarians need reference books desperately in our work — where else would we turn to find a list of all the banks headquartered in Oregon or a short analysis of the careers of each of the US presidents or a brief essay on where the wheelchair came from? Reference works are our meat and drink and take them seriously we must.

So when I was looking at the books in the 320 section (political science) of the reference area in the library a few weeks ago, I was pleased to see a reference set that was new to me, on an interesting topic. And when I took it down from the shelf and examined it a little, I was even more pleased. Encyclopedia of the Stateless Nations is a well-conceived reference guide to a subject that is often ignored elsewhere: cohesive national and ethnic groups that are without nations or significant self-determination.

Minahan used three criteria to determine whether to include a national group in the book: self-identity as a distinctive group, the display of the outward trappings of national consciousness (the prime example being a national flag), and existence of a specifically nationalist organization or political grouping whose purpose is the furtherance of self-determination.

The book’s four volumes contain entries for stateless nations arranged alphabetically by their names in English. Each nation’s entry discusses its population, homeland, flag, people and culture, language and religion, and national history, and includes a short bibliography. National flags are reproduced, as are maps of homelands. The text is followed by two appendixes; one containing independence declarations, and another detailing the geographic distribution and national organizations of included national groups, arranged by nation. There is also an index.

And this is a book you should be glad to have the library buy for the good of the whole community — the publisher’s list price is $475.00, so it’s not really an affordable addition to the part of your book collection you talk about when you’re at happy hour with a bunch of librarians.

17 – roads of the romans
05.3.2005, 12:01 am
Filed under: history & geography

The roads of the Romans / Romolo Augusto Staccioli.
Los Angeles : J. Paul Getty Museum, c2003.
[MCL call number: 937 S775r 2003; two copies, no holds]

This is a small history of Roman roads, beginning with roads the ancient Romans built in their home city, with each succeeding chapter discussing roadwork further away from the capital — first roads outside the city, then consular roads, then roads to distant parts of the empire.  To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really read the book; I just looked at the plentiful color pictures.  They’re nice.  If you’re interested in the subject, take a look.  As far as I can tell, it’s one of the few books devoted to Roman roads.