Monthly Archives: March 2009

review – the graveyard book

graveyard bookReading works of Neil Gaiman, I’ve come to notice several intricacies in his writing that are admirable.  The first of which is that he seems to resist well the temptation to write any sequels to his works (other than the Sandman, of course).  Yes, some of his characters occasionally recur in his short works of fiction from time to time, but merely as a distant flash or strike of lightning. Some books are best when they stand alone.

A second observation could be that Gaiman’s knack for a good story hinges largely on how much he can keep you guessing, in the dark, as it were, for more detail about his characters and settings.  As his stories unfold, there is always left a nagging sense of wonder about what he has deliberately left un-described, resting in the shadows, taking form within the reader’s sense of wonder.

Such is the case with The Graveyard Book.  Admittedly inspired from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, this story concerns the life of a young orphan, Nobody Owens, as he matures in the graveyard that is his home.  It is here that he finds family, knowledge, and ironically, a bit of shelter from the cruel living world beyond the locked gates of the cemetery.

Though considered a work of juvenile literature, The Graveyard Book is doubtless a cheeky, though spine-chilling, work for all readers. It is Gaiman’s puzzle for the reader to deduce which environment, that of the living or the dead, is most cruel and dangerous. More often than not, the choice is most eerily inconclusive.

At the very least, this is a wickedly and expertly told story; readers may wonder what life, or perhaps the lack of it, would be like on the dustier side of a ghoul-gate, compared to a chance meeting with an  “Every Man Jack” on a cold, pitch-dark and misty street corner.  At its best, The Graveyard Book is that plus more: growing up, the thrill of adventure, as well as living death, or perhaps even life, to the fullest.

epiphany

neil_graveyard

Master storysmith Neil Gaiman brilliantly incorporates the necessity of libraries and literacy within his latest, and lo, a Newberry is bestowed.  As it should be.

review – indian killer

indUnderstanding Sherman Alexie is a little complicated, a little conflicting. Listen to him speak and he’ll stress that he’s just a typical guy, that there’s nothing really that mystical about being a Spokane Indian, or American Indian in general. Read one of his works, though, and you’ll find his magic oozing between each page.  Magic that’s woven with tenderness, rage, and humor that’s distinctly and unabashedly Indian.  Magically real and real magic.

Such was my hunch after reading Indian Killer. Much more than a mystery, Indian Killer is an epic construct of the alienated and isolated American Indian, perhaps even just the American experience. Alexie interweaves the interconnectedness of a disparate set of characters, Indian and otherwise, within the mist and cold of Seattle.

The main theme of the story deals with the advancement of John Smith, adopted Spokane Indian by a young non-native couple from Seattle into adulthood.  Smith is the symbol, the representation of alienation and marginalization, his actions set around a series of violent murders unhinging the city.  The greater story, however, concerns itself more around the other archetypes Alexie so often seems conflicted with: the whites who are Indians of the “Wannabe Tribe”, the academics who hijack Indian stories, the perpetually exploited and oppressed Indians, and the rednecks who take advantage when the right moment arises.

Alexie artfully interweaves each of these elements, while simultaneously providing beautifully rich detail of the setting.  His description of Seattle, though not forced, is intensely deliberate. The distinctive neighborhoods, the dank roadways, the huddled yet resilient groups of homeless, the bookstores, and the water that envelops, isolates each.

In short, Indian Killer is a masterpiece.  Sherman Alexie brings the Indian, but leaves the human imprint on the reader. It’s a tragedy that belongs within the realm of magical realism, though savoring the magic within his writing is supremely uplifting.

librarians helping indians tell indian stories

Two occurrences struck me as definitely non-coincidental during the ACRL conference this past week.  The first being Friday’s keynote address delivered by Sherman Alexie, renowned author, comedian and veritable renaissance man who happens to be American Indian. His address was poignant, irreverent, lyrical and human.

After spending a few minutes objectifying all the “hot, near-sighted” librarians in the room, Alexie weaved a story with the magic he so effortlessly conjures, discussing various topics ranging from his sickly stint on Oprah to kicking Stephen Colbert’s ass, to applying for having his grandfather’s war medals reissued.  Needless to say, the bigger picture of his whole presentation was one that recurs throughout his works, of Indians and Indian stories.

Combined with his presentation was my reading of his majestically written book Indian Killer. Central to the book was the theme that “Only Indians should tell Indian stories”. Specifically, one instance within is the argument between two characters on whether American Indian stories/content should be recorded by non-natives,even if for academic purposes.  Does it constitute stealing, since these stories are traditionally familial, and orally transmitted from generation to generation? Would recording the screams of someone being physically assaulted equate to the Indian reaction of stealing their stories without permission?

Ironically enough, one of the more interesting and buried sessions that followed Alexie’s address was entitled From Babine to Yakima: Academic Libraries and Endangered Language Preservation, from Washington State University Librarian Gabriella Reznowski. Gabriella mentioned that this is indeed a touchy situation, one that needs careful attention. There is a difference between saving and preserving native languages, Reznowski stresses, and that libraries can serve as collaborative partners in culture preservation, as long as some considerations are followed, including:

  • Deciding whether the Internet is an appropriate venue for placing native cultural resources, rather than simply accessing them in the stacks.
  • Are being tribal policies being followed and respected, having gained permission to begin with?
  • How much effort is the institution willing to spend to keep up their community and tribal relationships?

Just a few considerations to…consider.  We may not be trained linguists, but librarians can be part of something that provides a failsafe against losing one’s history.  Though at all costs, we must realize the point at which we may rewrite such history, despite our good intentions.

librarian avalanche

Thousands of librarians descending upon Seattle for the ACRL conference.  My descension has already become reality.

review – the rum diary

rumReading The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson, one will soon realize the extent to which this story can be classified as a work of fiction.  Less gonzo than F&L or The Curse of Lono, The Rum Diary is an interesting account of Thompson’s time spent in Puerto Rico, and it provides a fascinating look into the journalistic machinations involved with maintaining a newspaper on life-support.  Indeed, this book is prescient in that it signaled what we know as true today, as anyone will be aware having watched The Wire that newspapers are struggling, some even losing the battle “to do more with less”.  But it is a work of Dr. Thompson, and as such one cannot always tell where the journalism begins and the gonzo ends.

The story revolves around Thompson’s actual stint working for The San Juan Daily News, at a time when flights from New York to San Juan cost around fifty dollars. Basically, throw in a bunch of alcohol, barfights and general disarray in the newsroom, and The Rum Diary will soon enough end itself enjoyably.  Two interesting facets surface along the way though.  First, Thompson, as is his strength, surrounds the reader with an eclectic cast of characters, mostly fellow journalists with acumen ranging from intrepidly skillful to absurdly incompetent though all are predictably dysfunctional.  Thompson, I think, admittedly includes himself with this group, this time under the alias as Paul Kemp.  What’s important is that amid all the corruption within the Puerto Rican society, all the drama occurring within the newsroom, the journalists can’t seem to find, perhaps aren’t allowed, newsworthy stories for print.  Consequently, they unknowingly create their own.

The other important aspect to the story is the detail in atmosphere that is characteristically Thompson. In addition to the sweltering heat, he also provides depth to the overall carefree nature yet sudden volatility experienced in Caribbean culture.  In particular, he paints an engrossing, vivid, and nearly horrific picture of Carnival as it exploded during a side-trip to St. Thomas.   Overall, this is a curious work of his that should be taken for what it’s worth; that is,  whatever it is you make of it.

As an extra note, it looks like Johnny Depp is spearhedaing an effort to bring this to nearby theaters.

breaking: fainting goat disease detected in student researchers

Apparently this is now is an epidemic on college and university campuses affecting students’ ability to take notes and start their research.  A terrible affliction.  Some intrepid researchers, non-student researchers mind you who must be resistant to this virulent strain, have found some striking…findings.  Consider the following preliminary symptoms (among several) and decide whether or not they may be related:

  • Students used words such as “angst”, “dread”, “anxious”, “stressed”, “disgusted”, “confused” and “overwhelmed” as the one word that describes their reaction to receiving a research assignment.
  • The majority of the students we intereviewed did not start on an assignment – thinking about it, researching or writing – until two or three days before it was due.

Mutually exclusive?  My thoughts exactly. More to the point, I gleaned this fascinating grain of psycholuminescence further down:

On the downside many participants considered formal library instruction of little value to them – not because it wasn’t helpful or informative but it was hard to recall what was learned when it was needed for an assignment.

Hmmmm, signs of neurological stress and memory loss, particularly during sessions of library instruction.  We need some test subjects and further research.  Hopefully our note-taking abilities we won’t be afflicted.