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ARC POLICY: Chronically Behind on Writing Reviews

March 15, 2012

Dear Publicists, Publishers, Authors and Generous Book People,

I am in graduate school, pursuing a Masters in Information and Library Science.

While the program is fascinating, the coursework and reading load are a little intense.

And I have fallen behind on book reviews. Please limit the books you pitch or send me to the following  categories:

  • Historical fiction
  • Foodie lit or foodie memoir
  • Historical mystery or forensic-based mystery
  • Extremely well-written YA  genre fiction (no vampire romance, please!)

I will still be posting book reviews here when I can. But I cannot guarantee a timely review of your book, though I will do my best.

Thank you so much for keeping me Surrounded By Books

- Elizabeth

Millions of Books! Field trip to ReCAP

August 8, 2014

Have I mentioned lately that my internship at the Burke Library is the best thing ever? Well, it is. Today, I joined a busload of other Columbia librarians for a field trip to ReCAP, an offsite storage facility for books and resources shared by Columbia, the New York Public Library and Princeton. ReCAP stands for The Research Collections and Preservation Consortium.

If you came here from the Burke Library Blog, welcome!

When we arrived at ReCAP, I saw a familiar face, Jacob Nadal. Last semester, he was my Digital Curation and Preservation professor (the one who got me hooked on Wikipedia). I’ll admit it, even though he was introduced to the group as Jake, I still wanted to call him Professor Nadal.

Let me show you the inner workings of the library world.

(And a slide show to help you picture what I saw.) Read more…

Book Review: Pitch Perfect

August 7, 2014
Jacket image, Pitch Perfect by Mickey Rapkin

Movie tie-in cover is misleading

Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory
Mickey Rapkin
Gotham Books, 2008
271 pages
(library book)

For once, I’m going to say it: The movie was better than the book.

I love the movie for all kinds of reasons: my own fond memories of attending college a cappella concerts, my absolute weakness for the feel-good story arc of a contest-and-triumph coming of age story, and the excellent musical talent on display in the revisions of pop songs. And yes, some of the personalities in the movie are caricatures- the Prissy Girl, the Tough Girl, the Geeky Love Interest Guy. And you’d have to be blind as well as tone deaf, probably, not to see where the plot is going. There’s a rivalry! There’s a competition! I love every melodic, predictable moment of it. It warms my heart. It makes me smile. I’m up for it, in book or movie form.

So I approached the book, ready to immerse myself in a story that combined an insider’s view of some of the details of a cappella with a feel-good competition arc, and some pleasant college nostalgia. Based on my fondness for the movie, and indeed, on the cover of the book, I was ready for a pretty clear arc as I settled in.

It was an ensemble story of three different a cappella groups: the all-female Divisi from Ohio, the all-male Beelzebubs from Tufts, and the all-male Hullabahoos from UVa (who perform in bathrobes.)  The competition story arc is laid out neatly, with an introduction to the competitive world of the ICCAS- International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. The book begins with the 2005 championships, and Divisi not quite making the cut. So I’m expecting to see all three teams, sorry, groups, battle for the finals as the book progresses.

Not so much.

The chapters alternate between the a cappella adventures of the three groups- Divisi trying for another shot at the ICCAs, the Beelzebubs getting mired in tradition and leadership battles, and the Hullabahoos careening from wild success (all expenses paid swank trip to Portland) to Animal House style debauched failure (a party that burned a house down). It’s a little confusing, especially with two all-male groups to follow in alternate chapters, but the distinction between the hardworking, history-steeped Beelzebubs with leadership conflicts and alum backers, and the bathrobe-wearing, frat party vibe of the Hullabahoos helps, as well as some slightly familiar landmarks from UVa. (Sidenote to self- research college a cappella Christmas tracks, especially Beelzebubs.)

The parts where Rapkin pulls back for  a longer view of a cappella’s evolution in context, from barber shop quartets to traditional glee club style harmonies, to more freewheeling mimicry of percussion with beatboxing and pop song instruments are the most interesting. That’s what I came to the book for, more a sense of how a cappella works, not just within individual groups but as a phenomenon as a whole. It’s weird, but fascinating. And, when Rapkin takes it at face value, telling groups’ stories and weaving elements from interviews into a narrative, it works for me as a solid music history narrative- a triptych story of three bands in parallel. I’ll buy it. Setting up the context allows Rapkin to set up statements like “Code Red might be the most controversial album in the history of collegiate a cappella,” and having that sound rational to an outside reader.

But at several points, Rapkin’s tone shifts from reporting to being deliberately sly about the weird geeky appeal of a cappella, in a sly and winking way that really doesn’t work. Yes, he sets up a context for a cappella being a pop culture joke on The Office, but that point gets made in the setp- he doesn’t need to keep making these smug asides, as if to have security in his own authorial coolness. It comes off as disrespectful journalism, and very misplaced.

Even though I’m familiar with college a cappella (my own alma mater fielded nine groups) and its pop songs and friendly rivalries, there are parts that just don’t translate all that well to text. It’s no easy task to describe the onomatopoeia and odd noises the backing singers have to make to convey the sound of instruments and percussion. For example,  “Oooh//SHADAAA// Ooooh// Doo Doo” is supposed to describe the intro to an a cappella version of U2’s “One,” the Beelzebubs’ set piece. And I have no idea what that would actually sound like. Other attempts at depicting melody also fall (yes, I’m going to say it) flat.

I can see where elements of the book fed into the movie I really enjoyed, but selling this book with a “Now a Major Motion Picture” cover is misleading.

Definitely going to  borrow the DVD when I stop by the library to return the book. Off to watch one of my favorite scenes from the movie. (NSFW warning: sexy lyrics)

Debugging and Debugging at the Burke Library

July 26, 2014

In two days at the Burke, I did two different kinds of debugging.

And some helping to develop and expand their social media strategy, but I couldn’t shoehorn that into the title of this post.

Read more…

Book Review: Freak Show Without a Tent

July 21, 2014

Freak Show Without a TentJacket image, Freak Show without a Tent by Nevin Martell
Nevin Martell
Possibilities Publishing
June 2014
(review copy received from author)

From Nevis at age six to Vanuatu at age 12 to Tonga and Western Samoa at age 13, Nevin’s family vacations take him to places far more exotic than your average family jaunt to Disneyland. The memoir gathering these stories together is both a fun romp and a detailed view that evokes the places his family visits.

The book works as an armchair travel guide and daydream fodder. Anecdotes about each vacation make it easy to picture the islands themselves, and to feel brought along on the family trips. His writing makes it easy to share the white-knuckles in a small, rickety plane or watching land diving (both firmly crossed off my own vacation to-do list); and to wish for a bite of the johnnycakes or fresh caught fish cooked wrapped in leaves (yum). I’ll be pulling this off the shelf again in February, to cheer me up when it’s gray and slushy out.

Martell does a terrific job of blending the voice of the young boy seeing the islands for the first time (bickering with his sister, rolling his eyes at his dad, uneasy about piranhas swimming too near the boat) with the wry observations of an established writer looking back. Moments that stand out for capturing both voices include his riff on James Bond movies (I giggled out loud on the subway, and nearly missed my stop while reading) and his tale of the family’s experience with the awful-tasting but trippy kava ceremony on Fiji.

In the spirit of full disclosure as to how I got my hands on this book: Nevin and I went to the same college. He was a senior when I was a freshman. He came across my blog and reached out to tell me about his book, wondering whether I remembered him. (Here, I think it helps that he and I both have unique enough names for disambiguation in cyberspace.) He was a senior when I was a freshman, with a few friends in common. I remember a cheerful grin, and that he knew and wrote about cutting edge cool music for various school publications. So that added an extra layer of fun to reading this. But I can safely say it stands alone as a good read, even without prior knowledge.

My Blogging Family Tree

July 20, 2014

What does your blogging family tree look like? Who led your way into social media?

Over at BlogHer, they’ve been talking about blogging family trees. It got me remembering.

I came to book blogging through ink and paper journalism. Fran Wood, then features editor of the Star-Ledger tapped me to do some book reviews in 2007. Of course, I loved the idea of free books, and, even better, the chance to write about them. Periodically, packages of books would arrive from Fran, along with wordcounts and deadlines. It was like having a birthday every month!

I began exploring Twitter and Facebook around the same time.  (Fun fact: my Dad was the one who prodded me to get into both. He enticed me onto Facebook with promises to play Scrabble with me. A decision he later came to regret, when I started doing things like playing “BANJAX” on triple word scores. He won’t play with me anymore.)

I grew up on the Internet, of course, in the age of AOL disks and the understanding that cyberspace was not a place for real names or identifying information. Before book reviewing, and starting to blog about books here, any web journals I had were veiled under a screen name. If they were about connecting with others, they were about fandoms, or staying in touch with real-life friends, rather than participating in a deliberately created blogger community. So it felt distinctly odd to do things like use my real name to make my blog something that could be found and deliberately connected to me.

Making the transition into book reviewer and book blogger, and becoming more active on social media introduced me to Sassymonkey, who I see as a “blogmother,” both someone to steer and start conversations about books, and also a model of how book blogging worked. Sassymonkey introduced me to the community of BlogHer as well as being an entry point to various other book blogs. Through Twitter and other book blogs, I found my way to participating in blogger events like Booking Through Thursday and Dewey’s Readathon, expanding my family of book bloggers further still. Beginning to attend the Book Expo allowed me to meet some of these excellent book bloggers in person, along with introducing me to the writers, publishers and publicists who keep us all reading. (It was the community of librarians at the Book Expo who convinced me to go for my Masters in Library Science, but that’s a different family tree altogether).

In 2008, my social media life took a turn for the deliberate and professional, and found me taking on work as a social media manager and blog editor. Working to create and publicize content that focused on the interests of specific populations (women over 40 and fashion illustrators, to be exact) honed my ability to tailor social media content to a specific audience, and start conversations geared towards promoting a message to them. Now I do the same in the world of business books.

Working in content publishing (and publicity for a publishing company) while also blogging book reviews, and learning how to be a librarian, my blogging family tree starts to branch out in all directions.

Because of the way the different bookish and blogging interactions twine around one another (for example, my former Star-Ledger book review editor asked me for some tips on starting her own book blog), I think my blogging family tree may be less a tree than a trellis of ivy.

Historical Mysteries for Art and Book Lovers

July 19, 2014

On Saturdays, I work the circulation desk of my school library, in the company of Annalise. In addition to being one of my fellow students in the library science Masters program, Annalise is pursuing a Masters in Art History.  On a slow afternoon, we got talking about books. (Shocking, I realize!) We discovered that we’re both fans of mysteries set in any time period, and historical fiction.

So here’s a list of recommendations for Annalise

1. The Crown and The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau for the historical setting (Tudor England) and the richness of description.

2. The Kate Martinelli mysteries by Laurie R. King. Start with Grave Talent

3. Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon for the setting in the Caucasus mountains in 950 A.D., and for the adventures and bickering of Amram and Zelikman.

4.The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon because there’s an antiquarian book dealer and a mystery. And it’s really good.

5. Sherlock Holmes variations that I like

6. A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness because there’s a mystery, an ancient text, and a vampire done vastly better than Twilight.

What mysteries would you add for an art historian who loves antiquarian books?

Book Review: I Love You More

July 12, 2014

Jacket image, I Love You More by Jennifer MurphyI Love You More by Jennifer Murphy
Doubleday, June 2014 (review copy from publisher)

Picasso Lane is twelve years old when her father, Oliver is murdered. During the course of the murder investigation, it is discovered that her father has two other wives. All of the women say they have never met, are shocked to learn of their husband’s polygamy. But, precocious Picasso knows otherwise. She knows that the other two women arrived secretly at the house, and that all three have the same purse, but carry different photos of her father. Kyle Kennedy, the detective assigned to the case, spends more and more time with Picasso’s mother, investigating the family, and then beginning to hope that she won’t be a suspect. The novel is told in alternating chapters, from the point of view of Picasso, Kyle, the Wives as a whole, and yes, even Oliver. As in: the dead guy. (I thought that last was a bit much.)

We’ll start with the good: It’s a fast summer read, but the prose is well crafted enough, that it feels a cut above purely trashy. Using alternating chapters to tell the mystery was an interesting device- the daughter, an investigator, the wives who might be suspects. I liked the shifts, though as I mentioned, hearing from the dead husband was a bit over the top. And I genuinely had no idea who had actually done the murder, as I followed along with the investigation. I found the wives’ interactions with each other, and the power dynamic between them interestingly creepy.

That said… this was a book I enjoyed disliking, far more than I actually enjoyed reading it. Poindextrix was in town for the weekend I was reading this. She and I kept laughing at how often I scoffed “Oh come on!” or “Really? Are you kidding me?” and rolling my eyes at the book. I can’t give a full account of what made me roll my eyes without spoiling, but here is a brief list:

The fact that nobody had a normal name. Picasso (who was at times, the kind of precocious kid who sets my teeth on edge in fiction) offers the explanation for why she is named Picasso (something about her mother and art and the truth). But come on! In the first few pages, when she referred to the other wives as “Jewels” and “Bert,” I snarked about nobody having a normal name in this gimmicky book.

While I appreciated the Wives chapters as a way to understand them in a character-driven suspense novel, I got frustrated by the pseudo-mystical tone of their narrative.

And Kyle? Do not get me started! I understand there are tropes in mystery novels, especially for gruff detectives who have Pasts, and beautiful women in trouble but come on! “He should take himself off the case!” I protested, making Poindextrix giggle.

In sum, I guess I had enough fun disliking this book to make it a worthwhile read?


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