Showing posts with label pet peeves. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pet peeves. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Not all libraries are perfect


This is blasphemy, I know, but I have to get this off my chest.

I have long supported libraries. I know that libraries face increasing budget cuts and that they're trying to do the best they can. I know that librarians are generally good people with noble intentions. But if there's one thing I've learned the hard way is that some libraries are, frankly, better than others.

My love affair with the Boston Public Library (BPL) began to fade a few months ago. I remembered the beautiful building as housing an extensive collection, but once I began to browse more extensively, I was disappointed by the limited scope. It was nice, I'll admit, to have all the genres mixed together, but there was something a bit sloppy about the whole thing as well. The organization seemed incomplete and messy. It was bearable, but I found myself struggling just to find a book.

Okay. Fine.

Then I started looking for places to sit with my laptop and study. None. Not one. There's an entire room with desktops for use (which was completely packed), but even as I searched, I could hardly find any desks to work at. And once I did find a suitable table, I was surprised to discover that there were no chairs. Okay, I told myself. It's a larger, far more central library than any I've ever frequented beforehand. It's natural. So I decided to browse a few other sections, including the teen room. I was surprised to see a sign on the door denying entrance to anyone over 18 years of age. I suppose the desire to read young adult books is cut off abruptly the moment one is allowed to vote. Though I doubt anyone would have enforced the rule, the sign itself was enough of a turnoff. I left the library thoroughly disappointed. But these were minor issues, hardly worth mentioning or getting caught up on. But then there's the bigger issue: The BPL is the worst organized library I have ever encountered.

I mean it. The sloppy bookshelves were just the tip of the iceberg. The Audio/Visual section is a complete mess - no organization whatsoever, five carts out with "recently returned items" (some of which seem to have been there for months), terrible broken cases, title and genre inconsistencies... must I go on? But here's what worse - nobody seems to care. I was searching for an item that was supposed to be on the shelves for a solid hour before I decided to turn to a librarian. She very courteously stayed in her seat and looked the item up on her computer (as I myself had done mere minutes earlier), telling me, "It's on the shelf. Just look for it." And that was all. I spent another hour looking over literally every item on the recently returned carts, eventually giving up.

I learned my lesson. The next time I needed something, I placed a hold on it. I saw that the items I requested were listed as on the shelf; I smiled, thinking that at worst it would take three days for them to make the transfer to the hold shelf. How wrong I was. I placed holds on April 22 for five items found in the library. Two books appeared on the hold shelf five days after I placed the hold on them. One book (of which four copies are allegedly in-library) did not appear by three weeks after I placed the hold, by which point it was irrelevant and I cancelled the hold. The hold I placed on one disc was cancelled three weeks in (no reason given), and the hold I placed more than a month ago on another CD that was supposedly in-library became in-transit only the other day.

Here's what drives me nuts. In today's modern world, libraries are supposed to have it easy. Tracking becomes much simpler the moment it's digitized. All that's left for libraries is to maintain some kind of shelf order. To mix up one or two items makes sense. But to lack any coherent order is unacceptable. When browsing discs, even something as simple as genre distinctions is missing, let alone any alphabetical markers. One soundtrack might be found under "pop", another under "soundtrack", a third under "classical". And don't get me started on the loose CDs found floating around as well, cases long abandoned, discs scratched and useless.

But what is most disturbing is the disdain BPL librarians seem to hold for their neighboring library system. The Minutemen Library system (which I am far more likely to patron) is comprised of many significantly smaller libraries, but has a wonderful online catalog, excellent organization, and convenient transfers of books from library to library means that just about every item is available somewhere - hence it is available everywhere. The most I've had to wait for items to move from one library to another was four days - a reasonable time frame when considering the fact that I requested the item on a Friday afternoon. When I mentioned the Minutemen system, a BPL librarian snorted and said, "Bet you've been waiting forever." That's right, but it's not the Minutemen who keep me waiting. It's the BPL. Clean up your act fast, or else you'll find yourself losing a lot more patrons...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Quest for the Good Blurb

It is on the back of the edition of Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles I'm currently reading that I have finally found what I long believed was a myth: a good blurb.

The Quest for the Good Blurb has been an informal search of mine for several years with one simple (and one complex) goal: to find a good blurb (or to find the practical justification for blurbs. Either/or.). I've never really been a fan of blurbs, whether because I think they blemish an otherwise clean book exterior or simply because they are almost always completely and entirely full of nonsense. Blurbs have a tendency to be dramatic and overwrought - publishers will choose the most awkward-yet-gushing phrases to slap on back (and sometimes, god forbid, front) covers. More often than not, these blurbs are also heavily edited and an experienced reader can taste the missing (and perhaps somewhat less laudatory) sentiments that used to be housed in place of those ellipses.

But then here's a blurb that (in my mind) actually works. One that even if I hadn't received numerous recommendations to read the book would probably have had me intrigued:
"Critics have variously likened him to Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Arthur C. Clarke,Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Pynchon - a roster so ill assorted as to suggest Murakami is in fact an original." - The New York Times
Whoever wrote this sentence* is a genius. Or, rather, whoever picked this as a blurb really knows what they're doing. This is the anti-blurb, an honest acknowledgement of critics' obsession with comparing authors when they really should just stand alone. And yet it provides a potential reader with a kind of framework by which to judge Murakami's writing, even as it begs the reader to do the opposite. The final message, meanwhile, is wonderfully suggestive: it tells me that something about Murakami's writing is special. That it's different. What kind of reader won't fall for a blurb like that?

* Which, it turns out, is slightly edited: "Western critics searching for parallels have variously..." is the original, significantly more accurate quote

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Is that even a real name?

Literary Pet Peeve #3: Girl main characters with "original" names

Among the many annoying phenomena in contemporary young adult literature, there are a few that stand out as particularly annoying - not harmful, not technically bad... but simply obnoxious.

I guess because the majority of young adult fiction is geared towards young women, there are a few things that are going to be imbalanced. This one, however, will never make sense to me: many girls in young adult books seem to have fancy, "exotic" names while the boys around them have standard, boring names.

I noticed this years ago but was reminded of it today when I saw this review over at Rhapsodyinbooks. The book has a main character named Wren (whose younger sister is named "Robin" - which by the way... seriously?). It's a weird name, to the point where I've never actually met anyone with that name, nor ever heard of it in the context of a girl's name. But there's another half to this complaint - her boyfriend's name. Because you see, her boyfriend is named Danny.

I can list dozens of books with this phenomenon and I seriously can't figure it out. Sure, sometimes exotic or different character names in general can add a level of depth to the story, but it's usually just ridiculous, particularly when it doesn't mesh with the tone of the book. There's the flip side of the coin: the fact that the boyfriends always have bland, standard names. If you're already having fun with names, why not have everyone sport a wacky, original name? Be consistent, at the very least...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sigh, Amazon - recommendations

Today, we highlight one of the face-palming, head-banging, sigh-causing things that Amazon, this once-actually-kind-of-chill (maybe when I was like, ten...?) bookseller, does.

So years ago, I wrote a modestly negative review of People of the Book. There were some good points, though, so when forced to give the book a rating, I chose 2.7, or, 3 stars. Now, Amazon understands a 3-star rating to be a negative review. Look up reviews, you'll see the glowing 5-star review as compared with the less-than-gushing 3-star. 3 stars and under counts on the "negative" end of Amazon's scale.

So why, can someone explain to me, did Amazon send me an e-mail recommending some book called The Oriental Wife? The book looked boring and not to my taste so I opened the e-mail. Lo and behold: "Customers who have purchased or rated People of the Book: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks might like to know that The Oriental Wife is now available."

Amazon. Really. By your own standard, I didn't like People of the Book. Do you really think I'm going to buy a book that you claim is similar to something I didn't like? This is just another form of your crappy bookseller recommendations, except this time with even less thought...

Sigh.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why does it always have to be chess?

Literary Pet Peeve #2: Chess as the marker of intelligence

You know that thing where authors try to write realistic teenagers? Yeah, so despite the fact that almost every author in existence was, at one point, a teenager (I have my doubts about a very specific few...), most authors seem incapable of capturing the true essence of the teenage years. Part of it may have to do with the fact that the teen brain is almost like that of an adult, but with a bunch of obvious childish flaws (forgive me - I speak as someone only starting to get over this serious and potentially harmful affliction...). Whatever the cause may be, some authors use a few "handy" tricks to bridge the gap between their teenage reader and the adult mind. This typically comes in the form of intelligence. Think about it. How many less-than-average teenagers have you encountered in literature (young adult or otherwise)? They're almost always just a bit cleverer than your average kid, just a bit more intelligent.

And all too often they play chess.

Chess. I mean, seriously, why does it always have to be chess? The amount of books I've read that use chess as symbolism for the cleverness and talent of their young protagonist is... high. Very high. It's frustrating, if only because it's a cheap trick: a writer who has to elevate their character to above-average intelligence just to make them sound "realistic" is a bad writer. And chess is pretty much the cheapest way to accomplish this.

In general, the use of chess in literature is to indicate growth and intelligence. I mean, I get it. Chess is a logical game. It can be wonderful symbolism for certain thought-processes, for how certain characters think. But it's not the only way. You know what else works? Computer strategy games. Risk. In fact, I want someone to write a book in which a character is analyzed and developed throughout a game of Risk. Seriously. That would be awesome. Chess may have once been wonderful symbolism, but use of it today feels trite and inappropriate. Such a shame - I actually always liked the game...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The 10% Rule

I'm really sick of this.

You know when you're reading the back cover of a book, and it references something? And you're like, "Oh, that must be something pretty basic and simple! I mean, it's not like the back cover would have spoilers, right?" So it turns out that back cover blurbs actually have spoilers. Often.

Recently, I've found myself reading books that go into immense detail in the back cover blurbs. Now, I don't have any problems with the concept of a blurb. I don't think it's inherently bad to have a short, summarizing introduction. But giving away plot points or revealing character traits that aren't introduced in the book until very late...? Here I must draw the line.

A few weeks ago, I finished reading a novel that hammered home this problem. In the overly descriptive back cover blurb, it's casually mentioned that the main character lies about her name. This fact, it turns out, is only revealed on page 89. Even in a 500 paged book, that's pretty flipping late. Annoyed by this revelation, I wondered what could be done to avoid this in the future. Then it hit me: the 10% Rule.

Basically, the 10% Rule would state that the back cover blurb cannot include any reference to plot points, characters, ideas or concepts not mentioned in the first tenth of the novel. This would mean that a novella could have only a simple background description, while an epic fantasy novel could probably squeeze in a lot of information. We're so concerned about spoilers all the time but ultimately these blurbs can do more harm than a somewhat spoilery review. The reader spends so much time expecting events and characters and revelations, often times realizing that their effect is significantly diminished by the prior knowledge.

So readers, writers, publishers... let us join together to make our reading world a much more enjoyable and fulfilling place. Let us implement the 10% Rule and enjoy the surprises as they hit us. Because for heaven's sake: if the book spoils itself, what's the point?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stop me if you've heard this one before

Literary Pet Peeve 1: When I find myself reading/reading about the same book I've read a thousand times before. Particularly when it isn't even riding a bandwagon.

Note: I did not seek out any of these titles. The first two I read (sadly - I wish I could take those hours back...), the second two I came across in my daily book travels.
  • Exhibit A: Saving Zoe, Alyson Noel; Plot: Little sister Echo is the normal kid, big sister Zoe is the exotic, popular, beautiful one. Zoe is murdered - Echo starts following in big sis' footsteps, including involvement with boyfriend. She uncovers secrets. Drama ensues.
  • Exhibit B: Goldengrove, Francine Prose; Plot: Little sister Nico is a normal kid, big sister Margaret is the exotic, popular, talented, beautiful one. Margaret drowns - Nico starts following in big sis' footsteps, including involvement with boyfriend. Drama ensues.
  • Exhibit C: The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson; Plot (as summarized by Goodreads): Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life—and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey's boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie's own. [...]
  • Exhibit D: Between Here and Forever, Elizabeth Scott; Plot (as summarized by Goodreads): Abby accepted that she can’t measure up to her beautiful, magnetic sister Tess a long time ago, and knows exactly what she is: Second best. Invisible. Until the accident. Now Tess is in a coma, and Abby’s life is on hold. It may have been hard living with Tess, but it's nothing compared to living without her. She's got a plan to bring Tess back though, involving the gorgeous and mysterious Eli, but then Abby learns something about Tess, something that was always there, but that she’d never seen. Abby is about to find out that truth isn't always what you think it is, and that life holds more than she ever thought it could...
Exhibits A, B and C are almost identical to each other, down to the bizarre name choices for the sisters' names. I mean, seriously, with the exception of Margaret, none of these names are common for girls (Zoe is marginally acceptable but still fairly unbelievable). Get real. Furthermore, the plots of all four closely follow the same formula: meek little sister steps into the glamorous older sister's shoes following death/horrible accident.

For some odd reason, this storyline seems to be incredibly popular among writers. Please let me know if you come across any other examples so that I may shun those titles for completing spitting in the face of originality. Thank you.