Friday, September 27, 2013

Review - Burial Rites

Lately in Anchorage, it has been gray and rainy. This typical fall weather in Alaska always makes me want to curl up in a chair with a cup of tea and a book that helps me forget the rest of the world. I had an advanced ecopy courtesy of NetGalley that perfectly fit the bill. The weather in the book was also often cold and overcast: perfect match!

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Published September 2013 by Little, Brown and Company, 336 pages.

Bottom Line: Highly recommended. A melancholy look at life in early 19th century Iceland and the last person to be executed in that country. Really good at exploring themes of loneliness, relationships, redemption, and society. Fascinating glimpse into Icelandic society. Should be picked up by most public libraries. Will appeal to historical fiction fans and literary fiction readers.

In 1829 in Iceland, two men have died horrible deaths and three people are tried for the crime. Two are sentenced to death and one to life in prison. While they await confirmation of the sentence from the ruling Danish officials, Agnes is moved to a farm in the valley where she grew up to be held prisoner in the home of a minor government official.

Of course the official and his family have no prison on their land, so Agnes lives with the family as a servant, gradually revealing her own story and becoming part of that family's story.

Utterly fascinating. I didn't know much about life in Iceland and I loved this peek at how it worked. For example I didn't know that Iceland was ruled over by the Denmark (and the Danish King) from the 13th century until the end of WWII. All the little details about life in such a harsh Northern climate, on farms where people were barely surviving were beautifully woven into the story. At no point did you feel like you were receiving a history and sociology lesson, but rather that you were seeing into their society. (It should be noted that the author is an Australian who has spent considerable time in Iceland.)

The setting is dramatically described as both culturally and physically harsh. Flashes of Agnes' life are revealed as we see how hard it was to be an unwanted child, a servant, in a time where survival was not guaranteed even for the wanted children of well off farmers.

Writing is lyric and melancholy. Haunting and mesmerizing are adjectives used to describe books so often as to become meaningless cliches, but they apply.

What I loved about this book that I didn't realize how much I enjoyed it until after a few weeks of deliberation was the lack of didactic moralizing. This isn't a story against the death penalty. It is just a story, just a thing that happened. Steinbeck did the same type of storytelling with Of Mice and Men. These are the tales of how people live, how horrible things can happen without horrible intentions, how life can be hard, survival a challenge and beauty still exist.

As a funny note, I read this as an ebook advanced copy from NetGalley. The library's copy arrived on Wednesday. On Thursday a high schooler arrived with an assignment to read any book more than 250 pages not by an American author. I book talked this one to her and she left with it very happily. Fortuitous timing.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Review - The Returned

Please don't let the fact that this is published by Harlequin dissuade you. There's nary a heaving breast or throbbing member to be found. Instead you have some very well written speculative fiction.

The Returned by Jason Mott. Published by Harlequin, August 27th, 2013. 352 pages.

Bottom Line: Not a flawless book, but a very good book. Focusing more on human nature and relationships than supernatural, it is a nonetheless eerie book that succeeds in getting under the skin of the reader. Recommended for purchase by most librarians. Will appeal to fans of China Mieville and Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

All around the world, the dead are returning. They're not coming back as zombies or ghosts or vampires (not that type of novel), they're just coming back. Thousands of miles from home, with no memories of the afterlife, just returning in much the same condition they were when they died. This presents problems when, for example, a group of Nazi soldiers comes back in a small town in rural America. At first the Bureau tries to reunite the returned with their families, but not every returned is welcomed back. They bring out a lot of complicated feelings. And the problems grow as the numbers of returned grow.

At the heart of the novel is the small town where the Hargraves live. They face complicated feelings when their young son, drowned nearly 50 years earlier, is returned. And then their town is taken over for a detention center for the returned. As tensions burn between the returned, the soldiers, and the "True Living" townsfolk, no one is ready for the chaos.

The concept is fascinating. The dead returning as almost but not quite living with no explanation. The reader receives no more explanation than did the people of the novel allowing us to share in the mystery and frustration.

The setting is incredible. You see this small town, a bit run down by the economy, filled with people who aren't good or bad but just people, and you feel like you could live there. Or that you do. Because it is every small town, but it is also its own place.

Characterization was fantastic. Even the "villains" are fully developed complex characters. No one was predictable. Some of the characters I thought I knew the best managed to surprise me right at the end, but surprise me in a way that was consistent with their character and shed light on every previous action. In other words, some of the best characterizations I have ever felt.

Great premise. Fantastic setting. Incredible characterization. Mediocre plot. The plot pacing was uneven. And that kept everything from entirely gelling together. This book was very good, but just short of great.

Between the chapters about the main characters, there are interludes written from the point of view of a returned. These are some of the most beautiful and haunting, little glimpses into the confusion. They were some of my favorite parts of this novel. I think I would really have enjoyed seeing this novel as a series of short stories set in the world dealing with this returning of the dead.

But I can't wish for a book that doesn't exist. And I did really enjoy this book. I do recommend it. It's speculative fiction without being hardcore, returning from the dead without being zombies, paranormal but not frightening, it does what great literature does, it makes us look within ourselves to ask how we and our neighbors would handle a situation.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Change is Hard

One of my new goals is to read at least one book that might help me be a better librarian or manager a month. They don't all have to be actually aimed at librarians, but I will be reviewing them under the tag "professional lit". To that end my first book was about change. It was the August book, but I am a bit delayed on the blogging.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Published in 2010 by Crown Business. 320 pages.

Change is ever present in our personal and work lives. A lot is being written about how libraries are facing a crisis/ebook revolution/time of change. And yeah. But that was also true when we went to computers and integrated library systems (ILS for the acronym geeks out there). It was true when we dumped the card catalog and went to OPACs (online public access catalogs). It was true when we racially integrated libraries. Back in the 16th century there was probably a librarian grousing that switching to the Gregorian calendar would really mess up the acquisition records.

Okay a lot of those things happened before my time in librarianship. But my point is that we have always been a profession who faced change.

My library system has been going through a lot of change. As a middle manager, I've been responsible for helping to implement some of that change, but I have not always been in on the meetings or decisions to make that change. And of course my personal life has had a lot of change lately, some good some not so good. Thus change and change management are of special interest to me.

Bottom Line: This book is really good. You should read it if you are interested in change or management. It has a good basic framework that is supported with practical examples from business, social work, non profits, and personal life. It avoids the trap of speaking too much in scholarly jargon and produces an approachable book that doesn't feel dumbed down.

Basic framework: To make change happen, balance the rational and emotional parts of people's minds. Give motivation to their emotional part of the brain and clear direction to their rational part.

I'm not going to quote the entire book verbatim, but here are a few relevant examples.

Clear direction to the rational part of the mind. For example we could say "be more friendly and welcoming to the patrons". That's really vague. Most staff think they are friendly and welcoming, regardless of how they are perceived. A few years ago we heard a good framework at a customer service training. It's the 10-4 rule. When a patron is within 10 feet of you, make eye contact and smile. Acknowledge them non-verbally. The patron feels welcomed and is more likely to approach you if they need help. When a patron is within 4 feet of you, verbally greet them. Super easy and works like a charm. This very clear directive makes a world of difference in customer service.

Another great piece of advice. Shrink the change. Don't make people change the world all at once, give them small achievable steps.

Give people a head start. The example in the book was of a car wash that gave some customers a loyalty 8 punch card (and then the 9th was free) and other customers a 10 punch card to earn a free wash. The customers with the 10 punch card were told they were given two free punches for loyalty. So both groups had to earn 8 punches for the free wash. The customers who thought they had a two punch head start were more likely to complete their punch card.

We did something very similar with summer reading this system. When our youth services librarians visited schools, they gave out a large bookmark style summer reading promo that also had the first few lines of the summer reading chart so kids could start tracking the time they were reading. They were really excited to get a "head start" on their reading and were already invested in the program and (hopefully) more likely to come in and sign up.

Last crumb from the book: tweak the environment. To make change work, to make it easier and more likely to stick, change the environment in favor of the change. Years ago I worked at a library that wanted more people to use self check machines (staff cuts, staff reduced by attrition, more effective). Rather than just putting up a self check and hoping for the best, they totally redid the circulation desk. Instead of 3 clerk stations and one self check, you had to walk past four self checks to get to the only clerk station. That, and friendly staff members offering to help them use the self check, really helped people convert to self checks.

My favorite comment of that system, when someone worried that seniors wouldn't be able to deal with the new machines, was from my branch manager. He replied that those same seniors had been using ATMs happily for 20 years. And it really wasn't a problem.

In summary: this is a great book for librarians and managers and I highly recommend it. It has given me a lot to think about in terms of change in our system and in my own life personally.