Friday, November 13, 2015

Booknote: The Readers' Advisory Guide to Historical Fiction

(Crossposted from The Itinerant Librarian)

Jennifer S. Baker, The Readers' Advisory Guide to Historical Fiction. Chicago: ALA Editions, 2015. ISBN: 9780838911655. 

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: readers' advisory, library science
Format: trade paperback
Source: My local public library

I read this in the interest of keeping up with my skills as librarian and readers' adviser. This is an ALA book, so it is fairly similar to other RA books that ALA publishes. I will admit that historical fiction is not a genre that I usually read. For the most part, if I want to read history, I go read a real nonfiction history book. However, I get that some readers find historical fiction appealing, so I read this in order to learn more about the genre and to have some knowledge in case someone comes asking me about it. In addition, I discovered a book or two I have enjoyed in the past such as The Name of the Rose and The Killer Angels that could fall in this genre. From reading this book, I learned that historical fiction can be a diverse and very flexible genre.

Still, the book's text is a bit on the dry side compared to other guides like this I have read. It reads a bit much like a textbook. So while I appreciated the learning, it's basically a book to consult now and then. For librarians with little knowledge of the genre, it does provide a good start.

3 out of 5 stars.

* * * 

Some additional reading notes:

From the RA series introduction, what a book in this series is designed to do:

"They help advisors become familiar with fiction genres and nonfiction subjects, especially those they don't personally read. They provide ready-made lists of 'need to know' elements such as key authors and read-alikes, as well as tips on how to keep up with trends and important new books and titles" (ix). 

At its most basic, this book accomplishes just that.

How "historical fiction" is defined in the book:

"For our purposes, historical fiction is defined as novels (and sometimes short stories) with settings from a historical period at least fifty years  prior to the work's publication or occurring before the author's memory" (1).

A resource to check out mentioned in the book:

What can you do if you can't "figure it out on the spot"?

"I try very hard to find something on the shelf for readers to take home and then offer to send them a personalized reading list. This buys me more time, perhaps a day or two, to come up with more suggestions. To create a reading list for a specific reader, I make a list of about five suitable titles; write short annotations, including reasons I think he or she will like each one; then send the reader that document. Personalized reading lists are time consuming but can be a good option to fall back on when you're flummoxed. A good strategy to prevent going blank is training yourself to be more a more versatile readers' advisor. Read several benchmark books in your least familiar genres and know which reference tools can help you in each (24-25). 

Those last two sentences above are why I read books like this one, to build up a bit of my RA knowledge in areas I am not as strong in.

Something to keep in mind:

"Subjects usually touched on in historical fiction don't always match Library of Congress subject headings, and it can be tricky to find good topical historical fiction quickly" (117).

A pro tip:

"Consider making your own subject book lists for those topics you are repeatedly asked about as part of your historical fiction readers' advisory preparedness training!" (117).

On the question of "can you really learn history from historical fiction?" The author says yes, but up to a point. People who read in this genre often say,

". . .that they can learn history painlessly by reading historical fiction" (137). 

However, even if those books are historically accurate,  you can miss details and elements of cultural experience and a historical time. Personally, this is a big reason I prefer to just read history, but I can see how for many folks this genre can be a start.

The author then argues that for RA in this genre, it is important to engage readers with works that have accurate historicity. In addition,

"Readers' advisors should, however, point out the advantages of reading nonfiction material to augment the readers' learning in areas that fiction doesn't pursue" (137). 

Keep in mind that you offer, suggest, and let the reader take it from there.

Some pro tips on how to build your RA reputation as a resource for others to get reading suggestions:

  • "Host author readings and events at your library.
  • Run several book discussion groups at your library and/or in the community.
  • Write regular book reviews for your local paper and library newsletter.
  • Post your own staff picks on your website and put your picture by it" (223). 
Using Twitter for on-the-spot RA also works.

"Readers' advisors must take advantage of social media as a way to reach readers and increase community awareness of our libraries' relevance" (223).

The author also suggests for readers' advisors to keep track of what they read and even have reading plans. For me, this is why I write about what I read in my journal and write a few reviews online to share. I do enjoy sharing books with others. On making a reading plan:

"To create a personal reading plan for historical fiction, identify your genre weaknesses, and make a plan to familiarize yourself with the best titles in each area of interest. Your personal reading plan can be as simple or complex as you like" (237). 

That's applicable to any genre by the way. It also means you may read outside your comfort zone, and that is OK.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Dean's Faculty Book Reading Group on Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies

These are my notes from the discussion group. Like other book discussions of the group, there were to be two meetings. This first meeting took place on March 25, 2015. The second meeting was the following week, April 1, 2015, which as I have noted elsewhere was "Holy Shit Week, this chronic bronchitis took me out of circulation" week. So you are only getting this set of notes. I did read and write a review of the book (link to the review) with additional reading notes that may be of interest.

  • As a group, we are drawn to read this book for various reasons. 
  • Re: consumers: why do they care more about the land, the food (does it have chemicals, so on?), about the animals than about the actual human laborers? 
  • The author continually reminds us of the systemic violence. He also goes on to show that for migrant workers, this labor is not just an individual choice. 
  • No one in the U.S. speaks of the actual role the U.S. has in forcing the migrants to try and go to the United States. The U.S. basically destroyed their way of life with things like NAFTA. (This is very well explained in the book, and I made a note of it in my review.)
  • The author speaks of the intersection of class and race. 
  • See also the book The American Way of Eating. (On a side note, Hutchins Library at Berea College has this book.)
  • The wrong question to ask is "how do we get food cheaper"? We should be asking how to make food production fair. Yet, we do have to acknowledge, that to many, making it "fair" would mean a price hike they simply cannot afford (many are barely affording food as it is, but that may be a larger question.)
  • See pg. 78 of the book for the passage on "marginalization begets marginalization." 
  • The author's experience is an example of observing his own privilege. He had to balance when he could use his privilege or not. 
  • The possible answer to the question of why Americans disregard immigrants is the American sense of individualism. This is in contrast to much of the world which thinks and acts in terms of community and the common good. This also explains things like Americans resisting universal health care (which pretty much every developed nation has); it is a failure to care and have empathy for others (a.k.a. as the "I've got mine Jack, so fuck you!" attitude). 
  • Note that the organic movement is largely driven by selfishness. These consumers of organic foods do it out of self-interest (i.e. concern over what they put in their bodies), not out of environmental concern let alone concern for the fellow man who actually picks up the food. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Dean's Faculty Book Reading Group on That's So Gay!, Part 1.

These are my notes from the first of two meetings of the Dean's Faculty Book Reading Group to read and discuss Kevin Nadal's book That's So Gay! (link to my booknote and review of the book). The first meeting took place on February 2, 2015. As of this post, the second meeting has not been rescheduled from the original date of February 16, 2015 (this was the day the college closed due to the big snow of 2015). If the second session is rescheduled, I will post my notes in due time (Update note 4/21/15: That second meeting was rescheduled to 3/30/15, which for many was Holy Week and for me was "Holy Shit! I've got chronic bronchitis, and I am bedridden for the week" week. So, no, I did not attend the second meeting). This post mostly contains notes I took during the discussion and some of my impressions of the event overall.

  • We start by looking over the "heterosexual questionnaire." We were given a modified form of this document, replacing the word "heterosexual" and its derivations for "straight" and its derivations.
  • We also took a moment to look at this site: We focused on that "used on Twitter" sidebar. 
  • On the book's preface: 
    • Religion can make these conversations difficult. This can be seen at the college. 
    • The idea of not having LGBT role models. This has changed somewhat recently. There are more folks in the public eye now who identify as LGBT, but being that is not their whole identity. 
  •  On the introduction: 
    • How silent are we or not when a microaggression happens? The answer is not as easy as it may appear. 
  • Keep in mind, in LGBT communities, microaggressions happen, often dependent on identities. 
    • Consider power and the importance of language in marginalized groups. 
  •  When dealing with religion, how do you deal with those who have religious beliefs so embedded? To many, this is difficult as the religious feel attacked and viceversa. Yet, some religious folks can and do evolve as they are educated, confronted, so on. (Keyword in that statement is "some.")
  • To consider: How does one decide to confront a microaggression or not? Are there times one decides not to speak because it is not worth it, can involve risk, other reasons? These are questions that are continually present. 
  • As teachers and educators, awareness of what we do and say is necessary. And then we need to consider how we educate students to be aware of microaggressions. 
  • Notice that what institutions do or say, for instance, choices in forms that need to be filled out, can be a preview of that institution's culture. Not saying anything can often still be saying something. 
  • See page 27 in the book for the concept of vicarious traumatization. 
  • Could we develop a pedagogy of sensitive challenge to those who may think that mistreating LGBT people is acceptable? How we even go about developing it? 

Some additional impressions:

Jumping a bit off the final question, which in ideal conditions I certainly agree with, and it is just the kind of thing the college would foster (or at least give lip service to). However, we do not live in an idea world. Allow me to expand on this. The book for me was not easy to discuss. I will admit that at times I just choose not to engage. Additionally, if someone is given the facts, it has been explained to them that some behavior is offensive and/or hurtful, and they still choose not to change or desist, I have no problem giving up on them and letting them wallow in their ignorance. I know, that may not be the "Berea Way," a term very commonly used here to remind you of the good deeds we should do, but allow me to use Christian terms here. There are moments when you just have to shake the dust off your feet and keep on walking (see Matthew 10:14 and Luke 9:5. Hey, I may be a heathen, but I can certainly quote Scripture as good as any brand name Christian). I have been burned enough to know there are some engagements that are best avoided. Is it the right thing?  Maybe, or maybe not. Sensitive challenge is fine, and as an educator I can certainly agree and work towards that in my pedagogy. Constantly banging your head against a solid wall though is just insanity.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Dean's Faculty Reading Group on Teaching to Transgress, Part 2

These are my notes from the second of two meetings of the Dean's Faculty Book Reading Group to read and discuss bell hooks' book Teaching to Transgress (link to my booknote and review of the book). This second meeting took place on November 10, 2014. This post is mostly notes I took during the discussion and some overall impressions of the event.

  • We start out with 8 people. We added 5 latecomers for a total of 13 people attending plus bell hooks. I can't help but wonder what happened to scare the rest. We had between 20 and 25 or so last month, maybe a bit more. Also, there were only two men in the room, including me (make of that what you will). 
  • At the opening, there was some expression of discouragement from bell hooks on seeing the world differently. The thinking here was in terms of balance. 
  • On a side note, an observation about the many artists here who do "mundane" work to pay the bill, eat, so on and to keep doing art. 
  • During the previous week (November 6, 2014), the college featured a convocation with writer Barbara Kingsolver. (This one was a really big deal. They even set up a second watching area in the library where they could stream the event. Personally, I skipped because Kingsolver is not really my cup of tea.). bell hooks and a few others described this convocation as "the middle-aged white women convo" (which is actually pretty accurate from what I heard and from the crowd we got at the library at that time). If nothing else, we think of language, and we could say those women clearly found their language there. 
    • Kingsolver did evoke white writers. Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens look over her shoulder. 
    • White bourgeois, according to bell hooks. Working classes would not likely share Kingsolver's brand of humor. 
  •  There is still a gulf separating black and white women. 
    • How do you express about being hurt with people who look like those who hurt you? Especially when trying to form new relationships in new places? 
    • To this day, places are still segregated: beauty shops, churches, funeral homes for example. 
  • The importance of spaces to open conversations even in academia. Talking about work is not conducive to discussing deeper issues. 
  • We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion, yet we find it very difficult to relate to someone who may be very different, even when that different one is trying to enter and learn. 
    • This idea of learning. When is it enough? Is it ever? Or perhaps not so much being enough for we continue learning over our lives. 
    • The challenge is the assumptions we make about people. 
      • For instance, the faculty convocation for bell hooks, and some other events, where you see a sea of whiteness. Some of us (and here I do mean us, including me) can feel not part of it. 
    • A question came up: how do we truly desegregate Berea College. (Yes, in spite or perhaps because of our history, we do have to ask that question and address it.)
      • For instance, our downtown area is configured for tourists with money. (Heck, I work here, and I can certainly attest to it.)
      • We do lack integrated spaces on campus. 
  •  An observation came up during the book discussion about people here being and/or feeling overworked. Working after hours, over the weekend. (This is something I see a lot here. Certain bosses who are sending emails on Sundays from home are an example). Part of it could be the small town atmosphere where people submerge in their work (also, not much to do in the small town, so reinforces the people submerging in their work. Fine if they choose to do so. In my case, my weekends are mine, and once I leave on Friday after work, you are not hearing from me until Monday). 
  • Another question: has feminism become something for everybody and therefore meaningless? 
    • Intersectionality comes into play here. This is a difficult concept to understand.
    • Feminism seems focused on male violence against women. Where does this leave, for instance, upper class women? 
  • Border crossing is not really discussed, the notion of crossing lines from one group to another. We are more divided by class than we acknowledge. 
  • The book is 20 years old or so by now. Yet it seems so little has changed since it was written. We also reflected on how people see it as relevant today. 
  • Again, language is a place of struggle. 
  • A good thought from the other guy in the group (remember, there were only two of us this evening): being aware of how little he knows. (I can certainly relate to that)
  • Observation: the greatest diversity in the college is in the student body. Not too much diversity in the faculty, even less the staff. 
  • For the future, we hope to have more discussions on diversity. 
  • How do we exist in places where we may lack a voice or be valued? How then do we help foster change and dialogue? 

Some of my impressions and thoughts after the meeting:

In the end, the discussion was good, but compared to our first meeting it was much more underwhelming. Maybe this was due to less people being there. And yet, I still sense a thirst for people to come into such spaces and discuss these topics. But for some of us, though it is claimed the space is safe, is it really safe? I often sit and listen in order to learn. But for me silence is also a way to avoid the land mines.

On the topic of being overworked, it's not so much that it did not happen elsewhere. It is that folks here seem to embrace it so much. I am sorry, but as I have said before, my weekends are mine. I rotate a Sunday at the reference desk here or there because I have to, but the rest of the time is mine, you all need to learn to chill (or find other hobbies to do in the small town).

As for the diversity thing, let me tell you. Being a Puerto Rican in Berea, Kentucky can be interesting. I may have mentioned (at some point, not sure if it was during the discussion or more likely I just wrote about it  upon reflection) that I don't recall any person of color during my campus interview. It was not something I thought of at the time, but on reflection, it is interesting to ponder. Now, the students I met at that time were diverse in terms of gender and color. But for me, being caught between the history, the "story," and the reality of the campus and area, well, it can be a bit challenging, isolating, exciting, and other feelings. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe.

Also on a side note, the whole town as a wealthy tourist playground makes me wonder a bit. Allow me a moment of bluntness here. I live here, and I work here, but I sure as heck can't afford a lot of what the artists here produce. However, a lot of people assume that I could afford such things because I work for the college; as faculty member, well, I must be well-heeled (I may have faculty title, but I am a librarian. I can assure you I am not well-heeled. Heck, I am lucky I have heels on the shoes I walk on to work). We are not all well-off academics is all I can say. I am very aware of my fortune (small as it is) and privileges that I do have, but as that wise man once reminded me, there but for (the deity of choice), go I.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Dean's Faculty Book Reading Group on Teaching to Transgress, Part 1.

These are my notes from the first of two meetings of the Dean's Faculty Book Reading Group to read and discuss bell hooks' book Teaching to Transgress (link to my booknote and review of the book). This first meeting took place on October 20, 2014. This post mostly contains notes I took during the discussion and some of my impressions of the event overall. Like most book clubs and discussion groups, this was a blend of the leader using guiding questions and people pretty much saying what they wanted, mostly related to the book.

  • bell hooks is here. It is quite a feeling when the book's author is present to lead the discussion. 
  • We start with the notion that words are action. Words in a book can be a catalyst of action for readers. Think of intersectionality of words and experience.
  • Words can be used to raise awareness. Think of where people are in terms of change, some more ready than others. 
  • Our nation (the United States) does not have a national discourse on imperialism; using charged words in daily life. Contrast that with other nations having a higher awareness of imperialism and globalism. 
  • When you have diversity, there is no safety. Sooner or later someone will say something that is not harmonious. 
  • How do you frame accountability without lessening pleasure in certain things? Say a work of literature you may enjoy yet is sexist or has other issues. The issue is that society puts us in a binary position. 
    • Is not being able to enjoy a work, after seeing it in a new light, a price to pay? 
  • Often, political radical movements have been against something.  It is difficult to know what actions have political significance in many movements and protests.
  • A reminder: learning often comes way after the moment of teaching. Consider the power of experience in transforming learning. 
  • This quote was mentioned: "In all cultural revolutions there are periods of chaos and confusion, times when grave mistakes are made. If we fear mistakes, doing things wrongly, constantly evaluating ourselves, we will never make the academy a culturally diverse place where scholars and the curricula address every dimension of that difference" (33). 
  • It is important to be able to have difficult conversations. In our pedagogy, encourage students to not think in absolutes; this is part of critical thinking. 
    • "The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself" (11). 
    • We struggle to create a language of intersectionality and of compassion. 
  • How do we use knowledge to open up to others, share the knowledge? How do we open up spaces where people, all people, can talk together and reflect?
    • In our pedagogies, do we explain/teach fairness in various ways versus simply being righteous about it? 
    • In the example of "fairness," maybe the word "justice" is a better word. 
  • You cannot bring change without education for critical thinking and consciousness. 
  • Theory in the academy has grown and evolved; practice has mostly remained the same. 
    • On a side note, very few well educated people are knowledgeable about Appalachia (this is something not often not talked about. As for me, prior to coming here, I did not know that much, though it is a gap I am working to remedy). 
    • We need to reflect on how our pedagogies  extend past the classroom. How do we transgress to have newer and liberatory models of learning? 
    • Are we only educators in the classroom? (Or I could also ask are we only librarians in the library? I am sure that is a question that could get a few librarians going on either side of the equation, but that is another story). This is a crucial question that needs to be asked. 
  • There are always choices in how things are framed? 
    • Trust is another issue and question. 
    • Interrogation is a tool of critical pedagogy. 
  •  "To create a culturally diverse academy we must commit ourselves fully. Learning from other movements for social change, from civil rights and feminist liberation efforts, we must accept the protracted nature of our struggle and be willing to remain both patient and vigilant. To commit ourselves to the work of transforming the academy so that it will be a place where culture diversity informs every aspect of our learning, we must embrace struggle and sacrifice. We cannot be easily discouraged. We cannot despair where there is conflict. Our solidarity must be affirmed by shared belief in a spirit of intellectual openness that celebrates diversity, welcomes dissent, and rejoices in collective dedication to truth" (33). 
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, quoted in the book, on technology, society, and a critique of capitalism. Given current events today, the guy was clearly a prophet with vision. Our civilization really is floundering. At time I wonder if we are too late:
    •  ". . . the stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing'-oriented society to a 'person'-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy" (quoted in 27). 
    • On a reflection as I type these notes, I later on went on to read Cornel West's book Black Prophetic Fire. In a segment of the book, West speculates about the rise of an American Gibbon to document the rise and fall of the American Empire. Or as I said in my booknote of the book, maybe what Americans, who are notorious for not heeding lessons of history or listening to anybody, really need is a Harry Seldon (though they are just as likely not to listen to that figure neither).
    • By the way, the MLK quote comes from MLK's book Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community.
  • Integration is a way that silences the experiences of others and the capacity of listening. 
    • Sharing reading with others can be important in starting to open spaces, to get others to listen. 
    • There is living in the talking and sharing of knowledge. 

A side note, and this will have to remain vague in order to not name names. There was a moment during the discussion where there was a consideration of what I will label "being Appalachian enough" (as in knowing the region, being committed enough to the region, maybe a native of the region even). For a moment, that did make me feel a tad uncomfortable given I am not "Appalachian" (though I am doing my best to learn and adapt to my new adopted home). In many ways, I have had many homes, though I can say of all places, Berea may well be the most welcoming (even with its flaws, and it does have quite a few even if the locals don't always want to talk about them). As a favorite poet of mine wrote:

"Yo vengo de todas partes,
Y hacia todas partes voy:
Arte soy entre las artes,
En los montes, monte soy." --Jose Marti, Versos Sencillos

I think that I am at the right place and time to do some good. 

Another thing that stuck with me, and it did stick with a lot of the faculty and staff present in the discussion was the recent failure of Berea to pass a fairness ordinance.  What stuck with me was a quote. It was something a friend of mine from back in Tyler, Texas told me when I shared the news of the ordinance not passing with her. She simply said: you cannot escape Kentucky. Whether we here in the college want to admit it or not, that quote says a lot.