Monday, February 8, 2016

Hild

Hild by Nicola Griffith (2013)

Seventh-century Britain: Hild is born into an uncertain world where many kings vie for power. One small mistake, one illness, or a death in childbirth can change everything. During Breguswith's pregnancy, she had predicted that Hild would be "the light of the world," and so taught her to make prophecies even as a child. When Hild was three her father was poisoned, leaving her mother Breguswith alone with her two daughters. With nowhere else to turn, they went to the court of King Edwin, Hild's uncle, and she was raised as his seer.

Hild was less a seer than a keen observer, thinker, and guesser. Though confident in her abilities, she always knew that if she let him down she could be killed. Late in the book she made an especially important prediction that was obviously just a guess, and I couldn't help but admire how she patiently and calmly waited to find out the truth.

Political machinations always confuse me and there was a great deal of that here. It was difficult to keep track of all the people and places and sometimes I was confused about where a name was even a person or a place, never mind how they were related to the story. It was stylistically challenging as well, the writing reminding me most of A Game of Kings and Wolf Hall (though I liked this much better than Wolf Hall.) There were a few times that I reread a paragraph, especially those filled with various names and places, and felt rather stumped about what it was actually saying and I couldn't help but feel that I'm not really smart enough to read this. But I applied the same method I did to War and Peace; I just kept going without worrying too much about understanding every little detail. This worked pretty well. I know if I went back and read the whole thing again it would probably make more sense, but I won't be doing that.

Included in the book are a map (useful), glossary (useful), pronunciation guide (somewhat useful), and family tree (also just somewhat useful.) More helpful would have been a list of all the characters and a descriptions of who the hell they are. I can't tell you how many times a name was mentioned as though I should know who they were and I swear I hadn't seen it before. There were SO many characters in this book, and many of the names were similar (frustratingly like Game of Thrones, except that in this case many of the characters were real, so it makes more sense.) I kind of wish I had listened to the audio while reading, just to get the correct pronunciation. The guide in the back helped in some cases, but not all.

Lest you get the false impression that I didn't like the book, let me share my favorite parts. Hild was a super intriguing character who had complicated relationships with others, especially her mother. Breguswith was also rather fascinating and probably would make a great protagonist herself. Female characters all have a gemaecce, which is a formal friendship or partnership. It's like you are paired with a friend who you are stuck with for life, but in a good way. Griffith apparently created this term, but I kind of wish it was a real thing.

Marriage at this time was economic and political, but these characters found romance and pleasure in many forms. In the pre-Christian era apparently nobody cared who you had sex with or what gender they were. (Can we please go back to that? Thank you.) This was another of my favorite aspects of the novel, the way in which these people took pleasure where they could get it. It didn't hurt anyone, and made their short dangerous lives more enjoyable.

I really liked the descriptions of all the details of day-to-day life. My favorite part of reading historical novels is getting a taste of what it was like to live in that time and place and this novel was dense with such detail.

I was reading this in late January and early February, and I particularly loved this February conversation between Hild and her friend/half-brother Cian:

"The weather's changing," she said.
"It will never change. It will be like this forever. We will grow old and die and be forgotten, and the foxes will gnaw at our bones."
He always got like that after spending too much time indoors.

Winter is the perfect time to read this novel.

The ending was so intriguing and man, I want to talk to someone about it. Decisions were made that confused me a bit (as usual, I didn't quite understand the political situation involved) but also it was just...an unusual situation in other ways.

So I spent almost two full weeks reading this, felt a huge sense of accomplishment when I finished, went to Goodreads to mark it finished, and saw that it's listed as Light of the World #1. Now I feel rather deflated because this book is only the beginning. The second book isn't even listed yet so it's likely that by the time it comes out I won't remember much about this one. I'm definitely curious about what happens next because the ending, while not a cliff-hanger by any means, really kind of made me want to continue with the story. I have questions.

Since this book was published a few years ago, I've been drawn to the gorgeous cover, and I'm pretty sure it is that more than the rave reviews that really convinced me to read such a lengthy book. But I do need to credit my librarian friend Rebecca for telling me how good this book is, and that it's very dense but worth it. When the mother of a toddler tells you that a long dense book is worth the time and effort, you listen. The contents definitely live up to the cover. It's so complicated and beautiful and there is so much to talk about - I could actually go on for quite a while about this novel.

Hild is part of my 2016 TBR Pile Challenge, but also counts for Winter Bingo as a friend's fave. I've marked this off below, and also put a checkmark on the free square to make it more visually complete. Bingo! I only have a few more weeks for Winter Bingo and I've got two more books I'm hoping to read that I think will qualify. Neither will result in another bingo, but at least a couple more spots might get checked off.


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Geek Love


In which I share vague recollections about books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

I've been watching American Horror Story: Freakshow and it reminds me so much of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I swore I had written about that book on my blog somewhere, but when I checked I only found it in my To Read list from 2007, and my list of what I read from 2008. (For the record, I've now read 27 of the 60 books on that To Read list.)

Geek Love is about a family of carnies who deliberately create birth defects in their offspring so they can use their human oddities as attractions for their show. Thanks to all the drugs the parents take, their troupe includes a set of conjoined twins, a boy who has flippers instead of limbs, and an albino hunchback, among others. You can imagine how dysfunctional this family must be. These people were so screwed up, and I don't just mean physically. When you're making sure your kids have severe disabilities just to make a profit, you really aren't in a family with healthy relationships. The story took place over a pretty long time period, and ends far after their performing days are over.

This novel was so dark and weird and sad, and I know it's not for everyone, but if you can take this sort of relentless horror with such realistically-crafted characters that it seems like it could well be real, you might be interested in this book. You're unlikely to ever forget it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Death of a Stranger

Death of a Stranger (William Monk #13) by Anne Perry (2002), narrated by David Colacci

Hester Monk is running a clinic in a sketchy part of London, treating prostitutes for disease and injury. But one evening, prominent businessman Nolan Baltimore is murdered in this neighborhood. It is presumed that an interaction with a prostitute or pimp went wrong. Then a young woman named Katrina Harcus approaches William Monk because she fears that the railway company Baltimore and Sons is involved in a shady deal that could result in unsafe conditions for its passengers. In the course of his investigation, Monk recovers some of his lost memories and they involve time working for this very rail company when a horrible crash occurred and his good friend Arroll Dundas was imprisoned. Is there danger of another train crash? And is that actually why Nolan Baltimore was murdered?

As with all of Anne Perry's mysteries, there is far more going on than there seems at first. What actually drew me in was that William would learn more about his past, after an accident that caused severe memory loss back in book one. He has always known that he was sort of a different person before his accident, judging from how people treated him after, so he has a certain paranoia about the sorts of things he could have done. But I also really liked the subplot about Hester's clinic. During the course of this novel they were having issues with their space and knew they might have to move. More importantly, because of the murder there were police everywhere, which meant the prostitutes weren't getting much work. One of my favorite parts of this book was a conversation about this problem between William and Hester, when she complained about the situation and William got a little snarky.

"You wish to find who killed Baltimore so the police will leave and the prostitutes can get back into business? You have strange moral convictions, Hester." 

I loved her takedown:

"If I could change the world so no women ever went into prostitution, I would," she said angrily. "Perhaps you can tell me where I should begin. Get every woman a decent living at something more respectable, perhaps? Or stop every man from wanting - or needing - to buy his pleasures outside his own home? Perhaps every man should be married, and every wife comply with her husband's wishes or better still, no man should *have* wishes he cannot satisfy honorably. That would solve at least half of it. Then all we would have to do is change the economy. After that, changing human nature should be relatively easy." 

Monks response: "You have rather escalated your demands. I thought all you wanted was for me to solve Nolan Baltimore's murder."

(I transcribed this from the audio, so I apologize for any inaccuracies in punctuation.)

This is why I love Hester. She is SO practical. A woman after my own heart. Had I lived in Victorian times, in a mystery novel, surely we would have been besties.

As with all the books in this series, it ends with a courtroom drama. Oliver Rathbone (mysteriously autocorrected by my phone, in a note, to "rat hobbies") is defending a young man of the murder using some rather elaborate questioning as he circles around to his point. The judge, who has obviously never read any other books from this series, gets more and more exasperated with Rathbone, asking him a number of times if he's planning to ever get to the point. I have to wonder that this judge isn't familiar with Rathbone, who I think is supposed to be a pretty well-known attorney in London at the time. I think this bit was maybe a bit overdone. However, when it all shook out, I was satisfied with the conclusion.

As I mentioned in my kntting post on Sunday, every winter I listen to one of these mysteries while knitting. It's so perfectly cozy. I almost stopped after the last book in this series, but I'm glad I chose to continue.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Top Ten Historical Settings I Love


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's list is of my top ten historical settings. I've provided examples, and some of them are actually fantasy but I included them because the historical settings were so prominent.

1. 19th Century Russia
See: War and Peace, The Gathering Storm (fantasy, but historical setting)

2. Victorian England
See: oh gosh, so much! Tipping the Velvet, My Notorious Life, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, The Luxe, Anne Perry's William Monk series which begins with The Face of a Stranger; the earliest one I blogged about was The Sins of the Wolf

3. Colonial America
See: The Cahill Witch Chronicles beginning with Born Wicked, which are admittedly fantasy set in an alternative reality, but the setting was great. There need to be more good books set in this era!

4. Ancient China
See: Gunpowder Alchemy, which as above is also fantasy, but I've love to read some more books set in Ancient China.

5. 1920s in America
See: The Great Gatsby, Twilight Sleep, The Other Typist

6. The plague years in Europe
See: Year of Wonders

7. Europe Middle Ages
See: Doomsday Book, Pillars of the Earth, and Hild, which I am currently reading

8. 17th century Amsterdam
See: The Miniaturist, the only book I know of in this setting, but it was a fascinating time and place that was really brought to life in this novel.

9. 1940s in America
See: Ten Cents a Dance, The Girl is Murder

10. 1980s in America
Gah, I can't quite accept this decade as historical, but it is. I love it because that's when I was a teenager and as much as I hated my entire adolescence I still love 80s pop culture.
See: Eleanor and Park, and I want to say Ready Player One but it doesn't actually take place in the 80s, it's just full of 80s pop culture references.

What are your favorite historical settings?

Monday, February 1, 2016

How to apply for a library job, part 2: interviewing

Back in early December I posted the first part of How to Apply for a Library Job, which covered the initial application. I have been putting off part 2, but here it finally is.

Congratulations, you got an interview! Now don't blow it!

Before the interview

- Prepare.

Some time has passed since you applied, so go back and look at the job posting. Be prepared to talk about your experience and skills as they relate to each component of the job.

Learn some things about the library. Look at the sort of programs they have, if they've been in the news, any major staffing changes like a recently-hired new director. Visit ahead of time if you can. Think about what more you want to know, and prepare some questions (more on this later.)

Practice responding to common interview questions. Here's one place to start. There are several links to other sites, but if you scroll past them, there's also a whole list.

Go in with an agenda. When I prepare for interviews, I make a lot of notes with skills, traits, and experiences that I don't want to forget to mention. I also list specific examples of things I've done that I think they may ask about. It's much easier to answer interview questions if I can glance down at my notes to jog my memory. I also write down a few questions to ask the interviewers.

- Dress nicely.

You'll never go wrong wearing a professional-looking suit, but it's not strictly necessary. Particularly if you're heading back to work after the interview, you may not want to do so. Wearing some of your nicer regular work attire should be fine. I honestly don't pay much attention to what people are wearing, unless it stands out in a bad way. I once interviewed a guy who was wearing a t-shirt with visible spots on it. It was just for a page job, but still, if the candidate can't be bothered to put on something clean that's sort of a red flag. (Same for the reverse by the way: I once was interviewed for a job by a library director wearing a shirt with an obvious stain on it. I wasn't impressed.)

Although it differs from conventional wisdom, I don't think that visible tattoos or facial piercings are inappropriate. I want to get to know the people I'm interviewing and body art can be important. But many people choose to cover up their tattoos or remove piercings for interviews, and that's a good idea if you want to be on the safe side. Even if those things are fine on the job, some interviewers may still consider it a bit much for an interview. Some hiring managers want to see that you can play the game. I recently interviewed someone with a facial piercing but didn't even notice it until about halfway through the interview, but for some interviewers it might really stand out.

At the interview

- Be on time. In fact, be early.

Give yourself a lot of time to get there. Obviously this will differ based on your geographical area, but around here there are frequently unexpected traffic snarls and construction, and our public transit is often late. But if you give yourself plenty of time and are still unavoidably delayed, just call ahead and let us know. If the weather is horrible and the going is slow, we probably already know because we were in it too. It shouldn't be a deal-breaker. We're not monsters.

- Be pleasant, make eye contact (but not too much), and try not to fidget.

I know you're nervous, but try not to let that get in the way of letting your personality shine. Smile and make eye contact (but don't stare into the depths of our souls, that really makes me uncomfortable.)

Even if you're not relaxed, try to appear so because fidgeting can be distracting and it's kind of infectious. There was this one time I was interviewing for a job, and I was holding a pen in my hand and flapping it back and forth nervously and it suddenly flew across the room. I don't recommend doing that.

- Be yourself, but be your best self.

I look for someone who is friendly and enthusiastic and can tell me why they're the best person for the job and why they are excited about it. This is no time to be modest: be proud of your accomplishments. Be honest about your shortcomings when you have to, but emphasize the positive. If you're a librarian, you're probably passionate about what you do and we definitely want to see that come out. I also want to know why you want this particular job, and I want to know how much you want it. If someone doesn't seem like they really want the job very badly, I am more likely to hire someone who does.

- Answering those difficult questions.

You're probably going to get stumped somewhere along the line. As long as you don't say something that raises a red flag, it isn't going to destroy your chances.

You might be asked for an example of a time that you did something in particular, or handled a specific sort of situation, and you haven't done that actual thing. That's ok. You can talk about something that is vaguely in the same realm, but it would be great if you also talk about how you would approach the situation if faced with it. This still gives us valuable information. (And don't feel like your examples all have to come from a library setting - telling stories from other types of jobs is perfectly fine.)

You'll probably be asked about your weaknesses, or areas in which you want to improve. Be honest. And don't try the old "I work too hard" because I can see right through that. This isn't a trick question, it's one about self-awareness. It definitely helps if your weakness isn't in an area that's crucial to your job. If it's a reference job and you say that you're not very good at customer service, I probably won't hire you. But I will be satisfied if you say that your business research skills aren't as good as you'd like, and that you've just signed up for a webinar on just that topic. We all have areas in which we need to improve, and I just want to know that you're aware of yours and at least thinking about tackling them.

If you really don't know the answer to a question you can talk about how you'd figure it out. Say you're given a sample readers advisory question and you're supposed to respond by listing some books that you would suggest. If you actually can't come up with any, just talk about how you would approach the question. What follow-up questions would you ask the patron? What tools would you use? Talking your way through a thought process for a specific situation may not exactly be an answer, but it's telling us how you think, which is very valuable.

Interview questions aren't designed to trip you up, or at least they shouldn't be. I've definitely heard of some that sound like they are, but I certainly don't want to leave someone speechless. My goal in interviewing candidates is to get to know them so I can decide whether or not I want to work with them, not to put them through some sort of harrowing test.

We know that you're nervous, and we probably are too. Some of our questions might be lengthy and you may start to answer, only to forget the second part of the question. It's better to ask us to repeat it than to just not answer the rest. Some of our questions might also seem perfectly clear to us, while they aren't to you, so ask clarifying questions if you need to rather than just guessing what we mean. I've reworded interview questions after several candidates seemed to misunderstand them.

- Have questions for the interviewers.

Finally, you should be asked if you have any questions for the interviewers. In the name of all that is holy, have questions. You can't possibly already know everything about the job or the library. Not long ago I interviewed someone who already worked in my department previously and had left just a few short months before. He managed to have some questions, and they were good ones. Ask about the work culture, the leadership style of the person you'd be reporting to, the biggest challenges of the job, what the interviewers like the most about working there. There are a ton of things you can ask. If someone I'm interviewing doesn't have questions, my impression is that they're not terribly interested.

After the interview

- Send a thank you note, I guess.

We are apparently divided on this matter. Just like wearing a suit, it can't hurt to send a thank you note. I personally don't care because in most cases I know whether or not I'm interested in hiring you by the time you walk out the door. You also probably already said "thank you" before leaving, so I think sending a note is kind of redundant. Still, many hiring managers expect them and it certainly shows that you're still interested after meeting them and hearing more about the job.

- Don't be discouraged if you aren't hired.

You don't know how many times I've wanted to hire more than one person we've interviewed, but I can only hire one person for one position. The position I mentioned in my last post about this, the one with 62 applications? We interviewed only 6 people. Just like there were great candidates (even ones I know personally) who didn't get an interview, 5 people interviewed really well and still didn't get the job. I hired the guy who has already worked in my department, recently, and did a great job and got along very well with everyone. Of course I did. My point is that there's nothing the other candidates could have done about it. And if I had 6 positions open, I would have been happy to hire the other 5 people as well. Which brings me to my final point...

- If you really want to work in that particular library and another job opens up, apply again. Don't think that because you weren't hired before, your chance has passed. Maybe you weren't right for that particular position and another position that is open is more suited to your skills. Or maybe they hired an internal candidate. Or maybe they wanted to hire both you and another person and couldn't hire you both and had to make a tough decision. In which case, now is your chance. (This also goes for those who didn't even get an interview. Sometimes there are so many good candidates we just can't interview everyone. Apply again!) I certainly hope that some of our past candidates will show up again the next time we're hiring (which, for my own sanity, I hope isn't soon.)

I hope this has been helpful. And good luck out there!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Knitting

Hi, wow, it's been a long time since I posted about knitting! For quite a while I was doing very little of it, but recently I've been powering through a pair of socks.


These are the Arrow Socks from Sensational Knitted Socks, and the yarn is Kettle Dyed Socks in the colorway Buggy Top, which I bought at Lancaster Yarns a couple of years ago when I was visiting Amish country in Pennsylvania.

Mostly I've been knitting on the bus, while listening to the Anne Perry mystery Death of a Stranger. I always want to listen to one of her books in the dead of winter, and they always make me want to knit. I've also been working on these while watching American Horror Story: Freakshow, but I don't spend as much time watching tv. Together, the audio book and the tv show are propelling me quickly through this project so I'm thinking about what's next.

I've got more sock yarn on deck, also gray, which I think I might just work up in a basic 2x2 rib. Boring as far as knitting goes, but good for wearing. I'm also still looking at the East Neuk Hoodie which I began ages ago in an unfortunate shade of goldenrod. I wanted mustard yellow but had to order online so of course it wasn't actually mustard (as I should have guessed from the name of the colorway, but you never know.) A month or so ago I stopped by one of the very few yarn shops that still exist in these parts and found a shade that was much better. They didn't have enough of it but ordered it for me and now it's been sitting in a back upstairs for weeks. I may actually cast on soon.

When I ordered the goldenrod yarn I also ordered, in case the goldenrod wasn't right, some bright orange because surely that would be a great color. I expected it to be tangerine, but it's a little more...neon. Not exactly, but very bright. I'd be willing to wear a sweater made of it if it's the right sweater, so I've been thinking about that as well. I'm picturing something very simple, stockinette or reverse stockinette, maybe a bit oversized with straight hems and cuffs (as opposed to ribbed, is what I mean.) I'm not sure yet.

Meanwhile, what to do with those many skeins of goldenrod yarn? Hmm.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Beyond the Dark Veil

Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem and Mourning Photography from the Thanatos Archive, edited by Sue Henger (2014)

I think it was Smoke Gets In Your Eyes where I first learned about Victorian post-mortem photography, but I thought about it again while reading How To Be a Victorian. Then recently, The Bloggess recommended this book which I immediately requested through interlibrary loan because it's not available in my network (but soon will be, because my library is sure as hell buying it now.) Beyond the Veil is, as the subtitle suggests, a collection of post-mortem and mourning photography, primarily from the Victorian era as that's when this sort of thing was all the rage.

The book is primarily made up of photos with captions, but there is also some text about the photography and the context. The font was small and the content was rather scholarly in tone and I read it, but my experience is much more about the photos that made up the bulk of the book. The first section is "Pre-mortem - Deathbed" photos, primarily of young women who evoke the very essence of dramatic Victorian novels. One of them looks disturbingly like a librarian I know. Next, the largest section, is "Children and Family" which is mostly photos of dead babies and young children. This is followed by "Adults," "Crime - Murder - Tragedy," "Ephemera and Mourning," and "Pets." I have to say that pictures of dead dogs and cats are rather a letdown after babies and murder victims.

In some of the photos, the deceased are arranged in coffins; in others they are arranged in bed in a restful pose, or even upright in chairs. Sometimes their eyes are open, and sometimes they are closed. In a couple of especially creepy photos, the eyes are partially open. Occasionally it is necessary to arrange the body to hide the site of an injury, though in at least one photo the child's face is visible and obviously had received great trauma.

One of the most interesting photos is of a small family, a husband and wife and their child. The woman, suspecting her husband of an affair, shot him before killing their child and herself. They are all arranged nestled together in a casket where they arere destined to spent eternity together after this horrible betrayal. Another is of eight caskets laid out side by side, the result of a mass murder of a family and their chore boy. The caskets are surrounded by many friends and neighbors. At the time of the photo the killer had not been caught. It turns out that he was in the photo. These arere both so haunting and creepy that I want someone to write novels about them.

Noticeably absent is any explanation of the Thanatos Archive. The first time I tried to look them up, their website wasn't really working, but now I see that you can pay for an online membership to get access to their entire archive of photos. Or you can just follow them on social media, which is what I'll do. I still don't know anything about who they are or why they started collecting these photos, but I'm glad they did.

If you're wondering why any of this even exists, just think back to conditions in the Victorian era. First of all, people were more in touch with death than we are today because it visited their families so frequently and mercilessly and there wasn't yet a funeral industry like we have today. At the time, bodies weren't just whisked away immediately to be hidden from view, and only presented when they were carefully reconstructed and preserved. Everyone knew what a dead person actually looked like. But more importantly, photography was rather new and sometimes people died before there was ever a photograph taken of them - this was the family's only chance to capture their image before they were gone forever. It makes a kind of sense.

Obviously this is right up my alley. Apparently I'm not the only one, because when it came in for me I had to promise to let other people in my department at work see it before it was sent back. Part of the appeal is definitely the macabre aspect, I suppose, but it's also a fascinating part of history. I should also mention that the cover and binding are of high quality, and the pages are gilt-edged. It's really an altogether beautiful book.