Sunday, August 30, 2009

2: Rohnert Park Library

Rohnert Park-Cotati Regional Library 6250 Lynne Conde Way, Rohnert Park, California, 94928

Time of Visit: Friday afternoon/evening: 5 - 6 pm
Books Checked out:
"Endpoint," John Updike
"Plum Lucky," Janet Evanovich
"The Murder Room," P.D. James


Book Selection: 2 bookmarks
Seating: 4 bookmarks
Staff : 4 bookmarks
Ambiance/Architecture: 4 bookmarks
Overall: 14 bookamrks

Opened at this location in 2003 and very modern, (like, actually new, as my friend Michelle will be pleased to know) this library has pleasing cream-colored stucco exterior walls, lots of tinted glass, some small trees and a bright, clean approach. It is a part of a complex of civic buildings for Rohnert Park, that include the police and fire station. The three buildings share a large courtyard that includes a maze, a fountain (not running in this season of drought) and some very interesting sculptures. One is an Alphabet Wall, another a History of Written Language wall, both created by artist/designer Martha Crawford. The language wall has many concentric arches centered around a large Rabbit Hole, each ring representing an advancement in writing. Along the plaza leading to these walls are two lines of delightful Alice-in-Wonderland-like concrete stacks of extra large books, 3 or 4 “books” high that could function as seats, or bases in a game of tag, or whatever. The A-i-W theme is carried further with quotations from the classic embedded in the walkway of the maze nearby.

It’s a beautifully designed, intriguing space, but hotter than a pistol on this exceptionally muggy, superhot August afternoon (earthquake weather, says Alice). Walking across the plaza to the front doors, I think my brains, already scrambled from the week, are about to be cooked into some sort of bad omelette. In fact, I feel so roasted that I neglect to get a shot of the entrance, so I'll have to go by and grab it to post later.

The air-conditioning is welcome relief when I step into the lobby, the doors gliding shut behind me. To my right is a conference room with an ongoing photography show, with some excellent work and some not-so; to my left, an entire wall devoted to community announcements and bulletins and flyers of a civic nature. It’s nice to see adequate space devoted to the diverse activities of a community: farmers' markets, rights organizations, poetry slams, classes, etc.

The interior design matches the exceptional landscaping. Walking in is like entering a sky boat, with light-filled rooms that feel airy, spacious. A skylight runs the entire length of the main reading room, just above the truss-framework of the high ceiling. Soffits at the top of the walls and light fixtures running between the stacks leave no dark corners. Much of the exterior walls are windows; the light walls help to bounce light around.

There are many tables with comfortably wide, sturdy chairs and plenty of softer, easy-type chairs and study carrels, such as you'd see in a school library.

Don't you just want to sit down and set up your study-shop?

One wall of windows looks out on a garden, representing, the brochure said, the groves of learning from the days of Socrates.

This is a library easy to love, even though the collections seem thin and the fiction section even thinner. It's comfortable and inviting, even inspiring. On this Friday evening, the place is almost full with a wide range of people and activities: moms, kids, families, teens, adults, oldsters. Volunteers shelving ands assisting at the circ desk. Some math tutoring. A long bank of computers, all in use. Also wireless, though one poor fellow couldn’t get his wireless card to work and wanted to know if he could “borrow” one. That was a polite "no" from the Reference Librarian, who no doubt wanted nothing to do with the innards of this guy's laptop.

The Children’s library is particularly well-designed, with kid-sized furniture, kid-sized shelving, and lots of space for reading or quiet play with building sets (Duplos and the like). The Children's library is easily half the size of the main reading room and may account for a sizable chunk of the library's volumes.

Fiction is definably a low-count collection, though. I browse through the Mysteries section; the heavy hitters were all represented: PD James, Elizabeth George, etc. I pick up a Janet Evanovitch book, a “Between the Numbers" novel, because my friend ND conducted a craft study on her work and was suitably impressed. Also the latest Updike book, “Endpoint,” a collection of posthumously published poems because I haven't read much of his poetry (just what I find in the New Yorker, sad to say) and a PD James, for old times sake; not her newest but the next back, "The Murder Room."

The coolest part of the experience? Using the Ready, Check, Go! system similar to the self-checkouts in some grocery stores. When I get in line at 5:55 ("The library will be closing in five minutes"--accck!), one of the volunteers motions me forward, saying that one of the machines was free. Ok?! So I walk over and she guides me through it. Put the books on the black apron or landing pad or whatever you want to call it, either stacked up or spread out, it didn't matter she says. Then the card swipe. Wow! Then my PIN...oh, shit, I can't remember what I chose last week when I got my new card! and I know I didn't write it down; I'd just selected something random, not thinking I'd ever have to really use it (yeah, I'm a dummy). But I remember using two repeating numbers, thinking that's a dumb thing to do (detecting a pattern are we?) I punch in my two fav numbers, but noooooooo! Now there's a line forming behind me, lights are being clicked off; I make a wild stab at it, using a phone number as a wild guess, and yowzers! it works! There's some computing and dinging and screens changing and then it spits out a receipt that not only had the new books printed on it with due dates, but the previous three books too, with their due-dates. I'll never be late again, I joke to the volunteer, a bit ruefully. I kind of like being a Library least I know my fines are going to a worthy cause.

But as we all know, no matter the system, Library Felons have a high rate of recidivism. So until next week, happy reading!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Southern Cross

Before my attention is dragged away by the workweek ahead (the first week of our semester, so it's a doozy), I just want to give a quick shout-out to Skip Horack and his debut collection of short stories, "The Southern Cross," which won the 2008 Breadloaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize (awarded by Antonya Nelson). I was introduced to Horack at the First Books Panel for the Napa Valley Writers Conference and picked up his book right then and there. The stories, set in and around the Gulf Coast in 2005, are rich in place and time, the characters precisely and empathetically drawn. The collection is definitely worthy; I'm completely impressed.

Skip Horack

Sunday, August 23, 2009

1. Petaluma Library

Petaluma Library, 100 Farigrounds Dr, Petaluma, California, 94952

Visiting Time: Saturday, 2 - 3:30 p.m.
Books checked out:
"the kind I'm likely to get," by Ken Foster
"the life all around me, by Ellen Foster," by Kaye Gibbons
"A Brain Wider Than the Sky; a Migraine Diary," by Andrew Levy

My first stop on the Grand Sonoma County Library Tour is the Petaluma Branch, my "local." This is where my car goes when I plug in take me to the library. Walking up the wide brick entryway brought back all the memories: afternoons with the younger kids, rummaging through kid's books and "mommie" books (mysteries for the most part, back then), dashing in to pick up books on hold, paying off my fines, hauling the pre-teens & teens over for last-minute research for their papers, doing my own last-minute research as I returned to college and then worked on a grad degree.

It's been an embarassingly long time since I've been here, but it doesn't seem to have changed much; it even smells the same, a combination of the cool, dampish brick outside plus the wood paneling and book dust inside. In fact, it's been so long, I need a new library card, so first thing I fill out the fast, easy form and collect my card, a nice bright turquoise, easy to see in the dark recesses of my wallet, plus an accompanying key-chain card. Very cool!

Books 3.5 bookmarks (need more fiction!)
Seating 3 book marks more than adequate, but not quite luxurious
Staff 4 bookmarks (attentive even though they were pretty busy!)
Ambiance & architecture 4 bookmarks

total 14.5

Yes, hometown sets the bar high.

This library was opened in 1976 as a replacement for the original Carnegie Library established in 1867, which still stands downtown as The Petaluma Historical Museum. The New Library, as it is still called sometimes, is situated right in front of the Fairgrounds, on an old Little League field. It's a handsome building, built low and wide, with brick walls and a copper-clad roof. Inside, the walls are wood paneled, with high, open ceilings, exposed beams, many large, double-paned windows and a welcome, working air conditioner. It has a spacious feeling, with room between stacks, and plenty of tables to work on, lots of fairly comfortable chairs. Currently, home-crafted quilts are on display, many on walls, others hanging from the rafters, thus creating some nice sound barriers, though without impeding traffic.

Saturday afternoon and the place is pretty packed, though not as packed as it will get once all the schools are in session and the papers become due. Still, there are quite a few adults reading, there's some reading groups of middle school aged kids, there's people waiting to use the double row of computers. As I search for a table, I see that most of them are either occupied or show evidence of occupation (books, bundles, duffle bags). Everyone is quiet and soft-spoken, using the best of library-manners.

The librarians and staff (two reference librarians, one children's, two or three on the circ desk and several volunteers shelving books) were quite busy but invariably polite and friendly. No one recognized me, though; all my buddies have retired!

The Petaluma Library has a collection count of 99,000 + items, close to the planned maximum of 100,000. They're particularly deep in non-fiction with stacks along the longest wall, as well as many more perpendicular rows. The ficition section, by contrast, seems less deep, but the County's excellent Inter-Library Loan system provides access to thousands of more titles. WIthin the fiction section, there's a fairly wide variety, from blockbusters to mysteries to the literary lions and lionesses to the less-well known authors.

Holding myself back, I checked out only three books: a short story collection, "the kind I'm likely to get," by Ken Foster; a novel "the life all around me, by Ellen Foster," by Kaye Gibbons (a sequel to her fabulous first book "Ellen Foster") and medical non-fiction "A Brain Wider Than the Sky; a Migraine Diary," by Andrew Levy. I didn't really challenge myself here, except maybe for the short story collection: I'd never heard of this author before. But I'm a big Kaye Gibbons fan and realized I hadn't read this latest novel of hers and I'm a sucker for any book about the brain, hoping no doubt to understand mine, which is admittedly a lost cause. But I keep trying. And I just realized how sneaky my brain is: the short stories are by Ken Foster and the Gibbons book is written from the POV of Ellen Foster. How about that. ( cue the Twilight Zone theme...doo do doo dooo .... aaannnddd cut!)

One of the quilts and a glimpse of the many stacks.

An inviting study or reading area.

These libraries are dark! I tried no-flash for a warmer look.

Manifesto: Sonoma County Library Tour

Inspired by Michelle Panik's project 36 Libraries 36 Days, I've taken up the challange to visit each branch of the Sonoma County Library System and post a review of it. Although mine will be titled 13 Libraries 13 weeks, since I pretty much only have Saturdays for visits.

I've adopted her Book Mark system (1-4) in evaluating each library on these qualities:
Book Selection--variety and depth, the essential element of a good library
Seating--comfort is important in being able to lounge, read, do research
Staff--they can make or break a library
Ambiance & Architecture- once again, comfort and style encourages browsing and lingering.

A perfect score would be 16.

I'll include photos and note the book I check out --or books; I can never just check out one and with a week between visits? I'll have time to read. I think.

And in the spirit of solidarity with Michelle, I'll also note if I get lost, though I do seem to have the Locator Gene. I'm pretty good with directions and I'm really good at reading maps (I love them in fact--maybe I'll add Maps & Atlases to my review). Plus my first job when I moved to Sonoma County was tooling around the county for a real estate magazine taking pictures of houses and property for sale, so I've been on almost every road in the Sonoma County, except the newest ones. Since there are quite a few of those, the possibility does exist for "taking the scenic route". In fact, now that I've just jinxed myself, the odds have gone way up. Drat and dagnabbit.

and so the Tour and Challenge begins.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

To the Research Station (encore)

It is mid-afternoon an the nature preserve. A young buck with fuzzy lopsided antlers strolls delicately across the small sun-drenched meadow, steps over the old broken-bouldered boundary wall, sidles right up to the side of the cabin and stands directly in front of the window where I am working; he stares in for a few moments, then lowers himself down for a bit of a nap. There is a rather bald spot there, an ovoid of dirt that suddenly seems the right size for this buck, as if he dozes here frequently when no one's about. I am gazing straight at the back top of his head. His antlers, one approaching the normal two-prong shape, the other much smaller, perhaps deformed (or growing more slowly?), rest outside the window where a window box might be. If no screen was in the way, I could reach down and touch him, as I would a large dog (a thick waisted Great Dane, perhaps) curled up near my feet while I type. As it is, I sit dumbstruck. His antlers are thickly forested with hairs standing straight out, like a boy's growing-in buzz cut. Flies dodge and dart about, landing on his moist muzzle, circling his wet eyes. His ears, mapped with pulsating blood vessels, flicker this way and that, his nostrils flare to chatise the flies. Flies, some of them still wriggling, are caught amongst the bristly-looking hairs of his antlers. His side bellows quickly, then slows down; variegated brown and grey hair lies flat along his side and flank close against the cabin wall. I imagine that the hair would feel smooth, slick, a bit wiry like a pony's under my hand. Warm.

I breathe slowly, I move ever so slowly, I stare, I want him to stay near me for a long time, I want him to actually sleep here, close, as if I am his friend, I want so much for him to trust me. But my chair clanks as I shift my feet to ease a growing numbness and he starts up in a flash, rump and tail toward me, tense, about to bound off. He cranes his head back to look at me over his flanks, ears cranked forward like semaphores, staring right at me, eye-to-eye. Beautiful eyes, yes. Dark. Rich. Large. Alert. I want to hold his gaze forever; I want him to calm down and return to his spot, rest in my presence, relax; I want him to trust me again. He turns his head forward, stands motionless, barely breathing. Then in two bounds and a leap, he's over the patio, over the boundary wall and crashing off through the high, dry grass and brush, making no end of an infernal racket.

Why do I care so much whether this beast trusts me, stays close? What is this yearning to be comfortable with beasts? Is it the challenge of convincing a wild thing that we mean no harm? Is the idea that we can communicate between species? I don't really know, but I am surprised by the strength of my feeling, of my desire for this deer to remain close and comfortable near me. It's not only deer; on other days, I sit still to let a thrush or a towhee or a chipmunk go about its business, hoping it will come close or at least not rush off in alarm. I do not want them for a pet, lord knows I do enough care-taking as it is; I don't want to "keep" them; I just want to know them ... or rather, I want them to know me.

Friday, August 14, 2009

To Our Libraries!

A friend of mine, Michelle, who blogs on Stray Carrier Pigeon, has created a fabulous project, visiting 36 libraries in 36 days in the city of San Diego. She notes her journey to the the library, gets some basic info, rates it on four qualities (from 1 to 4 bookmarks), takes some neat photos, checks out a book, reads it (or most of it, anyway) that night, and posts her evaluation, experience and pix. The next day, when she goes to the new library, she returns the previous library's book and takes out another. It's very cool, go check it out:

36 Libraries 36 Days.

In fact it is so cool, I want to do the same in Sonoma County. Michelle gave her blessing on my take-off on her idea, so I'm on it like white on rice, like a tick on a coon dog, like a bad pattern on a cheap rug. (hmmm) We have only 13 branches of the Sonoma County library but I'd only be able to visit once a week. So mine is more like 13 Libraries in 13 Weeks. And I think one of the libraries is more like an expanded, glorified bookmobile, so I might have a bit of tracking to do. But what fun!

Now it's time to get serious about the camera.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Taken last fall, by the big buckeye tree.
It's almost time to take another one.

How a hike is like writing a story.

Hike or write, simply start out -- and immediately walk into a mess. Wrong path! Wrong plot! I think I'm going to skip through a sunny meadow of blonde grass, but in about two minutes my socks and pants are thick with burrs, grass-snags, sticky-flowers, spikes; every step is a delicate exercise in avoiding the sting of already-embedded stickers; the path becomes a gauntlet of sharp grass and pricker-plants. I think it's going to be a sweet story about a woman and her excessive writing habits, and suddenly there's unrequited love, an X-acto knife and complexities of time and space. I zag over to an oak copse nearby, sit on a rock, avoid the poison oak and spend ten minutes picking all that crap out of my socks and pants. Like those bad, bad dreams, I'm not really dressed for this event, having impulsively dashed out in wooly socks, Birkenstocks and linen pants; at least I had a hat and water and a piece of chocolate. And of course, I'm never really prepared for a story either, merely honoring the impulse to write, without having any particular place in mind or any specific secondary characters. But water and chocolate always come in handy.

With a few minutes of reflection, I see the path I should have started out on, a more civilized, orderly path under the canopy of oaks and bays: no grasses, wide, nicely lined with rocks. Hey ya! This is working. And so it is with a story; there's those necessary (coffee-slurping, nit-picking, snack-gnoshing, wall-staring) moments that, though annoying, allow me order the events or line up the recalcitrant characters in semi-workable relationships.

The stroll down the marked path under the tree-canopy is enjoyable; sometimes this middle part of story-writing is too. The scenes fall into place, the characters all come from the same era and speak in the same dialect, verb tenses agree. (I can so dooooo this; who says writing stories is all that hard?) Then the trees and the wide, easy path dump me at the farther edge of the meadow: a narrow, crooked path wends onward through tall grass. Hmmm. This looks just like the start of the hike: big trouble. But I'm all the way down the slope and probably more than halfway; might as well continue. (Sound familiar? Isn't this where the zombie jumps the doomed couple? Go back, we all scream, go back!)

Soon, I'm in waist-high, then shoulder-high grasses. Deep doo-doo, in other words. Sometimes I can’t quite tell where the path is going, in fact it looks like it's either about to quit or turn in the opposite direction. This is the dangerous stage, when the story might well end up languishing in a drawer for the rest of its natural born days. But I do have a sense of where I'm supposed to end up, and so I keep on, one foot in front of the other (a la Ron Carlson), trusting the path, both hike-wise and story-wise. Then, a few landmarks show up. Here is the second little bridge, a bit frail, narrow and rickety, but it gets me over a bubbling stream; why, yes, the main character did have a rocky relationship with her first husband, which supports the endless whittling of the pencils. Bingo! here is the ultimate motivation! And voila, here is the larger path taking me up the brushy bank! Soon enough I am sitting on the bench overlooking a fabulous valley. I can practically see a wispy “The End” in the hazy clouds and credits scrolling over the dappled land below me, then up the big blue sky.

The return home on an alternate route, the paved road, was quick and easy. It wasn’t until sat down and poured myself a cup of coffee that I discovered the tick on my hat & the fatal flaw in the story: she was writing in pencil; she could have just erased; the zombie would never have known.

But maybe the reader won't think of that.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Peter Ho Davies

One of the best things about the Napa Conference was being introduced to Peter Ho Davies, both to his work and to his Sino-Celtic self. He was so personable, smart as all get out, and funny to boot. And what a writer!

About two weeks before the conference, I had begun his book "The Welsh Girl," figuring I’d give it an hour or so before bed each night. But I found myself captivated by the story, staying up til some pretty wee hours, not able to exit the story even though I knew (intellectually) that the morning would raise its ugly head sooner and then sooner. The way Davies intermeshed the three story lines had me snared. The characters were so uniquely themselves, the situation both historical and personal.

Here are two links, one to Davies’ own homepage, which has some interviews, plus some stories. One of the stories, "The Minotaur," (pronounced the British way: MY-notaur) he read at the Napa Valley Opera House (super tres elegante!) during the conference. This is a story that plays with the well known myth in a well-balanced combination of wry humor, inter-textuality, puns and poignant psychological truth. He paired that story at his reading with another, titled “Chance,” that I'll let you discover for yourself. Though I felt fortunate for the opportunity to hear it.

The second link is to another interview with Davies that I enjoyed with some questions about "The Welsh Girl."

and so, cheers, big ears!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Best Little Conference in the West

The euphoria from the conference is starting to ebb and I'm returning to being a town-girl with a needy cat and a flesh-&- blood family. Though I'm not all here yet; yesterday I wandered off-track walking to the market five blocks away, I shampooed my hair twice in one shower and skipped the conditioner (yeah, hairstyle a la rat's nest), I'm still a bit zingy and zany and lost in story-land. But the conversations in my head about poetry, public life, writing dates, next year's faculty, story collections, writing in the midst of living, urban legends, story arc, fried chicken lips, binaries, story shape, villanelles, cientos are starting to wind down, replaced by the give-and-take of civilian life: what sort of pasta for dinner, furlough days, picking up croissants for breakfast, the kibble-shortage, as pointed out by the cat.

But it was a most fabulous conference. In fact describing it is an exercise is saying "fantastic" eighteen different ways. Some of the highlights, though certainly not all, for me:

Toni Nelson's lecture which included a collage that acted like a map of her process in drafting stories. (She set the bar high from the get-go; Peter Ho Davies remarked that he now has "hand-out envy.")

The FAQ talk by Elizabeth Alexander about being Madame Ambassador for Poetry, her description of being at the Inaugural, of writing the Inaugural poem (one of four such poems in the US), of "writing in the midst," and sitting down later with your scrap-box, your rag-basket of ideas, words, inspirations. Those in the lecture can now claim an Obama Number of 2, right? (you know, like an Erdos number, or Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon).

The First Books Panel: Adrianne McDonnell, Skip Horuk, Robin Ekiss: great stories of books (a novel, short story collection, poetry, respectivley) making it into the world, including one (McDonnell) who had worked on her ms at the conference last summer.

All the readings were, ahem, fantastic: Carl Dennis and ZZ Packer on campus on Sunday; Jane Hirschfield and Robert Boswell at the Rubicon Winery on Monday. I could write whole blogs on each. The Tuesday night reading at the Napa Valley Opera House was particularly stunning both in setting (the refurbished auditorium is to die for) and content, from Camille Dungy's introduction of Elizabeth Alexander and her fantastic poems through the stories of Peter Ho Davies, which were a revelation to me. He brought down the house with his hilarious yet poignant Minotaur story (pronounced the British way "MY-no-taur") and then captured us with his story "Chance," searing, emotionally honest and true. Thursday night, David St John (with a spot-on intro by Mary Shea) and Toni Nelson at the Mondavi winery, another gem of setting and design, of art and words, where Toni read a work-in-progress, the first haunting chapter of a novel.

At my first Napa conference, Ron Carlson told us on the last day of our workshop to take a few minutes and set up a writing-date for ourselves within 24 hours of getting home, in order to keep the process going, to keep open all the dendrite-connections, synapse-firings stirred up during the conference. Which I did ... and so, excuse me, I have a hot date with a draft-map and a story. 

p.s. I know others have different highlights. I'd love to hear about them, so feel free to share in Comments!