Friday, August 17, 2012

Hard Time by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky, Sara. Hard Time. New York: Delacorte, 1999.

This was this month's CT. mystery book club read.

Way back in the 1980s, long before Janet Evanovich and her lookalikes came along with their slapstick, accidental detectives, I was aware of 3 authors who were busy creating their prototypes. These authors were taking unsolved murders out of the hands of Miss-Marple-types, who had solved many a mystery while sipping tea by the fire, and putting them into the hands of women who were tough and daring in the ways many of the men who had gone before them were tough and daring. These women were even slightly dangerous. The difference between them and their little sisters like Evanovich's Stephanie Plum is that they were -- although wryly funny when appropriate in a way we recognize if we've read the likes of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald -- far more serious. And romance was there, but it was secondary in their lives.

Each of these "heroines" (if that's the right word for them. I'd like to get rid of the gender definition and just call them "heros") lives in a city that was as much a character in the book as any of the human characters. These cities laugh, cry, get kicked in the gut, and bounce back with a vengeance. I love cities that do that in the fiction I read.

The three authors to whom I am referring are Sue Grafton (another we read for the CT mystery book club), Linda Barnes, and Sara Paretsky. Their female investigators are, respectively, Kinsey Millhone, Carlotta Carlyle, and V. I. Warshawski. Their cities are Santa Barbara (yes, we know it's Santa Barbara, even though it appears incognito), Boston, and Chicago. Of these three, if you'd asked me back in 1990 which to read, I would have said, "Linda Barnes." For some reason (maybe because of Boston?) I was most into Barnes. (You have to understand what I mean by that. With the exception of reading through Agatha Christie when I was a teen, until I became a member of the CT mystery book discussion group, I wasn't a big reader of mysteries. I read Barne's first two books, got hooked, and waited as each of the next three came out to read them. Then, I stopped.) I'd read a couple of Grafton's books and stopped. And I hadn't read any Paretsky.

Why hadn't I read Paretsky? I can't answer that question. Everyone who knew me and had read her was busy recommending her to me, and I kept meaning to read her. Well, I've been meaning to read her for (can it really be?) about 25 years now. I want to thank the folks in CT for kicking me in the butt and getting me, finally, to read her.

I come to this sort of book not expecting great writing, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that Peretsky actually writes quite well. No, it's not poetry. I didn't find myself wanting to quote her, but it's seamless. The writing didn't distract in such a way, either because it was so riddled with grammatical errors or so obviously an attempt at blending genre fiction with literary fiction, that it kept me from focusing on the story. And story is what I do expect from this sort of book.

Does Peretsky deliver story? Absolutely! I was afraid, at first, that she wouldn't. The book begins at a media event, a party at a bar (I think it's a restaurant bar, but it was hard to tell), that was quite confusing. In fact, I read the first 5 or so pages twice and kept referring back to them to try to get people straight. Paretsky gave us quite a lot of crucial information in that opening scene, but I found it hard to concentrate in that atmosphere.

(In writing this, I'm realizing that maybe she's a better writer than I thought. I mean, isn't that what a crowded bar scene is: confusing? Isn't it a place where we are often overwhelmed with information? Information that's hard to keep straight, because we are typically sipping a few alcoholic drinks when we visit them?)

Mercifully, Peretsky didn't keep us at the bar until dawn. She quickly gets us out of the bar and to the streets, where, while taking a short cut, we stumble across an almost-dead body. An IQ of 180 is not needed to realize that this tiny woman lying unconscious on the street will soon become The Body.

Is it original that our friend V. I. Warshawski finds herself being accused of and framed for this murder? No. Not at all. Pick up 2 mysteries, and I guarantee you that at least one of them will be about a protagonist who is being accused of murder. What is original is the way Paretsky chooses to use this standard plot, which is, basically (and I'm not really giving anything away here. After all, the book's title is Hard Time) to throw Warshawski into jail (and not because she's believed to be guilty of the murder. But I've said enough. I won't give away anymore of that part of the story).

Here's where we get to the crux of why I so loved this book. If only it were made into a movie (and I say that only because I know how few people actually read and that most who do probably don't need Paretsky's lessons). Paretsky does a brilliant job of bringing to life the horrors and corruption in the prison system in America. I happen to know quite a lot about this subject, both from having edited books about it and because I know someone who is living the horrors of it now.

Peretsky paints a very real portrait here, and I'm clapping loudly at her attempt to exhibit it to a general audience. In case you've read the book and are wondering: yes, it's true that phone companies have monopolies in prison systems where no one can call in, and prisoners are stuck paying whatever the company decides to charge per minute to call out (need I tell you these rates are outrageous?). Yes, everything that can be purchased in the commissary costs way more than it costs those of us on the outside. Prison guards abuse their charges, and there are those guards who seem to have chosen their "professions" specifically so they can get away with actions on the inside that would have them locked up behind the bars they so carefully "guard" were they to commit them outside.

My focus has always been on the racism in our prison system, that and the huge corporate aspect of it (prison is a major money-making business, which is why so many of our Republican politicians are so big on cracking down on crime. They don't really care about keeping everyone safe. They care about the money generated by keeping our prisons overcrowded). What I liked about this book is how it focused on the sexism, the victimization of women behind bars. I don't know why I needed a fictional story to have my eyes opened to this aspect of the system, but apparently I did.

The actual mystery in this book became, for me, secondary to the tale of life in prison. I'm not saying that getting to the bottom of exactly why this woman wound up dead wasn't interesting -- it was. Believe me, it was -- but fighting injustice became as key for me as it did for Warshawski. On some level, we know the injustice won't go away, but still, we hope we can fight it. If you know nothing about The American Prison System, Inc., read this book. It will open your eyes.

Meanwhile, I'm impressed with Paretsky and plan to read more (I say that all the time, huh?).

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Merging Hats?

For nearly twenty years now, I have worn two hats. Although at first glance, they might seem very different, they do both happen to be a shade of green (my favorite color), and so they may not be so different after all. My guess is that if I describe them, you, my readers, won't be able to figure out which is my librarian hat (worn throughout my days as a library assistant and student working towards her M.L.S., as well as while a library volunteer and now as a part-time librarian). My other one is my editor hat (worn all those years when I was working either as an acquisitions editor or a managing editor or an executive editor). One is a pretty, feminine, wide-brimmed hat that is fun and interesting. The other is extremely stylish (must be changed constantly to keep up with the times) and a bit serious, but sometimes I stick a little flower or a cool button on it to show it has a softer, more fun side, too. I know which one I think is which, but I'll let you decide for yourselves which you think is which.

Anyway, having assumed they were both very different and would look ridiculous, one piled on top of the other, I've always worn them separately, never together. But, yesterday, I discovered that designers have been toying with a new style of hat, one that might incorporate both, and I have to tell you that I can't be more excited, because, let me tell you, this hat is gorgeous. If you're one of those who has been moaning about the Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire, worried that we are all going to be left with nothing but the ruins of literature (yes, Fifty Shades of Grey and 500 knock-offs do spring to my mind), while the gorgeous temples that make us sigh in awe and wonder become things of the past, you just might be excited, too.

I lucked out on getting an advance peek at this new fashion in hats. Our library director happens to be on vacation this week, and she asked me if I could take her place and go to our Capital Region Workshop for Library Leadership. I was, quite frankly, flattered that she'd asked me, and I typically jump at the chance to attend such events, so, of course, I said "yes." And it was at this workshop that I got to hear Jamie LaRue speak. Jamie LaRue is the Library Director of the Douglas County Library System in Colorado (I'm now dying to visit his library), and he is an exceptional public speaker, but, what's really important is that he is doing amazing things when it comes to providing content for his library, the best of which is fighting publishers and distributors who have been making it more and more expensive for libraries to get copies of eBooks. You can get an idea of how libraries are being screwed by reading the blog post he wrote for American Libraries "50 Shades of Red".

If you can't be bothered to read LaRue's article, in a nutshell, thanks to the publishers and distributors, while you-all are paying $10.00 or so to buy your eBooks, libraries are paying upwards of $45.00 for each eBook title they buy. In my county-wide library system, we're about to announce our One Book, One Community book for 2012, but we have no eBook versions available to loan to our public (except what's on the Kindles we loan out), because an eBook version would cost us $86.00, and we just can't afford to spend $86.00 on one title like that (Pennsylvania is notorious for being a state that consistently ranks somewhere near the bottom when it comes to providing money for libraries). Most of our eBooks are distributed by the company that has the monopoly right now on such distribution, a company called Overdrive, and don't even get me started on how pathetically un-user-friendly they are, on top of charging libraries outrageous fortunes not to own, but to rent, content. They're slum lords, really.

Now, here is the exciting part. LaRue is an amazing director with a very sharp mind who isn't just sitting around complaining about this or capitulating to the corporate world. He's out wheeling and dealing, figuring out ways to get around companies like Overdrive, and the Big Six publishers, three of whom refuse to sell eBooks directly to libraries. He believes that libraries need to be the market force that changes terms, because libraries, unlike publishers and distributors, are not in the business of making as much money as they possibly can, with little or no regard to culture. No, he says libraries are in the business of collecting and distributing the intellectual content of our culture (I've never heard the library's role described that way, but I like it, don't you?).

How's LaRue doing this? He's using shareware to set up the ability to buy and own his own eBooks for the library. Since the Big Publishers won't work with him (yet), he's buying only print versions of most of their titles and turning his attention to independent publishers and their organizations (like the Colorado Independent Publishers Association). He's making money for his library, because he is offering the ability for his patrons, if a book is checked out, and they don't want to wait, to click on a link that lets them buy it directly from the publisher (and the publishers are letting him share in the profits from these sales because he's driving business their way). And he's going around encouraging other library systems to do the same. That's why he's using shareware. (I'm telling you, we had a roomful of very enthusiastic librarians yesterday).

What else is he doing? Well, this is where the new hat is being designed. He's also working with local authors, letting them publish their eBooks through him, for merely the cost of letting him have one free book (owning it, not renting it) for his library. He pointed out that libraries are full of readers, which means they are full of people who can edit, proofread, and review these eBooks -- many of them library volunteers -- so that authors can hit the marketplace, knowing their books have been vetted and with reviews they can use for promotion. No, these reviews won't have a NY Times byline, but they will give authors (especially first-time authors) many, many more opportunities to get reviewed than the standard review media authors have been dependent on for so long. And let's be real here: how important today is that NY Times byline? I'm guilty of having searched Amazon and Goodreads reviews to find out about books, and if I knew some site had reviews written only by library employees and volunteers, I can guarantee you I'd give it as much weight as I now give my favorite blogger reviews.

Why is this a good thing (besides letting me, maybe, one day, wear that new hat, working as an editor for a library system. I can see such jobs coming along in the future)? I mean, why is it good for you, the reader? Because if libraries start getting into the business of publishing, they are, as I quoted LaRue above, going to be doing so with an eye toward collecting and distributing the intellectual content of our culture. They won't be focused on the bottom line. Because librarians are book people, this new form of publishing will be run by book people (the way publishing companies used to be run), by readers, not by those who used to run GE and have now been hired to run Big Publisher #4, to keep it from going bankrupt. Those running the show will be focused on getting great writing into the hands of those who love to read it. This can only mean better content. No, it doesn't mean we'll eliminate 50 Shades of Grey (after all, it has its cultural place), but, you know, that thing called the midlist, which seems to have been shrinking into nonexistence over the years? We just might see it begin to grow again.

Who would've ever thought, back in the 1990s when I was in library school, that libraries might take on a new role, that of publishers? LaRue thinks we're at one of the most exciting times in history, a major turning point when it comes to collecting and disseminating content. I agree, and I am so happy to hear someone out there touting such positive news instead of moaning and groaning about a society that is slowly creating a second Dark Age. I can't wait to don one of those new hats, and in the meantime, I'm going to do whatever I can to help bring them to Lancaster County, PA.