Friday, March 19, 2010

On a librarian's discerning taste...

Today Jungle Red welcomes SALLY BISSELL an extraordinary Florida librarian who's been blogging since 2007 as SALLYB at Read Around the World. Every week she writes about the books she's reading. Her taste is wonderfully eclectic. Over the last few weeks she's dissected Colm Toibin's BROOKLYN, Michael Connelly's NINE DRAGONS, and Chris Cleeve's LITTLE BEE. She runs a book discussion group, and her online reviews are both insightful and personal.

HALLIE: Sally, how many books do you read and write about each month, and how do you pick them?

Well, not nearly enough! The great thing is that I “read” in many different formats so that I’m able to have a book on my mp3 for exercising, a book in my car to keep road rage to a minimum, a book at my desk for lunch break and a book by the bed in case I can keep my eyes open long enough to get a few chapters in. I also get a book each month to review for Library Journal and I even have a Sony e-book reader for travel. I’d estimate that I read maybe 7 or 8 books a month. True confessions – I don’t always finish everything I start.

I read many professional review journals and subscribe to tons of book blogs, like your fabulous one, so picking books is easy. My “to read” list is huge and I keep buying used paperbacks to save for the day when I retire and can read that much more. Generally, I tend toward literary fiction, police procedurals, biography and some politics so that I can keep up with what my customers might be interested in.

HALLIE: What book has kicked up the most controversy in your discussion group(s)?

Oh, wow, well, lots of them because I choose the book for that specific purpose. I’d have to say that Don DeLillo’s FALLING MAN, an examination of the effects of the attack on the World Trade Center on a small group of New York families, was a great way to begin our book discussion season last year. There were no wishy-washy responses to that novel!

It drew people I’d never seen there before, even a woman who had been living in New York during the tragedy, who shared her feelings openly and honestly. It never ceases to amaze me how willing people are to open up in a group of strangers. This is the beauty of literature, isn’t it, that we find a common ground on which to meet?

HALLIE: I agree completely. ! know you've discussed crime novels with lots of groups. If it's possible to generalize, what do you think today's readers particular like?

SALLY: Crime novels seem to be more popular than ever. I suspect, but who can really know this for sure, that the joy of a crime novel is that one is on the outside looking in and can say, “oh, this could never happen to me,” even though there’s a little frisson of suspicion that, in fact, it could.

Cyber-crime, identity theft, anything “ripped from the headlines,” as they say, is always good and then there’s the whole medical examiner genre kicked off by Patricia Cornwell, then Kathy Reichs, and echoed by CSI on TV, which is still very hot. I’ve noticed an uptick in books about terrorism and spies as well.

My personal guilty secret is medical thrillers. Michael Palmer scares me half to death!

HALLIE: What really turns them off?

SALLY: For my crew it’s definitely anything involving violence against children.

HALLIE: For you personally, when a suspense/mystery novel disappoint, is there anything in particular that tends to go wrong?

SALLY: I’d have to say that the motivation of the character is a big issue for me. It has to be believable when a person plots to take the life of another, especially a family member. Yet I completely understand random murder or murder in the throes of passion.

HALLIE: Here's a loaded question: what do you see as the main differences between murder mysteries and suspense on the one hand and literary fiction on the other?

SALLY:Ha, ha, watch me dodge this one! I think that murder and suspense novels and literary fiction have more in common than people may realize. Whenever we read, and we will always need stories in our lives, we are interacting with and recognizing a piece of ourselves in the characters on the page. Sometimes what we see isn’t flattering but it makes us think about what motivates people to act the way they do and, perhaps, to have more empathy for others.

There are novelists who some might consider crime writers yet who I think are very literary writers as well. George Pelecanos comes to mind right away, so does Dennis Lehane and Richard Price. That’s why I prefer not to box in an author to a certain genre and I try to get my customers to branch out a little bit as well

HALLIE: Do you get involved in your library's buying decisions - and if you do, what makes a difference in whether a book gets on the BUY list or not (aside from budget).

Yes, I am involved in what we buy and I love it. We have a relatively large library system with 12 branches so there’s been a big push on streamlining the ordering system. At a central location certain books are put on the purchase list each month based upon reviews in major publications, this list might be up to 100 titles a month. Then the list is sent to each branch where a librarian there chooses which titles he or she may want based upon a knowledge of the demographics and reading habits within that branch library’s area.

If the book is by an author I’m unfamiliar with I will check our database for past popularity, the number of times an author has been checked out.

We also have checks and balances to go along with this process. We periodically run reports that tell us how many customers are waiting for a particular title. For each 6 customers waiting we immediately lease another copy of the book. Leasing allows us to keep our readers happy while a certain book is hot and then, when the title cools off, we return leased books for credit toward future leases. I think this is common in libraries around the country.If a title falls through the cracks we are confident that our customers will let us know and we respond quickly.

HALLIE: Thanks Sally! Questions or comments for Sally? She'll be around today to respond.


  1. Hey Sally! Welcome to Jungle Red...we love and revere librarians! So thanks for all you do..

    And you have touched on a topic my husband and I do not agree on! He insists on finishing every book he starts. He'll be sitting in his comfy chair, grumbling: this book
    is terrible, this book is is ridiculous.

    And I say:just close the book. Stop. There's not enough time to read a book you aren't enjoying!

    But he persists. He can't explain why--but I think he feels he's made a deal with the author.

    Sometimes, I hide the book so he can't find it. But that doesn't work.

    What might I tell him? How do you make the decision to stop?

    (And I'm going to email Michael Palmer right now..he'll be so delighted!)

  2. Hi Sally,
    Thanks for visiting. I had no idea that libraries leased books - I guess that makes sense, especially for blockbusters which you probably need lots of copies of when they are first released. Any tips for authors on working with their local libraries and holding events?

  3. Great Q&A. You sound so enthusiastic!

    Here's a question, Sally. Have you ever considering crossing over to the dark side and writing a novel yourself?

  4. Sally, do you think the paranormal craze is slacking off at all? Is the audience for vampires, psychics, etc., mainly younger people, or do all age groups enjoy those books?

  5. What a wonderfully insightful interview! I appreciate how you mentioned "motivation" several times. Both as a reader and a writer, I agree that the motivation behind a character's actions is so, so important. I always want to know why a particular character does the things he/she does, whether it's the hero or villain. I don't have to like them, but I do want to understand them.

    Hank, I must admit I'm like your husband. Only recently have I begun to put a book down if I can't get into it. It's still rare for me to do so, though. I don't know if it's that I feel I have a contract with the writer, or whether I just hold out hope that it will improve, but it's hard for me NOT to read to the end.

    Thanks Sally and Jungle Red Writers for an interesting post.

    P.S. Sally, I liked you right off because you share the same name as my youngest daughter. ;-) It's rare to meet another Sally.

  6. Hi ladies, Oh this is so much fun! Thanks so much for inviting me to write on your blog. I want to answer everyone's questions right away but am running out the door to meet my college roommate - 40 years ago - Russell Sage College in Troy, New York - for lunch.

    Yes, even librarians get a day off.

    But Hank, before I go, I want to tell you that it took me years of suffering through to the last page, like you husband. Good old New England stick-to-it-tiveness, I guess and maybe a little Catholic guilt thrown in for good measure.

    Then I attended a library conference and met Nancy Pearl, a famous librarian, who taught us the rule of 50. Life is too short and there are too many fabulous books to stick with one that doesn't grab you by page 50. (though I've broken that rule a few times and been glad that I did).
    And, better yet, though I know you ladies are lots younger than I, for every year of your age after 50 you get to stop the book that much sooner. Don't you just love made up rules?

  7. Hi Sally,
    Welcome to Jungle Red. I struggled with that Catholic guilt thing about finishing a book for a very long time. Now I only make myself read 100 pages.

    As Hank mentioned we love librarians, also book bloggers, so I'l definitely have to check your blog out!!

    Do you like historicals at all? (my favorite) If so, are you recommending any???

  8. The rule of fifty! Thank you, Sally! (And I also love the age corollary. Which means I only have to read 40 pages..)

    I gen-er-al-ly finish, I suppose..but sometimes I just, oh I can't believe I'm telling this--skip ahead and see what happens. And then if it seems like a good idea, I go back and see how the author made it happen.

    (Maybe I should relax.)

    Do you ever read the last page first? (Okay, you don't have to tell...)

  9. Hi Ramona, I'm back, a couple of glasses of Sauvignon Blanc later so forgive typos, yes, I have considered the dark side but...I give you all so much credit. I have a horrible time trying to make things up. The truth is so bizarre!

    A friend of mine at the library tried to set up a program for NaNoWriMo, (National Novel Writing Month) and invited our customers to come to our computer lab and write a book with the help and encouragement of the librarians on staff.
    Six folks began the project, three of us ended it and only 2 finished a 50,000 page novel. I was not one of them.
    They say to write what you know but my life, which seems very funny when I tell it, just didn't translate into humor at all. I really prefer writing about what I know. I think fiction writers are the cat's meow. How do you do it? I admire you so much.

  10. Hi Rosemary,
    On how authors should work with libraries: I can't answer for other library systems but in ours there are restrictions on our meeting rooms in terms of charging money for events. That means that authors are limited in their ability to seel books unless it's out of their trunks.
    Well, that seems unfair!

    However, if you go through the Friends groups, which are non-profit fund raising arms of the library system, you could really make some headway.

    Keeping in mind that I can't speak officially for my particular library system in this venue, we have an annual reading festival that is dynamite! Just ask Michael Palmer. He and Jeff Deaver had so much fun here. As it happens, it is tomorrow!

    Wouldn't it be fun if you could all come and do a group presentation next year? I'll pass the word.

  11. Oh, Sally, that sounds wonderful! Count me in, absolutely!

  12. As an author with a publisher that targets the library market, I find this an interesting post. I'm all too aware of the use of major reviews for purchasing books in the library. Sadly, that can make or break it for an author if the "Biggies" don't pick up a title for review.

    And many library systems put donated books on their 'dollar tables' rather than add them to the collection. I understand that it costs money to get a book into the system, but from the author's side, it's frustrating.

  13. It is wonderful to hear (metaphorically) your interview with Sally B. I'm a big fan and subscriber to her outstanding book blog. Extraordinary, as you so rightly said describes her skill. The interview is an informative and interesting look behind the words to the real person that helps us find a good, worthwhile read: it really is a "book" jungle out there! Sally helps us find those gems in the jungle. Her thoughtful answers to your questions only serve to make me appreciate all the more her insightful book reviews. Thank you.

  14. Well, Sally, by the time I got here today, you're probably heading off to some reception for the Reading Festival. Enjoy! Sally is a much more eclectic reader than I am. We worked in the same library system in Florida. When people wanted a literary book discussion group, I referred them to Sally. She's wonderful.

    And, Sally is terrific at broadening reading taste. She's the first one who introduced me to Dennis Lehane's books, years, and years, and years, ago. Well, not that long.

    Nice interview, Sally & Hallie!

    Lesa -

  15. A slightly belated welcome, Sally. I'm surrounded by books at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

    I also belong to those who don't finish a bad book. I've even been known to throw it across the room. Life is too short for mediocre books, especially when there are so many good ones out there.

  16. Hi everyone, I just got home from working at the 11th annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival and, once again, we knocked 'em dead.

    Jan, in answer to your question about historicals, I'll have to admit that I prefer contemporary times myself but I heard two fabulous writers speak this morning who have each just published debut historicals which sound very intriguing.

    One, The Wives of Henry Oades, was based on a true legal case that the author, Johanna Moran, found in a family file that was handed down to her. You can read about it here:

    The other one is a reimagined life of Vincent VanGogh, written by a professor of art history.

    250 people turned out at 10:30 this morning to listen to them talk about their books. How cool is that?

  17. Amateur Hour

    Good writers usually have mastered, or strive to master, usage, grammar, spelling, etc., and usually know the difference between "to" and "too"--and in the first paragraph! If you're young, or just lazy, and use spell checkers and that's why you don't edit your copy, this commom mistake is proof that writers should not rely on spell checkers. Mistake-free copy is a sign of professionalism. Mistakes on an official Web site for writers or wannabe writers: unforgiveabe.

  18. Sal,

    I enjoyed your interview and I am privileged to work with you! You are defintely in the right niche, lucky for me and our library members.