Sunday, September 28, 2008

Banned Books Week Is Upon Us!

If you are headed to the Des Plaines Public Library this week, make sure to stop by the 3rd floor and check out the Books on Fire display celebrating Banned Books Week. As you may or may not know, Banned Books Week (September 27-October 4) is a celebration of the freedom of choice, and, more specifically, the freedom to read. It is a moment for people to remember that even though some books may be challenged for containing inappropriate material or having an alternative viewpoint, intellectual freedom is a basic right afforded to every American citizen.

Banned Books Week this year has come at an interesting time for me, as the two books I happen to be reading right now have connections to Banned Books Week. The first one is Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, a history of the westward expansion of the United States from a Native American viewpoint. Written using the actual words of various Native Americans whenever possible, it is a scathing account of the greed and prejudice of the United States government as it both made and flagrantly broke treaties with the various Indian tribes whenever it suited them. This book was removed from a school in Wild Rose, WI in the 1974 by a school administrator who condemned the book for being “slanted” and “un-American”. This particular instance was an example of the uproar that this book caused as it contained a viewpoint contrary to the popularized “history” of the American West.

The other book I’m currently reading is the Tommyknockers by Stephen King. It is about an evil that is being slowly unearthed in a central Maine forest, affecting the townspeople of Haven and bringing out village secrets that have long been hidden. In 2004, this particular novel was considered for removal (among other horror novels) from the Questa school library in Taos, NM, but the school board ultimately allowed it to remain in circulation. While it is not a tough stretch to imagine why a Stephen King novel may be considered objectionable material in some circles (Tommyknockers is no different, let me tell you), to remove it completely from consideration to any reader is infringing upon their intellectual freedom.

Chances are that someone, somewhere may have disagreed with the material that you are currently reading, but, as Ben Franklin said, “"If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed." No matter what you are reading, be happy not only that you can read it, but that you were able to choose to read it. Now, go, be Intellectually Free!

(photo by Simen Svale Skogsrud)

Monday, September 22, 2008

And My Vote for Greatest Living Short Story Writer Goes To . . .

Were it not for The Best American Short Stories anthology, I might never have discovered two of my all-time favorite short story writers: Amy Bloom and Tim Gautreaux. You may have heard of Bloom, whose novel, Away, was named one of the best books of 2007 by many publications, including the Chicago Tribune.

But long before Away was published, Bloom’s haunting short story, “Silver Water,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1992,and I’ve been raving about her and The Best American Short Stories anthology ever since.

The BASS anthology is a fantastic way to discover new writers: you can dip into a writer’s work with a short story, which doesn’t require the time commitment of a novel, and then, if you like it, seek out his or her novels and short story collections. Sometimes an author, like Bloom, is so new to the literary scene when published in BASS that he or she hasn’t yet published a book, and you feel fortunate to have discovered the author so early in his or her career, later annoying friends and family after said author has received acclaim: See, what did I tell you? I TOLD you she was a great writer!! Do I have impeccable taste or what?!

How are stories selected for BASS? Every year, the series editor reads periodicals large and small to select what she considers the best 120 or so short stories published that year. Those stories are then passed along to that year’s guest editor, who reads them all and then selects approximately 20 for publication. Guest editors have included John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley, and Walter Mosley. The editor of BASS 2007 was Stephen King and the editor of BASS 2008, which we should be getting soon, is Salman Rushdie. I really like that the series has a new guest editor every year to keep it fresh, and that each editor writes an introduction, often offering his or her thoughts on the state of fiction and the short story, and elaborating on what they like about the stories they selected.

Also enlightening and often moving are the author comments about their stories at the back of the book. Bloom, a social worker for many years, writes of “Silver Water”: “The grief, love, and exhaustion of life with schizophrenics is so close to unbearable that I can only admire, and want to sing for, the afflicted and their families.” In her story, Bloom captures the pain of Violet, whose older sister, Rose, has been transformed by schizophrenia. Violet wants people to know of Rose “that who they saw was not all there was to see. That before the constant tinkling of commercials and fast-food jingles, there had been Puccini and Mozart and hymns so sweet and mighty, you expected Jesus to come down off his cross and clap. That before there was a mountain of Thorazined fat swaying down the halls in nylon maternity tops and sweatpants, there had been the prettiest girl in Arrandale Elementary School, the belle of Landmark Junior High. Maybe there were other pretty girls, but I didn’t see them. To me, Rose, my beautiful blond defender, my guide to Tampax and my mother’s moods, was perfect."

Another magnificent short story writer that I first read in BASS is Tim Gautreaux, who in my not so humble opinion, is perhaps our greatest living short story writer. Although he's had five stories published in BASS over the years, the story that I love most is “Welding with Children,” which appeared in BASS 1998, and like most Gautreaux stories, is set in rural Louisiana. The narrator is a welder whose daughters keep dropping off his grandkids so they can go out carousing. Tuesday was about typical, the story begins. My four daughters, not a one of them married, you understand, brought over the kids, one each, and explained to my wife how much fun she was going to have looking after them again. But Tuesday was her day to go out to the casino, so guess who got to tend the four babies.” The welder is torn between his resentment towards his daughters, whom he admits he didn’t always do right by when he was raising them, and his desire to improve the lives of his grandchildren, who desperately need a responsible adult in their lives. Part Mark Twain and part Flannery O'Connor, Gautreaux's stories often make me laugh out loud, but they also address questions in ways that linger--to me one of the signs of a great story.

"Welding with Children" was inspired, Gautreaux writes in BASS 1998, by a voice he heard at the store one day. “It was a middle-aged man talking to a friend he’d bumped into. He was complaining about his three grown daughters, who kept having babies out of wedlock and then bringing them over to his house for him and his wife to take care of. The old guy had a great voice, southern, smart, and full of humor. But it was full of hurt too. His blue-collar salary was being eaten up by Cokes and diapers, and his blue-collar heart was smashed flat by children who were running their lives like a drunk runs a truck with bald tires downhill in a rainstorm.”

If that story piques your interest, be sure to check out his short story collection, Welding with Children. Another great Gautreaux collection is Same Place, Same Things.

Do you have a favorite short story or short story writer? What writer are you always crowing about to your friends and family? Do you have a favorite source from which to learn about books and authors? Inquiring minds want to know!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Talk Like A Pirate Day: the Aftermath

National Talk Like A Pirate Day has come an' gone, but that doesn’t mean ye be havin' t' furl th' sails, turn t' th' wind, an' drop yer anchor. Thar be plenty o' seadog adventures ou' thar waitin' t' be dug up!

I’ll start with possibly the most prominent story involving pirates in today’s culture, Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl. The first movie of the trilogy based on the Disneyworld ride of the same name (the same ride that created my fascination of pirates at the age of 7), it nailed pretty much everything that one would think of when they’d think of pirates: swashbuckling swordfights, nefarious double-crossing, robust sea chanteys, and chests full of pieces-of-eight. It also introduced one of the most memorable movie characters of all time, Jack Sparrow. [What was that? Oh, right.] Captain, Captain Jack Sparrow. Between the action and the enjoyable characters, this movie is always a solid pick for a couple hours of fun. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend the rest of the trilogy (in my humble opinion, the producers of Pirates should have learned a lesson from the Matrix trilogy - it's better to create a single great movie than to suck the life out of it with two more sub-par additions).

Over on the book side of things, if you'd like to learn about the real pirates that have inspired the stories, look no further than Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly. This readable history illuminates such colorful characters as Black Bart Roberts, Sir Henry Morgan, and, of course, the infamous Blackbeard. It separates actual fact (peg legs and eye-patches, yes) from foggy myth (real treasure map marked with an 'X', never). As an overview of the Age of Pirates and their effect on us today, this book is unsurpassed.

Another excellent true pirate adventure is the Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks. It is a biography of Captain William Kidd, one of the most infamous seadogs of all time. But Zacks paints a different picture of him: according to the author, Kidd was actually a buccaneer hired by the English government to hunt down pirates who were in violation of the law. Kidd's major nemesis was the depraved rogue Robert Culliford, whose turpitude and villainy led Kidd on voyages across the seven seas. In the end of this thrilling account, one of these men will hang from the gallows and one will retire comfortably at peace, but it might not be who you think.

So if ye favor tales o' thrillin' action on th' high seas, grab yer cutlass, stash yer doubloons, an' sail straight t' th' library, 'ere we`ll be waitin' t' help ye. And reckon, me hearteys, dead men tell nay tales, but live men do!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Who doesn't love a good mystery?

You might think with all the mysteries we read, that we would be good at solving them too.

And we are!

One of the most satisfying aspects of working in the Readers' Services department comes from helping patrons solve those questions that at first seem rather impossible. We get a lot of questions like:

"I read this book back in the 90's and I have never laughed so hard, I wish I could read more by that author. But all I remember is a picture of a mouse held at gunpoint on the cover. Can you help me?"

"I heard this song on the radio last night and I didn't catch the name or the artist. It kind of goes, bum bum bum, bum ba bum bum - bum. "

"You know that movie from the 70's where that guy cuts up that fancy sports car and modifies it to look like a hearse?" (click to find the answer).

"Who writes that mystery series about the caterer/taxi driver/hairdresser/etc?"

The vast majority of the time we can excavate our way to the answer. We have a number of tools to help us, from reference books that sort mysteries by the sleuth's occupation to databases like Novelist where we can search by plot and/or setting. For music, did you know that many radio stations post the songs they play on their website? Usually the hardest part is getting people to ask the questions.

If you have a question, no matter how futile it may seem, give us call, send us an email, or come in and ask, because we love a good mystery.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Formative Comedies

Most everyone has a list of favorite movies. Here’s a list of my favorite “modern-era” comedy films (in no particular order):

  1. Airplane! (1980). There’s one gag after another in this spoof of disaster flicks. You might say, “Surely you’re not serious!” to which I’d reply, “Yes I am, and stop calling me Shirley.”

  2. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). John Belushi and his fellow frat brothers from Delta House attack just about every college tradition. Go ahead and put me on “double-secret probation” for this choice, but everything runs amuck in the college whose founder’s most memorable utterance is “Knowledge Is Good.”

  3. Caddyshack (1980). Welcome to Bushwood Country Club, where golfing is turned into pure anarchy. My favorite subplot is groundskeeper Bill Murray’s never-ending quest to rid the course of a gopher that’s way wilier than he is.

  4. Blazing Saddles (1974). The frontier town of Rock Ridge is about to be blown off the map to allow the railroad to run through it, but the town and its citizens (all of whose last name is Johnson) are saved by an unlikely sheriff and a has-been gunfighter. Just plain silly.

  5. Young Frankenstein (1974). Like Blazing Saddles, another hilarious Mel Brooks flick. Dr. Frankenstein (“that’s 'Fraunk-en-steen'”) leaves his gig as a medical school professor, claims his family's estate in Transylvania and creates a monster of gigantic proportions. Marty Feldman is especially funny as Igor ("that's 'Eye-gor'"), and the mention of Cloris Leachman’s character’s name has an unusual effect on horses.

It just dawned on me that all of these films are from my so-called "formative years" -- the mid-‘70s and early ‘80s – which might explain a few things about myself. I’m sure there have been many laugh-out-loud movies since then – and definitely before then -- that I’ve seen, but I don’t recall them as well as I do these movies. And, this list doesn’t include some of the early Marx Brothers movies, which I love.

What comedies are on your laugh-out-loud, rolling-on-the-floor list? What movies did you particularly enjoy during your “formative years”?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Viggo Mortensen Cures the Common Cold

Thanks to a cold due to the change in weather, I've spent the past few days curled up in my electric blanket surviving off of chicken noodle soup, tea, and the Lord of the Rings movies. I firmly believe that it was the soothing presence of Viggo as hero Aragorn that made me feel well enough to venture back out into the world.

Choosing the right movie when you're sick is key. The Lord of the Rings is ideal for me because:

A. It has gorgeous scenery, which makes me feel like I'm out in the world (albeit an imaginary world).
B. It has humorous moments, but nothing too funny (can't waste precious energy laughing).
C. Has to be really long- again, you can't waste energy getting up to change the DVD.
D. I've watched the trilogy so often I have dialogue memorized- so if I fall asleep I won't be confused when I wake up.

While movies can't take the place of Mom in making you feel better, they can help a bit. What movies comfort you when you're sick?

Friday, September 5, 2008


The average American woman with at least a bachelor’s degree will have had 11.2 jobs by the time she is 40 years old. My new job as the Readers’ Services Supervisor is my 17th, but I had 11 of those before I graduated from college. (Hey – stop trying to guess my age!). I’ve been reminiscing about all the people I have met at work over the years. Some of them have turned out to be friends for life, but friend or foe, one truth remains; your feelings about your job have less to do with what you do and more to do with whom you do it.

Such is the message of the best fiction book I’ve read all year, Then We Came to the End by newcomer Joshua Ferris. The book is set at a Chicago ad agency in the 1990s when the .com bubble burst. The narrator tells us that he and his fellow employees were “fractious and overpaid”, with portfolios bursting with NASDAQ offerings from the seemingly limitless supply of money made from new internet companies. Then it ended, and the layoffs began. One by one his fellow employees would “walk Spanish down the hall” – an allusion to a Tom Waits song about a man on the way to his execution. They would exit the boss’ office, collect their things and leave the building for the last time. Their fellow employees all had the same reaction, “Thank God it wasn’t me.”

This is a very funny book about a painful (and timely!) subject. Much of the humor arises from the fact that no one ever seems to be doing any work at this agency. The main activity seems to be gathering in each other’s offices and obsessing about who will get fired next. In the meantime, Ferris demonstrates just how dependent we are on our officemates to get us through the work day. And why not? We spend more time with them then we do with our families for five days a week.

This is a clever book whose message sneaks up on you at the end, and which has surprising resonance. I don’t know how many discussions it has spawned in my circles: what was the best job you ever had? the worst job? the best boss? the worst? Were you ever surprised how much you missed people after you changed jobs? And whatever happened to so-and-so? Perhaps Ferris is right – in the end, it is the people and not the job.

You can find more information about Joshua Ferris at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua_Ferris including links to radio interviews.

By the way, the statistic in the opening sentence was found in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics at http://www.bls.gov. Crackerjack reference librarians Gwen L. and Steven G. located it for me. Nice to work with generous people, isn’t it?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Illinois authors congregate on the third floor

The book display on the third floor is a dud. The definition of dud, in this context, is few of the books put out for the Illinois Authors display have been checked out. Maybe the five foot poster of Illinois is just not big enough. Maybe the display is hidden back by the DVDs. Maybe there is no real reason to read a book just because the author has Illinois roots. Marketing gurus help me out!

There are titles by renown authors Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow, Saul Bellow, and then there are lesser known scribes such as Carol Anshaw, Adam Langer, and Joseph Epstein. Could it be that the style of each of the above noted authors is too different from the next? Could it be that some use Illinois as a setting and others do not? The State of Illinois Library in conjunction with the Library of Congress has created the Illinois Center for the Book. Their mission is to nurture and connect readers and writers, and honor Illinois' rich literary heritage. My thought was that this display would do the same, and perhaps remind someone of a book they have always wanted to read.

The Saturday, August 30th Chicago Tribune Books section highlighted two new crime novels set in Chicago. The headline of the article is "Chicago Stars Keep Shining: Marcus Sakey and Michael Harvey Return with 2 Terrific Windy City Crime Novels.” Both those novels Good People and The Fifth Floor are currently checked out. The Tribune headline sure beats a poster simply titled Illinois Authors.

In the next few weeks, walk past the DVD section and see where Illinois authors congregate.

Maybe a marketing guru won't be needed after all.