Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not All Business

Who would have thought The Wall Street Journal would be a good source for fiction recommendations? But there I was looking at the weekend edition that arrives at the library on Saturday mornings and the entire book page looked interesting. Not in an elitist, highbrow way but in a populist kind of way. (I just had to throw in that word "populist" as it is so au courant.)

I loved the short bibliography of the best novels to read about the Depression (another word popping up everywhere these days.) Can you guess what they were? Surprisingly, Grapes of Wrath was not on the list.

The Day of the Locust by Nathaneal West
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson
The Big Money by John Dos Passos
Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

All of these written in the 1930's.

Next in the book section was a review of Among the Mad, the sixth in a mystery series by Jaqueline Winspear featuring the independent, spunky investigator Maisie Dobbs.

To round out the eclectic mix of reviews that day was an article about young adult vampire novels written by a mother-daughter team. P.C. Cast and her daughter Kristen just wrote the fifth book titled Hunted in the House of Night series. Now who would have thought the Wall Street Journal would write about blood sucking vampires?

To read more, you can find the March 21st edition of the Wall Street Journal on the 4th floor, or use the online Proquest News Database provided by the library.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"She is too fond of books...

... and it has turned her brain." This quote from Louisa May Alcott probably goes a long way towards explaining why I am the way I am. I can't remember a time when I didn't love books and all things related to books - bookmarks, book journals, book lists, quotes about books - and the love of reading has definitely shaped my life. You would think working in a library would dull that constant need for new books, but I still check out several library books each week, support the economy (and Borders and Barnes and Noble) by buying books, and also visit the Friends on-going book sale shelves on the first floor of the library on a regular basis. This week I'll be literally buried in all things books as the Friends of the Library prepare for their Spring Book Sale this weekend. Set-up, cashiering, and clean-up for the sale are on my schedule this weekend and I'm looking forward to picking over all the great used books that come in for the sale. If you've never been to one of these book sales you've been missing a real treat. The sale brings back memories of all the books I read as a kid - Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, Beverly Cleary's many series for children - Beezus and Ramona, Henry and Ribsy, and Ellen Tebbits - plus amazing first edition finds, along with recent bestsellers and old favorites. Check it out!

A few more of my favorite quotes about books:

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." Groucho Marx

"I would be content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think that decorating consistes mostly of building enough bookshelves." Anna Quindlen

"Classic - a book people praise and don't read." Mark Twain

"My book club can beat up your book club. " (from a t-shirt)

Linda K.

What's Elvis Costello Doing in the Ballet Section?

There's an Elvis Costello CD in the Ballet section (Il Sogno)
There's a Sting CD in the Lute section
(Songs from the Labyrinth)
There's a Yo-Yo Ma CD in the Jazz section (Hush)

What's the world coming to?!
Have the shelvers gone mad?!
Have the catalogers gone mad?!

Absolutely not! But more and more musicians, composers and songwriters are thinking--and writing and performing--outside of the box they're associated with. So you might not find every CD featuring your favorite artist in the same section.

For example, though you'll find most of Elvis Costello's CDs in the rock section, they aren't all there. To find one of them you'll have to stroll over to the Ballet section. That's right, the Ballet section! Although truth be told, longtime Costello fans shouldn't be surprised. The man has long been a chameleon. He has written songs with "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" songwriter Burt Bacharach for the CD Painted from Memory (it's in the Popular section); he has collaborated with the Brodsky Quartet, and a couple of those songs can be heard on Best of Brodsky Quartet: Featuring Björk & Elvis Costello; and in 2000, when an Italian dance troupe contacted him about composing music for an adaption of A Midsummer Night's Dream, he took them up on the offer. The result is Il Sogno, and in the liner notes he talks about writing different types of music to accompany different kinds of characters. (Of supernatural beings, he wrote: "I thought it only appropriate that they should be swinging fairies.") While some classical compositions by rockers have been savaged by critics, The New York Times called it "a rhapsodic piece full of shifting moods, with moments of eerie delicacy and of comic pomp."

Others who have experimented with non-rock musical forms are Paul McCartney, who co-wrote Liverpool Oratorio with Carl Davis; and Billy Joel, who wrote Fantasies & Delusions: Music for Solo Piano.

If you're ever unsure of where to find a CD, please don't hesitate to ask at the Readers' Services desk on the 3rd floor. We're more than happy to help.

Have you ever checked out any of these CDs, or any other genre-busting CDs? (I've been warned against Liverpool Oratorio.) Do you enjoy Elton John's forays into musicals and movie soundtracks?

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Some years ago, I met David Sedaris at a book signing. He was smoking. Even though the building was non-smoking, he lit one after another - a perfect show of compulsive behavior. And I loved him for it, because I smoked compulsively too. Now we were compadres, our own little subculture of people who bucked the trends and refused to conform, even if it killed us.

In his latest collection of personal essays, When You Are Engulfed In Flames Sedaris discusses skeletons as home decoration, his hairy back as proof that God does not exist, Japanese hotel signs that translate "In Case of Fire" directions as "When You Are Engulfed in Flames"; befriending spiders in Normandy and bringing them on vacation to Paris; and quitting smoking. I am truly thankful that I finally quit too because I couldn't bear the loss of Sedaris in my smoke-filled clubhouse. He would be missed too much.

It's a difficult argument to say that David Sedaris is underrated. After all, he sells out his book readings like a rock star and he has almost single-handedly revived the personal essay genre. But when you ask people why they like his books, they invariably say because he's funny. And he is funny. (I strongly recommend you do not do what I did and listen to his books on audiotape in the car. I laughed so hard I missed the exit ramp on the expressway.) But many writers are funny and yet, there's only one Sedaris.

Between self-deprecating stories and a droll delivery, Sedaris chronicles for us the very small things that make up a life. Often a litany of disappointments ( he's the stupidest student in his Japanese class; he misunderstands the doctor so he sits in the waiting room in his underpants; he outswims an obese woman with Down Syndrome and he brags about it...) David Sedaris reveals all the little human imperfections and limitations that stop us from being what we think we should be. We are selfish and petty and ignorant and Lord knows we are addicted to everything but somehow... we make it through. It's as if Sedaris is telling us that our humanity is found in our faults, not our strengths. And this is what makes him more than just a humor writer. The joke is never the point. Life is the point.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames may seem like a collection of unrelated stories, but it's not. Amidst the subtle references to smoke and fire and illness and death, Sedaris let's us watch his path from an outcast who starts smoking at 20, adds alcohol and dope to his bag of addictions, and then slowly learns to beat his demons. Approaching 50, he finally quits smoking although it takes a three month vacation to Japan and $20,000 to do it. "I'm middle- aged," he says, "and, for the first time in thirty years, I feel invincible."

How can you not like this guy? He might have just started feeling invincible lately, but I've thought that of him for quite a while.

Click here for materials written by David Sedaris. And if you want to give yourself an extra treat, listen to the audiotape of his books which he reads. Just stay off the expressways.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Wearin’ o’ the Green!

Medieval scholars had the following to say about Ireland, “Hibernia hibernescit”. While the fact this statement is in Latin may not be real exciting, the meaning of this phrase has always fascinated me, because it is true in my case. “Hibernia hibernescit” means “Ireland makes all things Irish”. St. Patrick’s Day has always been one of my favorite holidays since I’ve been a kid, and my dream home was in the form of thatch-roofed cottage overlooking Galway Bay.

Being that the holiday grew out of the need for Irish emigrants to celebrate to their Irish heritage, nowadays one of the questions inevitably asked is “Are you Irish”? My reply is always, “It doesn't matter.” In my opinion, the great thing about St. Patrick’s Day is that it provides an opportunity for everybody to be Irish for a day! Everyone has an equal opportunity to enjoy the foot-stomping, hand-clapping energy of a fiddler playing an Irish reel; to refresh the palate with Ireland’s wide array of, … ah, shall we say “beverages”; or to partake in the stoic and magic melancholy of a folk ballad.

Due to life circumstances, I have not managed to partake in a few of the things I normally enjoy this time of the year: watching the Plumbers Union, Local 130 dye the Chicago River green (okay, greener than normal), or enjoying the parades in the city. Though I was disappointed to miss these events, I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t take much to enjoy the Irish spirit, and opportunities to do so are profuse.

One can always obtain a healthy dose of Irish-ness by borrowing a film from the library portraying any part of the Irish Story. I would suggest the following samples of my favorite Irish films if you are in need of some Hibernian fare in this coming week: In the Name of the Father, Far and Away, Michael Collins, and the film my wife and I watch every year at this time, the Quiet Man.

Now if, like me, you will miss out on the various St. Patrick’s Day celebrations throughout Chicagoland, and movies just don't float your boat, all is not lost. Circle your calendar for The Irish American Heritage Festival in July. This event, which will be held July 10-12 in 2009, celebrates everything Irish from tables showcasing artisan crafts and other wares to a tent with live Irish music performances every night of the festival. Throw in an abundance of Irish food and drink, plus games, raffles, and traveling troupes of Irish dancers, and you have you yourself what people in the old country would call a shindig! All proceeds from this festival go to the Irish American Heritage Center (a not-for-profit organization), and you can stay updated with news about this event here. To me, Irish Fest seems like combining the best of St. Patrick's Day with the best of summer - a heady concoction indeed!

And so this St. Patrick's Day or after, I, Joel O'Sawyer, a self-appointed ambassador of the holiday, cordially invite you, wherever you are at, whatever you are doing, no matter your ancestry, to partake in the rich cultural texture of Ireland through sight, sound, or taste. You owe it to yourself!


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Let's Hit The Beach!

Well, perhaps not yet. But you can't blame a girl for looking ahead. Soon it'll be 80 degree days and we'll all be wishing it was a little bit cooler. (Not me though, I'm always cold).

Last time I was at the beach I checked out what everyone else was reading. One person had Ken Follett's World Without End. That's a 1024 page book in paperback! But to them that was their perfect beach read.

I had a copy of Carola Dunn's Murder on the Flying Scotsman. I love Dunn's Daisy Dalrymple series. They are set in London just after WWI, and the main character Daisy is from the upper class but she does the unthinkable- she works for a living! Scandalous. She writes for travel magazines and always manages to stumble across a dead body. Luckily there is always the Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher to help her solve the case (and provide a romantic interest). Tiny enough to throw in a beach bag, plot twists to keep me guessing, but if the hot sun makes me sleepy it's okay to put the book down because I've read them all at least 3 times!

So what books are you looking foward to hitting the beach with? A sultry romance, a whodunit, or a seafaring adventure? Do you choose something new or an old favorite? Summer will be here faster then we think, so let's start planning ahead!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sprung forward

If you forgot to change your clocks ahead this past weekend you are actually reading this an hour ago. And why jump just an hour when we can jump years ahead? It seems lately I have been reading a lot of books that take place in the "not too distant future". Unfortunately one of the themes of these "not too distant future" books is that the future is not a very pleasant place.

About a year ago I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I found it to be the absolute, number one most depressing book I have ever read. And I mean that in a quasi-good way. It was so well written and dark and possessing that I could not stop thinking about it. I still think about way more than I want to. It's about a man traveling on foot with his young son after a major unnamed apocalyptic event. Perhaps being a father with a young son, it cut a little too close to home. But if you are a masochist and you enjoy this type of fiction, dig in, I know of none better. If there was a benefit, for months after reading this I would hug my son every single time I saw him.

If post-apocalyptic is your thing, but you don't want it quite so depressing, The World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler was an interesting read. Set in a small town of Union Grove, New York, Robert Earle tries to lead the town out of the dark when a group of religous extremists move in to the local high school building.

Prayers for the Assassin by Robert Ferrigno is a speculative supsense novel set in the year 2040. The United States has been divided into two after years of civil war. The new capitol of the Islamic Sates of America is in Seattle. They still have the Super Bowl and cheerleaders. But the world is a very different place. Sarah Dougan is an historian who discovers evidence that those blamed for the wars were not really the ones responsible. (If you like this one there is a sequel).

Caleb Carr is mostly know for historical fiction like the Alienist. But in 2000 he wrote Killing Time, a Novel of the Future. This suspense novel takes place in 2023. Here, Dr Wolfe is a criminal profiler who discovers the President's assassination was a hoax. One interesting part of reading a "future" book written nearly a decade ago, is reading about the plague of 2006 and the stock market crash of 07.

If you find these books a bit too depressing, don't worry, Spring is right around the corner. And the future will have to be brighter than it looks in these books!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

I Am Not a Crook

But he was of course, wasn't he?

A few weeks ago I was completely immersed in the politics of 40 years ago. I saw Frost/Nixon in the theaters, watched Nixon at home, and read Nixonland every free minute. 2008 was an election year, and politics is still very much on everyone's mind. John Adams won multiple Emmys, and our new President has four books on the audiobook bestseller list.

I was an indifferent history student in school. I never met a textbook that didn't put me to sleep, full of dry paragraphs and small pictures of middle-aged white men who looked like their teeth hurt. I couldn't connect the dates and events in my mind in any linear way. It wasn't until I started reading historical fiction that I began to understand history as people: making difficult choices, acting as their conscience or their fears drove them.

But some people are too big for fiction. Nixon is a character only real life could create. Smart but never charming, deeply faithful in marriage but terribly profane in speech. He felt victimized even as he betrayed others, lied constantly while professing honesty. He abused power in many, many ways, and yet he remains one of the most interesting presidents we've had. Perhaps you've heard the saying, "Only Nixon could go to China." Only a politician so obviously and fiercely anti-Communist could make the overture to Mao without being perceived as soft on Communism.

When I walk the shelves in U. S. History, the major events of the last 200 years leap out at you. Here are the wars, the "conflicts", the great acts of legislation and social upheaval. I was a little surprised this afternoon to see how many books there are on the Iraq war. Thanks to Watergate and Alger Hiss and the Nixon/Kennedy debates and Vietnam, there are dozens of books on our 37th president. You can even watch the original Frost/Nixon interviews if you've a mind to.

I reassure myself that though I may not watch the news, I am still political - because I visit the 970s (U. S. History), go to the movies, and read lots of new historical fiction.

How do you get your daily dose of politics?