Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In Praise of Letters

"We must make a religion of that last thing - endurance," Tennessee Williams wrote in a letter to his friend, Joseph Hazan. "Read the collected letters of D.H. Lawrence, the journal and letters of Katherine Mansfield, of Vincent van Gogh. How bitterly and relentlessly they fought their way through! Sensitive beyond endurance and yet enduring! . . . . They live, they aren't dead. That is the one ineluctable gift of the artist, to project himself beyond time and space through grasp and communion with eternal values. Even this may be a relative good, a makeshift. Canvas fades, languages are forgotten. But isn't there beauty in the fact of their passion, so much of which is replete with the purest compassion?"

The above is from The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams: Volume 1, which I was surprised and delighted to find on the library shelves. The book hadn't been checked out in two or three years, and so I feared it was missing. But there it was! I was grateful, but also slightly appalled on Tennessee's behalf that no one had checked out his letters in the last few years. This is a writer so fine that even his letters shimmer with poetry and light.

But how many of us seek out letters? I confess it's a format I sometimes overlook, in spite of my devotion to The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, which I was ridiculously pleased to learn was also a favorite of Tennessee Williams. Although I've read one of the Williams biographies, I didn't know--or had forgotten--that he was interested in van Gogh, and had even planned to write a play about him. But that's one of the pleasures of letters--intimate documents that illuminate the inner workings and passions of your heroes and others.

If you're a fan of van Gogh, check out The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. He was a gifted writer as well as a voracious reader, and after urging his brother to read Jane Eyre, writes: "I wish all people had what I am gradually beginning to acquire: the power to read a book in a short time without difficulty, and to keep a strong impression of it. In reading books, as in looking at pictures, one must admire what is beautiful with assurance--without doubt, without hesitation."

If you enjoy the letters of writers, check out The Habit of Being: Letters by Flannery O'Connor, whose dark sense of humor is evident throughout. Of her advance copies of her novel, Wise Blood, she wrote: "My nine copies have to go to a set of relatives who are waiting anxiously to condemn the book until they get a free copy."

Other collections of letters available at the library include those of Mozart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Truman Capote, Mark Twain and Jane Goodall.

Do you have a favorite collection of letters that you'd like to recommend? Here's your chance!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Waiting for the Animals to Speak

That's the Christmas activity I remember most clearly from my childhood. I'd read somewhere that at midnight on Christmas Eve, all animals could talk, in memory of their generosity to the baby Jesus in the stable so many years ago. I tried as hard as I could to stay awake until midnight. Mostly, I failed, and the dog was outside in her cozy house anyway, and the cats (I now surmise) wouldn't bother to talk to me even if they could.

My grown up traditions now include sleeping late, pumpkin cookies, Johnny Mathis, Christmas Eve pasta, reading the nativity story from Luke 2: 1-12, watching either Scrooged or The Seeker or both. When my son was little I bought him a new Christmas story every year (Eve Bunting, Barbara Robinson, Roddy Doyle and others) and we read them out loud together. Now I buy them for my nephews and niece, and tell them to open them on Christmas eve.

Some people sit down to a lavish breakfast with family, complete with mimosas, and some folks head out to the shelter to serve Christmas lunch to others. Many look forward to a holiday marathon of NCIS or Say Yes to the Dress. Rumor has it there are many sporting events televised as well. Quite a few of my friends observe the Jewish tradition of Chinese food and a movie (Holmes or Avatar?). We make phone calls and texts and update our Facebook status. We mull over the past year and resolve to be better people in 2010. Hopefully, we do all these things with people we love.

I would love to hear about your holiday traditions!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Best New Book I Read This Year

One thing I love about December are the "Best book of the year" lists. There are lists everywhere you look. From the National Book Award nominees to the New York Times Notable Books, to different blogs, websites and even Amazon's listmania. It seems everyone has an opinion. Every year I pour through the lists and place holds on the books that others think were great.

Last year everyone was talking about The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (Loved It!) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Hated it). I wouldn't have read these and many other books if others hadn't shared them on their lists.

This year I have decided to name the best new book I read this year. Now I didn't have any specific criteria or methodology. I just thought to myself, what was the best book I read this year, and one book came to mind. There were probably others that I read earlier in the year that are equally worthy, but they fall victim to my poor memory.

And the Winner is: A Quiet Belief in Angels by R.J. Ellory.

I have not read anything else by him. He had me at the author bio, which starts, "Orphaned at the age of seven and sent to prison for poaching when he was seventeen, R. J. Ellory...

A Quiet Belief in Angels is a haunting suspense novel. It is beautifully written, but it has a lot of brutality. Be forewarned. It is about a serial killer in Georgia who targets young girls. But it also more than that. It is about how those tragedies effect the individuals and the community.

What about you, what was the best new book you've read in 2009?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Like Seinfeld's Label Maker

Today, December 18, is an official holiday in the great state of Colorado - it's National Regifting Day! Apparently everyone else in the country observes National Regifting Day on the Thursday before Christmas (you know, yesterday), but I believe it's a concept worthy of more than just a single day's consideration. The economic and environmental concerns we are currently facing grant legitimacy to this once-maligned practice. Regifting is an idea whose time has come!

According to Merriam-Webster*, to regift is "to give someone a gift that was previously received from someone else." So this Christmas, when I put a bow on those steak knives I received at my wedding nine years ago, I'll be a regifter.

The term was coined in 1995, on a Seinfeld episode* entitled The Label Maker:
(You can check it out for yourself...from the library!)

Elaine: Hey. Oh, is that a label maker?
Jerry: Yes it is. I got it as a gift, it's a Label Baby Junior.
Elaine: Love the Label Baby, baby. You know those things make great gifts, I just got one of those for Tim Whatley for Christmas.
Jerry: Tim Whatley?

Elaine: Yeah. Who sent you that one?
Jerry: One Tim Whatley!
Elaine: No, my Tim Whatley?
Jerry: The same, he sent it as a thank you for my Super Bowl tickets.
Elaine: I think this is the same one I gave him. He recycled this gift. He's a regifter! ...
... Jerry: Why'd you get him a gift anyway?
Elaine: Oh, he did some dental work for me and
he didn't charge me so I thought I'd get him a Christmas present.
Jerry: Yeah, well, if you're getting him anything for his birthday, I'm a large.

Back then, regifting seemed like a shabby and laughable practice, but it has since gained considerable popularity. Here at the library, it's an open and common practice at holiday parties. Online auctions, the economic downturn, and an expanded vision of recycling have all helped to put a positive spin on the regift phenomenon. Heck, even The Emily Post Institute now deems it to be within the standards of proper etiquette (in some instances). Of course there are websites dedicated to it. With the motto, Reduce, reuse, recycle...regift, nationalregiftingday.com promotes recycled gifts as thrifty, green, and socially acceptable. Rock out to Regifting for the Holidays by The Alice Project, and then check out ehow.com to learn how to throw a regifting party in 3 easy steps. On regiftable.com you can share your regifting stories, print regift tags, even send free (and paperless) e-cards. But if you just can't think of anyone who would want that soy candle from last year's office grab bag; or if giving of your time and talent is just more your style, you can create personalized gift certificates there too. A classy rendering of "this coupon good for one free back rub" might be just the thing to make your sweetheart smile without maxing out your credit card.

Beyond green and thrifty, and in the spirit of generosity, giving to others what has already been given to you has spiritual implications, as well. Helping someone else, be it a loved one or a stranger, has a ripple effect. As a for instance - on Monday NBC reported that a couple at a diner in Philadelphia paid for their own meal and then paid for a stranger's meal, too. They triggered an altruistic chain reaction that lasted 5 hours! Now here's my hook - each time someone new picked up the tab for another stranger, what was it but a regift?

Mixed with some random acts of kindness and a measure of the Golden Rule, I think the act of regifting can be the key to lifting your heart and nourishing your soul. When you truly give of yourself, you also give to yourself. In her book, 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life, Cami Walker maintains that giving to others improved her physical health, as well. Afflicted with MS and addicted to pain killers, Ms. Walker got an unusual prescription from a South African healer - give away something every day for 29 days. The gratitude and reciprocal generosity she learned from that exercise gave Cami Walker the strength to face her trials and reshape them into blessings. Her story has inspired others to take their own 29-day giving challenge, and the website 29gifts.org has given rise to quite a few not-for-profit organizations.

I admit it, though; the thought of book deals, websites and charitable enterprises intimidates me. It's a stretch from wrapping up that old wedding present. But a mindful and generative regift doesn't have to involve stirring up a grassroots movement. Regifting can be as simple as taking that smile a coworker gave you this morning and recycling it. Pass it on to the next person you meet. Happy Regifting Day!

*[regift. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved December 14, 2009, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/regift]
*[Seinfeld Episode no. 98 pc: 611, season 6, episode 11 Broadcast date: January 19, 1995]

Monday, December 14, 2009

What a gift.

Movers, shakers, quarrels, bankruptcies, intrigue.

I'm not writing of the latest bestseller but Crain's Chicago Business. I'm hooked on this weekly magazine. I had planned to detail my favorite sections but reconsidered after reading a column that suggested personal finance books to give your loved one this holiday season. Writing about Crain's during the holiday season is like receiving Elisabeth Leamy's Save Big: Cut Your Top 5 Costs and Save Thousands

So onto a hot gift idea. E-Readers. Electronic books. Amazon's Kindle, Barnes and Noble's Nook. And the Sony Reader. Are you giving one? Asking for one?

In November 2003, Internet Magazine reported that Barnes and Noble
discontinued an ebook product due to lack of interest. Now six years later, the concept seems to be taking hold with a lot of help from super marketer, technically savvy Amazon.com and their proprietary product, the Kindle. Word has it this product is easy to use, but it will cost you. Of course, all the devices cost money, and the companies that sell them know you will continue to buy from them to add content to the reader you purchased.

Wondering where the library fits into this discussion? A company called Overdrive markets an electronic book collection to libraries. The Des Plaines library has purchased this product, Overdrive's MyMediaMall, for you. Patrons can check out a download of an electronic book and use it on their own Sony Reader. At this time, these free downloadable ebooks only work on the Sony Reader, so it is your best bet if you want to borrow electronic books and not buy them.

What a gift!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Allowance

Many thanks to all who contributed to our food drive for the Des Plaines Self-help Closet and Pantry. I understand from the volunteers at the Pantry that their cupboards are finally full for the moment but don't let that stop you from making further donations. There's a warehouse space for the overflow!

This experience was fresh in my memory when I picked up Living a Life That Matters. The author Harold Kushner is one of my very favorite inspirational writers. He manages to communicate without preachiness and unlike many others who habitually habitate the best-seller lists, Kushner's words are thought-provoking.

Case in point, Kushner writes that we often have the feeling that we are supporting actors in other people's movies. Like the experience when we visit a dying friend in the hospital, we often aren't in the spotlight, yet we still somehow shape the plot.

Or sometimes we feel that we are playing a minor role because we haven't done something earth-shaking. We're not Bill Gates or Meryl Streep or President of the United States.

Surely, this is how George Bailey feels in It's a Wonderful Life. He tells Clarence, his guardian angel that he is a failure because he didn't do anything "big and important" in his life. Clarence responds that each man's life touches many others, and "... if he's not there, it leaves a hole."

Another Kushner, Lawrence explains the role of helping others in this way: "Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle... (but) you do not have within yourself all the pieces to your puzzle. Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else's puzzle. Sometimes they know it; sometimes they don't know it. And when you present your piece, with is worthless to you, to another, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are a messenger from the Most High."

This is certainly a beautiful way of considering acts of kindness, isn't it? Sometimes without even understanding the significance of what we are doing, we can give someone else a piece to their life's puzzle, and they can do the same for us.

I'll tell you why I was ruminating on this particular subject. Earlier this week, I was by the circulation desk when a woman and her young son asked me where the donation area was. They were carrying bags filled with groceries. The woman explained to my that this was her son's donation - he had put aside some allowance money and wanted to buy food for the poor with it. How about that puzzle piece?

And as I long as I've been quoting Rabbi Harold Kushner and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in this blog, tonight is the first night in the Jewish Festival of Lights. Let me wish everyone a Happy Hannukah.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Reading Season

Snow is setting in and the holidays are drawing nearer (in fact, Hanukkah starts this Friday), so it's getting to be a time I like to call Reading Season. With the wintry mess outside, there is nothing I like more than tackling my reading list with gusto on my favorite spot on the living room couch. I've already managed to knock out two books on my list, though ironically I listened to one as an audiobook in my car, finishing the last of it as I traversed the polar weather outside.

It was American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham, which was bit dry and preachy at parts but ultimately accomplished what it set to do: explain why Andrew Jackson is on such a prominent member of our currency as the $20 bill. It turns out that while Jackson was not able to escape the racism of his age and is extremely culpable in the misery of thousands of Indians across the Southeastern United States in the 1830's, he was nothing if not a complex man full of extreme tenacity and deep convictions. Much of what we see in subsequent presidential administrations began with Andrew Jackson, including the use of veto power as a political weapon instead of just a Constitutional balancing tool and the belief that the President was directly responsible to the People of the United States instead of just another branch of government, not to mention the creation of the Democratic party itself. Jackson's new interpretation of the Presidency single-handedly transformed the office into the heart of the United States government. Now my only question is, why the heck is Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill?

In contrast, the second book was complete eiderdown for men: Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton. That being said, it meant a lot to me for two reasons: 1. it is one the last novels written by one of my favorite authors (it was found on his computer after he died) and 2. it's about pirates (and yes, it was about latitudes as well, in a manner of speaking). If someone would be looking for a well-researched historical novel of the late 17th-century Caribbean with a snappy plot, shallow-but-interesting characters, all combined with a heavy dose of unpredictability (think Errol Flynn's Captain Blood meets Scorsese's The Departed) and there you have it, a Treasure Island of the 21st century.

Next on my list is The Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. What's on deck for you?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Friends - Books - Holiday - Sale - Life is Good

Imagine great friends, good books, and a tree-mendous holiday sale all wrapped up in one big package. It's all happening here at the Des Plaines Public Library on Saturday, December 12th from 9:30 to 3:30 in the first floor meeting rooms.

If you've been to our sales before then you'll probably recognize some of the volunteers pictured below who help make our book sales so successful. The Friends are always looking for volunteers and membership is a bargain at $5 for an individual and $10 for a family. If you don't have time to volunteer, the Friends would love to have your gently used books for their sales. Money raised from the sales is used to fund some of the programming at the library, like the Canterbury Carolers who will be performing this Sunday, December 6th, at 2:00 PM, or the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band who presented a musical program in October, or the many programs for children offered at the library. Come join us for the holiday sale!

Posted by Linda Knorr - Readers' Advisor and Friend of the Library

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Coming Attractions January 2010


Robert Crais

Barbara Delinsky

Julie Garwood

W.E.B. Griffin

Jack Higgins

Tami Hoag

Jayne Ann Krentz

Douglas Preston

Ian Rankin