Friday, January 29, 2010

J.D. Salinger Dies at 91

There are only five books that I have read more than once. Four of them were written by J. D. Salinger. He is my very favorite fiction writer which makes me one among millions.

The first time I read his masterpiece Catcher in the Rye, I was in 8th grade, just a bit younger than Holden himself. I remember that The Hobbit was all the rage and my friends and I were passing it around like a family-size bag of Jay's.* I hated it. I hated the little the gnomes. I didn't care about the stupid ring.

Then I caught wind of Catcher. The word on the street (which meant my mother talking on the phone to her best friend Charlotte) was that the book was dirty. This is all the information that I and my friends needed to obtain a copy of it. When you're just shy of 14 years old, there could be no other label more likely to cause a stampede to the library. Dirty books have contributed more to teenage literacy than many English classes.

In any event, I read the dirty book. It was disappointing in only one respect: it wasn't dirty. ("So he goes to a prostitute," my friends and I discussed, "but they don't do anything!")

But Holden Caulfield I loved. He was so real to me. I knew just what he meant when he realized that the world was full of phonies. I knew he wanted to do well. Why didn't the people he disappointed know that? And where were his parents? Didn't they know their kid was walking around dangerous New York City in the cold? Holden wanted to save children from falling off the cliff. He'd catch them. Why weren't any adults catching him?

In short, something happened to me when I read that book, something that had never happened before. For the first time, I started to empathize with a character in a book. Holden Caulfield knocked on my door, grabbed my hand and took me on his journey. And it wasn't any stupid, phony journey about a bunch of non-human, toad people questing for a piece of jewelry that was supposed to change the world. Holden was real, and I was there to witness it. Catcher in the Rye wasn't a book - it was a diary. For the first time in my life, a book picked me up and dropped me in someone else's life. No wonder my mother and Charlotte were talking about it.

When I was in my twenties, I read Franny and Zooey, two short stories published together which read like a single book. If you haven't read it, here's the action of the plot: Franny Glass breaks off her engagement to a rich guy and goes home to New York City to have a nervous breakdown on the living room couch of her parent's New York apartment. Her brother Zooey, an aspiring actor, tells her a lot of stories about their older genius brothers, and ultimately saves her by pretending he is one of the genius brothers on the phone, but he's really calling her from an extension phone in the apartment.* Yeah, I know. Doesn't sound like much.

Franny and Zooey is my favorite book in the world. It's about the universal feeling that what you want to do with your life is different than what the world says you're supposed to do. It's about the universal feeling that your family is ugh and that everyone else's family is "normal" and cool. It's about how you use your family history to pull you up but reject the living members of the family. It's about how your very uncool family saves you. It's about how helping a member of your family can take you from being a schlep into something indiscernibily close to being a loving, multi-dimensional human being. And it's about God. Franny and Zooey is all that in 201 pages with two characters, a couch, a bathroom and an extension phone. Maybe this Salinger guy knew how to write, huh?

Of course I read the more prominent biographies of Salinger. The first was written by Joyce Maynard, At Home in the World: a Memoir. Maynard was her own sort of wunderkind who started a letter-writing relationship with Salinger. By this time, he was fifty-ish, a divorced father of two and hermetically ensconced in a farmhouse in Cornish, New Hampshire. Maynard fascinated him and he invited her to his home - a singular event. They became lovers and notwithstanding their 30 year+ age difference, Maynard moved in. Then it all went bad. Apparently, J.D. is nuts. Worse, he's a control freak. When he started to tell young Joyce how to quilt, she bolted.

A few years later, Salinger's daughter Margaret published Dream Catcher: a Memoir. If you didn't hear it the first time, hear it now. He's nuts. He drinks his own urine for health reasons. On the good side, he's never stopped writing. There are 50 years of unpublished Salinger that we may read some day.

But do we want to? Holden may still be working his problems out in perpetuity, but do we still want to listen? Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and sometime in the 1960s, Salinger went into seclusion. That's right. No Oprah. No People Magazine. The guy shut himself off from the world. He wanted his privacy*. So very un-21st century.

This is another reason we should love him, of course. It' s all making me sad and I haven't even mentioned Nine Stories or Raise High the Roofbeams and Seymour: a love story. The Glass family - don't get me started.

So, great writer, goofy human being. I'm not sure why I connected to his stories but I did and his death saddens me. I feel that we lost something. Perhaps I should take Holden's advice at the end of Catcher, and just let it go. "Don't tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."

* For those of you unlucky few who weren't raised in Chicago, Jay's refers to Jay's Potato Chips - the best and greasiest chips on the planet and the favorite of acne-scarred teens for decades.

* An extension phone was another phone in the house on the same line. This is when phones had cords, an "immobile" phone if you will.

* Before Facebook, and camera phones and YouTube and blogs and Oprah and People Magazine, people used to keep their personal lives sort of secret. Honestly.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Magical Realism

An old friend enthusiastically recommended a new novel to me. Then I saw a review describing the book as "Harry Potter for grownups." I was mildly offended - didn't about 8 million grownups read and enjoy all 100,000 words? (I'm a librarian. I could have looked those numbers up, but I chose to invent them instead. Sorry.)

But I think I missed the point. The reviewer said "Harry Potter grows up." Or in this case, Quentin, from The Magicians by Lev Grossman, goes from being a genius high school senior in Brooklyn to being a first year student at Brakebills, a five year magician's college in upstate New York. Sign me up!

I've always loved books about ordinary kids and magic, starting with Half-Magic by Edward Eager, moving on to Steel Magic and Dragon Magic by Andre Norton (no one does this better than Ms. Norton), and of course, the magical world of C. S. Lewis' Narnia, to which Mr. Grossman pays sly homage in his new novel. The writers I mention understood that "real" magic wasn't always fun or cute, but could be sad and scary - just like "real" life.

J. K. Rowling understands that, and Lev Grossman gets it too. His older students may transform themselves into geese and fly to Antarctica (shades of The Once and Future King!), but they also sometimes drink too much and sleep with the wrong people. If you ever wondered what a Hogwarts grad might do for a living if they didn't become an Auror, or play professional Quidditch, The Magicians suggests some possibilities.

Maybe it's the juxtaposition of mundane and magical that we like so much. Harry Dresden still has to get around Chicago in a cranky Volkswagen Beetle despite the presence of demons and pixies in his everyday life. Magic doesn't solve everything, and in fact, often makes life harder. In The Magicians, Quentin discovers that having magical powers is no more a guarantee of success than a degree from Harvard or Yale. As a reader, I guess I just like magic for its own sake, because it makes "real" life a little bigger, a little different, and a lot more interesting.

I'll leave you with one more nugget for thought: are there any Jewish kids at Hogwarts?

Friday, January 22, 2010

How do you like your reads?

Online or in a staff meeting, or just across the cubicle divide, where ever and whenever my colleagues and I get together, the favorite topic of conversation is "What are you reading right now?" I know, I know, I work in a library, so that's a natural question and a topic that never seems to get old with us bibliophiles. What we choose to read provides insight into who we are, how we think, what we fear, love, and dream.

But the question I'm pondering today is this: how do you like to read?

Take a moment, if you will, to think about a few of these questions, and please feel free to post your answers.

  • Do you curl up in your favorite chair or under a tree? Where is your ideal reading spot?

  • Are your books' pages pristine and their spines lined up in alphabetical order, or do you stack them on any available surface and mark favorite passages?

  • When is the best time of day to read: morning, afternoon, or nighttime?

  • What's your preference: hardcover books, trade paperbacks, or mass market paperbacks? How about audio books or e-books?

  • Do you use a bookmark or do you dog-ear?

  • When you're ready to take a break, do you stop where you're at, or push on through to the chapter break?

  • Do you ever sneak a peek at the ending or is that taboo?

Like candles and bath salts can enhance the experience of a bath -- or buffalo wings and a 50" plasma TV can rev up a ball game, if you prefer a sports reference -- so too can the right setting transform a simple read into one of life's greatest pleasures. (In my opinion, a candlelit bath is a darn good setting for a quiet read!) What comforting little habits create a really good read for you? And what does the way we read tell us about ourselves and each other?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Best Picure nominees? Well, thank you, but I have my own.

With the Golden Globes in our rear-view mirror, this time of year always makes me reflect on the best movies that I've seen this past year, and how there are more great movies than just those nominated for Hollywood awards. While I whole-heartedly congratulate the winners of the Golden Globes (especially Mr. Jeff Bridges!), I'd like to put forth my favorite movies of the past year.

1. Moon ~ Sam Rockwell plays an astronaut completing a three-year solo mission mining Earth's main energy source, helium, on the moon. Anxious to return home to see his family and to improve his declining health, strange events occur that make him question the integrity of the mining company, his sanity and even his own identity. The beauty of this film is that it embodies the idea of "less is more": allowing the film's subtle touches and retro sets to resonate alongside a fantastic soundtrack by Clint Mansell. Its small cast lends a terrific sense of intimacy with a man struggling with his growing isolation. I couldn't stop talking about this one after I'd seen it.

2. Hunger ~ Steve McQueen (no, another one) dazzles in his directorial debut depicting Irish Republican Army prisoner Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) in the 66 days of his hunger strike to gain political prisoner status from the British government. While at parts it is difficult to watch, the camera work and frank dialogue provide the film's depth. There is an incredible 17 minute-long dialogue scene shot in one take that clinched the movie for me. Whether you agree with Bobby Sands or not, there are few more intense portrayals of people dedicated to their beliefs.

3. Che: Part One - The Argentine ~ Five years after his trek across South America depicted in The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara is now involved with fellow commandante Fidel Castro in leading the Cuban revolution of 1956-1959. Benicio Del Toro plays the lead perfectly, plumbing the depths of Che's historical persona as well as portraying his humanity. Whether as a proponent of harsh discipline willing to execute deserters from the cause or as a teacher showing his fellow comrades how to read, this film is an excellent and revealing depiction of an iconic figure. By the way, there is a Che: Part Two - The Guerilla, but I've not seen it yet (I'd like to finish Che's biography by Jon Lee Anderson before I do).

4. Drag Me to Hell ~ While the previous three movies have made the festival circuits, this one offers less critical acclaim and more pure fun! Director Sam Raimi proves that the magic he used to create the Evil Dead trilogy is still there; no one can mix horror and humor quite like he can. The premise is simple, a bank lender refuses to extend another loan to an old gypsy, who then curses the lender with a spirit that will drag her to hell in three days. What this movie lacks in complexity, it more than makes up with terrific action (i.e. the young heroine fending off the gypsy woman in the backseat of her car with a stapler). This movie offers up hearty laughter and genuine chills, a unique combination that landed itself on this list.

I'm curious to hear of your top movie nominees of the past year!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Did we just jump the shark?

I guess most TV fans recognize the phrase "jump the shark." It's usually used to signal when a popular TV series has made a major plot or character change and generally means it's all downhill from here. In the show Happy Days, the Fonz (that's him pictured at left for those who dozed off from 1974 to 1984) donned swim trunks, and his ever present leather jacket, and physically jumped over a shark-like water obstacle. Happy Days had been on a downward spiral since Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) left the show. Other typical "shark" examples include a new kid added to the show Married with Children, daughter Becky being replaced by a completely different actress on Roseanne, or when Niles finally married Daphne on Frasier.

Unfortunately jumping the shark is not restricted to television series. Series fiction and mysteries also have a tendency to go off the deep end, especially once the author has written several books in a series. One of my favorite writing teams is Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Together they write the Agent Pendergast series of thrillers. Readers were introduced to Pendergast in Relic, the first book in the series, back in 1995. He was unique, intelligent, from New Orleans, and most of all, mysterious. The authors didn't tell us much about him in that first book, not even his first name, but I liked him. After Cemetery Dance (# 9 in the series) I feel like I know too much about Aloysius Pendergast and now I'm worried about Fever Dream the next entry in the series that is due out on May 11th this year. Rumor has it readers will learn more about his wife and her strange death. (Pendergast was married?!) I'm afraid there will be too much more about the character and not enough action. I read their books for the action!

I thought the alphabet series by Sue Grafton was excellent when it started with A is for Alibi. (It must be tough for an author to figure out what to do with a character over a period of 26 years.) Fortunately U is for Undertow, the most recent entry, is very good, although other books in the series definitely "jumped the shark" for me by providing a surprise addition of relatives for Kinsey Millhone, when I liked the fact that she was initially a loner, without family complications.

At first glance entry #26 in the Hamish MacBeth series, Death of a Valentine, looks like it has jumped the shark because it opens with Hamish at the altar getting married. (Fans of M. C. Beaton know that Hamish with a wife would completely change the mood of the series.) I'll let those who love the series find out for themselves where the series goes from here.

So what books have you read that have "jumped the shark" and what caused it to take that leap? Did a major character die? Did a favorite love interest disappear or get murdered? Did the main character, who is definitely not the mothering type, suddenly get pregnant? (hint - she's a police chief in a town called Maggody)

Let me know what your thoughts are on the subject. Inquiring minds (mine) want to know.

Linda Knorr - Readers' Services

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Chance Meeting

I ran into a past acquaintance the other day in an office waiting room. The meeting was so unexpected and delightful, I've been mulling over a strategy for a repeat occurrence. There I was flipping through the pages of the December issue of Travel and Leisure, and Gary Shteyngart interrupted my viewing of a lovely snow scene in Montana. Gary and I met years ago....in Absurdistan, more specifically, when I was listening to his book Absurdistan. That story was mad cap, witty, and wry, and after a few sentences of the magazine article "A Winter's Tale," I recognized his familiar voice and looked at the byline.

It's really not surprising that book authors write elsewhere but I haven't paid attention to this particular path to finding reading material. Dominick Dunne comes to mind as an author that wrote extensively for magazines, as do various nonfiction authors. Novelists, I believe, are a little harder to run into.

Now, though, I have a strategy for a repeat occurrence. I've used the library database, General Reference Center Gold and I've found a list of 18 articles of his.

Do you have a novelist, you'd like to read more of? Let Readers' Services help you discover their other writings. It may not be a serendipitous as my experience but it may be just as delightful.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Seven Wonders of the Reading World

Positively Ellinwood Street is no longer a rookie. 2010 is our second major league season, and last year we wrote exactly 99 thoughtful, amusing, timely, and reflective posts about books, libraries, movies, gardening, romance, music, authors, pets and other signs of the times. Although we've had several guest columnists, the heart of this blog is the lovely and talented Readers' Services staff.

To lead off our sophomore season and our 100th blog post, I'd like to introduce to you, fresh from another great year on the third floor of the Des Plaines Public Library, The
Seven Wonders of the Reading World! Down front, from left to right: Cathy, Lynne, Linda and Jo. In the back row, from left to right: Laura, Joel and David. Smile, everyone! These folks work really, really hard. They select almost all of the materials (books, movies, music, graphic novels, Playaways) on the third floor. They create displays and posters and bookmarks and contests. They constantly think about our collections to make sure we have what the community really wants (like a new Romance section or downloadable audiobooks). They lead stimulating book discussions. They deliver books to home bound patrons and assisted living communities. They repair thousands of damaged DVDs every year. They write for this blog and the Blog of Awesome, they arrange teen and adult programs, they teach thousands of patrons how to use the catalog, they place thousands of holds. They help lost kids find their parents - and vice versa. And of course, they're super friendly and helpful.

But one of the most important - and certainly one of the most fun things - they do is to talk about books to people who use the library, whether that means at the desk or in these blog entries. So please, stop in or comment as often as you like.

They just read a great book, and they'd love to tell you about it.

Friday, January 1, 2010