Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Who out there reads book reviews beforehand particularly when you are eagerly awaiting an author's new book?

I just got my hands on the new book by Dennis Lehane titled Moonlight Mile. Wow, lucky me, I thought. I loved his earlier books, especially Mystic River and Shutter Island. And he is not an author who comes out with a new book every other month. I was especially curious to see what he would do next since Shutter Island seemed such a diversion from his normal style. I thought, hey I should write in the blog about what people think when an author goes off in a completely different direction, like he did with Shutter Island (I normally hate it, but Shutter Island was so good that I forgave him for it).

In order to write about Lehane I read a few reviews and comments about the new book. What a mistake. The comments really made it seem like a dud. Perhaps I should thank the reviewers for the forewarning. Now I really don't feel like reading it anymore. I know enough to know that those comments are definitely other people's opinions. And I have loved many books that others have panned. But I now have a bad taste in my mouth. I went from having eager expectations to dread. I will probably return the book and read something else for a few weeks and maybe I will try again later.

Do you read reviews and comments beforehand? I use them when I am looking for a new book or author, but I never do when I feel I already know about the author. Now I need to go find a good new book.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Love in Action

We recently reached the winter solstice, the point when the North Pole is tilted the farthest away from the Sun. For us in Illinois (and the rest of the Northern hemisphere) that means that December 21st was the longest night and shortest day of the year. As evening now begins to creep across the sky before 5pm, it is no wonder that the symbols of the holidays we celebrate this time of year involve light.

One of the most enduring symbols of the season is the candle. During Hanukkah (also known as the Festival of Lights) a candle is lit on the menorah for each of the eight nights of the holiday: each candle can only be lit from the ninth candle known as the shamash, or the servant candle. These eight lights symbolize the eight evenings the lamp oil miraculously replenished itself after the Jews reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from the Syrians in 165 BCE. The celebration of Kwanzaa also involves the lighting of candles to commemorate the holiday. Seven candles are lit on a kinara, each of them representing the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-
determination, responsibility, cooperativeness, purpose, creativity, and faith. Soon, many Christian churches will have candle-lit ceremonies to commemorate the birth of the baby Jesus. They also will have the four candles lit on the Advent wreath that marks the season of waiting and anticipation of the Christmas holiday.

Another symbol of the holidays is the star. I grew up near Bethlehem, PA (inevitably, there is also a Nazareth, PA nearby). One of my favorite things about the season was the giant star located on South Mountain, up above the city (pictured above: photo credit alan(ator), A. Strakey). The original star was installed in a ceremony in 1937, the same year Bethlehem conferred upon itself the moniker "Christmas City, USA". I'd always enjoy seeing the star almost anywhere I went in the valley below South Mountain. It made me think of hope, peace, and expectation as it represented the star that was said to shine above the original town of Bethlehem guiding those in search of the baby in the manger.

So, candles and stars can be symbols for many things: hope for the future, reflection on the past, introspection of self, and freedom from oppression, among others. What if we could become lights ourselves? What if we could all be shamash candles, seeking to serve others and illuminate their lives as much as our own? Whether you are religious or not, the reason of this holiday season is to bring light into this darkest of natural seasons, including letting friends and family know how important they are to us, and to possibly even include strangers in our light. In a perfect world, this would be done year-round, but things being as they are, we are lucky to have this time of the year to remind us of what that world could look like.

I don't often quote Roy Rogers, or his wife, but Dale Evans had this to say: "Christmas, my child, is love in action."

My wish for all of us is to shine brightly and love actively in this season of celebration.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Music Not in the Christmas Music Section

After years of writing songs about his father, Bruce Springsteen finally wrote one about his mother. Called "The Wish," it's a tribute to the woman who held the family together and who bought him his first guitar one Christmas, though they had little money.

The first verse ends:

On top of a Christmas tree shines one beautiful star
And lying underneath it a brand new Japanese guitar.

It's one of my favorite Christmas songs, though you won't find it with our Christmas CDs, but on Springsteen's Tracks album, located in the Oversize CD collection.

There's a lot of great music perfect for the Christmas season that isn't cataloged as Christmas music, most of which is part of our classical music collection.

Below are some CDs worth checking out.

In the Ballet Section:

The Nutcracker, Op. 71: A Ballet in Two Acts. This is the complete ballet. It includes the "hits" from the suite and more.

Essential Ballet contains selections from the Nutcracker.

Check out The Nutcracker Suite for Guitar for Steven Pasero's take on this Christmas chestnut.

In the Oratorios* section:

Handel's Messiah, which narrates the life of Christ in condensed form, is his most popular oratorio, and with good reason. Rock out to the Hallelujah chorus in the comfort of your own home (with your stereo turned up to 11, for you Spinal Tap fans).

Messiah: The Dream Cast. Selections from Handel's much-loved work performed by Kiri Te Kanawa, Leontyne Price, Jerry Hadley, Bryn Terfel and more.

A Met Messiah. Selections from Handel's Messiah performed by greats like Marian Anderson, Joan Sutherland and Jon Vickers.

Christmas Oratorio by Bach. NPR calls this "one of the most joyful and sumptuous works of Johann Sebastian Bach." Composed of six cantatas** for six different services between Christmas and epiphany, and sung in German.

Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248. Another recording of the above, this one performed by the Failoni Chamber Orchestra for Hungarian Radio in 1992.

In the Orchestra section:

The CD entitled simply Peter Tchaikovsky contains the Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71, which is the better-known, shortened version of the Nutcracker. It includes the Waltz of the Flowers, the Arabian Dance, the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy and more.

In the Piano section:

Martha Argerich's recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 also includes a charming arrangement of The Nutcracker Suite for two pianos.

In the Religious section:

Chant Noel: Chants for the Holiday Season. Want a change from the usual Christmas fare? Check out this recording of Gregorian chant and more performed by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos.

Marian Anderson. This recording by one of the great contraltos of the 20th century includes both classical sacred music--excerpts from cantatas and oratorios--and spirituals.

Sacred Songs. Renee Fleming can sing just about anything--and sing it gloriously. Check out her interpretations of Ave Maria--the CD includes Bach's Ave Maria as well as Schubert's--plus excerpts from Handel's Messiah and more.

In the Vocal Section:

Mad About Angels: The Greatest Stars, The Greatest Voices. While not exclusively Christmas music, Mad About Angels features "Heavenly Music" to elevate the spirit.

*oratorio: "a musical composition for voices and orchestra, telling a religious story" (The American Heritage Dictionary of New Cultural Literacy.)

**cantata: "a musical setting of a text, esp. a religious text, consisting of arias, duets, and choruses, interspersed with recitatives" (The American Heritage Dictionary of New Cultural Literacy).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What Was Your Favorite?

2010 is drawing to a close, and as the new year approaches, the Best of 2010 lists are popping up all over the place. Publishers Weekly chose their top 100, with 10 overall front-runners, and 90 picks from specific genres. Of note among the genre favorites were: Faithful Place by Tana French, Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny, and Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell. Amazon's Omnivoracious blog released The Top 10 (and More) (pictured above) in November. And most recently, the New York Times Book Review published their Top 10 Books of 2010. You can click on the link to check them out.
Personally, I enjoyed a couple of books that popped up on these "best of" lists -- Tana French and Louise Penny are two writers I just discovered this year and they now rank high among my favorites. I'm looking forward to reading a few others, though I probably won't get to them until the new year. But I try not to feel like I should read a book simply because it has been deemed important by the powers that be. Personal recommendations carry far more weight, probably because they usually yield better results. My favorite read of 2010 was suggested by a colleague and was published years ago. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon is where dark and gothic intersect, rife with plot twists and layers of complexity, and simply beautiful.

NPR has a whole slew of "Best of" lists broken down into amusing categories, including Sex, Drugs, and 'Life' - The Year's Best Guilty Reads. I don't know if Rick Springfield's memoir would normally catch my interest, but Susan Jane Gilman's annotation of it was a fun read. In that light, I look on all of these "best of" compilations not as any kind of definitive 2010 canon, but as a source of inspiration for the next time I find myself without a good book on my nightstand.

And now for the vote that really counts: what was your favorite book of 2010?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jack Reacher vs Mitch Rapp Fistfight Part Two

A few years ago I posed the question "If Mitch Rapp and Jack Reacher got in a fistfight, who'd win?" It prompted quite a few replies and since both Vince Flynn and Lee Child have new books, I figured it was worth revisiting. I just finished Child's newest Reacher book Worth Dying For, and for me the verdict is in. Jack Reacher is the ultimate tough guy. I am still waiting for the new Mitch Rapp thriller American Assassin. But it would have to completely blow me away to surpass Reacher.

I know I complained about the last book and how it ended with a cliffhanger, but I have no complaints about this one (my wife might complain after I completely neglected her and the kids for a few days with my head stuck in the book). I love how Reacher describes every minute detail of every fight. You never question if he will persevere, but you are dying to know how.

The original blog was about how real we like our characters. One commenter noted that Mitch Rapp is more pragmatic but also more of a jerk, whereas Reacher is more irresponsible and being a drifter was bothersome. I think Reacher being a nicer guy makes me like him more, and his hobo ways make him more mythic and mysterious. Rapp, being more real and human makes me not like him as much.

There are a lot of other tough guys out there. And though I think Reacher and Rapp are the best, many others are good too. Let us know who else you like and why. I have listed a few tough guys I have liked below.

Dave Robicheaux by James Lee Burke
Scot Harvath by Brad Thor
Jack Ryan by Tom Clancy
Bob Lee Swagger by Stephen Hunter
Alex Hawke by Ted Bell
Elvis Cole and Joe Pike by Robert Crais

(And what is it with all the author's one-syllable names?)

Monday, December 6, 2010

FREEDOM is Overrated

The book Freedom that is. The one by Jonathan Franzen that had tremendous media coverage this fall. Saying it was over-promoted rather than overrated is probably more accurate. The usual suspects like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Oprah promoted Freedom, but also GQ, Esquire, four periodicals in the UK and newspapers in Kansas City, Portland, Minneapolis and Cleveland. And this is far from an exhaustive list.

The content of the reviews varied but many used the term "Great American Novel." That's a tough phrase to ignore. Freedom went on my reading list.

I'm two-thirds done with the novel and I'm feeling uncomfortable with it. Not with the style or the prose, but the characters and the social commentary. I don't even care how it ends. Though reviewers have hinted at a surprise ending. I just want to discuss it with fellow readers. Why did this book get so much attention? Will it be read in future generations? Are comparisons to Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace accurate? And what about those sex scenes?

Read it and let's talk. By the way, Freedom was shortlisted for the tongue-in-cheek "Bad Sex in Literature" award distributed by Britain's Literary Review magazine. This year's prize went to Alastair Campbell for his novel Maya. Read more on BBC News.

For a good selection of reviews - go to Bookmarks Magazine

Friday, December 3, 2010

Have a Little Faith

In the beginning, there was a question. "Will you do my Eulogy?"

That is where an eight year journey of faith began for Mitch Albom, a journey that would culminate in the book Have a Little Faith . When a rabbi from his childhood synagogue asked that he deliver the older man's eulogy, Albom began visiting Rabbi Albert Lewis in order to learn more about him. At the same time, he met another, very different religious leader. Pastor Henry Covington of the I Am My Brother's Keeper Ministry was an former drug dealer and ex-convict shepherding his congregation out of a decrepit church in downtown Detroit. It was hard for Albom to fit Henry into his image of what a man of God should be.

The truth was, while I tried to be a charitable man, I still drew mental lines between "my" side and the "other" side - whether cultural, ethnic, or religious. I had been taught, as many of us are, that charity begins at home, and helping your own kind should come first. But who was my "own kind"?

As Albom came to know these two very different men, he began to realize that what they had in common transcended their differences. Both men seemed to live the idea that "faith is doing, you are how you act, not how you believe." And that idea led him to ask another question, "What if our beliefs were not what divided us, but what pulled us together?" That is a central theme in the book, and it challenged the author's own core beliefs.

In the video below, Mitch Albom reads an excerpt from his book and talks about what inspired him to write it.

This book lacks the fluid style and poignancy of Albom's earlier book Tuesdays With Morrie. However, it is touches on issues of faith and community that have great relevance in modern society and are too often ignored. Moving between two very different religious worlds, Albom came to realize that the basic, heartfelt desires of all people are what can unite us. "When the world quiets to the sound of your own breathing, we all want the same things: comfort, love and a peaceful heart."

We'll be talking about this book at the next Thursday night book group.
Join the discussion on Thursday, December 9 from 7:30 to 8:30 PM in the Rotary Heritage Room on the 3rd floor.

Check out more by Mitch Albom here at DPPL:
Tuesdays With Morrie
The Five People You Meet in Heaven
For One More Day