Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How Do You Define a Five-Star Book?

That's the question I asked myself as we rolled out our new online catalog a year ago. Mycatalog, as DPPL calls it, allows you to rate books--and CDs and more--from one to five stars: according to mycatalog, one is "poor" and five is "great."

But does great = perfect? Or does great mean a book you simply love, flaws and all? Or does it mean something else?

Jude the Obscure, a longtime favorite, was the first book I rated five stars after I created my account. My thinking at the time was: I love it and I wouldn't change a thing about it. I rated Spooner by Pete Dexter five stars as well using the same criteria, although it's a very different sort of book: comic rather than tragic.

Then I read The Inverted Forest by John Dalton and my criteria morphed, consistency be damned. The Inverted Forest is a strange and wonderful book set primarily at a summer camp, and it features a disfigured man who works as a camp counselor, tending not to the children he anticipated but to severely disabled adults. I looked forward to settling down with this singular book each evening in a way I hadn't in a long time. Was it a book in which I wouldn't change a thing? No. I felt there was extraneous material at the beginning of the book that pulled the book out of shape and that could have been cut or summarized. But I gave it five stars anyway. I loved it too much not to, and I'd just finished it and was still on a high.

Obviously, rating books isn't a science and is incredibly subjective. And how you rate a book can be influenced by factors such as how recently you finished it, your mood at the time, etc. That said, I think rating books is a helpful shorthand and a great way to track the books and authors you've enjoyed (and those you wish to avoid). You can can keep your ratings and lists private or share them with others.

Here's a link to some of the books I've read and rated in the past year, as well as some of my all-time favorites. And here's a link to some of the books read and frequently rated by the Readers' Services staff. Want to know more about a book than just its rating? Click on the book's title to see if there are any reader comments.

We hope you'll rate and comment on what you read as well. To get started, log into your mycatalog account, move your mouse pointer over the My DPPL tab, and click on Completed to begin rating books. Questions? Call or stop by the Readers' Services desk.

And feel free to post your thoughts on how you define a five-star book and any five-star books you've recently read.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Beacon vs. Sentinel

One of the greatest bellwethers of our nation stands over 300 feet over New York Harbor. Right now, no one is allowed inside the Statue of Liberty (or Liberty Enlightening the World, to call the piece by its official name) as she is undergoing her third refurbishing period in her 120 year existence, but normally over 3 million people visit Lady Liberty every year.

The statue was originally intended to be seen as a joint symbol of the French and American pursuits of democracy, but that was all changed by a poem submitted by Emma Lazarus for an arts fundraiser for the building of the statue's pedestal (the US was responsible for the base while France funded and built the statue) in 1883.  The poem, "The New Colossus", promptly disappeared from history until it was discovered again and re-published in 1903 by a friend of Lazarus. In it are the now-popular lines:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Because of the words above, as well as it being one of the first distinctly American sights people would see on their way to Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty now represented a welcome for immigrants to the Land of Opportunity. As its hammered copper gleamed across the waters, it was seen as a beacon of Hope, an icon of Potential: however transient these ideals may have been to the international masses just stepping off the boat into the maw of one of the world's busiest, and most ruthless, cities.

Fast forward to today, the Statue is still a symbol for how we see ourselves as a nation, and how we present ourselves to to the rest of the world. Given the fractious upheavals that rippled through our society in the second half of last century and the beginning of the current one, what have we done to this lightening rod of our self-consciousness? Why, beat the snot out of it, of course.

Perhaps the most memorable abuse of the Statue of Liberty comes at the hands of the makers of the 1968 release Planet of the Apes. If one sees the film, the image of Charlton Heston staggering to his knees in front of the head and arm of the Statue of Liberty emerging from the beach serves as an indictment of the immediate threat of nuclear holocaust. In 1981, John Carpenter decapitated the statue and placed its head behind Snake Plissken for one of my favorite movie posters of all time: Escape from New York. In this movie, the Statue of Liberty represents the degradation of a once great society and the triumph of chaos over cosmos ("order" in Greek, the opposite of chaos). Hollywood did not stop there, 1998's Deep Impact and the 2008 Cloverfield, both depict the destruction of Lady Liberty as a reminder that there may be forces at play in this universe that are larger than our lowly human society.

While the Statue of Liberty still stands as a reminder of some of the best ideals that our nation is based on like integration, the pursuit of happiness, and freedom, it has now acquired an added patina of watchfulness, caution, and the importance of self-awareness.

Can anyone think of other images of our society that have changed in meaning through the years?

PS. I wish all of our PES readers warm hearths and giving hearts this holiday season. Happy Hanukkah and/or Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I Saw a Monster

I really did. It appeared to me the other day. I know it was a monster because it made me cry. Nothing real makes me cry. I'm a grown man. I read a lot of books and some of them are sad. Sometimes they tug at my heart strings, maybe if it's a really good book or movie I let a tear escape. But the last time I really cried? Before the other day, it had been years, perhaps decades.

Do you like to read books that make you sad? I do. It is strange to think of liking something sad. It seems a little backwards. The way I think of it is if a book makes me feel so strongly it must be well done. It is that way with other arts; a painting, a song, or a dance can evoke intense emotions. Yet they rarely make me cry.

A Monster Calls

I read the book A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I thought it would be about a monster. It was, but it was also about humans and cancer and loved ones. It is a short book, a book for kids (though I can't imagine a kid reading it). I read it in a night. Then I cried and I couldn't sleep after. I felt sad thinking of all close people I have lost in recent years to cancer. Then I felt relief. And for several days I see my son, I see my wife, I see my mom and my friends and I am so grateful to have them all in my life. It's miraculous that a book can do that. It's a book so sad that it makes me happy, how weird is that?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Good Night for a Murder

As a child on nights when a thick fog settled in against the damp green lawns of our suburban neighborhood or when black clouds obscured the sky and lightning struck vivid against the darkness my mother would smile with the glint of mischief shining in her eyes and murmur "Tonight is a good night for a murder."

But nights that call to mind images of dank cellars and masked assailants aren't the only good nights for a killing--in fact, sometimes the best murder mysteries take place on a snowy winter's eve as merry revelers bustle about in preparation for the winter Holidays. Mystery writers seem to be in agreement on this point as Christmas themed cozy mysteries make up a significant sub-genre of this sleuth-centric style of writing. So in the event that you find yourself tiring of the ever-present cheer of the season this December, perhaps you'd like to cozy up with a good murder; any of these recent additions to our mystery collection would fit the bill.

As the Pig Turns, M.C. Beaton
A Holiday Yarn, Sally Goldembaum
A Christmas Homecoming, Anne Perry

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

and a partridge in a pear tree

Today I got a sneak peak at the Friends of the Library annual Holiday Book Sale, and it is the shopping event of the season. I saw pop-up books and chapter books for kids, LP records and VHS tapes for anyone into vintage, along with popular fiction, classics of literature, beautiful coffee table books, cookbooks and more, all in excellent condition, perfect for gift-giving.

I bought 12 great gifts for under $10. And I didn't have to crawl out of bed to stand in line at 4 AM or even set foot in a mall or a superstore to get them. None of these gift gyrates to dance music or requires batteries, unlike the $50 Fijit on my daughter's list, but I know that each and every one will be enjoyed by its recipient. Who doesn't love a book, lovingly selected just for them?

I'm so thrilled with the low impact on my budget, I feel the need to repeat myself: 12 great gifts for under $10, satisfying my thrifty nature and giving a little something back at the same time. Buy a gently-used book from the Friends Book Sale and you'll be a multitasking force for good - recycling while encouraging literacy and supporting library programs that benefit our community.

Tomorrow is your chance to find that perfect gift that won't break your budget. If you know any readers, this book sale is sure to have something they'll love. The Des Plaines History Center and Des Plaines Art Guild will be there with even more unique and affordable gift ideas, too.

Don't miss it! Saturday, December 10, 2011from 9:30 AM to 3:30 PM in Friends Rooms B and C.

Spoil me, please!

I have a confession. When I ask what a book or film is about, what I'm really hoping is that someone will (by chance or by choice) spoil the ending. Spare me no details-- I want to be prepared for anything. I want to know who kills Dumbledore when. I'd like to know if somebody is dead the entire movie. I want to know what Soylent Green is made of. When it comes to stories, I have all the patience and self-control of a six year old, and I want to know how things turn out in the end now. And with all the “spoiler alert!”s and “Oh, I won't tell you the ending, just see for yourself”s around, I thought I was unusual. Until I heard this story on NPR's On the Media.

When I heard this story on the radio, I immediately perked up and turned up the volume. The speaker explained how spoilers can actually make the story more enjoyable by allowing an audience to enjoy the story and writing a little more than just the shock ending, and this is evidenced by the overwhelming popularity of genre fiction going back to the beginning of time-- romances which always end in a wedding, epics where the hero never fails in his quest. We consume these stories, knowing full well how they'll turn out, for the journey itself. We want to know why and how they'll get to their inevitable conclusion.

As I listened, this was pretty much my face. Image and video hosting by TinyPic Of course, I was in my car alone, so passersby probably thought I was insane. But it was an expression of receiving a confirmation that the way I had always felt about spoilers was completely valid and not at all unusual. In fact, the majority of stories mankind has told throughout the ages, from Beowulf to Nora Roberts, have been an expression of exactly this urge to follow a story, enjoy the twists and turns, and still have a relative idea of how it will end.

Maybe it's this acute awareness of my own mortality, and it's an expression of my deepest desire to know how life itself turns out in the end. Or maybe I'm just impatient. Either way, I always seem to find myself reading the last page first, and now I can be satisfied in the knowledge that most of you do it, too.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Matte or Glossy?

Okay sometimes it just happens. A newspaper advice column appears before my eyes and the next thing I know I have read the whole thing. It happened to me last week as I read a rather poignant plea for help.The letter started Dear So and So, a few of my friends have told me I'm dull. What should I do?

Well, Ms. Advice Columnist took a very calm approach. Her first response was not "with friends like these who needs enemies." Instead she began a discussion of different personalities and how some of us have a matte finish and some have a glossy finish. And some of her best friends are in fact a little dull but they are good listeners, reliable and comforting.

This holiday season many gift givers are going to be evaluating ebook devices. You have seen the glossy tablets that are the life of the party. Pretty colors shining luminously from the screen, images swirling and gliding across the screen. These devices provide access to media of all types. But there is something to be said for the devices that are more single in purpose --- mainly to read a book. Typically these use e-ink and they mimic the traditional reading experience. The Amazon Kindle, the Barnes and Noble Simple Touch Nook are examples of ereaders that use this technology. They are less of an investment, sturdy and have a long battery life. They may look dull, but let's say they have a matte finish and could be a reader's best friend.

Want help researching an ereader? Talk to us at Readers Services. We have devices for you to practice with or checkout, and we'll walk you through the options to use library ebooks so you don't have to spend money getting ebooks. Also our Downloadable MyMediaMall walk in sessions can be helpful.
For more information call 847-376-2840.

CNET.com has handy reviews of devices as well.
Sony PRS-T1
Amazon Kindle
Barnes and Noble Simple Touch Nook
Complete CNET ereader list

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thank you

Different people use libraries for various purposes: locating a book before a long flight, discovering a new movie director, working on a term paper, learning a new language, researching a snow-blower purchase, viewing summer blockbusters now out on DVD, downloading ebooks, or re-reading an old favorite, among others. In many cases, we at the library are lucky enough to assist in these pursuits. During this season set aside to remind us of all that we are thankful for, I want to thank you, the Patrons of the Des Plaines Public Library, for letting us share your story.

The chance to interact with people, learning new things, hearing great stories, and understanding how people tick is a fundamental reason we are here at the desk, and one that is fulfilling for me as much as I hope it is for you. Any time you come to the library and need any kind of help, have any questions, or just want to say hello, stop by our desk: we'd love to talk with you! I wish all of you had the juiciest of turkeys, the tastiest of pumpkin pies and the happiest of family memories on Thanksgiving Day 2011. And most importantly, thank you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Making a List, Checkin It Twice

Gonna find out what book to read next. I know the holidays are here because I have more than 40 books on reserve. How did that happen? It's because in November and December all the "Best of" lists come out. I love the lists. Let all the smart people go and read everything and narrow it down so I only read the good stuff. Usually I find enough books to get me through a good portion of the following year. There are:

Tthe National Book Award and all the Finalists
The Man/Booker Prize Long List
The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2011
Kirkus Reviews Best of 2011
Amazon's Best of 2011
Publisher's Weekly
and Library Journal

Some of the (very good) books that I have read as a result of these lists are:

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollack

I Want My Hat Back (a kids picture book, but it made my day, so much that I had to include it).

What were some of the best books you read in 2011?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dear Agony

"Into the nothing, faded and weary, I wont leave and let you fall behind. Live for the dying, Heaven hear me, I know we can make it out alive." That is one of my all time favorite lyrics from East Coast based outfit, Breaking Benjamin. The lyrics come from the song "Into the Nothing" from my favorite Benjamin album and latest release, Dear Agony. The album was released back in 2009 but I feel it deserves some recognition. This album takes on a more intimate and softer turn and is a genius album from start to finish. Their previous albums were more of a harder edge compared to this album but don't be disappointed for this album still promises to give you a rock punch. Personally this album is more on the alternative side whilst their older releases were more of a hard rock tone. Breaking Benjamin were formed back in 1998 in the quiet town of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The name Breaking Benjamin came from Lead Singer Ben Burnley's days as a solo performer. Ben performed a Nirvana cover and accidentally broke the venue owner's microphone, thus coming up with the name of the band, Breaking Benjamin. To this day Breaking Benjamin have released 4 studio albums and earlier this year released a greatest-hits album entitled Shallow Bay: The Best of Breaking Benjamin. Breaking Benjamin has had their share of band members and are currently a 2 person band due to the departure
of former members Aaron Fink and Mark Klepaski. Now Breaking Benjamin consists of founding member Ben Burnley and later member Chad Szeliga. Chad Szeliga also drums for the famous metal band, Black Label Society. Similar bands to Breaking Benjamin include Three Days Grace, Skillet, Trapt, Papa Roach, Seether, 3 Doors Down,
Crossfade, Shinedown, and Sick Puppies. To this day Breaking Benjamin have sold over 5 million albums in the US alone.

Dear Agony has been a very good listen for me. Since the day the album was released I fell in love with it and I always listen to the album while driving or on my break at
work, at a gathering, or pretty much whenever I feel like listening to it. The album contains 11 full length songs and are all lyrically motivating, emotional and inspirational.
Upon being released on iTunes, Dear Agony reached the top ten charts witihin days after its release. It is really hard to filter out my top 3 songs but personally the tracks,
"Anthem of the Angels", "Lights Out", and "Into the Nothing" would have to be my top 3 favorite tracks off the album. "Anthem of the Angels" is definitely more of a softer
emotional theme. Lyrics such as "Days go on forever, but i have not left your side. We can chase the dark together, if you go, then so will I", are very unique and touching.
After thinking for a while I think the song is trying to take a bit of a Religious direction. "Lights Out" is somewhat of a satisfying song for those of us who have to deal with
troublesome people and those who are always dragging us down. This song also is one of the more harder tracks off Dear Agony. "Now you want to take me down as if I even 
care. I am the monster in your head, and I thought you learned by now, it seems you haven't yet. I am the venom in your skin and now your life is broken." Lyrics such as 
that definitely prove why Breaking Benjamin has one of the most intelligent and creative lyrics. "Into the Nothing" also has one of the greatest lyrics. "Ill keep you inside. Where I lead you cannot follow. Straight into the light, as my breath grows still and shallow." That really says it all. It does not get more direct and inspirational than that. In the past I really did not appreciate lyrical analogies, themes or messages but this album has opened my eyes to see that an album not only can be good instrumentally, but also by creating ingenious lyrics. Lyrics are a huge theme in this album and pretty much in all of Breaking Benjamin's songs. They really mean their lyrics and always try to send out a postive message to their fans. 

I have seen Breakin Benjamin perform live on a few occasions and they also deliver outstanding performances. They really get the crowd jumping and into the music. The only complaint I have for the album is the fact that guitar solos are not present in any of the songs but that is pretty common in most alternative songs. They always play at least one cover of a famous song and have payed homage to musics greatest legends such as Johnny Cash, Pantera Guitarist Dimebag Darrell, Queen, Michael Jackson, Alice In Chains, Depeche Mode and Cyndi Lauper just to name a few. Chicago is one of Breaking Benjamin's favorite cities to play and according to Burnley, "Chicago has a place in my heart." Unfortunately all the good news has to come to a temporary stop due to the announcement of the band's indefinite hiatus. This is in response to lead man, Ben Burnley's illnesses. For the time being we will have to enjoy their current releases and no plans for a future album have been decided.Their fanbase is of a very intimate one and their fanbase is full of die hard people. I listened to them on occasion in the past along with my other music but after being exposed to this album, Breaking Benjamin stands out in my music collection. I will always be a fan of this group and to end with my own quote, "This album has a place in my heart."


Monday, November 14, 2011

What Would Beethoven Think OR Relax to the Classics

Would Beethoven be appalled that his compositions appear on CDs with cheesy titles and cheesier photographs like The Ultimate Relaxation Album II? After all, this was a man who believed: "Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman." He was a man of lofty aims who, in my opinion, took music to heights unmatched by anyone before or since. I cannot conceive of him sitting down at the piano to compose something merely "relaxing": he was after much more than that. And yet, I cannot deny that I feel at peace with the world, and yes, relaxed, when I listen to the sublime second movement of his 5th Piano Concerto, which appears on the Ultimate Relaxation Album II.

I was reminded of this wonderful side effect of some classical music--its ability to relax us and offer respite from the world--while reading There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. Published in 1991, it's a portrait of two brothers growing up poor in Chicago's Henry Horner Homes, a dangerous public housing complex where mothers feared their children might not live to see 18. As depicted by the eloquent Kotlowitz, the younger brother, 9-year-old Pharoah, whose childhood is under threat from his surroundings, "clutched his childhood with the vigor of a tiger gripping his meat. He wouldn't let it go." He also "listened to classical music on the radio because, he said, it relaxed him."

Over the years, many have asked Kotlowitz what became of Pharoah and his older brother, whose lives he chronicled over a two-year period, and whose futures matter to readers before they've finished the second chapter. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune makes it plain that like many who grow up poor in violent surroundings, their lives have been difficult. But I hope that wherever Pharoah is, he continues to take solace in music, and that it brings him some peace.

Inspired by this moving book and by young Pharoah's appreciation of classical music, I updated a CD list I created a few years ago called Relax to the Classics. You can access the list here and then check out a little respite from the world yourself. And feel free to chime in with your favorite piece of music to relax to--classical or otherwise.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

War is Hell (and Sometimes Funny)

"Razzle dazzle!"
Veteran's Day is here! My dad is a former naval officer and Vietnam veteran. I'm sure his memory contains many war stories where stress and danger are central themes. But the war stories I grew up on had a very different flavor. Sitting around the dinner table long after the the meal was done, he would keep us in stitches with tales of hijinks and misadventure. He told stories about a destroyer running into a reef because no one wanted to wake the captain, about target practice with 5" guns versus one very lucky cow, and about an encounter between local law enforcement and a busload of drunken sailors. I was fascinated by this glimpse into his life before me, and I knew from an early age that military life can provide plenty of fodder for laughs.

This is a day set aside to honor the men and women who have fought, and continue to fight, to protect the rights and freedoms we enjoy in this country. I am proud of the service my father provided for his country, and try to remember to thank him for it each Veterans Day. Thank the veterans in your life by tickling their funny bone with a military comedy.

Click here for a list of DVDs filled with U. S. military-issue hilarity.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Book That Got Away

Book three was my favorite of the lot
We all have that book—the book to which all other books are compared. A book that made us feel a certain way, or changed our perspective on the world, or on life. Maybe a book that did all of the above. At the risk of drowning in my own juvenile, non-literary shame, I’m going to bite the bullet for the sake of journalistic integrity and admit that my “book” or “books” in this case are the Harry Potter Series.  I began reading them at the tender age of eleven and in spite of the fact that I read them so young, (or maybe…rather, quite probably, because of it), no book since has rekindled such a sense of wonder and excitement in me. There are millions of great books in the world just waiting to be discovered, but I can’t help but feel less than hopeful that any book will ever speak to me in the same way that Harry Potter did the very first time I read it. Even re-reading them as an adult I am left only with the strong memory of having marveled at those words so many years ago, laughed along with my favorite characters, and jumped at every unexpected plot-twist. It’s still a great series; really well-imagined, thoughtful, thorough, exciting, and funny. But when “that book” isn’t even as good as “that book” the second time around, what hope is there of finding a book that matches it? Of course this is a challenge that must be undertaken regardless of the odds.

When did you read "that book"?
During my childhood.
During my early adolescence.
In highschool.
In college.
As an adult.
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