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