Sunday, April 29, 2012

Redesigning the Classics

Naturally, an unfamiliar book’s cover design has the power to attract me.  I freely admit that I will at least give a chance to almost any book with whimsical colored pencil or watercolor illustrations. But since I mostly only buy things that I either have read or already have a basic knowledge of, when it comes to my personal collection of books, I’ve never been too picky about aesthetics. Nearly all of my books are beat up, old paperbacks, and most of those were purchased from used bookstores like this one in Chicago.  
                                            (All rights reserved by hannibal1107)

Think messy piles of books with creased covers, yellow pages, notes in the margins, that vanillin scent. For me, the priority has really always been to build up a nice, big collection of beloved stories. Most of the time I really couldn’t care less what’s on the cover of a book I’m buying, if I already know what’s inside. 

But on the precious, rare occasion that I do decide to treat myself and purchase a new book, especially a new edition of an older book that I love, I am extremely picky. It needs to be pretty, obviously. But not only pretty—it needs to perfectly capture the story within. This isn't always easy to find, as classic stories are constantly being repackaged and reevaluated. Take, for example, some of the newer designs for Pride and Prejudice, which are reminiscent of a certain vampire romance series. 

Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights got similar makeovers. 

Also a very interesting look at the reevaluation of classic novels is this article by Michael Silverberg on the complexities and ramifications of designing a cover for Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita is one of my very favorite books, and due to its charged and all too often misunderstood content, it’s one of the few books whose cover I always notice.                                     

Have any of the covers for your old favorites stood out to you? Did you find particular new designs appropriate or were you irked by the interpretation?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Favorite Not-Yet-Famous Author

Years ago, I read a disappointing short story collection by an unknown author, the recent winner of a respected short story contest sponsored by a university press. In the last few years, some have criticized contests like this for occasionally publishing work not yet ripe, and, alternately, for declining to award prizes when no submissions are deemed worthy.

Although the collection was negligible and the author hasn't published a book of fiction since, I still sometimes check out the winners of prizes like the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Iowa Short Fiction Award if the subject matter interests me and/or the author receives favorable reviews. Why?

Will Boast is why.

Boast is the author of Power Ballads, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award and one of the best books I read last year. If I didn't work in a library and read publications like Publishers Weekly and Booklist, I probably wouldn't know of it, since neither the Chicago Tribune nor The New York Times bothered to review it. But the reviews in the former publications piqued my interest with their praise of Boast as well as his subject matter: musicians and those who orbit their lives. The jacket copy, too, intrigued me with its mention of "practice rooms," signalling a realistic rather than romanticized take on musicians and their lives.

His stories concern not the Lady Gagas of the world but characters like Tim, a tuba-playing adolescent who, in the aftermath of his mother's death, begins sitting in with a tavern polka band in Wisconsin, often displacing Ertold, its regular tubist. Tim is featured in several stories, including one of my favorites, the title story, "Power Ballads," which is framed by the now adult Tim, a jazz-loving professional drummer in Chicago, telling his girlfriend the story of his time with a band called Soldier. "I remembered them [Soldier], barely," he says of the day he saw their ad for a drummer. "A last-gasp eighties band that had lingered into the nineties like a stubborn stain before being erased by grunge and 'alternative.'" New to the city and taking any gig he could get, he signed on with Soldier, though he loathed their music and had to pretend to be committed to their future, all the while "calculating when to bail" on these men he came to have genuine affection for.

Another pitch-perfect story set in Chicago, "Heart of Hearts: ***1/2," is about the friendship of roommates Holly and Kate (the latter Tim's girlfriend in "Soldier"). Former choir-mates in high school, affluent Kate and working class Holly, the latter a gifted singer, grow apart as Holly remains steadfast to music and Kate considers law school and relocating to Lincoln Park. Holly suggests the ambivalent Kate hold off on law school to determine what she really loves. Kate loves Holly's music yet thinks: "But where would Holly be in ten years, twenty? Hardly anyone made a living in music." Boast gets the little details right, from psuedo-intellectual music critics to Kate's accusation that Holly's boyfriend is slumming, an accusation that Holly could--but doesn't--fling back at Kate. It's one of the most nuanced stories I've read about women's friendships.

Other stories feature the wife of a musician who has sacrificed much for his career and a choir director and former rhythm and blues singer who sometimes doubts his ability to reach his rap-loving teenage choir. Reading these stories, one hopes Will Boast never doubts the value of his fictional offerings: these stories are a wonderful gift to readers and proof that university presses and contests like the Iowa Short Fiction Award are a service to literature. Among the other writers first published as winners of the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the Flannery O'Connor Award are Robert Boswell and Ha Jin.

Who is your favorite author who isn't yet well-known but should be?

Friday, April 20, 2012

I Never Wanted it to End

Lunch this afternoon was inspiring. I had a burger from a local place called Paradise Pup and it was so divine, I never wanted it to end. Seriously -- never. The experience transcended hunger. I had no urge to gorge myself. I didn't want another cheeseburger (or two or three) after I consumed that one, because I did not want to stop consuming that one...ever. I like food, but that was a rare moment for me. One that I highly recommend. The only other gastronomic experience I can compare it to is my first taste of creme brulee.

I have felt that way about a select few novels, too. Out of all the books I have loved reading, those highlighted below comprise a special category, not chosen by genre, literary acclaim, or mass appeal, but by the particular feeling they aroused. Each was a reading experience I never wanted to end.
I have read each of the books on my "Never Wanted it to End" list at least twice. I look forward to reading them again. And I certainly intend to order another Cheddar Burger from Paradise Pup. Soon. Maybe with a side of their Triple Layer Fries...to try something new.

What books, or food, would you add to your "Never Wanted it to End" list?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What's so funny?

I could use a good laugh.

One thing I have noticed is that different people find different things to be funny. There are so many different flavors of humor, from slapstick to sarcastic to silly to cynical to absurd to irreverent to witty to dark humor. When a patron asks for a good humorous read, I think about some of the funniest books I have read. Yet suggesting those books rarely seems to work. I often have to ask what else they find funny. If they can't think of a book I ask what movies or TV shows they find funny. With that, here are a few of the funniest books I have read.

Big Trouble by Dave Barry. Big Trouble was his first novel. Strangely I find his novels to be far better and funnier than his humor books. His novels are similar to the wacky south Florida novels of Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey. He has a new novel out too titled Lunatics, which I hope to read soon.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. This is an hilariously irreverent look at Jesus' childhood. Most of Moore's books are a little to goofy for my taste (like Island of the Sequined Love Nun and You Suck: A Love Story), but Lamb was perfect. It reminded me of the Monty Python film, Life of Brian.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. A sarcastic teenager comes of age rebelling against her evangelical mother. Full of attitude, but written in a wry understated tone.

I have also laughed a lot while reading Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich, David Sedaris, Christopher Buckley and some Terry Pratchett. 

What are some books that have made you laugh out loud?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Horror, Closer Than You Think

If you're like me, you tend to get a bit over excited and feel an adrenaline rush every time a new horror flick hits the big screens. Even anticipating the release of a new horror DVD makes my spine tingle. When October rolls in I encompass everything about the month from Haunted Houses to the amazing fall colors on tree leaves. But some days out of the year I feel a sense of withdrawal from all the endorphin rushing excitement and screams. If you need a good scream or chill or just out of movies to watch, continue reading. Its not October yet but Horror is closer than you think. By the way, isn't it Friday the 13th today? Here is a list of my favorite horror flicks.

The Saw Series revolves around the life of the main character "Jigsaw" and the people he tests in his psychological test and games. The people he chooses are those that abuse their power or others such as being an abusive employee or abuseful to your wife. The tests test the will to live of the people he captures and "Jigsaw" claims that those who survive his methods will be stronger people for it and look at life in a new light. He does in fact give everyone he captures a real opportunity to live, they just have to play the game. 

This film was made in the 80's and has superior effects, very advanced for it's time. The film features the main character, Charlie Brewster, and his love for his favorite Vampire Hunting Detective Television show. A new neighbor moves in and as time goes by he starts to discover little clues and findings about his new neighbor. There are confrontations, suspenseful scenes and a twist as well. This film was remade in 2011 but I prefer the original. Great film to keep your attention.

This hugely popular series revolves around the main character, Michael Myers, who was sent to a sanitarium for the murder of his older sister. He was sent at a young age and years later escapes and goes on a killing spree while his psychiatrist is trying to keep up with him. If you love a good jump or chill I highly suggest this series if you haven't seen it yet. The movies were also remade over the past few years which are still real good. 

This Sci-Fi Horror film takes place 7 years into the future in the year 2019. Most of the world has been taken a storm by a plague that has turned most of mankind into vampires. Humans are taken hostage and the main character, Edward Dalton, is trying to save mankind by creating a cure. Edward is in fact a vampire. This is a very modern horror film. Not a slasher film at all so no worries about grotesque violence needed. 

We do own these films at the Des Plaines Library. This is just a short list of my favorite horror films. If you would like some more recommendations please don't hesitate to get in contact with the library or feel free to leave a comment or question. Speaking of horror films, Muvico will be hosting a horror film fest this weekend if you would like to check that out. http://chicagofearfest.com/2012/03/ I hope these films give you a jump or scare if you're up for the challenge.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Glory Game

On Thursday morning I awoke with hope shining bright in my eyes and my heart beating fast with the sort of unbridled enthusiasm one feels only in early April. I had dreamt of blooming green vines and the mingled fragrances of hot grease and fresh air. My alarm clock came on drowning the echo of a too-soon silenced organ. A stiff breeze cut through the sunny morning and the crack in my window raising goosebumps on my arms. It was an idyllic spring morning; bright and crisp with a high sky and a blazing sun. It was Opening Day once again and I was newly possessed by the fervent unrealistic optimism which courses unbidden in the blood of old Cub fan families. I didn't think this was the year, but I did feel that it was, just as I do every year.

Baseball is a unique and wonderful unifier of people. It makes friends of strangers from across oceans, and across generations, across continents and castes. It draws out the hope in one's heart, the passion in their souls, and the fire in their bellies. It's really no wonder that so many of us can connect so deeply with the American game, and to that end the library offers a wonderful selection of materials to ignite the spark of a new baseball season.

Major League is a classic comedy to which any baseball fan can relate. Hall-of-fame commentator Bob Ueker is a must-see in this story of misfits and underdogs.

One could say that Chad Harbach's debut novel The Art of Fielding is about everything that matters in life. Love, literature, politics, the human condition and, of course, baseball. It's a deep read, and not short, but it's wonderfully written with a beautiful setting, complex characters, and an unexpected plot.

Calico Joe is best-selling author John Grisham's latest novel. Library Journal describes it as a story of "forgiveness and redemption...a classic story filled with human emotion." It recounts the fall-out of a bean-ball thrown in the seventies which partially paralyzed a star rookie. It's told as a series of flashbacks from the perspective of the son of the pitcher who beaned the eponymous Calico Joe.

If you're interested in learning a little more about America's past-time I cannot speak highly enough of Ken Burns' Baseball. It's a nine disc set that dives into the complete origin and history of baseball from the time of the mythical Abner Doubleday up to 2000 which was when the film was produced. After all, nothing important has happened since then, right Sox fans?

My personal favorite way to celebrate baseball season is with A League of Their Own featuring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll want to play professional women's baseball for $75 a week. The best part? It's coming soon to your library.

Enjoy your baseball season, and when your team starts losing regularly (and they will, because you're a Chicago fan), channel the words of the immortal and hyper-quotable Yogi Berra: "Slump? I ain't in no slump... I just ain't hitting."

Friday, April 6, 2012

Jon Siskel presents...

In honor of the upcoming appearance of filmmaker, Jon Siskel and the screening of his film Louder Than a Bomb on Wednesday, April 11th, I am re-posting a blog entry from a year ago. I was excited to share my discovery then, and even more excited that this event will be here at the library. Get more details from our events calendar.

February 2011

I can't wait to buy the film Louder Than a Bomb for the library.

I just saw this documentary on the big screen. In the same genre as Spellbound,Wordplay, and Triviatown, this film focuses on a competition. In this case, a Chicago based high school poetry slam. I feel self-conscious even trying to craft a description of the movie after hearing the words of these young people who created works of art with their minds and their voices.

No review can prepare you for the feeling of awe inspired by these young people. They are so talented and they work so hard. Strings of words and feelings, sometimes performed at breakneck speeds, sometimes performed with comic timing, sometimes solo, sometimes in unison, stories of family, stories of experience, stories in metaphor.

I'd like to say the film itself is nothing compared to the teens' work but that may be a simplistic view. The filmmakers let us get to know the individual stories of a few of the most talented individuals and their teams. Clearly their stories are edited with finesse based on the empathy they elicit from the viewer( especially this viewer).

The Young Chicago Authors group organizes the competition, "a safe and judgment free outlet where kids from all over the city can share stories and break stereotypes, challenging themselves and their audience,” as decribed by author and LTAB co-founder and artistic director Kevin Coval. “For three minutes at a time the students speak about their lives, but for the other eighty-seven minutes, they are listening to the lives and stories and dreams of others.”

The good thing is you don't have to wait to see the film. The competition is coming up and it is open to the public. Click here for the full schedule.

Unfortunately, no date yet for the release on DVD. In the meantime, try these other docs showcasing competitions and contests.

Mad Hot Ballroom
Pucker Up The Fine Art of Whistling