Friday, October 26, 2012

Horror, or Something Like It

H.P. Lovecraft
It's interesting to examine how different life situations can influence a person's fiction-reading and vice versa. As Halloween approaches, my mind is on how I came to enjoy horror fiction.

A pivotal moment in my life occurred when I did not have a book to read for an SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) period one day in eighth grade. I asked a classmate if she had an extra book I could borrow and thus I began Pet Sematary by Stephen King. A couple days later I returned it, equally thrilled and terrified by the reanimation-gone-evil plot line. I had never before had such a strong awareness that things were not going to turn out well yet was extremely anxious to know how everything ended. Ironically, one of the lasting impressions I had from reading that book was that I could tell how much fun King had in writing it. To this day whenever I read something by Stephen King, I enjoy his ability to completely immerse the reader into the world he is creating.

Two years later I asked my high school librarian if she could recommend any good scary novels. She immediately pulled The Keep by F. Paul Wilson off the shelf and gave it to me. It was about something ripping heads off of Nazi soldiers in an old castle during World War II - I was hooked. While reading it, I was fascinated by Wilson's ability to take this simple premise and create an epic novel through great characterization and a superb sense of suspense. This is a novel I return to every few years.

A third turning point on my highway of becoming a horror fiction enthusiast was a late-night discussion with a good friend of mine in college. The subject of Howard Phillips Lovecraft came up and I professed my ignorance of the name. Shocked, my friend made sure I left that night with a couple volumes of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft. As I read them and learned the mastery of his story techniques, I came to understand that Lovecraft was a dominating force of pulp horror-writing in the first part of the 20th century: almost like a missing link between Edgar Allan Poe and modern horror authors. The story I enjoyed the most (ie. gave me the most heebie-jeebies) was The Whisperer in Darkness. I had never felt my skin crawl quite like that before.

I won't even go into how I met Richard Matheson (staying up all night to read Hell House instead of studying for college finals) as I'm sure you get the idea. My question for you: do you let this upcoming scary holiday affect your fiction choices? If so, how?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Need Help Concentrating? OR Nature Sounds

Whenever I hear an Elvis Costello song, I think of my college roommate, who studied and wrote to My Aim Is True, among other Costello albums. A brilliant student, she'd blast music while she did her homework, turning it down with an embarrassed smile whenever someone entered the room. (She was considerate as well as brilliant.)

Although I also love music, I rarely listened to it when studying: I can't really play "background" music while writing or studying, since it usually claims my attention over whatever I'm working on. But sometimes, particularly as a student, I'd wish for a little white noise to tune out distractions: the students chatting next to me at the library, the sound of a neighbor's television through the walls.

Too bad I didn't know about the library's Sounds CDs back then. Today they're my secret weapon: I listen to them whenever I need to tune out the noise around me and concentrate. For example, as I write this, I'm listening to Thunderstorm, an atmospheric, 60-minute CD of, yes, a thunderstorm: rain pouring down punctuated by distant thunder. Do you prefer your rain without thunder? Check out Summer Rain, part of the Atmosphere Collection, which also includes Island Jungle, Waterfall and A Month in the Brazilian Rainforest, among others. But my favorite of all our sounds CDs is The Sea: waves crashing on a shore, distant seagulls, and the occasional, subdued foghorn.

The Sounds CDs are located between our Rock  and Television Music CDs. Just stop by the Readers' Services desk and we'll help you locate them.

What's your preference when writing or doing homework? Music, white noise, nature sounds, the sounds of silence or something else?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Why So Sad?

Have you ever been deep in a book, joyfully immersed in its pages and soaking up each word, then it's as if you hear the Jaws theme in your head and you realize that this is not going to end well. You have been led into a dark place where no happy ending can live. You've been betrayed by a book.

Usually, this realization smacks into me when I reach that vicious twist in the final pages. I still recall finishing the story The Lady, or the Tiger? and throwing the book against a wall. Sometimes, though, that sense of betrayal can creep up on you because the darkness begins at word one. You know the book is melancholy but the writing is so luminous or the tale so engaging that you are tricked into believing there must be light at the end of the tunnel. But no, hope really is lost and all you are left with is unrelenting sadness.

But if readers didn't get anything out of a tear-jerker, the last one published would have been Where the Red Fern Grows back in 1961. Inexplicably, we are drawn to heartbreak, even without the possibility of redemption.

Here are some books that have made me want to crawl back into bed and stay there:
  • Bambi: A Life In the Woods - Yes, it's a children's book, but don't read this classic by Felix Salten if you want a dose of Disney magic.
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes  - It teased me with the promise of miracles but only delivered tears. 
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell - Everything about it, from the exclamation point in the title to its off-beat humor and plucky teen aged heroine, fools you into leaving your tissues in the other room.
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness - I cried through nearly every page and somehow still loved it. 
  • The Road - Cormac McCarthy's writing is radiant. I read it twice but the relentless despair makes it hard to suggest this book to others.
  • 1984 - George Orwell's bleak vision is politically powerful because it is so personally tragic. 
  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates - As a book or a film, it is equally devastating.
Of course, movies have the same power to lead us into a voluntary state of depression: 
  • City of Angels - billed as a date movie, back in the late '90s my date ranted at me for what felt like hours after being ambushed by the surprise ending.  
  • Awakenings - Starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, this film is amazing, but it's the emotional equivalent of Flowers for Algernon.
  • Requiem for a Dream - I have it on good authority that this is not a film for the fragile psyche.
  • Life is Beautiful (La Vita e Bella) - I challenge anyone to walk away unmoved. 

So what is the appeal of the sad stuff? I don't know. All I know is that I am not alone in loving stories that break my heart.  I guess sometimes it feels good to feel bad. Can it be that simple?

What makes you say, "I want to read (or watch) something that is going to make me cry until my eyes are puffy and my nose runs?"

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Soñar en Cubano

Tradition is one of the most powerful forces of human nature--the desire to assimilate can be equally powerful under the right circumstances; this is one of many themes set forth by our November Thursday evening book discussion pick. Set in both Cuba and New York, Dreaming in Cuban, Cristina García’s debut novel, tells the stories of the lives of three generations of Cuban women. It is a novel full of beautifully evoked images which tells a story of the strength of family and the strong influence of politics and superstition. García capitalizes on the profound internal struggle between where we’ve come from and where we’re going when the traditions of our ancestors come into contrast with the realities of modern life.

Please join us on Thursday, November 8th at 7:30 in the evning as we discuss this acclaimed title; we will have the unprecedented opportunity to Skype with the author during the discussion. Special guest Esther Santana, associate professor of Spanish from Northeastern Illinois University, will be in attendance, and authentic Cuban desserts will be served as we discuss the book, and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Cuba.

You can register online, or at the Readers' Services Desk on the third floor of the library. Copies of the book are also available at the third floor desk--hurry, though, they're going fast!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Watch this? Read that! Fall 2012 Edition

Fall always ushers in chilly weather, football, and pumpkin spice lattes. Fall also brings us a fresh batch of television shows. Whether you are waiting for the new season of an old favorite to start or dipping your feet into a debut that looks interesting, there is undoubtedly a book to match your viewing interest at Des Plaines Public Library. Here are some pairings you may like to try:

If you are watching The Office
Show premise: A documentary team follows the everyday antics of a wacky group of coworkers working for a paper company.

Try: Personal Days by Ed King and/or Who Moved My Blackberry? by Lucy Kellaway. Both are takes on the everyday life of office workers and their personal and professional plights.

If you are watching American Horror Story
Show premise: The first season followed a fractured family moving into a haunted, dangerous house. The second season will revolve around the strange and deadly occurrences at a mental asylum.

Try: For the first season try reading Richard Matheson’s Hell House. Stephen King called it the “Mount Everest of haunted houses”, and the malevolent spirits in both stories manipulate the living characters in similar ways.

If you are watching The Mindy Project
Show premise: Mindy’s show is a comedy revolving around a fun female doctor trying to successfully navigate her personal and professional life.

Try: Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner. Cannie finds out her ex-boyfriend has written an expose on their love life entitled “Loving a Larger Woman”, and hilarity ensues as she tries to deal with the scandal. Also the obvious choice: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling.  

If you are watching Nashville
 Show premise: A fading star and new kid on the block compete and reveal some of the dynamics behind the country music industry in this drama.

Try: Fender Benders by Bill Fitzhugh. This humorous, action-packed tale revolves around a country singer hitting it big and learning just how treacherous and wild the country music industry can be.

If you are watching Arrow
 Show premise: Following the footprints of Smallville, Arrow depicts the adventures of DC comic superhero the Green Arrow who functions as a cross between Bruce Wayne and Robin Hood.

Try:  Green Arrow: Year One by Andy Diggle and Quiver by Kevin Smith. Both will get you caught up with the Green Arrow.

If you are watching The New Normal
 Show premise: Two gay men work together with a surrogate mother to have a child in this timely comedy.

Try: Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight? by Dan Bucatinsky. Much like the television series, this memoir explores the day-to-day realities of gay adoption and parenting.

If you are watching Last Resort
 Show Premise: US Navy Officers are declared renegades and must figure out who set them up while trying to survive. 

Try: Exit Plan by Larry Bond. When a US ship is sent to rescue two Iranians who hold key information, their ship is attacked and they are left stranded with little hopes of rescue.

If you are watching Elementary
 Show Premise: A contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes set in America, with Lucy Lui playing Dr. Joan Watson.

Try: Beyond the canon stories, two intriguing interpretations include The Strange Return of Sherlock Holmes by Barry Grant and the short story collection Sherlock Holmes in America by various authors. Grant’s interpretation involves a modern man named James Wilson discovering his roommate may very well be Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes in America has an array of authors placing Holmes in a variety of American settings as he interacts with fictional characters as well as famous people in history.

Any shows I left out or additional matches you can think of? 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Fright Night

Its that time of the year again where the scary and the haunted is popular once more. People decorating their houses to catch some eyes, offices putting out light signs of Halloween and Fall, people stocking up and sugary sweets, children and adults alike shopping for this year's outfit, people snuggling up or biting their nails to a classic or new horror book, among many others things. Aside from Haunted Houses, horror films are my favorite part of October. There are many horror films out there but today I will put out a few of my favorites and hopefully entice you to check them out if your gut is up for the challenge. 

Although the original is definitely all the rave and of course a classic, I feel like the Rob Zombie remake does not get the attention it deserves. This film, set in Haddonfield, Illinois, tells the tale of a boy of the name by Michael Myers who commits a murder of another student. He gets admitted into a child psychiatric ward and starts a fascination with masks. Over time he commits more murders and grows up into the monster that is known everywhere as Michael Myers. He escapes and tries heading to his home after 15 years and collects the mask he had before and the knife he had interest in, and his rampage starts.

The Shining 
This film is definitely one of my favorites and kept me on the edge of my seat once the action started. If you crave suspense and surprise and have not seen this classic film, I do recommend it. The film, stars the character Jack Torrence who gets hired for a job at a hotel, which is built on an Indian Burial Ground. His family comes with and a snowstorm hits the hotel, leaving those in it, snowed in. A supernatural presence takes over Jack's personality and he starts terrorizing and killing everyone in the hotel or ice coffin as you can try putting it. He finally gets the idea to try and take a stab at his wife and son and they try and flee and escape him.

Another classic that feeds on many peoples fear of clowns, this film follows the story of a young boy and eventually a group of young students who meet each other because of one common bully. Pennywise the clown, (portrayed by Tim Curry) can feed on their fears and eventually take their life. They must band together to overcome this evil shape-shifting demon while along the way facing bullies. Again, if you do not like clowns, feel free to watch this and take a risk.

Silent Hill 
This film is taken from the video game series. It follows the main woman, Rose, who is trying to find aid for her adopted daughters ailment. She eventually finds the thought to be a myth town of Silent Hill. After arriving there she finds something wrong with the town immediately as well as finding out the hard way that the town shifts into a nightmare at nights. She uncovers a local cult there and also finds out that her daughter has a link to the town. This film most certainly has creepy elements to it and I do not recommend it if you are squeamish, definitely one of my favorite films of all time. Interestingly after 6 years, the sequel comes out this October 26th, 2012 in 3D. Not recommended for Children.

Saw (Series) 
The Saw Series starts out with the life of John Kramer who kidnaps those who abuse their life. The victims are abusive managers, people who embezzle, bad spouses, those who are not grateful for living among other reasons for kidnapping them. John Kramer aka "Jigsaw" puts them through various physical and mental tests to test their will to live through traps, puzzles and torture. He claims that those who survive will be grateful for their life and be stronger people for it. There are backstories to everyone so don't assume everyone's motives for no reasons.

Those are just a few of the many horror films I recommend you watch. For more screams, terror, suspense and goosebumps, check out these other spine tingling titles:

Friday, October 5, 2012

Homage to Fromage

Can a bad movie be a good time?

When I was in college, my friends and I would hit up the local video store and rent movies that promised to be bad, merely to view as unintentional comedy. I can remember one time in particular, we were watching "Don't Go in the Woods" (the original 1981 version) that opened with a girl running in the woods. At this point, one of my friends exclaimed to the on-screen character, "Oh no! Didn't you listen to the title?!?" This brought everyone else low with laughter and the good time had begun.

Movies can transfix us. They can wring tears from our eyes and wrench our hearts. They can make our breath catch and make us lose it again. They can also make us laugh: either through sharp and witty dialogue, a comedic plot juxtaposition, or simply by a terrible script, plot, effects, etc.

Films that are downright atrocious in their original intent to be taken seriously can be offered a new lease in life if they're viewed with an amused eye, an open mind, and a modicum of patience. It is possible for a bad film to offer a good time if it affords you an opportunity to laugh and enjoy yourself. We have a couple titles in our DVD collection here at DPPL that fall under the description of a bad movie offering a great time (at least in my experience).

The first is a 1971 flick that I can never say the title of with a straight face: Werewolves on Wheels. It is a portrayal of a motorcycle gang that runs afoul of a creepy monk and his Satanic cohorts, causing the cult to transform the bikers into werewolves. Add in the sounds of early '70's psychedelic rock and you have yourself a masterpiece of cheese film. I stuck with it and managed not to lose interest until about an hour and 15 minutes into the film, which is great because it turned out to be only 79 minutes long. I thoroughly enjoyed the simplicity of the plot and recognized the effort the film's creators had put into the concept, but ultimately the reveal of the werewolves was a bit disappointing: they looked someone wearing a ski mask with teeth glued to it, which was in itself pretty funny. What made me pick it up? Well, I could not resist the tagline above the title on the cover: "IF YOU'RE HAIRY YOU BELONG ON A MOTORBIKE!"

The other film that I recommend if you're a fan of B movies is Bubba Ho-Tep. This one has Elvis and an African-American John F. Kennedy living in a nursing home in West Texas where an ancient Egyptian mummy comes calling to devour their souls. The outlandish concept is what places this movie in the "bad movie" category, but overall it was actually a decent comedy. Mystery author Joe Lansdale wrote the screenplay and Bruce Campbell completely nails the part of Elvis, giving it a feel of quality, but the effects were inferior and the story line may be too preposterous for some audiences (i.e. my wife). Bubba Ho-Tep is unique because it is a bad movie and it knows it! (Bruce Campbell has made a living of not taking himself seriously). This movie had me within its first ten seconds, when the definition of "Ho-tep" came on the screen, followed by that of "Bubba".

Does anyone out there agree that bad films still have value? Tell us a few of your favorites!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Happy Birthday Compact Disc

When you get to be my age, time warps a little bit. I still refer to music as "records" or "albums", as in "Have you heard the new U2 record?". So I was astounded to learn the the Compact Disc turned 30 yesterday. 30?  Yes it was introduced on October 1, 1982. It seems like just yesterday I was buying all my music on LP or cassette (I am not quite old enough to have been in on the 8-track craze).

After my initial shock at how old Mr. CD has gotten, I became impressed with his longevity. Thirty years is an insanely long time for anything in technology. And I still love CDs in the same way I loved record albums. I love opening them up, struggling to get the plastic and sticky stuff off and then going through the liner notes, photos and lyrics as I listen to it.

Music purchasing ,borrowing and listening has changed a lot over the years. First there were records, then Cassettes and CDs, and now there is digital content like iTunes and Freegal. I remember someone saying that CDs would be dead within a few years after iTunes came out. But the music CDs at the library still go out at about the same rate as they always have (which is a lot). Folks thought for a while that music would be sold mostly on flash drives but that hasn't caught on. Today I listen to most of my music on my computer, my phone or my iPod. My stereo broke last year and I haven't gotten around to replacing it. Maybe I won't.

Last year the library introduced Freegal, a service in which Des Plaines library card holders can download three songs each week for free. People love it. Their selection includes all of the music from the Sony catalog (which is huge, though not iTunes huge). The link to Freegal is at:


Today I still buy CDs. I occasionally will buy a song on iTunes, and regularly download songs from Freegal. I probably buy fewer CDs, but I cling to the ones I have and I don't want to see them go away.