Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tim Gautreaux Isn't Famous, But He Should Be

Short story writer extraordinaire, Tim Gautreaux
It's easy to exaggerate when talking about a favorite writer. Back in 2008, I wrote: "Tim Gautreaux, in my not so humble opinion, is perhaps our greatest living short story writer."

A lot can change in five years. I've read many more stories since then.

But I still think Tim Gautreaux is America's greatest living short story writer. I still believe that his stories, which often address moral questions, are as close to perfection as it gets, devoid of navel-gazing and the meandering non-plots favored by some of his peers. More importantly, to me anyway, they are stories that  linger in the mind as well as the heart. (Think Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" and Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge.)

If you don't believe me, trust the editors of the prestigious Best American Short Stories anthology, who selected five of his stories for inclusion between 1992 and 2000, including my favorite, "Welding with Children." In that story, the title story in his collection of the same name, a welder whose daughters keep dropping off his grandchildren so that they can go out carousing is torn between resentment towards his daughters, whom he admits he didn’t always do right by when they were young, and his desire to better the lives of his grandchildren, who desperately need a responsible adult in their lives. Here's the opening:

“Tuesday was about typical. My four daughters, not a one of them married, you understand, brought over the kids, one each, and explained to my wife how much fun she was going to have looking after them again. But Tuesday was her day to go out to the casino, so guess who got to tend the four babies? My oldest daughter also brought over a bed rail that the end broke off of. She wanted me to weld it. Now, what the hell you can do in a bed that'll cause the end of a iron rail to break off is beyond me, but she can't afford another one on her burger-flipping salary, she said, so I got to fix it with four little kids hanging on my coveralls."

Did I neglect to mention that Gautreaux's stories are also laugh-out loud funny? Other stories in Welding with Children feature a priest with a drinking problem who is conned into returning a stolen car; an 85-year-old woman who attempts to foil a thief called "Big Blade" with her chicken stew; and a minister who attends a writing conference where he discovers he does indeed have talent only to . . . well, let's just say that the ending is a surprise and the story a cautionary tale about vocation that lingers in the heart and mind.

Because I'm a book geek, I dream not of a favorite sports team winning its season but of the day Tim Gautreaux wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the meantime, I'll be hosting a discussion of the book Welding with Children. You can sign up for the discussion at the 3rd floor Readers' Services desk. To read the rest of the story "Welding with Children," first published in The Atlantic Monthly, click here.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Night Circus

I recently finished reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It was one of those books I had put off time and time again, having been disappointed in the last book taking place in a circus that I read. But I read an excerpt and finally picked it up. I am so glad that I did. This book appealed to a part of me I hadn’t seen in a while—an aesthetically driven, unapologetic romantic.

If I were to use my English-major powers and pick apart this book, I’m sure I would find a lot of flaws. If you are looking for something deeply serious and literary, this may not be the book for you. Some complaints I’ve heard: The characters, while interesting and (in my opinion) by no means one-dimensional, are not the deepest you’ll meet and the plot moves so slowly you can barely tell it’s alive. The love story could be seen as typical Bella-and-Edward, love-at-first-sight, I-don’t-even-care-what-your-personality-is-like-because-I’ve-seen-you-and-I-love-you fare (I personally think it’s more complicated than that, but that’s up to the reader). But none of that really bothered me— like so many characters, I was lost in the magic of the circus.

Morgenstern’s strength lies in her ability to weave this fantasy world of the night circus together, and that’s just what I was looking for. The book is gorgeously atmospheric and practically begs to be filmed (Tim Burton, I am looking at you). The time period is one of my personal favorites, the turn of the 20th century, and is the perfect setting for a story rife with mysticism and other-worldliness. Morgenstern breaks up the book with small chapters written in 2nd person perspective, literally putting you, the reader, right in the story. It’s an unusual device, but it works beautifully. This is a book to be read when all is quiet and you can absorb the flavor that Morgenstern has so carefully brewed for you.

Incidentally, we will be holding a discussion on this book on the first Thursday night in October—the perfect time of year for such a dark and mysterious, magical book. So join us then and let us know what you thought of it! It is also available as an ebook, Kindle format included.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Questions in the Shadows

Awards Season will wrap up this coming weekend with the spectacle and ceremony of the grandaddy of them all, the Oscars. I mention them because a few of the nominated films have provided incredible food for thought lately.

Out of all the major Oscars contenders making the rounds, three have managed to lodge together in my head as almost a single entity: Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty. While completely different in many aspects, the one major thread running through all of these is the spotlight on the United States government and the hurdles overcome, many times from within the government itself, to accomplish tasks of prodigious proportions. More to the point, all three were a narrative focusing on how the actions of individuals can impact the outcome of the system, thus altering national policy and even impacting foreign policy.

The two films of this group depicting the CIA, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, form a syzygy with completely different tones and outcomes. While both offer a sobering view of the image of Americans abroad, Argo was a bit more comfortable to watch while Zero Dark Thirty was a film that needed to be seen but not necessarily enjoyed. While Argo maintained some character exploration and left the viewer with a bit of warmth in their heart, Zero Dark Thirty almost used the hunt for Osama Bin Laden itself as a main character to bleakly accentuate the question, "Where do we go from here?" I will long remember its final scene, and as far as endings go, it is one of my all-time favorites.

As for Lincoln, Spielberg delivers the genius and vision of Abraham Lincoln, no matter the slight massaging of actual history that was used to tell the story. The film was an incredible portrayal of the ultimate power of the American presidency combined with its most humbling limitations. At once an exegesis of Lincoln's personal life as well as an analysis of the workings of mid-19th century politics, Lincoln cast a microscopic view of a pivotal point in our nation's history.

In this sense, Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty all combine to provide the United States of America a long look at itself in the mirror. The questions of "how did we get here?", "who are we today?", "what is ahead of us?", and "how we are perceived by the rest of the world?" all may be in the background as the Oscars wash around us this week. But as awards season flows away, as the lights turn off and the red carpets are put away, these reflections will linger, if not loom. Hopefully we, both as a people and as individuals, can confront these ideas: digest them, be encouraged by our successes, acknowledge our failures, and help create a better world to live in.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors in Film and Fiction

A meteor exploded above the Chelyabinsk region in Russia's Ural Mountains today. Very scary stuff. But what frightens us in real life thrills us in fiction, even things that fall from the sky. Near-Earth objects and their potential for disaster stir our imaginations and inspire writers and filmmakers to create fantasies both credible and incredible. Check out these books and DVDs about near-earth objects and their potential for disaster.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Give us Some Sugar

February is Library Lovers' Month; an entire month dedicated to celebrating, honoring, and preserving libraries of the public, academic, and private varieties. Librarysupport.net offers a variety of suggestions for supporting your library during this auspicious time. Some of their ideas include...

  • Contribute
                              You can contribute time or even books to the library. Books are generally sold at the year-round, or quarterly book-sale managed by the Friends of the Library, and the proceeds are used to fund library programming. If you'd specifically like for a book to be included in our circulating collection, let us know and we'd be glad to incorporate it!

  • Be a Friend
                              The Friends of the Library is an organization which aims to support the library. Volunteers spend their time sorting and selling donations to raise funds and then meet to decide where and how to allocate the money they've earned. They are great supporters, and tremendously appreciated by our staff and patrons!

  •  Volunteer
                             If you don't have enough time to commit to joining the Friends organization, consider volunteering fewer hours in a different capacity. For information on volunteer opportunities call the library at (847) 827-5551 and ask to speak with Heather Imhoff who manages our public relations.

  • Promote
                             Tell a friend! We try very hard at the library to offer programs and materials that are relevant to the interests and needs of our community.  We do our best to promote that effort, but there's no better promotion than your personal recommendation to a friend or family member.

  • Declare your love
                             Write to the Des Plaines Journal about how much we mean to you, or let the city council know. You can even attend a monthly library board meeting and bring your message straight to the scene of the action. All declarations of love are appreciated, but we know the board loves a good sonnet.

So, what do you say, Library Lovers? Will you be our Valentine this February?

Friday, February 8, 2013


 - The Waiter's (aka Steve Dublanica) Waiter Rant

The title quote is one of the memorable moments in Steve Dublanica's witty and insightful memoir of his life as a waiter at very high-end restaurant. I have a "secret" addiction to reading service industry memoirs. I blame it on years of working retail and a curiosity about everyday careers I know nothing about. 

If you ever wanted to know who is really cooking your food or how wild retail customer demands can get, here are the best books exploring the other side of customer service. Just click on the book image to enter the catalog and place your hold.

Kitchen Confidential

Anthony Bourdain's memoir/expose of the restaurant industry intends to reveal what Bourdain calls "twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine."

Retail Hell

Freeman Hall details his experiences as a handbag salesman at "The Big Fancy" aka Nordstrom's, sparing no punches in his descriptions of various customers.

Heads in Beds

Jacob Tomsky's reviews his life working hospitality while teaching his readers the ins and outs of getting out of various hotel fees and scams.

Whatever You Do, Don't Run

Cruising AttitudePeter Allison's career is a little more exotic, but his tales of being a a tour guide highlight some of the adventures of people who work in tourism.

A flight attendant's tell-all about over a decade of flying high and dealing with testy travelers.

Cruise Confidential

Bruns's does for Carnival cruise ships what Bourdain does for restaurants in this raunchy but amusing confidential.

Nickel and Dimed

Ehrenreich's book is a departure from the others on this list. Nickel and Dimed is a critical, fascinating look at various jobs earning minimum wage and qualify as "unskilled" labor.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

This Book Is Insane!

Or it strives to be. I have been reading Insane City, the latest novel by Dave Barry. And it is funny. It makes me giggle and snort out loud as I read it. That in turn makes people look at me funny. This is humor columnist Dave Barry's third novel. In the past when I recommended Barry's novels I would say they are like Carl Hiaasen's novels but funnier (and Hiaasen's books are pretty funny too).

But I am finding that even though I am laughing a lot I am not enjoying this book as much as I expected. Maybe his formula is getting old. It is the same formula: South Florida, oddball characters, implausible plot, intoxication and illegal activity. But that is the same formula as Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard and Tim Dorsey. Dave Barry's first novel Big Trouble was one of the funniest books I have ever read. His second novel, Tricky Business was good too. Maybe it is that the jokes are old. Or maybe I am getting old and crotchety.

I guess what I am saying is that I am enjoying this book and it is making me laugh. It is just not as good as I had hoped it would be. I think what it is missing is the element of surprise. Since I know it will be wacky and since I know that there will be characters and events that come completely out of left field, I am not surprised when they do. I bet if this was the first Dave Barry novel I'd read, I would love it a lot more.

So if you've never read a Dave Barry Novel and want a good laugh do yourself a favor and pick one up. You will laugh. And if you've read his others, this is more of the same.

Friday, February 1, 2013

James Baldwin, Anthologies, and African-American Heritage Month

James Baldwin at his desk
I've been a fan of anthologies ever since I purchased an essay collection for a dollar at a church rummage sale. I can't recall the title, but I'll forever associate it with James Baldwin, whose work I first read in that second-hand volume. The author of some of the most important and searching essays on race, Baldwin was also one of the great stylists of the 20th century. His sentences are, quite simply, among the most beautiful ever written.

Here's the opening to The Fire Next Time, written in the form of a letter to his nephew, James:

"I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times. I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. Like him, you are tough, dark, vulnerable, moody--with a very definite tendency to sound truculent because you want no one to think you are soft."

Baldwin's essays have appeared in a number of anthologies over the years, including The Best American Essays of the Century and The Norton Book of Personal Essays. Anthologies are a great way to explore unfamiliar writers and genres. The library owns anthologies of poetry, essays, stories and more, including many anthologies dedicated to the work of African-American writers. Below are just a few of them:

The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature
The Best African American Essays, 2010
Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate: Looking at the Harlem Renaissance through Poems
Black Noir: Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Stories by African-American Writers
Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor

To see additional African-American literature anthologies, click here.

Which African-American writers have expanded your world, inspired you with their sentences, or, since this is African American History Month, enhanced your understanding of our nation's history?