Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Have (Funny) Audiobook, Will Travel

There is something romantic about the idea of tackling the open road in summer. A warm breeze on your skin as you ride along the interstate, the music blaring as you sing along...if you can only make it through an hour or so of congested Chicagoland traffic.

For those of us with a more realistic sense of what driving in Illinois can be like (painfully gridlocked or utterly boring), audiobooks can help bring some serenity (now) to summer road trips or even just the daily commutes. Especially if those audiobooks can actually make you laugh while stuck in traffic.

 If listening to whole novels seems daunting or even more tedious than the traffic, try some of the great comedic memoirs and recordings in the nonfiction section. A little laughter can help speed along a not-so-pleasant journey, and make you less likely to think ill of fellow drivers. Plus our collection ranges from the best of NPR's Car Talk to Adam Carolla to Tina Fey. They also fit in well with our summer reading theme "Have Book, Will Travel" which starts on June 8th this year.

Whether you are going to the beach, downtown Chicago, or just to work, here are some great comedic audiobooks that can make the trip just a little bit easier:

Friday, May 24, 2013

Beyond the Fireworks

Being a huge fan of American history, this is always been a special time of the year for me. The gaining of our independence and subsequent protection of our freedom is a long tale fraught with courage, determination, and sacrifice. The two films that always leap into my mind when I consider these virtues that have helped fashion the United States of America are Saving Private Ryan and Glory. I can never watch either of these without a lump climbing in to my throat and moisture finding its way into my eye. This year, in order to further recognize the holiday I wanted to gain a bit of perspective of its place in our collective story.

It originally started out in the years immediately after the Civil War when the combined loss of over 600,000 soldiers killed in the conflict created a new cultural focus on burial and remembrance. Its original name was Decoration Day and did not come to be known as Memorial Day until after World War Two. The date of May 30th was originally chosen as it had no affiliation with any specific battle and was a peak time for most flowers to be in bloom, according to White House historical accounts. In 1967 Congress passed legislation causing the holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Monday of May, much to the dismay of veterans who felt this change would weaken the observance of the actual holiday.

So this Memorial Day, let's keep in mind the real purpose of the holiday that is beyond the fireworks and bottles of sunscreen, the bags of charcoal and pool openings. Think of the people in our Armed Forces that are currently overseas and those that have gone on before. It is up to us to recognize what they do and what has been done by others in the past.

How about you, are there any books or films that you like to experience at this time of the year?

I wish everyone a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Family Movie Night

I have recently instituted a family movie night at our house. Every Friday night we make popcorn, sometimes order pizza and sit down for a movie together. But I underestimated how difficult it can be to find just the right movie, one that appeals to everyone. It must be entertaining and engaging enough to captivate my 7-year-old boy while not being too graphic or scary. It also must be grown-up and intense enough for my 19-year-old. And even though this is really for the kids, it should be something my wife and I can enjoy. The point of this is for us all to watch it together. If one of us gets up to do something else then the togetherness aspect failed.

I recall watching movies with my parents and sisters. Some we loved, some we hated, some put us to sleep. Looking back, I barely remember any of the bad ones. However, I remember loving Fiddler on the Roof though I would never admit it. Same with the Wizard of Oz and many others.

For our first movie night we watched E.T., The Extra-terrestrial, which seemed just right. A few others we have tried with varying results (or are soon to try) are the Star Wars films, the Jurassic Park trilogy, The Indiana Jones films, Transformers, The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White & the Huntsman, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Soon we will be doing more of the super hero films like Captain America, X-Men and Superman. As you can see we have stuck mostly to the science fiction and fantasy genres. We have considered some others like the Karate Kid and  the Blind Side, but no one (besides me) got really excited about those. I'd love to mix it up with a classic or not-so-classic oldie, something off the beaten path, or something out of our comfort zone.

What films have you seen that you think would appeal to "everyone" regardless of age, interest or gender?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Books on the Nightstand

“Sleep is good, he said, And books are better.” So wrote George R. R. Martin. The current state of my nightstand illustrates that sentiment perfectly.

This is not my nightstand. A photograph of my nightstand would not be so homey and picturesque. And I do not use anything so practical as a bookshelf beside my bed because I have not fully accepted my book hoarding habit. I chose this image for its piles of books, not artfully arranged like something from the pages of Southern Living, but joyfully askew and well-thumbed.

There is a hierarchy, loose but real, among the stacks that bury my alarm clock. Right now, including an e-book and e-audiobook inside my smart phone, my nightstand is home to 15 books. My current favorites are Kate Atkinson's Life After Life and The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens. I keep them front and center, balanced on an open drawer. Beside those is the tower of books I have yet to start but cannot wait to read, just as soon as I am finished with the books I am already reading. On the floor rests a pair that I am making my way through slowly, a chapter or two at a time: the 1000+ pager I cannot give up on and the latest book club selection. Why is it always harder to do required reading, even when it's a great book? In another pile I've got the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I'm reading that aloud to my kids, then silently continuing to read it once they are asleep. Next comes the mystery I started and didn't much like, but somehow feel I should continue with. I'll probably just skip to the end to see who dunnit. In that same pile are two gems I have already finished but find myself returning to, seeking out the passages I love.

How many books take pride of place at your bedside? Is there only one (no judgement, just asking), or stacks and stacks? Which would you recommend to a friend? Tell us what books are on your nightstand. Here's everything on mine, for now:

Photographic image via theblackapple.typepad.com

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What's Scandalous about Willa Cather's Letters?

For years, biographers and fans of author Willa Cather have speculated about why she forbade the publication of her letters. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the exquisite novel My Ántonia, among others, expressly stated in her will that not only were they not to be published, they were not even to be quoted from.

Now, more than 60 years after death, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather has been published, receiving much attention and landing the author on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. Those who assumed Cather prohibited publication because they contained a scandalous secret or because she was a lesbian who lived with editor Edith Lewis for over 40 years will find nothing particularly shocking in the letters.

What Cather fans will find, and will rejoice in reuniting with, is that  wonderful voice: strong and wise and true, and composed of sentences of such grace and clarity that the foolish will mistake it for simplicity: Cather didn't need to use big words to impress and had little tolerance for writing of the stump-the-reader variety.

Here are a few of my favorite sentences in Cather's Letters:

On her dislike of author photos, particularly her own, on book jackets:  "Myself, I think the public prefers to think that authorines are tall, slender, and nineteen years of age."
On a railroad brakeman she initially found pompous: "Tooker is a different man in the Hills. All his miserable information, the encrustation of a wash of millions of magazines, drops away, just as a boy drops his clothes when he goes swimming, and there emerged the real Tooker, the man the sheep camps and the hills made, a very decent sort, strong and active and lots of nerve."

The above passage will be delightfully familiar to Cather fans, as Tooker bears a strong resemblance Ray Kennedy, the railroad brakeman in her novel The Song of the Lark. Ray's will specifies that Thea, a talented music student, use the money he leaves her to study music in Chicago, where she becomes the person she is meant to be: a great singer and artist.

It is primarily because of Cather's work that readers have any interest in her letters. And if you've never read any Cather, you should begin not with the letters but with the novels themselves, as Cather would have wished. An excellent starting point is her most autobiographical novel, The Song of the Lark, which charts a small-town minister's daughter's growth into a magnificent singer. Cather's prose in this novel, as in all her work, remains remarkably fresh and undated. In the section of the book entitled "Stupid Faces," Thea, experiencing a period of youthful disillusionment, thinks: "So many grinning, stupid faces! . . . She was getting tired of the human countenance." I like, too, the response of  a character to Thea's discouragement over the popularity of bad artists: "You must not begin to fret about the successes of cheap people. After all, what have they to do with you?"

Here's a list of some of Willa Cather's best books, including the letters plus one of her biographies. Read some of them and you, too, will likely love the heroine of My Ántonia, a Bohemian immigrant of whom the narrator writes: "more than any other person . . .  [Ántonia] seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood."