Thursday, October 28, 2010

Items in the Friends Shop.....

Every month I enjoy stopping at the Waterford Library's Friends Shop to check out what neat and exciting displays they have. Interesting toys, stickers, and handmade items for incredibly low prices always make me take a second look, if not buy something. Yesterday I bought this incredibly cool handmade snake that can be used as a decoration or a scarf! Make sure you take a peek next time you drop by!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Power of One.........

I read this book for the first time as a freshman in college. It was "African Week" on campus and the campus bookstore had pulled what it believed to be the fundamental African and African-American books of the century. They had them displayed in the Union--a good twenty of them or so, opened wide and waiting for an owner, or at least someone to peruse them in their spare time. I remember thinking it was quite odd that the display was right next to the potato chips and other deli offerings and so I picked up "Power of One" more or less because I felt sorry for it--nestled between a can of Pringles and plastic forks, it seemed out of place and I was determined to free the book from its miserable consumer-based imprisonment.
I bought the book for twenty dollars and took it home with me; intending if nothing else to read the first few pages and thus pay my homage to "African Week" out of some sense of collegial duty. I got home, plopped my book bag on the floor, and jumped up on my bed to read the first few chapters before hiding myself in the library for the rest of the evening with my psychology homework, and before I knew it the clock read 1 a.m. and I was three quarters through the book with none of my intended psychology homework completed. Oops.
To this day, picking up that book holds a special memory for me, as the Power of One quite literally changed my life.
Written by Bruce Courtenay, The Power of One takes place in South Africa in 1939--just as Hitler's cruel shadow was overtaking the world. The seeds of Apartheid were budding in South Africa....and there, a boy named Peekay is born. His childhood reeks of loneliness and pain and yet he somehow decides that he is going to become a great man--the welterweight champion of the world, in fact, and he would dream heroic dreams. As Peekay navigates school, the world at large, and the realm of boxing, we find ourselves cheering on a young man whose literally facing all the odds. It's a profound story of survival and redemption that once it grabs hold, will not let go.
One of my favorite quotes:
"Always in life an idea starts small, it is only a sapling idea, but the vines will come and they will try to choke your idea so it cannot grow and it will die and you will never know you had a big idea, an idea so big it could have grown thirty meters through the dark canopy of leaves and touched the face of the sky.' He looked at me and continued. 'The vines are people who are afraid of originality, of new thinking. Most people you encounter will be vines; when you are a young plant they are very dangerous.' His piercing blue eyes looked into mine.' Always listen to yourself, Peekay. It is better to be wrong than simply to follow convention. If you are wrong, no matter, you have learned something and you grow stronger. If you are right, you have taken another step toward a fulfilling life."
Well written, Mr. Courtenay. Now...another round, please.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Man Walks Into A Room...........

I recently finished Nicole Kruass's pensive and beautiful novel, "The History of Love", and because there is an extensive hold list for her new book "The Giant's House", decided to go back in time and read her first published novel, "Man Walks Into a Room."
The story revolves around a couple; Samson Greene is a university professor, who at thirty six years old, is discovered to have a brain tumour which ultimately leaves him unable to remember anything. Even his lovely wife Anna, with whom he struggles to reconnect even though he has no recollection of his prior self.
The story is beautifully written and completely heart-breaking--in the sense that you may need some gelato and champagne while reading this; not the heart-breaking type where you reach for an aspirin, or perhaps a handkerchief.
"......It was the vivid color of the memory that startled him, a luminous blue. It was all around him, warm and smooth, and moving through it toward the glow of light he could hear muted sounds that seemed to come from a great, impassable distance.."
This is a swift-moving, thought provoking book I think proves Nicole Krauss as a gifted writer long before "History of Love" hit the shelves. Pick it up; its worth it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Elementary Particles

Although I had heard of Michel Houellebecq before, this was the first novel of his I've delved into. The Elementary Particles created somewhat the controversy in France when it was released, and did so on a smaller scale when it was translated into English and brought to our American shores. The Economist writes that "Houllebecq is France's biggest literary sensation since Francoise Sagan, people are saying Since Albert Camus." While that is an extraordinary comment to make, I must say that in some ways I agree. Although I think the reference to Camus may be a bit over the top, I did enjoy this book for its dark humour and candid style.
The novel is about two half brothers who struggle...with...basically everything; after being raised by "hippie" parents who are the epitome of hedonism. Michel becomes a renowned scientist incapable of love, and Bruno basically exists in his own underground version of life which consists of sex, drinking, and decrepit thoughts. He too, finds it almost impossible to love another human being.
While sounding totally depressing, (and it is), I think the author captured the essence of loneliness, perversion, and the will to survive (no matter how dreadful our existence) incredibly well. While this book is not a "feel good read", I do think it will spark an interest in some readers and indeed there will be those that consider it one of the great contemporary novels of our time. It is dreary. It is slightly perverse. It is maddening. But the glimmer of humanity that punctuates every couple of chapters is worth the bumpy ride. While I would hesitate to recommend this book to many people; it certainly would suit a certain "niche" of readers. I being one of them. I will read more by this author in the future.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Franzen not among Award Finalists

NEW YORK – It's the Great American Snub.

Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," the year's most highly praised and talked about literary novel, was not among the fiction finalists announced Wednesday for the National Book Awards.

Nine years ago, Franzen won for "The Corrections" and his latest book was a sensation even before its release, the subject of a Time magazine cover story and rave reviews and so in demand that President Obama obtained an early copy. Oprah Winfrey picked "Freedom" for her book club, even though Franzen's ambivalence in 2001 over her choosing "The Corrections" had led her to cancel his appearance on her show.

Nominees on Wednesday included Peter Carey, whose "Parrot and Olivier in America" was a runner-up for the Man Booker Prize, and such well-regarded authors as Nicole Krauss ("Great House") and Lionel Shriver ("So Much for That"). The book awards also welcomed a rock star, Patti Smith, a nonfiction contender for "Just Kids," a memoir about her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; and an attorney, poetry finalist Monica Youn ("Ignatz"), whose day job is with the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.

Two Beijing-based journalists for the Los Angeles Times, Barbara Demick ("Nothing to Envy") and Megan K. Stack ("Every Man in This Village"), were nonfiction contenders, while previous nominees Rita Williams-Garcia ("One Crazy Summer") and Walter Dean Myers ("Lockdown") were finalists for young people's literature.

Winners, each of whom receive $10,000, will be announced at a ceremony Nov. 17, hosted by humorist Andy Borowitz.

Franzen's book wasn't the only notable work not selected. Among the non-nominees were such novels as Karl Marlantes' "Matterhorn" and Tom Rachman's "The Imperfectionists," Ron Chernow's 800-page biography of George Washington and Edmund Morris' third and final book on Theodore Roosevelt.

"Obviously, `Freedom' is the big book of the year, but the question is what the National Book Awards are supposed to honor," said Harold Augenbraum, exeuctive director of the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization that presents the awards. "We tell the judges just to look at the books and that outside chatter is not important. We go with that every year."

Established in 1950, the book awards are chosen in each category by five-member panels of fellow writers, with judges changing each year.

Two authors from small presses were fiction finalists: Jaimy Gordon, whose "Lord of Misrule" was released by McPherson & Company; and Karen Tei Yamashita's "I Hotel," published by Coffee House Press.

John Dower, a National Book Award winner in 1999 for his study of post-World War II Japan "Embracing Defeat," was a nonfiction nominee for "Cultures of War," which unfavorably contrasts the occupation of Iraq with U.S. policy after Japan surrendered in 1945. The other nonfiction finalist was Justin Spring's "Secret Historian," a biography of the gay author and collector Samuel Steward.

Besides Youn, poetry nominees were Kathleen Graber's "The Eternal City," Terrance Hayes' "Lighthead," James Richardson's "By the Numbers" and C.D. Wright's "One With Others." Young people's literature nominees included Paolo Bacigalupi's "Ship Breaker," Kathryn Erskine's "Mockingbird" (a tribute in part to Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird") and Laura McNeal's "Dark Water."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Auslander? I don't think so....

I'm due for a vacation. In fact, I'm so due for a vacation that I've enrolled myself in a German Course at MSOE just so that I'm "part of the action" when I return to Vienna in November to visit some friends I made when I briefly lived there in my undergrad. I don't want to sound like a typical "American" when ordering Austrian food and I certainly don't want to disappoint my friends when thy naively believe I remember any amount of the German I learned when I lived there with them. Basically, I just don't want to sound like a complete idiot; even if I am one.

So, I've enrolled in a course and am re-learning things I would have found laughably easy in 2003--and surprise (!) it's paying off. As my German knowledge and fluency are slowly starting to escape from the trenches of my brain (way, way back), I have found myself with a confidence and assurance that tells me come November, I will not be an outsider. Or, as an Austrian would "Auslander." Eek!

I have also checked out a myriad of books, audiotapes, and MP3 players in an effort to refine myself. Some of them I put on hold, some of them I found here at the Waterford library. In doing so, I realized that we often forget these types of materials are available for our use..and get this....for free!

A gentleman came into the library recently who'd been on a Mission Trip to Mexico and asked me where our Spanish materials were. I showed him a few options that I thought he'd find useful and he thanked me and said, "It was am amazing experience and I'd like to do it again. But I'd like to do it sounding a bit less like an idiot. I should at least know some basics, don't you think?" And I shook my head in agreement knowing EXACTLY how he felt. The effort to look as less idiotic as possible is, I'm sure, universal in nature. Or so I'm starting to believe.

If you ever have the travel bug or simply want to seem more intelligent than you probably are, feel free to head to the library to grab some language skill tools that will definitely help you solve that problem (at least until your trip is over). We carry a variety of MP3 players that teach Spanish which means you can literally do laundry, go for a run, or garden all while becoming the next bi-lingual wonder. We even circulate a Rosetta Stone Spanish program on a laptop! (See what wonders can be found at the library)?

So, as this great man heads back to Mexico to do great deeds and I head to Austria to probably gain ten pounds eating schnitzl, I hope we both feel a bit more intelligent and confident having a small gem in our arsenal: access to our local Waterford library.


Friday, October 1, 2010

Nixons attempts at "Poisoning the Press"

via NPR:

In Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture, Mark Feldstein describes the epic battle between Nixon and the muckraking syndicated columnist Jack Anderson. Feldstein follows the rise of Anderson's investigative journalism career and explains how his decades-long face-off with Nixon would become emblematic of the relationship between the press and other politicians.

Feldstein tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that the fight between the two men started shortly after Anderson first got his big break in 1947, when he moved to Washington, D.C., to become a researcher for the syndicated investigative journalist Drew Pearson.

Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture
By Mark Feldstein
Hardcover, 480 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List Price: $30
Read an Excerpt

"[Pearson] dominated Washington from the Great Depression until his death in 1969," Feldstein explains. "And [he] was this combative Quaker who used his column to smite his foes. He fought on the side of progressivism [and] pacifism and was an unusual left-wing voice in the nation's capital."

One of Pearson's foes was Richard Nixon, who had been elected to Congress in 1946 and became a Senator in 1950. In 1952, after Nixon was tapped to become Dwight Eisenhower's running mate, Anderson and Pearson wrote a column about the money Nixon may have taken from corporate interests. That led to Nixon delivering his famous "Checkers speech," in which he decried his opponents and stated that no matter what anyone said, he would not return his daughters' dog, Checkers, which had been given to them as a gift.

"That resonated emotionally with the public, and a huge base — particularly of hard-core Republican conservatives — swelled to his defense and pressured Eisenhower to keep Nixon on the ticket," Feldstein explains. "Meanwhile, liberal Democrats were nauseated by it and thought it was a maudlin speech. And the polarization that Nixon's career would have ever after was indelibly marked."

After Nixon effectively dodged the bullet by giving the Checkers speech, Anderson and Pearson stayed on his case, but were plagued by scandals of their own. The two men published a story about Nixon receiving payoffs from Union Oil that later turned out to be false. And in 1958, when Anderson was caught bugging the office of a man bribing Eisenhower's White House chief of staff, it was Nixon who helped stoke the flames to turn the public against Anderson.

Mark Feldstein was an on-air correspondent and investigative reporter for CNN, ABC News and NBC News for more than 20 years.

morgan-ashcom Mark Feldstein was an on-air correspondent and investigative reporter for CNN, ABC News and NBC News for more than 20 years.
"He plant[ed] letters and editorials criticizing Anderson," Feldstein says. "So from that beginning, you have Nixon now retaliating against Anderson, and you have this sense that these dirty tricks are the way Washington works."

In the two decades that followed, the conflict became so ferocious, Feldstein says, that Nixon ordered CIA surveillance of Anderson and his family — and White House operatives seriously considered assassinating the journalist.

"They actually conducted surveillance. They followed him from his work to his house," Feldstein says. "They staked out his house. They looked at it for vulnerabilities ... [and dicussed] how they could plant poison in his aspirin bottle. They talked about how they could spike his drink and they talked about smearing LSD on his steering wheel so that he would absorb it through his skin and die in a hallucination-crazed auto crash."

The plot was ultimately called off, Feldstein says, because Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, the two men who were supposed to assassinate Anderson, were instead tapped to break into Watergate.

Related NPR Stories

'Poisoning The Press' Recounts Nixon-Anderson Feud
Mark Feldstein examines what is likely an all-time low in U.S. journalist-politician relations.
Schorr Flashback: Nixon On Pursuing Journalists On Taxes

July 23, 2010
Journalist, Nixon Speechwriter William Safire

Sep. 28, 2009
Scars Remain 35 Years After Nixon's Misdeeds

Aug. 8, 2009
'Life Lessons' From a White House Plumber

Sep. 17, 2007
"That led to their arrest and the downfall of the regime," Feldstein says. "[But] there are no smoking-gun tapes showing Nixon ordering the assassination of Anderson. What Hunt and Liddy both said was that the order came from [White House special counsel] Charles Colson. But what Hunt told me before his death was that he believed that Colson was acting at the behest of the president himself. ... I find it very difficult to believe that Colson and the other aides were acting without the implicit support of President Nixon. It defies logic to imagine that they would cook this up, the assassination of a journalist as prominent as Jack Anderson, unless they had the signal from above to do it."

President Nixon died in 1994. Jack Anderson died in 2005. Feldstein, who interned for Anderson in the 1970s, spent nearly 20 years as a television correspondent and investigative reporter for CNN, ABC and NBC, twice winning the Peabody Award for public service. He is now an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

Beware of Blurbs....


Over at the Guardian site, they're holding a contest for who can write the most ludicrous blurb for a Dan Brown novel, with predictably hilarious results. The inspiration for this antic is a pre-publication blurb written by Nicole Krauss, author of "The History of Love," for the new novel by David Grossman, "To the End of the Land." The literary blog Conversational Reading lodged the initial objection to Krauss' blurb, which was prominently printed on the front cover of the advance reader's copy:

Continue reading

Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before. "To the End of the Land" is a book of this magnitude. David Grossman may be the most gifted writer I've ever read; gifted not just because of his imagination, his energy, his originality, but because he has access to the unutterable, because he can look inside a person and discover the unique essence of her humanity. For twenty-six years he has been writing novels about what it means to defend this essence, this unique light, against a world designed to extinguish it. "To the End of the Land" is his most powerful, shattering, and unflinching story of this defense. To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.

Even the book's publisher seems to have realized that Krauss' praise is over-the-top and a bit icky; a commenter at Conversational Reading reported that his ARC of the novel featured an abbreviated version of the blurb.

It's easy to ridicule Krauss for this hyperbolic extravaganza, but in her defense, she's not a critic or an ad copywriter; she's a novelist. She didn't get paid to write that phalanx of clich├ęs, and chances are she'd have preferred not to. It was a favor, intended to help out a fellow author.

The conventions and excesses of blurbology do invite mockery. (The term "blurb" is sometimes mistakenly used for the publisher-generated description printed on a book's dust jacket -- that's actually the flap copy. "Blurb" really only applies to bylined endorsements by other authors or cultural figures.) Like anything that people would rather not do, blurb-writing usually isn't done very well. So why is it done at all? Because you, dear reading public, persist in giving credence to it. Please stop.

For those unfamiliar with the process, here's how it works. Once a reasonably finished draft of a manuscript has been completed, the author, at his publisher's insistence, begins the grueling and humiliating process of begging blurbs from better-known writers. The aim is to score praise from established authors whose work has a similar appeal -- a wacky, gay-positive memoirist will try for Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris; a female writer of mordant short stories approaches Mary Gaitskill, and so on -- but these can be nearly impossible to obtain.

The most prominent authors are inundated with such manuscripts, far more than they can ever read, especially if they hope to get on with their real job -- which is, of course, writing their own books. Many have adopted a blanket no-blurb policy, and most of these will at least occasionally wind up departing from that policy, usually for personal reasons. They might do it for a good friend or a former student, or as a favor to their editor or agent.

So when publishing people look at the lineup of testimonials on the back of a new hardcover, they don't see hints as to what the book they're holding might be like. Instead, they see evidence of who the author knows, the influence of his or her agent, and which MFA program in creative writing he or she attended. In other words, blurbs are a product of all the stuff people claim to hate about publishing: its cliquishness and insularity.

And, in fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in publishing who wouldn't agree with that judgment. Everyone seems to hate the process, from the authors who are compelled to plead for blurbs to the publishing professionals who have to lash their authors onto it, to the blurbers themselves, who often wind up walking a knife's edge between honesty and generosity. It stands to reason that, if many blurbs are bestowed for extraliterary reasons like friendship or professional collegiality, then many of them are insincere.

Faint or highly strategic praise is a sign that the blurber was less than enthralled by the work. Perhaps in such cases the blurber ought to refuse to endorse the book at all, but this is hard to do if the author knows you've already read the manuscript. It would invariably lead to awkwardness and hurt feelings when the whole point of agreeing to do the blurb in the first place was to avoid both. "A sweet tale of first impressions, second chances" -- to take one example from a blurb for a book that shall remain unnamed -- is a quintessential example of noncommittal blurbology. ("Sweet" is, in my experience, not a word anyone uses to describe a novel they genuinely like.)

When even mediocre works get glowing blurbs, you end up with praise inflation. Without a doubt Nicole Krauss truly admires David Grossman, an Israeli author of impeccable international credentials but a relatively small American audience. He's older and more accomplished than she is, but she's had more success stateside and was recently named one of the best 20 fiction writers under 40 by the New Yorker. Like many young authors who have scored a hit among their peers, she's eager to do what she can to draw more readers to a novelist she regards as a master.

But to convey the full power of her enthusiasm, Krauss has to distinguish her blurb from the usual run of exaggerated approval. Even a practiced critic can testify that positive reviews are the hardest of all to write, so when a relative novice is obliged to ratchet up her compliments to the stratosphere in, say, 100 words or less, is it any wonder that the results are atrocious?

Most of the people involved in this system are well-meaning: Blurbers want to help other authors, publishers want to win more attention for their books, and authors want to do everything they can to prove that their publishers' faith in their work has been justified. The result, however, is broken and borderline (sometimes outright) corrupt.

A few celebrated authors have made a point of regularly seeking out and championing books by writers with whom they have no connection -- Stephen King is the most prominent example. (That said, I haven't found King's recommendations particularly useful.) But overall, blurbs just aren't very meaningful. Yet, apart from a minority of skeptics, much of the public still seems to take them at face value. One British publisher claims to have seen research showing that as many as 62 percent of book buyers choose titles on the basis of blurbs.

Anecdotal evidence from online discussions and personal experience confirms this baffling preference. "I liked [Sara Gruen's] 'Water for Elephants,'" said a woman I spotted studying a copy of Lynn Cullen's "The Creation of Eve" at my local bookstore, "so maybe I'll like this one, too." (Gruen called Cullen's book "enormously satisfying.") I haven't read either book myself, so I can't weigh in on any similarity between them; for all I know Gruen meant every word of that praise. But when I suggested to this reader that blurbs can be unreliable, she glanced at me as if I were the one with the ulterior motive, nodded vaguely and drifted away, book in hand.