Pandemic Reads

Against a deep blue night sky, light glows within canvas tents set against a stone wall.

By Eric L.

If you’re reading this, you probably like books. And you may, like me, find and pick stories to read that you can relate to irrespective of time and place. That said, thanks to the fantastic members of my HCLS book discussion group (Read. Think. Talk. First Monday of the month at 7 pm) for suggesting Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (also an ebook, eAudiobook, and an audiobook on CD) and The Plague by Albert Camus (also an eAudiobook). We discussed the former title as a group and it made for a good conversation.

I tend to want to know about the human experience, although some things are just too sad right now. To be sure, both of these books are sad, but I’ve definitely read more melancholy stories. What’s more, I’d contend these reads put the global pandemic in perspective. So, if you feel as though you’re up to it, I recommend these titles (I can completely understand if you’d prefer not to read about plagues and pandemic.).

Station Eleven was a good book, a suspenseful page turner with many likeable characters and some interesting commentary on the modern world and celebrity. It is scheduled to be an HBO miniseries, but unfortunately the filming was stopped due to the pandemic. Emily St John Mandel’s latest book (The Glass Hotel) made President Obama’s Best of 2020 list.

A nonlinear story, the book recounts a much deadlier and contagious flu from the outbreak to the post-apocalyptic world that remains after much of the population and civilization are wiped out. The story revolves around an aging actor and his tangential relationships. The characters include his two ex-wives (one of whom is a shipping executive/comic book artist and writer), a self-declared prophet, his business consultant best friend, a paramedic, a child actor, and a Shakespearean acting troupe and symphony traveling around the Great Lakes region of North America. The individual daily experiences told from the perspectives of these characters, pre, during, and post the pandemic, are compelling. Moreover, their individual stories intersect in creative ways. 

As mentioned before, I will concede that Station Eleven has some disturbing parts. For me, and probably for most American readers existing in relative comfort, the transition from the modern world to a more primitive existence is frightening. In some ways the inability of society to stop the unraveling seems improbable, but not impossible. I do think a cursory analysis of what holds society together can be a bit horrifying. 

After completing Station Eleven, I really wanted to read The Plague by Albert Camus. Camus is known as a philosopher of sorts, although he denied being an “existentialist,” he is perhaps an “absurdist.” Put simply, Camus’ books examine the random aspects of human existence but not in as overly academic way. Instead, I’d contend he uses fiction to spin a thoughtful tale. I’ve read The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, and I recommend both, but The Plague is particularly apropos right now. 

A stark black background is covered with scattered white dots, some of which merge to form larger spaces where the title and author's name appear.

The Plague describes the beginning of an outbreak of a plague in a small coastal town that is too busy to be bothered with such things. The story gets much deeper into the actual outbreak and day-to-day management of the plague from the perspective of a narrator whose identity is only revealed in the end (I found this interesting). 

The reactions of the characters to the plague vary and are indicative of human feelings throughout time. For example, one character is determined to break the law and escape the quarantined town to be with a loved one. Camus adroitly addresses the feelings we all share to some extent, immortality, and that need to believe that it won’t happen here, happen to me, etc. These sentiments shape our collective response to situations like a pandemic. This is in no way an indictment, but rather a recognition of human nature. I certainly recalled my similar reaction to other epidemics, and I assumed the Coronavirus would unfold for me in a similar way. That is, abstract, contained, and impacting other people, but not my daily life. 

Camus’ idea is that terrible things, such as plagues, are inevitable. Moreover, we are all susceptible to some random demise. My favorite character in Station Eleven, Clark, recognizes this fact and angrily points it out to religious zealots who believe they’re in some way chosen because they survived. I don’t think it’s healthy for us to ruminate about the fact we could cease to exist at any minute. (It is odd that Albert Camus met what he would’ve described as an “absurd” end in a car crash at age 46.)  Perhaps living through these things, will enable us to remember and collectively take it more seriously, sooner. Some contend that Camus’ recognition of the fragility of humans and society is to engender a kinder world. 

So as not to end this post on a very depressing note, I believe both authors are optimistic about humanity. Camus and Mandel both highlight the joy that comes from being with each other and the many pleasures of life. They describe the simple pleasures of swimming, dancing, art, friendship, dogs (I certainly love all these things). These are the things that keep the characters from giving up despite grave circumstances. Conversely, both authors astutely highlight the things that perhaps we deem important, but really are not. 

Here’s hoping I’m reading and writing about books concerning rainbows next year! 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Intimations by Zadie Smith

The book cover shows a gray hallway with slotted windows and light coming through them to land on the floor and the opposite wall, which curves away from the viewer toward a dark entryway.

By Eric L.

I recall the first time I read something in the New Yorker by Zadie Smith nearly a decade ago. It was a nonfiction story about Joni Mitchell entitled “Some Notes on Attunement: A Voyage Around Joni Mitchell.” It was a nonfiction personal reflection about how she, a woman of color, had no interest in the music of a white folk singer, who on the surface would have nothing at all in common with her despite her friends’ incredulous responses concerning her cluelessness.

Smith describes how she realized her youthful stubbornness and closed-minded self as the culprit. The essay was about her own change and growth and the change of Joni Mitchell as an artist (she is pretty great by the way). Probably much like all people that love books, artists, writers, and the like, I felt a connection to Zadie Smith. I liked her style, her attitude, and her contemplative nature. And I can certainly relate to the glib rejection of things I didn’t think were for me. I subsequently realized we’re the same age, although other than that, we are very different on the surface I may not have guessed her writing was the sort of thing I’d love, but I do.

At any rate, her new essay collection, Intimations, is a book of very short essays written just prior to and during the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. The essays include the commonplace and ordinary events of everyday life, set into a broader, more abstract context. Obviously, I have a bias in this matter, but her essays and style are perfect for this moment. Smith’s ability to relate everyday individual experiences into a much more abstract concept is nonpareil. I found the essays particularly poignant now that I miss, and have ample time to ruminate about, the quotidian things of my pre-socially distant life.

There is an essay about our desire, or our need, to fill up time with things to do. One entitled “Suffering Like Mel Gibson,” (I’m a sucker for a strange title) that is hardly at all about the actor. Instead, it’s a piece about suffering and privilege, and how we ought to consider these separately, and not discount the feelings of others. Smith even describes the moment when she recognized her own class privilege. She has a series of very short character sketches about the people in her neighborhood and their respective reactions to the looming pandemic in America. “Peonies” is a very entertaining piece about flowers, control, aging, being a woman, and the coronavirus. The penultimate essay, “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus,” is arguably the best: it begins with a description of the global pandemic, her experience in England (where she has gone after leaving New York), and “herd immunity,” then gets into the murder of George Floyd and racism as a virus we all spread and suffer. It’s a masterfully done and moving piece. All the essays are excellent, but this one alone is worth picking up the book.

Since that first essay, I’ve read almost all of her essays. However, I must admit that I liked, but did not love, her most famous fictional work, White Teeth. No matter; for me, she excels in the essay genre. I’d highly recommend Grand Union and Feel Free (which includes a great story about a library), as well.

Smith’s ability to display so much humility and not only admit, but describe in detail, her foibles and ignorance is something I really respect. Perhaps this is the very opposite of the cultural atmosphere in the United States.

Intimations is available at HCLS in print, in large print, and in eBook and eAudiobook format through OverDrive/Libby.

All royalties Smith earns from this book are donated to The Equal Justice Initiative and The COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Veterans Day and Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five arches in a tombstone shape above the subtitle, Or the Children's Crusade, and the author's name.

By Eric L.

We celebrate Veterans Day today, November 11, and it’s not just an extra day off each year. As a young person, I didn’t realize the significance of the date and why it doesn’t float like similar holidays. Veterans Day was not explained to me in school; in fact, the significance of the First World War wasn’t very clear until I took a college-level class. However, I won’t blame my teachers; there is a high probability that I was not paying attention.

I have always liked history because it seems like a big story, and I love those. I still, fortuitously, fill the gaps of my historical knowledge through books, very often through fictional stories as a gateway to the actual events. So please read them, you can borrow them for free

Kurt Vonnegut is arguably one of my favorite writers for his indefatigable humanism and wit. Sadly, I’m a huge fan of what people call gallows humor. He served in combat for the U.S. Army during the Second World War. In short, he was captured, detained as a prisoner of war, survived the fire-bombing of Dresden as a POW, and experienced horrifying things. His work Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death addresses this experience. The title refers to the former slaughterhouse where he and other POWS were held, and the fact that they were really children when they fought the war. Many of his works are about war and post-traumatic stress it causes. Strangely, Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922, what would become Veterans Day.

In my opinion, the prefaces of his books, as well as his memoir Man Without a Country (also in audio) are nearly as good as the novels. I find them hilarious. In the preface to Breakfast of Champions (available in ebook, eAudio, or this collection), he describes how Armistice Day marked the end of the First World War. The cease-fire was declared on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Vonnegut poetically said,  

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me
in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we
still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke
clearly to mankind (504-5, Novels and Stories 1962-1973).

I can only imagine that, to a battlefield veteran, the silence of a cease-fire must indeed have sounded like providence. Vonnegut said that Armistice Day was “sacred,” I assume because it meant an end to fighting in the War to End All Wars. I’m fairly confident he supported veterans of all types, but I too hope the idea of a cease-fire is still “sacred.”  

I very much appreciate the veterans of the military. I admire their courage, and I especially admire my late Grandmother who served as a combat nurse during the Second World War. 

Check out HCLS’s list of titles to remember and celebrate our nation’s military heroes this Veterans Day.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Local Bike Rides

The photograph depicts a bike trail road sign in green and white against a blurry background of yellow fall leaves.  The bike is beneath a green arrow pointing to the right.

By Eric L.

Autumn is wonderful time, and it’s my favorite. I always enjoy how the humidity fades and cooler air takes its place. As my bio reads, I do really enjoy being outside in nature. Numerous studies show that it is healthful just to be outside.  

I’d recommend that if you’re able, get out there on a bike. Maybe you have a neglected one around the house, or could borrow one to try it out. You do not need an expensive bike and spandex to have fun – just a bike, a helmet, and some comfortable clothing. Start slow, just take a short ride around your neighborhood away from traffic.  

Speaking with people at bike shops, I’ve discovered they’re short on bikes to sell and appointments for repairs and maintenance. Therefore, I’d encourage you to watch this short video I made for the library about how to perform some simple maintenance and change a flat tire. You can borrow, via contactless pickup, a bike tool kit, a pump, and even a professional bike repair stand at the DIY Education Center at HCLS Elkridge Branch.  

After that, you can do a quick internet search on all the great spots to cycle in the Baltimore metro area. I’ll give you a few of the ones I like, all of which provide a nice scenic autumn ride. Find a friend (I think biking is more fun with company), but you may want to avoid any tandem bikes as a beginner and with social distancing guidelines. 

The BWI loop is a paved trail that essentially goes around the airport; it’s about 12.5 miles and does have some hills. It has a nice playground on the loop, if you’re with little ones and an observation area to watch planes.  

The B&A Trail, connected to the BWI loop, is a smooth, fully paved trail which goes all the way to Annapolis. It’s a very pleasant ride, and you need not do the entire thing, just whatever is in your comfort range. There are numerous spots where people get on and off the trail.  

The Grist Mill trail in the Avalon area of the Patapsco Valley State Park was closed for long period of time, but is open (as of now) and is a very smooth and scenic ride. It passes by a swinging bridge and where the Bloede dam was removed (which I find pretty cool to view). What’s more, if you’re more adventurous, the Patapsco Valley State Park has miles of great trails for mountain biking. To be sure, it’s not for beginners (the DIY center can lend you trekking poles if you’d prefer to take a nice long walk to see the park instead). 

My personal favorite of late is the NCR trail, which begins in Timonium and goes all the way to York, PA. This trail is mostly gravel and thus requires a hybrid, mountain, or basically a bike with anything other than super skinny “road” tires. I ride it frequently from Monkton Station to New Freedom, PA. The NCR is slightly uphill (you don’t even notice at times) heading north and thus a slight downhill on the return south. 

You will encounter some folks, as these trails are more popular than in previous years with many looking for socially distanced activities, especially on the weekend. But don’t be intimidated, just let those riding fast pass on by, and stay on your side of the trail. And again, keep in mind to just have a good time and enjoy the beautiful season! 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

I Am Not Your Negro

Review by Eric L.

The title itself should take you back to a time and parlance that we, as a country of “free” citizens, should have moved past long ago. Sadly, we have not. 

I am Not Your Negro is a great introduction to James Baldwin. Filmmaker Raoul Peck worked on the project for nearly a decade (a recent article by Peck in The Atlantic entitled James Baldwin Was Right All Along is a great primer). The film offers a potent collage of civil rights era footage, recent Black Lives Matter protests, interviews, and debates that feature Baldwin speaking (captivating), as well as the narration of excerpts from an incomplete manuscript read by actor Samuel L. Jackson, tentatively entitled Remember This House.  

The 1979 manuscript concerns Baldwin’s reluctant return to America after a long sojourn in France. The nonfiction piece, a pensive essay on racism in America, details his relationship with, and observations of, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin refers to himself as a “witness” of these three titans of the civil rights movement, all murdered before the age of 40. Baldwin explicitly states that he’s not missing his native land; the impetus for his return seems out of a sense of guilt that America’s serious racial divide is an abstraction to him while living abroad.  

Baldwin succinctly states that “segregation equals apathy and ignorance,” as they are forces very difficult to overcome. His assessment of Americans’ sense of reality and the reasons for it should give us all something to contemplate. I love good writing, and Baldwin’s prose is beautiful. I believe this is why some have compared his essays to those of George Orwell (I encourage you to read his essays, too. I’m a huge fan). I would describe both as moral or political artists, and perhaps I appreciate their contemplative tone.

As a side note, Baldwin’s fictional  Another Country, included in PBS’s the Great American Read, made for a great discussion in my book group. The narrative deftly examines race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, power, and anger. The nonfiction title The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays, one a letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew. I find them both beautifully written and compelling.  

Perhaps it’s a positive sign that the aforementioned materials are currently in high demand and hard to borrow, both in print and digitally, so just start by streaming the film on Kanopy. It is well worth your time! 

It some ways it seems odd that someone like me is writing this piece. If you met me you’d quickly realize that I’m close to the apex of privilege in America for a variety of reasons. I’m well aware of this fact, though I wasn’t always. I’d proffer that sometimes single words such as “privilege” become overused, politicized, and more importantly, lose their intent. This is precisely why we should all contemplate our world, and art is an engaging way to do so. 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

The cover shows a dark background with the title and author's name in slate blue graphics. The letters look like they are dissolving into stars, with the dark background as outer space.

By Eric L.

Ted Chiang is not only a writer, he’s a computer scientist who is employed as a technical writer, as far as I know. This is Chiang’s second short story collection (a story from his previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Otherswas adapted into the movie Arrival). 

Frankly, I was rather surprised that Exhalation was selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best fictional books of 2019, but it’s well deserved. That said, I’d implore you to give this collection a read even you’re not into sci-fi. These stories, like all great science fiction, are only superficially about science and the future.  

Although Chiang alludes to the technical aspects of whatever he’s describing, it’s all just the backdrop. Like all the great sci-fi writers, he uses imagined technological advancements of the future as the setting to tell beautiful existential tales. His stories concern how societies employ technology and, subsequently, how it changes individuals in profound ways.

There is a story about “raising” a computer program/avatar that not only interacts in virtual reality, but also actual reality. One story concerns a rigid time travel portal; another is about the perils of a robot nanny; an interesting one is about a mechanism attached to the eye that can record every moment (you can share the footage with your friends). My favorite features a machine that gives users the ability to communicate with a version of themselves that has made different life choices. 

I hope these descriptions will not scare readers away. It seems odd to even contemplate how rapid technological advancement could not change us. Some of the stories are better than others but they’re all worth a read, and I don’t think they’re overly melancholy. Recurring themes include acceptance, free will, masculinity, and control.  

I find Chiang’s work similar to that of Philip K. Dick. Chiang even describes how one of the stories included was inspired by an old Dick short story. Although I wanted to interpret the stories myself, I couldn’t resist reading the story notes at the end of the collection.

Special thanks to my book discussion group for helping me think through some of these ideas through a conversation over the internet.

Exhalation is also available as an eaudiobook through OverDrive/Libby and CloudLibrary, and as an ebook through OverDrive/Libby

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside and people.

Consumer Reports Online

By Eric L.

Often, when I give customers an overview of Howard County Library System’s resources, people are surprised by all that we offer online. As I show them the brochure, I explain that among the other great databases and online resources, they can access Consumer Reports through hclibrary.org with their library card and pin number. They are normally flabbergasted (maybe a strong adjective).  

To get started, browse by Resource Category on the HCLS Now! Research page of our website. You’ll find Consumer Reports listed under Consumer Ratings & Reviews.

To be sure, this is full access to the Consumer Reports website, just like an individual subscription except for the ability to customize the account (sorry, it’s the library’s account). Researching even the smallest purchase through Consumer Reports is prudent, especially since your only cost is  time. You can even print the wonderful charts they include in the magazine for their product reviews. A couple was delighted when I showed them this feature. After reviewing the charts online, and printing them, they changed their mind concerning the brand X washing machine. Personally, I recently read all about the mattress in a box trend. I learned, opted for one of the “best buys,” and now I’m sleeping better. 

My significant other, a nurse currently working with COVID-19 positive patients in the ICU, decided to take up the automobile dealers on their offers of special savings for medical professionals, along with other incentives. After she did the research on the type of car in which she was interested, she used the Consumer Reports “Build & Buy Car Buying Service.” This feature allows you to build the car by selecting the model color, options, etc. You can even view the current incentives (e.g. cash back, special financing) on the vehicle. There are pricing charts, some local dealer inventory and pricing, and user reviews. (My words really don’t do justice to the interface, graphics, and ease of use).

If you’re willing to provide your email, phone number, and address, you can view more specific inventor and receive “personalized” offers from “True Car” certified dealers you’ve selected. The caveat here is that dealerships may contact you quickly. However, let me highlight that you’ve not gone to the automobile dealership, and I’d contend that’s a good thing! 

Consumer Reports even has an article concerning how to buy a car at home and spend less time at the dealership during the pandemic. There’s no commitment and nothing that would prevent you from contacting other local dealers to see if they’d match these offers. 

Sadly, it’s not possible to peruse the Consumer Reports magazines at the library at this time, but I’d still like everyone to remain an informed consumer. 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.