Brat: An ’80s story

Black and white photo of Andrew McCarthy in a tweed jacket, loosening a skinny tie.

by Eric B.

I’d completely agree with the author Jay McInerney’s (Bright Lights, Big City) assessment on the back jacket cover of Brat: An ’80s Story

“My only quibble with this absorbing, thoughtful, and sometimes painfully honest memoir is with the title; McCarthy is anything but a brat. He is certainly an unlikely movie star, and the story of how this diffident and insecure young man found himself at the center of the culture in the 1980s—and then decided to walk away from it all—makes for a fascinating read.”

Perhaps you’ve seen Andrew McCarthy on the talk show circuit, or just remember him from his 80s films. I am a fan of his work in Less than ZeroPretty in Pink, and St Elmo’s Fire. Moreover, and you may scoff, but I do realize the genius that is found in Weekend at Bernie’s. I’m a fan of McCarthy’s acting, and perhaps his general on-screen demeanor in these “period pieces.” He played thoughtful, “emo” characters before it was nearly a trope in myriad indie films (to be sure, I still love the sensitive emo characters). For example, I’d contend that Timothy Chalamet is successful in a way I’m not sure was possible in the recent past with more rigid gender roles.

Several years ago, I read some of McCarthy’s travel writing and liked his style. The piece was about Los Angeles and was personal for him, and he spiced it up with personal anecdotes about his memories. For fans of 80’s films and McCarthy, Brat is like a greatest hits collection.  

The book opens with him abruptly leaving the Pretty in Pink Hollywood premiere to slam drinks at the bar across the street. McCarthy briefly gets into his middle-class upbringing, childhood, his time at NYU studying acting, before landing his first role and dropping out to pursue Hollywood acting full time. The remainder of the book is about the roles and the experience of his meteoric rise in Hollywood during the decade. McCarthy lived in New York for the duration of his Hollywood fame, which I found surprising, but makes sense now. He laments the fact that he didn’t pursue the theater, instead of accepting some of the roles he was offered. 

He includes some interesting stories about his experiences in Hollywood and some of the characters he encountered. I would not describe this as a tell-all book, but rather a memoir of a person experiencing and observing the strange world of American film and celebrity but never really feeling terribly comfortable in it. John Hughes described him as a “wimp,” which seems like a nasty thing to say. His experience at a Paramount anniversary party with Hollywood legends and young up and comers, where he realizes he could not and had no desire to be Tom Cruise, is hilarious because we all know how their respective careers progressed. McCarthy includes many pictures, and this one of the entire group at the Paramount party is telling. 

Artists who have a tough time with the nature of celebrity interest me generally. I appreciate what it’s like to want to be noticed, appreciated, and recognized, but then not wanting all that attention. I’m terrified of someone trying to take my picture as I try to live my daily life. McCarthy has accepted his status as an 80s star and a member of the “brat pack,” even though this was a media term. He’s not seen some of these people since the respective films were completed.  

If you’re a fan of so-called “brat pack” films, or 80s movies, John Hughes films, or just looking for a book not concerning current affairs, it’s a pretty good read. I acknowledge my bias on this subject, but I enjoy McCarthy’s writing style and his reflective and analytical nature. Perhaps this comes through in his acting?  Andrew McCarthy does seem like someone I’d know, or someone I’d like, but perhaps this is how celebrity works. Briefly reflecting on his days at NYU, McCarthy said that after class he’d hang out in the “post-bohemian cross culture” of Washington Square Park, observe all the interesting people, buy two joints off a Rastafarian for a buck apiece, then go home and watch the Rockford Files. This sounds like a nice afternoon to me, or perhaps a celebrity dream date.  

Also available as an eBook and eAudiobook via 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.

Cool off in Patapsco Valley State Park

The writer's dog stands in thick grass near a trail marker in Pataspco Valley State Park.

by Eric L.

You may be hot and it may be humid, but this doesn’t mean you should stay indoors. To the contrary, you should get outside. If you’re reading this, it’s probable that you live close to Patapsco Valley State Park. The Park was founded prior to the National Park Service and encompasses approximately 16,000 acres. It offers some very fine East Coast nature, in my opinion. 

I’m from Baltimore, I have spent a lot of hours hanging around it, the recreation areas and even camping right off Route 40. My significant other finds this hilarious. I’m assuming because of the proximity to suburbia and the bustling thoroughfare right next to the camping area.

I’ve ridden my bike in it and hiked so many miles. I’d be curious to know the total – maybe thousands! I moved to Ellicott City to be in the Patapsco Valley. My neighborhood is on it, and I consider myself very lucky. There are not as many cicadas back there now, and it’s cooler than the blacktop world. Some of the views are just spectacular (perform an internet search for some of the scenery). 

All three of the dogs I’ve owned as an adult have logged thousands of miles with me. To be sure, I’m not a dog training expert, but I’ve been lucky, patient, diligent and have walked my dogs all over it, sometimes even off-leash. It’s a great place to take your kids to play, outside! My kids have also enjoyed many great afternoons in the Patapsco Valley. 

If you feel as though you need some motivation, borrow some of the great materials we have.  

Also, a great nonfiction read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (also as a book on CD, as well as an eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive)Bryson tells the humorous account of his discovery, and attempts to hike the Appalachian trail. To be sure, this is not the story of an experienced hiker doing the entire trail from Maine to Georgia in record time, but rather the story of an average middle-aged person and his old friend hiking and discovering together. He interweaves interesting history and social commentary. Or try the film, starring Robert Redford.

There are so many different terrains one can hike, from flat, paved trails to some rocky terrain. That said, you need not be exceptionally fit, after all, it’s just a walk. You will need some comfortable shoes, running, or trail running. Hiking boots, or shoes, are certainly nice for some of the more rocky, advanced terrain. Please keep in mind that Maryland has a large deer population, and thus deer ticks. That said, dress accordingly, and use bug spray as needed. Do some research (Consumer Reports) about the most effective ones, it is very important! 

At any rate, don’t miss out. Get back there! It’s thought by many a lay person, psychologist, scientist that a walk in nature will make you feel better. View the Park’s website to find the right trail and place for you. Stop by the Elkridge Branch + DIY Center, where you can borrow trekking poles, a compass, binoculars in case you spy something you’d like to view up-close, and metal detectors for treasure hunting.  

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

Dune by Frank Herbert

Orange and yellow waves of color suggest sand dunes. Title appears in bright white type vertically in the center, with a silhouetted figure within the "U". A black space sky is across the top, with stars.

By Eric L.

There has been quite a lot of buzz concerning the new Dune film, especially since with the new trailers being released. Frankly I’m a bit excited, too, although the theatre release has been delayed repeatedly (now scheduled for Oct 22, 2021). However, I can’t say that I’m a Dune fan from way back, since I had never read any of the 18 books in the series until recently.  

I host the HCLS book discussion group Read. Think. Talk. on the first Monday of the month. More often than not, we read and discuss classic, social, and philosophical sci-fi. Several members of the group wanted to read Dune (the original). Although I had a desire to read it, and with the new movie and an HBO series on the way, it seemed like a great time to familiarize myself with the source material. However, I was a bit reluctant, as it’s not a great idea to suggest a 600-plus page book, with three appendices and a glossary of terms, for a book discussion group. Moreover, I’ll concede I’m still a bit intimidated by long books!  

The plot centers around young Paul Atreides whose world is upturned when his family/house must relocate to the desert planet Arrakis, colloquially called Dune. A rival house, Harkonnen, was governing Dune and wants to wrest back control because of the planet’s valuable natural resource melange (also called spice). House Atreides is the more admirable of the two rival houses for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the Harkonnen leader is a despicable person.

Melange enables interplanetary travel both via the pilot and as a fuel. It possesses a psychedelic effect, and people also ingest it as a mind-altering substance. Melange is only found in the sands of Dune, and harvesting it is a very dangerous endeavor because of the giant sandworms (the worms were really all I knew about Dune). The indigenous Fremen are the only folks who are able to survive in the desert with its extreme climate and dearth of water. 

Paul has an interest in the Fremen from the outset, even before a series of events place him in contact with them. I don’t want give away too many details concerning the drama and intrigue that lead to House Atreides losing control of the planet, but they make for a good read. The Fremen believe Paul to be their chosen leader and they have a common interest in defeating the Harkonnens.

This sort of story should all seem familiar, with revenge, an oppressive greedy regime, and the oft-repeated white male savior trope. However, Dune has some interesting differences. Paul is accompanied on his journey by his mother, Jessica, the unmarried concubine of his father and a member of the “Bene Gesserit.” One of the shadowy organization’s key tenets is controlling one’s thoughts to control how the body reacts. The members are taught to hone their intellect and possess the ability to persuade people using their words. They are not popular in the largely patriarchal society and are often and pejoratively referred to as “witches.” Jessica, against the rules of the Bene Gesserit, taught young Paul their ways. This skill set is the reason that some of the Fremen think he may fulfill their prophecy. 

There are interesting power dynamics between Jessica and Paul, their feelings about each other, and how individual goals change throughout the story. Other strong female characters exist as well, including Paul’s love interest. Author Frank Herbert was apparently also interested in Zen and peyote, and the book is very much a product of the late 1960s. It is undeniably long but moves quickly. The action scenes are not drawn out, in fact I found their brevity interesting. I liked that the political buildup was described more, which seems closer to reality to me. 

Dune has drama, intriguing characters, some philosophical issues, and an interesting environmental message. I half-read the appendices but found them rather dry without getting a feel for the characters first. That’s just me; perhaps you may like to have a complete understanding of the “world” before getting into the story. 

On the continuum of science fiction and fantasy (if there is one), I lean to the former. I’d argue this is more fantasy, although it’s debatable. At any rate, the book contains new words, lots of new names, worlds, and families, all of which are difficult to pronounce. This is a book that’s worth your time and great source material for a film. The new film will tell the story in two parts, unlike the 1984 David Lynch film, which is an interesting story in and of itself (I’d recommend it). 

In sum, one can get lost in another world and time in this book, and perhaps it’s nice to take a respite from current affairs for a bit. 

While you have to reserve the book right now because others are enjoying all of our copies, it is worth the wait to read. Also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/Overdrive.

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

Flowers and Planters are Great

The photograph shows DIY INstructor Eric seated in a red adirondack chair, with outdoor tools, a hammock, and a kids' swimming pool in the background, and his dog at his side with his feet up on a white DIY planter box he constructed.
DIY Instructor Eric and friend.

By Eric L.

I used to be young and naïve and I didn’t appreciate flowers, or maybe didn’t realize I appreciated them. Deep down, I was probably always the sort of person that would admire beauty around. That said, I’d implore you to get some flowers, plants, vegetation in your life.  

After renovating two entire houses I have come to appreciate the beauty of living space, indoor and outdoor. How one’s surroundings engender certain feelings. My surroundings make me feel comfortable and then calm. I recall the first place that my significant other and I shared, and changed. I felt more comfortable there than I had before. 

I’ll be honest, I used to think that flowers, gardens, and more generally my surroundings at home were sort of a bourgeois waste of time. Why would I spend work attending to these sorts of things, when I could read, hang out with friends, chat, drink at bars, or so many other exciting things? However, my mind has changed with innumerable carpentry projects accomplished, many, many holes dug, trees planted, landscape projects complete, planters made, and a stacked stone wall, literally built from two tons of rough stone (my least favorite project, ever).  

Having trees, flowers, and plants around does indeed make me calm. (There is science to support this). So let’s take it even further: imagine if you’ve selected the plants, then planted them yourself, and watched them grow and or blossom. How about even further: what if you’d made the planter, planter box, or raised bed that holds your plants? While it may not change your life, I think you may feel happy and proud. I do, so why not try it?

Building planters, window boxes, and raised garden beds are all relatively easy DIY carpentry projects. I’ve done these all with groups in person at the HCLS Elkridge Branch DIY Education Center. I don’t mean to oversimplify this, but you’re essentially making a box, one that you spruce up however you like. For example, add some architectural detail, paint it, hand-paint a design, stain it, make it rustic, use pallet lumber. There are myriad possibilities! It is a great way to practice and learn all sorts of carpentry skills. This endeavor is made even easier because you can borrow everything you need from HCLS. 

Please watch the video, and try it out. And it looks as though we’ll be able to do this in person soon at the Elkridge branch! 

There are two men, radical in many respects, and I’m a fan of both, who would receive flowers from fans. I can’t say I thought it was odd, but realize that some may consider it “feminine” for a man to receive flowers. It seems strange that flowers are associated with gender at all; they’re beautiful, please bring them to me!

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

Authors and Stories For You and Me

Orange cover of On The Road by Jack Kerouac on the left with a black and white photo of the author on the right with his arms crossed.

By Eric L.

I like books and authors a lot, and periodically I will get on a kick and start reading books by a particular person and then read about the person.  

Jean-Louis Lebris de “Jack” Kerouac has always been one of my favorites, and he was one to celebrate jazz and the outdoors. Kerouac is the person that in theory personifies the “beat generation,” the beatniks, and the counterculture of 1950s America that inspired so many in the 1960s counterculture (which could be argued led to the push for progress in America).  

As a white Catholic from a middle-class background with a deep interest in the counterculture, his work spoke to me. I could feel his guilt for not conforming and appreciate his conservative Catholic hang-ups. His conflicted mind, introspective nature, desire for freedom, and the understanding that he was in some ways the observer and documentarian of counterculture and not so much the progenitor attracted me. 

Revisiting his work over the years, it always changes as the world changes, and more importantly as I change. Thank goodness, I’ve always grown more! I have recently been reading books and articles about Kerouac, re-reading the The Dharma Bums (available in eAudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) after seeing it quoted in two books I was recently reading. The quote in one was, “Someday I’ll find the right words, and they’ll be simple.” I like this sort of searching and desire for simplicity. 

 

The book cover is a blank and white, bluish-tinted photograph of Jack Kerouac and fellow writer Neal Cassady.
Kerouac and fellow Beat Generation writer Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in On the Road.

I also re-watched the recent film adaptations of On the Road and Big Sur, both of which I’d recommend. The former HCLS owns in DVD format; the latter you can borrow using Interlibrary Loan. Some consider Big Sur one of his best novels. It’s the semi-autobiographical account his struggle with fame, depression, and addiction a decade after the publication of his most famous work, On the Road. The raw reality of addiction is sad to be sure, but it’s also a good read and viewing for the description and images of Big Sur. 

To be sure, there’s a lot not to like about Kerouac. The books and film adaptations are misogynistic, self-involved, and privileged in some respects. He drank himself to death at the age of 47, he never found the time know his own daughter, and had become truculent and seemingly illiberal near the end of his life. I could probably find some additional foibles. Conduct an internet search for his appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in the late 1960s; it’s pretty sad. 

For some reason, many of his contemporaries publicly and negatively commented on him, although John Updike later admitted he was jealous of his fame. James Baldwin described Kerouac’s work as “absolute nonsense, and offensive nonsense at that.” Charles Bukowski, another “beat” writer and poet who is controversial in many ways and the subject of several films, said Kerouac wasn’t that great of a writer, but suggested his fame came from the fact that he looked like a “rodeo star.”  

I’d disagree with Bukowski; there is some poetry in Kerouac’s prose and the performance aspect of it is amazing. Hearing and seeing him read his own work, which was inspired by jazz, is marvelous. His handsomeness certainly did not hurt his celebrity. I was reminded of his style while watching the young Amanda Gorman read and perform her great poem The Hill We Climb at the inauguration.

It was a pretty radical endeavor to hang out in a jazz club in the late 1940s, and I was curious what was so great about this thing called jazz. I now know. Moreover, books concerning his romantic relationships with African Americans and his close relationships with openly gay people were verboten at the very least, and illegal in many places in the US in the 1950s. Moreover, Kerouac’s attraction to and writings about Buddhism interested me very much as a fellow Catholic. 

Kerouac’s explicit mentions of Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, and other authors piqued my curiosity about these people, and his books gave me a point of reference when reading James Baldwin’s perspective of a similar counterculture from the African American point of view. Really, his work just got me reading, dreaming, and thinking differently than I’d done before. In other words, I’d like to think I was better for it. And I’m fairly certain that these are the reasons why On the Road is still in our reading list section and assigned by English teachers.

I had this conversation with the members of my book group, and they assuaged my guilt a bit for still liking Kerouac. But the times they change, and we change, and maybe Kerouac would’ve changed, too, but maybe not. 

In some cases, there are things that should be left in the past, but I’d contend we shouldn’t dismiss the progressive nature of all art pell-mell. All of us are flawed in some way, and this makes us interesting in my opinion. Indubitably the merits of Kerouac’s work and his reputation are debatable. But Kerouac did reject the conforming ethos of post-war America (something many now want to return to). And personally, he made me feel as though others were attracted to things that don’t quite fit into mainstream American culture. 

My hope is that this bolsters the case for diverse stories, viewpoints, and authors. Everyone needs characters and stories they can relate to and find themselves in. I think it’s a magical feeling to realize there are people that are like you, that feel like you do. So keep reading to find relatable characters and stories. Come by the library and tell us about your interests. We might be able to help, or know someone who can, find the books and authors for you! 

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

Reading Ursula K. Le Guin

The cover of "The Left Hand of Darkness" depicts a lunar-like surface with two opposite-facing profiles carved out of rock, against a dark sky.

By Eric L.

I read a lot of great authors, but that’s because I read great books! As we have been celebrating Women’s History Month, and HCLS has recommended a cornucopia of great material about and by women, I’d like to recommend the amazing Ursula K. Le Guin. 

Le Guin made a name for herself in the male-dominated world of sci-fi and fantasy half a century ago, and she wrote a great book about gender fluidity way before many others broached the topic. Le Guin said she recognized the ability to tell complex tales through the work of genre writer Philip K. Dick. Later, she openly criticized the way he wrote some female characters. Dick agreed, they became friends, and he thanked Le Guin for her influence on his subsequent works. I’d contend that in itself amounts to progress! 

A great starting point for Ursula K. Le Guin is watching Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin on Kanopy. It provides a great introduction to the writer and her work. The interviews with the witty and charming Le Guin are terrific, as are the conversations with Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman and others about her influence on their writing and the genre. Gaiman astutely points out that the Harry Potter series owes a great deal to Le Guin’s Earthsea series.  

As I alluded to before, her most famous work The Left Hand of Darkness (also available in eBook and eAudiobook format) is a groundbreaking work, not just for the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but also for challenging our conceptions pf western masculinity and of western masculinity and femininity in a clever and subtle way. The protagonist, an envoy to the planet nicknamed Winter, struggles to understand a gender-neutral people using the social constructs of his own culture. Left Hand centers political intrigue and a forced epic journey across an icy planet while giving glimpses at the envoy’s gradual enlightenment. The drama and action of an arduous journey mirrors the personal journey of the protagonist and the relationships he builds.  

The Left Hand of Darkness is worth borrowing just to read Le Guin’s amazing introduction concerning science fiction and writing in general. Over the years, she has taken criticism for using the pronoun “he” for the gender-neutral characters in the book. To which she replied that just because the book was finished, it didn’t mean she was finished learning. I like this sort of thinking, the idea that we can all grow more and move forward. 

The cover for The Dispossessed depicts a man standing on a barren wasteland, looking towards another purple-toned planet with the sun peeking over its edge from behind, and a red-orange sky.

Le Guin’s other popular work The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia may be the perfect book for now, as the story of two opposing political views on how best to organize a society – collectivism versus individualism. The book examines power and extremes, and interrogates the best way for a society to temper those impulses. 

The protagonist Shevek (all names are computer generated) is a scientist from the anarchist commune-like planet, Anarres. Against the wishes of many of his people, he takes the opportunity to collaborate with the scientists of A-lo, on the planet Urras. The latter is a more individualistic, capitalist society. Shevek is attracted to the opportunity to further pursue his work, as he has begun to suspect that his society has some faults. Le Guin uses the protagonist’s perspective and experience to compare the two societies. The chapters alternate between Shevek’s youth and adulthood on Anarres and his present situation in A-lo. I thought this a clever technique, in a sort of nuanced compare and contrast story, but perhaps that’s just my conflicted mind? 

I believe Le Guin’s biases are evident, perhaps intentionally, but the book offers a provocative look at entrenched beliefs. The two societies are located on different planets and only know each other via their society’s own information (sometimes called propaganda), very similar to the way each of us arrives at our perspectives, beliefs, and, yes, biases. Le Guin cleverly has each society colloquially reduce the other to one-word epithets; the “propertarians” and “anarchists.” It’s certainly easier to believe we understand each other when we reduce ourselves to singular adjectives. 

This would be a great book to have people with opposing viewpoints read and discuss. The fact that Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist is evident in her work. Lastly, I’m inclined to conclude that Ursula K. Le Guin believes any thoughtful ideology should begin with a deeper understanding of each other and the forces that create fear and hate. 

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

Comics and Ta-Nehisi Coates

A comic book illustration: shows the Black Panther standing strong and alone in front of a futuristic city-scape.

by Eric B.

I grew up reading comics. In hindsight, it was one of the things I can recall being really into, certainly more than books or sports. I loved the stories, the characters, and the artwork. In the 1980s, the stories became a bit more interesting and complex, giving the characters more depth than in previous periods. My love was bolstered by the fact Steve Geppi, on his way to becoming comic distribution magnate and part-owner of the Baltimore Orioles, owned and operated several comic shops around Baltimore. I won’t reminisce here, but the one I frequented with my brother was a pretty amazing place, created by a guy who quit his job at the post office to own a comic shop. (In other words, he had passion.) 

At any rate, I still occasionally read some comic and graphic novels, my book discussion group has read and discussed a few of the best, and I still enjoy going to my local comic shop to browse (less frequently lately, obviously). The medium has a come a long way, with the work of some talented writers and artists. More importantly, the graphic medium is much more diverse and inclusive these days. HCLS has a great graphic novel collection. Sometimes I look through and find things I’ve not heard of or a book adapted into a graphic novel that I was not aware of previously.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and I are the same age, and he’s from the west side of Baltimore, around where the city meets the county. I, too, hail from west side of Baltimore, spent my first few years just on the county side, and spent a lot of time in those areas. The differences in our respective experiences could probably make for more than a blog post, but nevertheless I’m always happy to see local people do well. (I guess we all like that sort of thing so we can imagine some sort of shared experience.) Commonalities notwithstanding, I’m a fan of Coates’ thoughtful work and was moved by his piece on reparations. He has authored several excellent books of fiction and nonfiction on race, and perhaps you have heard about his “twitter battle” with Dr. Cornel West. 

At any rate, and certainly not to take away from any of these accomplishments, I recalled reading that he was a comics kid. I was elated to read that this intellectual had realized his childhood dream of writing for Marvel Comics, Black Panther in particular. I can only imagine I’d feel the same and felt incredibly happy for him! My first guy was Aquaman, I was blonde and liked the ocean. Next was Spider-man, the flawed character who struggled with pretty much everything in his personal life. That said, I had characters with whom I could relate, which is important, and I was very happy to read Coates had his, too. 

You may have seen the Black Panther character in the Marvel films, but Coates built on the source material created by people of color he had admired as a young person. He writes comics narratives about power, opposing points of view, the African continent, and nature. Coates also recognizes that comics and graphic novels are a collaborative work, and he acknowledges how the great art of Brian Stelfreeze brings a graphic story to life. Coates subsequently moved on to Captain America and wrote about his good reasons for wanting to do so. He mentioned that some may see Cap as the embodiment of nationalism or the character from the films, but he’s much more nuanced and conflicted than that.

I have to feel a sort of kindred spirit with someone that can recognize this in Captain America and comics in general. So, if you have not, read his articles in The Atlantic (available via RBdigital), read his books, and don’t be afraid to read his graphic novels, which are collected as trade paperbacks and available via HCLS

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

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.