New Year’s Resolutions, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Great Gatsby 

A close up shot of Yoda with his eye closed and one hand out in front of him, all in greens and blues.

By Eric L.

Well, it’s the new year!

The last two years have been a bit of a…(Fill in the blank with whatever you’d like here). Personally, I’ve spent the last two weeks at home since my spouse and kids have all had very mild cases of COVID, thankfully! That said, I like a new beginning, and I’ve always liked the idea of a new year as a new start, even if the calendar year is all a human construct. Over the years around this time, I’ve read the articles about new year’s resolutions. Normally the crux of these pieces is how and why they fail, recipes for how to set “achievable” goals, and the like. Frankly, I find all these articles pessimistic. I won’t allow anyone to convince me it’s not a constructive endeavor to try to improve something about one’s life. Moreover, I’m certainly going to dismiss the platitudes espoused in certain George Lucas films about “do, or do not, there is no try.” (It is good film by the way, and you can borrow it from us. Although I’d argue that the best scenes involve the raw guttural noises and acting of Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca.).

At any rate, trying is really important in my opinion! For example, let’s say you want to exercise more and get in great “shape” (a common new year’s resolution). I think if you start walking around your neighborhood, and don’t end up on the cover of some fitness magazine, that’s an improvement over sitting on your couch streaming the latest TV series for hours, and you’re exercising. A secondary benefit is that you might meet some of your neighbors. It could happen.

Here’s my list of things I’d like to do in 2022:

  • Get back to the gym (it’s been a tough two years for that).
  • Make the time to visit some out-of-state friends.
  • Hike more than my usual trails.
  • Ride my bike more (I feel as though I slacked this year).
  • Drink less wine (we’ll see).
  • Be calmer.
  • Judge less.
  • Read more, and diversify my title selections more.

Some of these are goals that come up year after year. Perhaps I won’t achieve these things, but I’m not about to hear that there is “no try.”

The future and the New Year bring to mind the combination of optimism and pessimism expressed by Nick, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, at the very end. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing of conflicted feelings of pity for and admiration of Jay Gatsby’s optimism is poetic, in my opinion:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter-tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out further…and one fine morning-” (180).

And although the book ends disastrously, The Great Gatsby‘s commentary on the American dream has always resonated with me. I think it’s the complicated nature of the belief that anything is possible, and America in general. So maybe if you’ve not read The Great Gatsby, or it’s been a bit, try it out, it’s great.

There have been many, but the fairly recent film adaptations are also great. I’m a fan of both the Robert Redford 1974 and the 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio adaptations. The latter we own, the former you can request via Interlibrary Loan.

If you’ve read it, or you’re just not into Gatsby, we have some other recommended titles for you this month. Also, please consider the HCLS Winter Reading Challenge, now through February 28 – pick your own books or use our challenges to inspire your Winter Reading!

Lastly, come see us in the branches and speak with us about the books we like in January.

Happy New Year!

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

Native American Heritage Month: Beauty and Sadness

The book cover depicts two feathers facing in opposite directions, sketched in brown ink against a bright orange background, with the title in yellow lettering.

By Eric L.

Native American Heritage Month is almost finished for this year, but you are free to let it go a little longer into December and check out some great related works of art from the library, including the distinguished debut novel by Cheyenne and Arapaho writer Tommy Orange and a modern classic from director Terrence Malick.

There There by Tommy Orange (available in a variety of formats) is not a traditional novel, in that many of the characters don’t interact with one another, nor is it a traditional collection of short stories. Each chapter is a deep character profile explicated from the character’s perspective and written in a small amount of space. There There is beautifully crafted, in my humble opinion, with these very short, somewhat disconnected chapters from a variety of characters’ points of view not being an easy way to tell a story. However, it works really well and I recommend reading it. 

The characters are Native American, or part, in ancestry. Although the larger narrative is about the experience of individual characters, the connecting plot device is an upcoming powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. Some plan to attend, some plan to dance in the ceremony, some are organizing it, others are working on grant-funded projects related to Native Americans, and some plan to rob it. 

I could broadly say that the book talks about identity, or the loss of identity and the confusion experienced by some urban Native Americans. I recall a friend telling me that There There is sad, and to be sure, it is; however, the stories are powerful, engaging, and beautifully written. In other words, it’s not a feel-good read, and it’s tough sometimes. 

Most of the younger characters feel confused and/or apathetic about being Native American in modern America. They’ve not lived, or their parents did not live, on the “rez,” as they call it. I think what makes this a great book is that it doesn’t so much concern the facts of the past, but rather their impact on the present. This is a very interesting and apropos topic in America right now, as some say we need to forget the past and move forward. I’d contend this may be easier for some than others. And perhaps a better understanding of how the past effects the present could benefit all of us. Prior to one part of the book Orange uses the profound James Baldwin quote, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” 

I did learn some things about modern Native American history – for example, the red power movement and the occupation of Alcatraz Island. The occupation is an interesting moment in the recent past, and illustrative of Orange’s larger commentary about people’s place within America. 

One character has an interaction with a woman on public transportation in Oakland while he is in full dancing regalia on his way to the powwow. She asks him some innocuous polite questions, and he responds in part that he is going to a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum and that she should come check it out. He thinks to himself that she can now tell the story later over dinner about how she saw and spoke with a real Indian on the train today, and that that is as close as most Americans would like to get. 

Margaret Atwood called it “an astonishing debut.” And until I read this praise, I was not aware it was a debut, because it’s that good. I concur with Atwood’s opinion, and it makes me excited for his future books. 

This work brought to mind the film The New World on Kanopy, which if There There concerns the now, then the movie depicts colonial America and indigenous people. I’m a fan of the director Terrence Malick’s films. He makes impressionistic films, and although this may sound pretentious, simply put, it contains beautiful cinematography (mostly nature shots) and sparse dialogue. The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, Malick’s popular and award-winning films starring Sean Penn and a bevy of other great actors, are also great (you can borrow these in DVD format). 

The New World concerns the arrival of the English and the settlement of the colony in Jamestown, Virginia. The cast features terrific actors (Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Q’orianka Kilcher, and Christopher Plummer). It was filmed in Virginia, and Malick employed academics to recreate the villages and the extinct Powhatan language and used native actors. The film is partially based on John Smith’s account of Pocahantas, the verity of which is a bit suspect. Nevertheless, it succeeds in depicting very different groups with clashing motivations, and it’s visually stunning. 

In sum, both these works are beautiful AND sad.

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

 

Twilight of Democracy (I hope not)

The book cover shows the title, "Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism," and the author's name, "Anne Applebaum," accompanied by "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize." The words are in white except for "Authoritarianism," which is in red. The background of the cover is in gradating shades of blue.

By Eric L.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism is a great read for the current moment. The title of the book should give you a fairly good idea of what the book is about. Anne Applebaum’s area of analysis and expertise seems particularly relevant right now. Sadly, she and I agree that hate and the belief in authoritarians has increased in recent times in America. Applebaum discusses how this is also the case in Britain, Hungary, and Poland (countries with which she has experience). Applebaum’s husband is involved in politics in Poland, which provides her an interesting vantage point into the “power elite” (my term). 

If you’re not familiar with Anne Applebaum, I would encourage you to read some of her articles in The Atlantic. I am mainly familiar with her work through this magazine. She is a journalist, but I would also describe her as a historian who has authored several highly regarded books on Russian history. She is also currently a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. I would describe Anne Applebaum’s politics as different than mine, where she is “center right” and I’m not. We may differ on specific policy prescriptions and perhaps views on liberalism and markets, but we agree that hate and authoritarians are both inimical to democracy. 

The book grabs you from the onset by describing a New Year’s Eve party they hosted as the 20th century ended. She details the somewhat raucous party, the guests, and the optimism many attendees shared for liberal democracies in the 21st century. I am younger than Applebaum, but I recall a similar optimism (and perhaps a little worry about Y2K). She then goes on to describe how in the 20 years since this party many of the guests would no longer speak to each other, and how’d she’d cross the street to avoid some of these folks. In our highly polarized and political society we can all share this sentiment to some extent. Perhaps we don’t know Boris Johnson personally, as she does, but we can relate, and her brief biographical sketch of Johnson is indeed indicative of western politics at this moment. 

The book is written by a good journalist, and thus it is engaging and thoughtful. It is very Western-focused, but it does concern more than the United States. The similarities of the things happening in these countries are a bit frightening. Personally, I’m remembering the era during the last century when fascism began to spread in the West. 

She goes into detail through character sketches of some of the people and the trajectory of their political beliefs. Many were former anti-communists and are now hard-right and authoritarian in nature. She points out that these are not poor, rural people, but actually quite elite, wealthy, and well-educated. She subsequently proffers her theories as to why this is the case, including that of a behavioral economist who suggests about one third of the population, irrespective of political beliefs, has an authoritarian “disposition.” This actually does not surprise me. Applebaum also puts words to the belief of many of these folks that things were better in previous times. The section where she delves into the different types of nostalgia is very interesting. 

I don’t agree with everything Applebaum posits, however I’d like to think she’d appreciate that fact. Specifically, I think she discounts corporate power and race issues in America. They’re addressed, but not to my satisfaction. Where I agree with Applebaum is that democracy is messy, it’s problematic, and not everyone is happy. In sum, it’s tough! It’s certainly much easier to be in complete control and get your way all the time. However, I don’t think I have an authoritarian “disposition” and I think getting my way all the time is not good for me psychologically. That said, I hope we’re not in the twilight of democracy.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism is also available in large print and 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.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A red cover with a yellow border features an illustration of a Vietnamese man's face. Includes award stickers for the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Literature

by Eric L.

I may have opened another post like this, but if you’ve not read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, do yourself a favor. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, and awards aside, it’s a great book.  

The Sympathizer is an “epistolary-like” novel, as the entire thing is written as a confession of a spy from the north who has deeply infiltrated the south, and the American support apparatus. He is an aide to a general, and really has a good feel for the elite as well as those of lower social stature. 

Superficially, it is the story of the child of a Vietnamese teenager and a French priest, who does not fit in because of his parentage and is teased and taunted. In turn, this creates a protagonist of conflicted mind and spirit who artfully chronicles his experiences in Vietnam and America. He makes the profound comment that it is really the immigrants who should be the anthropologists of American society, as well as many other insightful observations throughout the book. 

He chronicles the chaotic escape from Vietnam (you’ve probably seen the footage) when the United States withdrew in 1975. When one views this sort of thing, they’re horrified by the carnage and desperation, but I’d not considered the bureaucratic tasks such as making lists of who evacuates and the intermediary steps. Spoiler alert: the Vietnamese don’t just land in their suburban American homes on a direct flight from Saigon. Sadly, these events seem apropos right now irrespective of your feelings about American wars and intervention globally. I could not even imagine trying to escape my country for fear of political reprisal. 

As someone of a certain generation, I grew up watching the fictional films about the Vietnam War and worried about the specter of the reinstatement of the draft. Perhaps, more broadly, the Vietnam War was the degradation of the cultural capital and hubris that the United States, as a country, carried until this loss. I always felt for the boys who were involuntarily ripped from their lives and sent across the world as soldiers in an ideological battle they likely only rudimentarily understood. It’s a logical reaction, since they were the protagonists of these films, if not the heroes at least sympathetic anti-heroes, and they were like me. 

A Vietnamese character comments that this cold war has always felt hot to them. That said, it’s enlightening for me to read a work of art by a Vietnamese expatriate like Nguyen (by the way, it’s set to be an HBO miniseries). The details concerning the quotidian lives that many of his compatriots lead in the US (California to be specific), and how it’s difficult for former men of power to become relatively powerless in their new country, are very well done. One portion of the book even chronicles the protagonist’s experience working as consultant for a movie about Vietnam, loosely based on Apocalypse Now (if you not seen this film, borrow it and watch it).  

The Sympathizer (also available as an eBook) is a page turner, a spy novel, a thriller, and oddly humorous; however, I would not describe it as straight satire. In my opinion, what makes this debut novel great is that it is the work of a free thinker and an excellent writer. It may seem banal to say that there is a lot going on in this novel (it may even be worth a second read), but I’m not sure how else to phrase this. Nguyen’s writing is dense, but not difficult to read, and the story just flows. I intend to read his collection of short stories, The Refugeesand eventually the sequel, The Committed, which was published in 2021. Try them, you may like them. 

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.