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.