Archive for January, 2007

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I just this morning sealed the deal for a booking with Janis Kearney, the official White House diarist for President Bill Clinton. I had no idea “official White House diarist” was a position until I saw an article about her. Who knew? Imagine the prominent figures she must have met, and the experiences she must have had, not to mention the things she must have heard directly from President Clinton himself. What a wonderful White House staff position to hold. Aside from “official White House Christmas tree decorator,” I can’t really imagine anything that could be any better, unless there’s an “official White House book buyer with unlimited income.”

Somehow I’m doubting that.

When I saw Ms. Kearney was in the Chicago metro area, it seemed silly not to at least TRY to see if I could book a program with her. And, what do you know, she was interested. In fact, as she told me, public libraries hold a very special place in her heart.

Ms. Kearney is the author of two books, Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton From Hope to Harlem and Cotton Field of Dreams: A Memoir. She’ll be presenting a talk and book signing at the library in March. If I don’t pass out dead on the floor from the excitement it should be a great event. Of course, if I do pass out dead it’ll make even better newspaper copy.

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Art Buchwald wasn’t supposed to have lived to see 2007, but for whatever reason, whether blind fate or just sheer cantankerousness, survive he did for almost a year after he’d checked into a hospice to die in February of 2006.

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After cheating death, Buchwald spent a summer on Martha’s Vineyard working on what would be his final book, Too Soon to Say Goodbye. Seizing his opportunity, in true dedicated journalist fashion, he wrote about his life and a lot of people who’d been a significant part of it. Knowing full well he was on borrowed time, he made jokes at his own expense. As Tom Brokaw wrote:

” What we have here is a national treasure, the complete Buchwald, uncertain of where the next days or weeks may take him but unfazed by the inevitable, living life to the fullest, with frankness, dignity, and humor. ”

Art Buchwald died January 17, ultimately losing his battle with his failing kidneys. After being given a reprieve from death he’s quoted as having said, “So far things are going my way. I am known in the hospice as The Man Who Wouldn’t Die. How long they allow me to stay here is another problem. I don’t know where I’d go now, or if people would still want to see me if I weren’t in a hospice. But in case you’re wondering, I’m having a swell time – the best time of my life.”

More on Art Buchwald’s life and contributions to American letters can be found at Wikipedia. An article on his passing was printed in the New York Times yesterday.

” Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got. ”

– Art Buchwald

I had the pleasure of hosting Edgar Award-winning author Theresa Schwegel at the library last evening. Theresa came for a reading, book signing and Q & A. She’s making a lot of local appearances at the moment, while on a book tour promoting her second book Probable Cause. We were absolutely thrilled she was able to stop by the library while she’s in the area.

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Probable Cause was reviewed in the New York Times this past weekend, if you’d like to take a look at that. It’s been getting huge attention all over the place. If Theresa keeps up at this rate she’ll be a household name in no time! Here in her hometown we couldn’t be more proud of her.

Theresa grew up in Algonquin, Illinois, graduating from the local high school in 1993. Her first novel, Officer Down, won the Edgar Award for a first mystery novel.

Theresa’s genre is crime fiction, and from her track record so far I think we can safely say she has that one pretty well mastered. Winning an Edgar Award right out of the starting gate is just about the most auspicious start anyone could hope for in the mystery genre.

If you’d like to know more about Theresa, or see her appearance/book signing schedule, check out her website.

Now that I have signed copies of both her books I’m going to get down to business and read them. I’ll report back, you can be sure of that. From what I’ve heard from other readers these are very much “put life on hold” books. Once I’ve started I have a feeling I’ll be glued to them, so I’ll have to clear the schedule and turn off the phone before I start!

Congratulations to Theresa on all her success, and we’ll look forward to more opportunities to be proud of her in the future. To say her career is promising is an understatement. As far as success goes, she’s already there.

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I finished Motherless Brooklyn last evening. Reading it slowly proved to be a futile effort. Once you’ve passed the midway point there’s no way to put on the brakes.

I can now officially report the book’s quality never wavers, start to finish. Any worry there’d be a sag at the 3/4 point (my complaint with a huge number of contemporary books) was completely unfounded, and in fact the 3/4 point was every bit as exciting as all the other quarters.

Lionel Essrog is one of the most inspired characters in contemporary fiction. I’ll go ahead and put that out there. His determination in the face of his challenges is inspirational, and even if it was completely impossible for me not to laugh at many of his outbursts, that didn’t diminish the respect I had for his character. Rather, it endeared him to me even more. Jonathan Lethem had me completely in the palm of his hand the whole way through, and Lionel is probably the biggest reason he was able to achieve that feat so easily.

Motherless Brooklyn reminded me, in some ways, of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In both books a heavily challenged person is attempting to solve a mystery. I enjoyed both books, which probably says a lot about my love of characters who overcome physical/mental obstacles by sheer force of will in order to accomplish their goals. I enjoy these characters largely because their complexity ensures a surprise around every turn. As a reader, that keeps me on my toes and interested, and both Jonathan Lethem and Mark Haddon have the knack for creating just such a character.

So, that’s Book # 3 for me for the year, Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. And I really have to give it a perfect 5 out of 5 stars rating. It’s early in the year to declare a perfect read, but there was absolutely no other option. I loved this book.

If the Victorians aren’t your thing you may as well navigate away now, I’ll just warn you. I’m starting the reading year out in full Victorian mode. I have Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and Wilkie Collins on the go right now, with no sign of relenting.

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Dame Darcy is an illustrator with a reputation of being, how shall I say this…. Eccentric. Not exactly the conservative illustrator you’d expect anyone to hire to illustrate a canonical work like Jane Eyre, but in a weird way the combination really works. Maybe it’s because the Brontes wrote dark books, and had a dark, mysterious reputation. It could also be the fact Jane Eyre has so many gothic elements, but whatever the explanation the combination is unexpectedly good.

Darcy is somewhat similar to Edward Gorey in style, but more twisted. Imagine Gorey having a really turbulent nightmare, in color, and you’ll have an idea how Dame Darcy draws her illustrations.

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I’ve read Jane Eyre multiple times, and it’s a great favorite of mine. However, this time around it feels like an entirely different book, thanks to the incredibly vivid illustrations of Dame Darcy. I recommend checking it out, if you get a chance, to see an entirely different spin to an old classic. If you’re feeling really brave check out Dame Darcy’s website: http://www.damedarcy.com/ Just don’t say I didn’t warn you she’s eccentric.

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More Victoriana, Edgar Johnson’s biography of Charles Dickens

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Gads Hill Place

When Charles Dickens was a young boy, as the story goes, he and his father strolled past a house called Gads Hill Place. The young Charles was smitten by the house, and longed to one day live in it. His father, John Dickens, told him if he worked very hard all his life and applied himself to his work, he just may be able to achieve that dream.

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And, of course, Charles Dickens did just that. He worked very hard, became extraordinarily famous, and for the last twelve years of his life he lived at Gads Hill Place, dying there in 1870.

Edgar Johnson’s two-volume biography of Charles Dickens is considered by many to be the definitive work on the life of the great author. After having spent last evening reading the first four chapters of this work I think I understand exactly why that is. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph reads more like a novel than a straight biography. It’s written in a style that seems to have been influenced by Dickens himself, and this very high quality of non-fiction prose likely has a lot to do with the fact the biography is still so highly recommended today.

In the first four chapters of this book I got a very good picture of what Dickens’s early life must have been like. Though I knew the basics of it, I didn’t fully realize the extent of how much his years in the blacking factory really impacted him.

I also had a false idea of the sort of man I thought John Dickens must have been. A father who brings financial ruin to his family, and then sends his young son out to support himself by working in a blacking factory against his will, ending his schooling in order that the boy may support himself, doesn’t earn high marks from me. I assumed John Dickens must have been either a wreckless gambler or a hard-hearted man, but the reality seems quite different. Though it’s true he was a man who couldn’t manage money, and whose love of the finer things in life made it impossible for him to live within his means, he doesn’t seem like the black-hearted wretch I always thought he must be. According to Johnson, he was really a good man who just had problems managing his personal finances. When it gets to be really disastrous, though, is when you have a wife and several children you’re responsible for, as John Dickens did. To fail and go bankrupt is bad enough, but dragging your entire family into the poor house is another thing entirely.

So, whatever the judgment on John Dickens, young Charles wound up having to quit school and work in a the Warren Blacking Factory, doing menial work, at quite a young age. His little spirit was crushed, and his heart broken, partly because this meant he had to separate from his family (who wound up in a debtor’s prison) and because he had to quit school. Quitting school seems to have been the truly demoralizing part of the ordeal for Charles, who was driven to learn from an early age. When the day came he could no longer attend school it was a terrible blow for him.

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Warren Blacking Factory

As the story further goes, Charles was still in the blacking factory even after his father had managed to pay his debt and be released. Though he’d assumed he’d be returned to his normal life after that happy event, things continued much the same for him. The breaking point came when John Dickens walked past the blacking factory and found his son on virtual display in the window, demonstrating how quickly he could paste labels on blacking bottles and becoming somewhat of a sideshow. The humiliation of the public display apparently led him to protest to the manager, and the manager let Charles go. Charles, it seems, cried upon his dismissal as it was so abrupt he wasn’t sure if it was due to his own fault. Even though he’d gotten at least part of his heart’s desire, his sense of failure led him to break down. Such a sad image.

Dickens’s early years had such a huge impact on him he never felt comfortable telling anyone about his past, not even his wife. It was only after his death, when the first biography of his life came out, that his family even knew the details. Imagine the weight of carrying that secret shame around with him, and how difficult it must have been. It really gives a more complete picture of the great writer knowing where he came from and what he experienced, especially in these crucial early years.

The Edgar Johnson biography is so wonderful I can’t even express it. I’m looking forward to getting back to it.

Literary Birthday

J.R.R. Tolkien was born January 3, 1892, in South Africa.

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Best known today for his book The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkien was also a professor of philology (the study of the derivation of languages) at Oxford. Tolkien created his own language, Elvish, which he used in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Taking him 12 years to write, Tolkien never had much faith in the ultimate success of The Lord of the Rings. In fact, when the first book of the trilogy was published in 1954 it wasn’t a very big seller. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when American college students fell in love with it, that the books became popular. Shortly after that they became huge, drawing fans to contact the quiet, unassuming Tolkien in droves. Never a fan of the limelight, Tolkien had trouble dealing with the onslaught, considering it a nuisance.

Literary Passings

Tillie Olsen, 1913 – 2007

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Tillie Olsen died two days ago, at the age of 94. Most famously, Olsen was the author of the short story “As I Stand Here Ironing.” Her only finished work of fiction, Tell Me a Riddle, is still on the curriculums of some universities today.

Olsen had articles published in The Nation and The Partisan Review, articles detailing the labor strikes and political unrest she saw and participated in. She was on the front lines, fighting injustice and spreading the message about the plight of women. An early member of the feminist movement, she spoke out against injustice when she saw it. Somewhat of a radical, she belonged to the American Communist Party for a short time. Tillie Olsen was an American writer and political activist who worked for what she believed in at a time when it was considered very unfeminine for a woman to speak out at all.

One of her main concerns was working-class women, especially those with aspirations toward the arts. Like Virginia Woolf before her, Olsen felt empathy for the plight of women so caught up in maintaining hearth and home they had no time for themselves, much less time for creative expression. She famously noted that the women who, through the generations, were able to become famous writers either had no children or had housekeepers raising her children. Despite all her hard work, her brief flirtation with communism unfortunately put a taint on her reputation. Some critics were unable to forgive her short association with the communists, unwilling or unable to separate Olsen the radical from Olsen the social reformer.

Tillie Olsen’s death may not immediately set off a shock wave in the literary world, just as her own life didn’t create any huge ripples, but it does resonate. It helps us remember the road we’re on today was paved by hundreds of Tillie Olsens who came before us, fighting battles against prejudice and social injustice in the name of future generations of humanity. We all reap the rewards for her victories, and continue to fight the good fight against the same threats to the weak.

The world could use a lot more Tillie Olsens. She will be missed.