Those who have read my posts before will know I’m not overly sentimental. In fact, when it comes to holidays, my most abiding emotion is disgust. Not for the holidays themselves, but for the retail industry that has taken every genuine emotion and turned it into an occasion for profit. Beginning in October, you can’t turn on the television, surf the internet or listen to the radio without being met by sales pitches wrapped in streamers, luxury sedans with big bows on them, or visions of Saint Nick shilling for the ad agencies. I don’t think disgust is too strong a word for what I’m feeling, and when it comes to the consumer frenzy that accompanies the festive season, I’ll bet I’m hardly alone.
Despite all that, everyone has a holiday memory that has little to do with the machinations of commerce. Many of these memories are not particular to the holiday season – they could happen at any time throughout the year. But that’s part of the bizarre power of the holidays: they take tales of goodwill and amplify their power tenfold, even for a curmudgeon like me.
Many years ago, during a protracted stretch of unemployment, I was in dire straits. It was November and I’d been pounding the pavement every day for months, applying for anything and everything, but to no avail. My money, such as it was, had run out – and just so we’re straight, this was not bohemian poverty, but real hand-to-mouth desperation: there was no credit card, no savings, no banknotes under the mattress or coins in the couch. There was not anyone to ask for a loan. I was flat broke, in the most fundamental sense of the word.
As you might expect, bills were piling up and my rent was past due. I’d already received two notices from my landlord, the second of which set a date for my eviction. In an ironic twist of fate, I faced the grim prospect of having my utilities shut off just in time for Thanksgiving. My refrigerator was empty but for a half-loaf of white bread and an overripe banana. Oh, and a jug of tap water: can’t forget the tap water.
That day, I was sitting glumly on my mattress, wondering how all of this might end, when my doorbell rang. I thought it odd, since I rarely had guests and was not expecting any. It’s either Mormon missionaries or one of my creditors, I thought to myself. Maybe if I dowse the lights and don’t answer the door, they’ll go away. But then I had an idea: surely missionaries carry snacks, because doing the Lord’s work must require a lot of calories. Maybe we could strike some kind of god-for-grub deal, where I’d listen to their spiel as long as they handed over their granola bars. It was a scheme worthy of a George Bernard Shaw play.
When I drew back the bolt and swung open the door, I saw no white shirts and name tags; instead, there was a diminutive figure standing in the threshold. The person was obscured by two large paper sacks, one in each arm, stuffed to overflowing. As I looked closer, I noticed they were grocery bags, and as I peered over the teetering towers of bread, vegetables and canned goods, I recognized the face of my girlfriend’s mother. I hadn’t been dating the daughter for long, and I’d met her mother only once or twice before. But as the parents of girlfriends go, she seemed very nice, and wholly unconcerned that her daughter was dating a cantankerous, unemployed yob.
I invited her inside and helped her with the bags. After the usual round of pleasantries, she told me why she had come.
“My daughter told me you were having trouble finding work,” she said. “When you don’t have work, you don’t have money. And when you don’t have money, you can’t buy food.”
She then told me of her own youth, growing up in Tokyo during the Second World War. Tokyo was the site of some of the most furious aerial bombardments of the war, with some of those attacks killing as many as 100,000 people in a single night. Air raid klaxons were part of the soundtrack of daily life. The phrase “shelter in place” was almost a form of personal greeting.
After the war, with Japanese cities in ruins and the national economy hobbled, many faced abject poverty. My girlfriend’s mother told me of having nothing to eat and how her whole family went barefoot because they had no shoes. “It was a very difficult time,” she said, her eyes full of memories.
“So, you see, I know what it’s like to be hungry. And I didn’t want that for you.”
Later on, I would tell this story to my own grandmother, a steely type that people of her generation might have called a tough old broad. She wept as I finished, and it was one of the only times I ever saw her cry. To this day, I can hardly tell this story without tearing up myself. It remains one of the kindest things that anyone has ever done for me.
This Thanksgiving, I’ll play host to my girlfriend’s mother, who is now my mother-in-law. Even at 84, she’s still a spry and delightful presence. For our feast, we’ll enjoy all of the usuals: turkey, cranberries, asparagus, maybe a glass or two of Prosecco. We’ll pretend to watch a football game. But as the day wanes, and we’re cleaning up the mess we’ve made, few things will seem more precious to me than the memory of that day. I hope that despite the ads and avarice, you’ll manage a fond memory of your own this season. Or perhaps this will be the year that your doorbell rings, bringing an unexpected guest.
*Illustration above by Heather Busch, In a Sentimental Mood, ink on watercolor paper, cc2012.
There’s no denying that time is an odd thing. I’ve had time on my mind this week, and the increment I’ve been thinking about is twelve years. Twelve years, even for the elderly among us, is no short stretch: it’s three presidential administrations, almost an entire K-12 education. Twelve years is the difference between adolescence and adulthood, or between middle-age and dotage. It’s the better part of a generation.
But for Solomon Northup, twelve years is the length of time he spent in captivity, playing the role of another person, afraid of being discovered for who he was. Born free in New York state, Northup was drugged and kidnapped by two men who lured him to Washington, DC under the pretense of offering him a job. He awoke in chains, on a steamship headed south, eventually winding up in Louisiana, where he was sold into slavery. When asked by another man if he could read and write, Northup was strongly advised to keep his literacy and status as a freeman to himself, lest he wind up dead. The key to survival, he was told, was to say and do as little as possible.
The year was 1841, exactly twenty years before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. This fateful period serves as the setting for Steve McQueen’s most recent film, 12 Years A Slave. Based on an autobiography of the same name, the film tells the true story of a man sold into slavery and later freed, but only after suffering a dozen years of unspeakable brutality.
For that interminable period, Solomon Northup was not only a slave, but a first-rate actor, posing as uneducated and docile even as he tried to fashion paper and pen so that he could get word to his unsuspecting family in New York. He took the name Platt, given him by his plantation owner, and created a backstory for the man he now was. He lived as Platt for twelve years, rarely breaking character. As the years passed, his role was one in which acting became life itself. But even as he acted, Northup never abandoned hope for a return to his previous life.
It’s said that a human being will do almost anything to survive, and during those twelve years, we see Northup endure and inflict inhumane treatment. He is beaten when he doesn’t pick his quota of cotton, but is also made to wield the whip against fellow slaves at the insistence of his capricious master, played with gleeful abandon by Michael Fassbender, whose character divests himself of all humanity right before our eyes, using scientific racism, property rights, and a wilful misreading of Scripture as rationales for his sadism and cruelty.
There are a host of strong supporting performances, mostly by solid character actors like Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson and Paul Dano. Brad Pitt makes a brief appearance as Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter come to live in the South. Pitt, as a native Missourian, should be able to manage a more convincing drawl than he gives us as Bass, but I guess you can’t have everything.
I’ll leave out any spoilers except the big one suggested by the movie’s title. But ultimately, 12 Years A Slave is more than a fine piece of cinema: it’s a civics lesson that makes us claim a part of our collective history that most would sooner forget. Just as slavery did not end with the Civil War, neither did racism end with the Civil Rights movement or the subsequent election of a black president. The 12-year role played by Samuel Northup is emblematic of roles played each day by oppressed peoples the world over. But perhaps most importantly, McQueen and his cast do not permit a happy ending to whitewash the fact that the way of life we enjoy today was built on just such “peculiar institutions.”
(MOVIE) 12 Years A Slave. Directed by Steve McQueen, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, et al. Rated R.
(BOOK) 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup, general editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin, 2013 (reprint of 1853 edition).
I grew up a Kentucky hillbilly, so actually English is my second language. I still consider Appalachian to be my native tongue, though somehow that’s never impressed employers when I say I’m bilingual.
But regardless of the language, I always just assumed every word I encountered would be in the dictionary. Imagine my confusion, then, the first time I read Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky.” You remember it, right? It’s the one that begins—
"’Twas brillig , and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe . . ."
Brillig? Slithy? I went to the dictionary. Hey, what gives? The words weren't there. Did this Lewis guy just make them up on the spot?
Wasn’t that against the law or something?
“Jabberwocky” taught me the broader concept of neologisms, or “new words.” New words enter the lexicon all the time, often in the form of slang, and sometimes they catch on with the public and become commonly used.
Once that happens, the neologism passes through the velvet rope and enters the dictionary, that decadent Studio 54 of language (all the hip words either hang out there or at Thesaurus, the new bar on 30th. I don’t like the new place myself—the drinks are expensive. Even pricey. Sometimes downright exorbitant).
Anyway, the latest member of the club appears to be selfie, which the Oxford Dictionary just declared 2013’s Neologism of the Year.
The selfie, if you don’t know, is a photo you take of yourself, often with your cellphone and usually standing in front of a mirror. Clothes are optional. Selfies are typically posted to social media sites like Facebook. Many guys, particularly politicians, also send their selfies to girlfriends, wives or mistresses, thereby providing perfect blackmail material once the relationship sours. I guess at that point the pictures become selfie-defeating.
If you’ve forgiven me for the pun, I’d like to enlist your help in promoting my own neologism: fillibious.
Catchy, huh? It already sounds like a word that should exist, so that’s half the battle right there. I need you to start using fillibious in casual conversation and then act surprised when you’re asked about it. Feel free to make up your own definition—I don’t care. Use it in emails and in Facebook posts. Tweet it to your followers. Insert it into your homework. Variants are okay as well. If your co-worker is annoying you, make sure your complaint to her supervisor also furthers our secret goal: “Anna’s fillibiousness is really getting out of hand, John!”
With luck and determination, fillibious will be the Neologism of the Year for 2014. And it’ll all be because of you, the patrons of the Jefferson County Public Library.
That’ll be pretty darn fillibial if you ask me.
If you’ll indulge me—and let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you’re already indulging me—I’d like to start with an imaginative exercise. This shouldn’t scare you, because you read books, and what is reading if not an imaginative exercise? The act of reading releases a book’s creative energy, like reciting an incantation or spell whose power lies dormant until its words are spoken aloud. Reading allows us to become the co-authors of a book, because everything the story contains is imagined differently by each reader. So in this sense, the little exercise we’re about to undertake is not so different than reading a book.
Imagine a city as a book that is read differently by each of its ten million inhabitants. Now imagine a particular street in that city as a character in the book, and suppose that this street, as much as any other, represents the joys, perils and problems of the city at large.
OK, got it? Well, so has John Lanchester, whose newest book, Capital, advances the same premise: the city is London, and the street is Pepys Road. It’s a typical London street, whose houses (like many in London) were built in the aftermath of the Second World War, when much of the city’s housing stock had been reduced to rubble by German bombs. In response, the postwar government set about building thousands of new homes, most of them in the neo-Victorian style that typifies much London architecture today.
The area of Pepys Road was traditionally working class, but as the city expanded, the middle class, in search of affordable housing, arrived and poshed up the place a bit. They eventually paved the way for the appearance of the well-heeled, who completed the process that most of us call gentrification. If you’ve ever lived in a city yourself, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
But the idyllic calm of Pepys Road is disturbed when its residents begin receiving a series of strange postcards in their letterboxes. In fact, each postcard is not a postcard at all, but a photograph of the person’s front door. On the reverse is written the following message: we want what you have. The residents eventually complain to police and an investigation is opened, but there are no leads, little evidence, no apparent motive, and beyond the vaguely menacing tone of the postcards themselves, no real commission of a crime.
Set against the background of this persistent tension is the fact that it’s the summer of 2008, and the house of cards that is the derivatives market is beginning to tremble. The very wealth that turned Pepys Road from a working class East End neighborhood to an unaffordable playground of the rich is evaporating with astonishing speed. In this way, Capital is a bit like Anton Chekhov’s famous play The Cherry Orchard, in which an over-leveraged patrician family carries on as if nothing is different, taking afternoon tea and engaging in inconsequential small talk, even as their beloved estate is foreclosed upon by its creditors.
But as a book, two things make Capital more than a simple tale of upper-class hubris. First, there are no main characters: Capital is populated by a fantastic ensemble cast, with no character more central than any other. And in a rare display of literary virtuosity, Lanchester assembles an array of fascinating characters, with no obvious weak links. Each character’s story, if expanded, could serve as the basis of its own novel.
For me, the most interesting aspect of Capital is how Lanchester writes those characters who are not residents of Pepys Road--those who come to service the needs of the rich. There is the Polish builder who renovates the houses of Pepys Road, hoping to save enough to fund the retirement of his elderly father in Warsaw; the Hungarian nanny who relieves her employers of the burden of raising their own children; the Zimbabwean asylum-seeker who finds illegal work as a meter maid, doing the ironic job of ticketing luxury cars whose sticker prices are greater than ten years of her wages. The fact that much of the servicing of the rich falls to recent immigrants and refugees, many from countries that were formerly part of the British Empire, allows the reader to realize that colonialism is not dead – it’s simply assumed a different form. And you can see this not just in the London of John Lanchester’s novel, but in the London that, at this very moment, lies just on the other side of the Atlantic.
Capital by John Lanchester. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.
Some children aspire to be astronauts or doctors (or even librarians), but to me the video store clerk reigned supreme among all professions. Those dudes with their long hair, scraggly beards, unkempt clothes and Pigpen clouds of Patchouli oil screamed freedom to my 13-year-old self. I loved the elitism when they mentioned obscure films like intimations of holy writ.
They also never minded having a chubby, annoying adolescent such as me hassling them like a cross between a kid step-brother and a manager-in-training. Sometimes they had me watch the store during their smoke breaks. They made me feel Large and In Charge!
I’d have taken a bullet for those guys.
In most places these days, video stores and their clerks are relics supplanted by the impersonal likes of Netflix and Red Box. That’s evolution, my lovelies. I’d mourn the loss, except I see their disappearance as a big potential gain for libraries. After all, our eclectic DVD collection (including almost 9,000 feature films) remains the closest thing many folks have to those old rental shops.
I guess that sort of makes librarians into video store clerks. My grubby teenaged dream came true after all!
But do people consult librarians about films to watch? We’re joyfully mobbed for reading recommendations, but comparatively few patrons pick our brains about movies. Maybe that’s our fault. We offer Personalized Reading Recommendations, for example, but not Personalized Movie Recommendations. We have Summer Reading Club but not Summer Viewing Club. We just don’t seem as interested in promoting our knowledge of movies the way we promote our knowledge of books. Two years ago, for instance, I attended a seminar on film advisory in libraries that consisted of little more than having staff memorize the AFI Top 100.
Readers advisory dabbles in psychology, trust and competence. Librarians go through a lot of training to help people find their next book, training that easily translates to finding films. Just as we do with your favorite novels, we’ll help you break down what you liked about a movie so you can better choose your next one. Let’s say you tell me you want another movie like Inception. What did you enjoy about it? Was there something specific? Was it the mind-bending virtual reality aspect? Maybe you’d like Dark City. Was it the heist plotline and watching a diverse team coming together through adversity? Maybe you should try Ocean’s Eleven next. From plot and character to directorial styles, there are so many possibilities and thousands of films ready to be discovered—just stop by and ask us. We’re always here to help.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I've got to get this Patchouli oil out of my clothes.
I still remember reading The Thirteenth Tale when it debuted in 2006. Diane Setterfield’s atmospheric, gothic tale was a page turner, perfect for chilly weather reading, preferably in a cozy spot with something warm to sip on. I’ve been periodically checking the author’s name on Amazon and in the library’s catalog ever since, hoping to find that she had published another book. All those years of keeping her name filed in the back of my brain have paid off with the discovery that Diane Setterfield’s second novel, Bellman and Black, is finally out. This new book promises another ghostly tale as we head into the dark and cold months of the year.
Here are other gothic tales that will keep you satisfied until you have a Diane Setterfield novel in your hands.
The Distant Hours by Kate Morton begins with Edie’s quest to solve the long buried secrets surrounding her mother’s time spent at Milderhurst Castle during the Blitz. What she finds are the Blythe sisters, the last in the family line living at the estate in Kent, whose numerous tragedies and long dead romances are tangled up with her own mother’s story.
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff tells a modern, gothic story with plenty of family secrets and delicious scandal. Prepare to be entertained and intrigued when you sit down with this one.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is an atmospheric, suspenseful, and dark tale with memorable characters set on an eery Cornish estate overlooking the sea. Get lost in the world of Manderley with the new Mrs. de Winter as she deals with the haunted memory of her predecessor, Rebecca.
Because beginnings are for declarations, let me start out with something self-evident: the world is full of bad books. By bad, I mean not worth your time, much less the paper they’re printed on. It might seem like heresy for librarians to say such things, because for us, the important thing isn’t supposed to be what a person reads, but the fact that he reads at all. And while that thought is floating through your head, I’ll see your astonishment and raise you an eyebrow by adding that the ratio of bad books to good is not even close. If it were, good recommendations wouldn’t be so important.
And it’s not just books. The world is awash in hi-fi escapism: there’s bad music, worse film, and unspeakably wretched television everywhere you look. In fact, I’ll bet you ten bucks that right now, as you’re reading this, you’re within arm’s length of a crap book, crap film or crap television show. I’m within easy reach of a dozen or more myself.
My purpose here is not to slag off bad entertainment. Instead, I’d like to sing the praises of a particular subset of crap that is actually good entertainment disguised as bad. Some call them guilty pleasures, although I’ve never understood why pleasure must involve so much guilt. I prefer to think of works like these as redemptively bad—those that are so memorably awful that they transcend their flaws and convert them to goodness. Think of it as cultural alchemy.
One of my favorite examples is Paul Verhoeven’s remake of Robert Heinlein’s classic sci-fi novel Starship Troopers. It’s always dangerous to make films based on books, but that’s nothing to Verhoeven, who brought us such bad classics as Total Recall, and my personal favorite, Showgirls, which featured some of the worst dialogue ever spoken. If you can imagine your cheeks aching from two hours of continuous grimacing, then you’re halfway to empathizing with me.
Starship Troopers features a no-name cast of beautiful twentysomethings who are charged with defending Earth against malign insects from an adjoining galaxy. Following an unprovoked attack on their home planet, our heroes join the armed forces and go forth to do battle with the bugs. The cast travels through interstellar space in futuristic warships, goes head-to-head with murderous vermin and eventually emerges victorious. All of the usual sci-fi themes are present: humans vs. aliens, copious fight scenes, a diabolically happy ending. There’s even a love triangle.
Verhoeven’s key is excess: the bombastic dialogue, the vacant expressions of the actors, the absurd plot, even the bloody battle scenes, which are at once so graphic and so humorous that you sometimes forget what you’re watching. Excess offends the senses, but humor dispels that tension, and this is Verhoeven’s saving grace: at just the point when the movie risks becoming too serious for its own good, Verhoeven is there with some droll quip, some overacted sequence, to remind you that this is Hollywood, and of all the ridiculous things in the world, none are more ridiculous than Hollywood. Again and again, he's on the verge of turning serious, slowly building tension, only to deflate it with humor.
Who knew that humor could be so transformative? Maybe all this redemptive badness is little more than a change of perspective, like reading a Harlequin romance as if it were a book of humor rather than a bodice ripper. Even if you wouldn't use a romance as a blueprint for your love life, that doesn't mean it's not good for a laugh. So I hope you’ll enjoy a good bad classic of your own over the weekend. Me, I’m going to watch an old favorite of mine: one set in space, with a no-name cast, and just the proper amount of excess.
(MOVIE) Starship Troopers (1997). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Starring Casper Van Diem, Denise Richards and Neil Patrick Harris.
(BOOK) Starship Troopers (1959). By Robert A Heinlein.