Joyce Carol Oates in Chicago March 15

If you’re a fan, you’ll have two chances Monday, March 15, 2010, to see–and maybe even ask a question of–Joyce Carol Oates at the Chicago Public Library.  At 2:30, British Oates scholar Gavin Cologne-Brooks moderates a question and answer session with  the author.  Then, at 6 p.m., Donna Seaman, an associate editor of Booklist and Chicago Public Radio book critic, engages  Oates in conversation about her wide-ranging body of work.  These events are presented by the Columbia College Fiction Writing Department as part of their Story Week 2010.
Among Oates’s more than one hundred books in every genre imaginable, are the Oprah Book Club selection We Were the Mulvaneys, National Book Award finalists Blonde and The Gravedigger’s Daughter, New York Times best seller The Falls, and her latest suspense thriller, A Fair Maiden.

“Writing English as a Second Language”

William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well has been a great resource to writers around the world for over 30 years. Recently, he spoke to incoming international students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism about “certain principles of writing good English.” While his original audience included writers for whom English is a second or perhaps even third or fourth language, the principles he talks about are helpful for anyone interested in writing well in English.

Happy Birthday, Ogdred Weary

It is hard to imagine a better day on which to celebrate the birth of Edward Gorey than this past Monday, February 22nd. Looking out the library windows one couldn’t help but think that the cold, gray, gloomy, windswept day with the black tree branches shrouded skeletally with fresh snow would have pleased Mr. Gorey immensely. The author and artist behind such ghastly amusements as The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Doubtful Guest, and The Epiplectic Bicycle was born in Chicago 85 years ago this week. In honor of the man, his life, and his charmingly disgusting and horridly bemusing body of work, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer some suggested reading to help you celebrate all things grim and Gorey. Continue reading

A Little Birthday Cash

Johnny Cash a San Quentin, 1969.

Johnny Cash performing at San Quentin State Prison, February 1969. Click on the photo to watch footage from the show.

On February 26, 1932, he was born to poor Southern Baptist sharecroppers in the tiny town of Kingsland, Arkansas.  In 1950, he was stationed in West Germany to eavesdrop on Soviet radio traffic for the U.S. Air Force.  By 1956, he was perched atop the Billboard charts with his song “I Walk the Line” and well along the road to becoming an American legend.  He was Johnny Cash, and today would have been his 78th birthday. 

Over a career that spanned nearly 50 years, Cash’s distinctively deep baritone and “freight train” rhythm resonated with fans of country, rock, blues, folk, and gospel music and carried him to the pinnacle of musical success.  He won 17 Grammy Awards, sold over 90 million records, hosted a successful primetime T.V. show, and was inducted into both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.  But along with these great heights there also came devastating lows.  Cash’s struggles with drugs and alcohol cost him his first marriage, wreaked havoc upon his health, and saw him jailed for smuggling amphetamines across the U.S.-Mexico border.  Through it all, however, Cash remained true to his humble roots while singing both to and for the downtrodden, downhearted, and down-and-out.  He was a rebel, a reformer, and above all, a relevent artist who continued to reach new audiences up until his death in 2003 from complications with diabetes. 

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LA Times Book Prize includes Two New Awards

In addition to a deeper shortlist than ever before, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize announces two new awards. One is the first-ever Graphic Novel Prize, making the LA Times Book Prize the first major book award in the United States to bestow this honor in a category that has for years included a rich and varied body of exciting titles.  

The second is the Innovator’s Award. Mad props to Dave Eggers who is the inaugural recipient of this award. Eggers is the author of What is the WhatA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and the recent book Zeitoun, a quintessentially American story about Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s experiences in New Orleans during and following Hurricane Katrina, the contradictions at the heart of our country and Zeitoun’s reconciliation of hope with devastation and profound beauty with a stew of sewage, death and destruction. Zeitoun is a 2009 LA Times book prize finalist in the Current Interest category.
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I Feel Like a Million Books!!!

Thursday, February 25, 2010 marks a very special occasion. Sometime tomorrow, one lucky patron will check out the 1,000,000th item to circulate at the library this year. For the first time ever we’re going to hit the one million (!) mark for items checked out from Evanston’s three libraries (North, South, and Main Branches) in the past twelve months. And it wouldn’t have happened without all you good folks in Evanston and the Chicagoland area recognizing and appreciating the wonderful (and money-saving) resource of your local libraries. So a hearty and heartfelt “Thank You” to everyone for making us here at the library feel so necessary, especially in these difficult times. Be sure to stop by your favorite Evanston Public Library branch (or, if you can’t pick just one favorite, go nuts and stop by all three!) on February 25th to help us celebrate. The lucky patron who checks out the 1,000,000th item this year will win a handy-dandy EPL tote bag stuffed to the gills with library goodness. Inside are great prizes including free tickets to Ravinia, a punch-card for 10 free DVD rentals at the library, a Caldecott Medal winning book, commemorative EPL note cards, and more. And if you’re lucky enough to be our winner, we promise not to embarrass you. Well, not too much, anyway. So get on into the library and make use of the coolest card in town. You’ll be glad you did. And thanks again, Evanston, you’re truly a swell and well-read bunch.

Simple Rules for Writers

A few years back Elmore Leonard wrote a brief piece for the New York Times (later published as a short book) detailing his 10 Rules of Writing. His list included many practical tips: avoid prologues, keep your exclamation points under control, try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. Inspired by his list, the UK’s Guardian newspaper has solicited writing tips from a veritable who’s who of contemporary authors. Speaking to everyone from Margaret Atwood to Jonathan Franzen, Neil Gaiman to Joyce Carol Oates, and many, many more fiction and non-fiction writers, the Guardian has compiled a lengthy list of helpful tips for writing that manage to be practical, profound, funny, and motivational in equal parts. Below is a sampling of our favorites culled from the lists. For the Guardian’s complete “Rules for Writing Fiction,” click here.

Rose Tremain: Never begin the book when you feel you want to begin it, but hold off a while longer.

David Hare: Write only when you have something to say.

Annie Proulx: Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.

P.D. James: Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft.

Will Self: Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.

Geoff Dyler: Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

Jonathan Franzen: It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

Helen Dunmore: Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.

Zadie Smith: When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

Roddy Doyle: Do not place a photograph of your ­favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

African American author and book resources

This post was originally published in the February 2010 issue of LibrarySparks.

I met Sharon Draper in a utility closet. Maya Angelou, Angela Johnson, and Jacqueline Woodson were there, too. I talked to Kadir Nelson, Ashley Bryan, and Walter Dean Myers. Yes, and even Christopher Paul Curtis. Can you guess the common thread that led to my encounters with these talented authors and illustrators?

I’m a librarian, but I don’t work in a library. In fact, for the last few months I’ve spent many hours working (quite happily) in a utility closet. Continue reading

Ian Frazier Took Me to New York

My daughter and I flew to New York City last week to visit my ailing sister. For the flight I had picked up Gone to New York, a collection of short non-fiction by the contemporary humorist Ian Frazier. Two-time winner of the James Thurber prize, Ian Frazier is a comic writer with a great heart, just what I needed for this trip. For me, Frazier elicits something richer than belly laughs. “Sink or Swim,” which you can read below in two minutes, is the shortest in the collection, but especially satisfying. In four paragraphs and fewer than forty sentences, Frazier captures a nearly indescribable but unforgettable New York City scene — unique yet quintessential. And to think the whole story revolves around an interlibrary loan request.

–Jeff Balch (Reader’s Services)

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“Sink or Swim,” by Ian Frazier

This story begins in the New York Public Library on Forty-second Street. I was at the interlibrary-loan desk, filling out a form for a book I needed. The librarian saw my Brooklyn address, and he said, “Oh, you live in Park Slope. I live there, too.” I finished with that and then went home and began to load the car. My wife and two-year-old daughter and I were going to visit friends in Vermont. I packed suitcases and toys and presents and books and fishing equipment–wherever we go, we take a lot of stuff. As I was loading, the sky became so dark that the streetlights came on, and all at once it began to pour. My wife and daughter and I set out in the rain. A block from our apartment, as I turned from Eighth Avenue onto Ninth Street, I noticed that torrents of rainwater were running down the street along both curbs. Park Slope does indeed slope, and at the bottom of Ninth, just past Second Avenue, the rainwater had accumulated into a big puddle. Actually, it was more like a lake. My wife said maybe I shouldn’t drive into it, but the minute I hesitated, cars behind me honked. So I went ahead.

A city bus surged in front of me, leaving quite a wake. I followed it and immediately, water came through the floor of the car. Then it came up to the seats. My wife and I were saying various things to each other. As the water began to come over the seats, the engine died. The cars behind me honked. Terrified that I might impede traffic, I leaped out into the waist-deep water. Old tires and forty-ounce malt-liquor bottles were bobbing around beside me. I began to push the car, which was not difficult, because it was floating. I could have pushed it with one hand. I waded, propelling the car before me, until I got it to drier land. Then the car became almost impossible to push. I had to wait for it to drain. The rain had stopped so my wife got out and took our daughter and one or two suitcases, walked up the steps to the Smith Street station, and rode the F train two stops back to our apartment.

I called a garage in my neighborhood, and they sent a tow truck. The driver looked at the engine and said it was probably ruined (he was right–the car never really ran again, and I junked it soon after). Lots of local guys in low-slung shorts gathered around and joined in the autopsy.

The driver towed the car to the garage’s lot and said they couldn’t look at it until after the weekend. He said the lot was not very secure and that I shouldn’t leave anything in the car. I somehow managed to load myself with all our stuff, and as I was walking up the sidewalk, a slow-moving heap of wet suitcases and shopping bags and stuffed animals and fishing rods, I saw coming toward me the librarian from interlibrary loans. I remember the look on his mild face–surprised recognition, changing to mystification tinged with distaste. He didn’t ask, though, and I didn’t explain. Silently, we both accepted the possibility that I was insane and agreed to overlook it. We had a brief conversation about when the book I had ordered might arrive. Then I walked on toward home.

Did you know poet Gwendolyn Brooks also wrote a novel?

Gwendolyn Brooks was known for poetry, but she wrote a novel, too

Gwendolyn Brooks is known as a great poet. Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1968 until her death in 2000, she won the Pulitzer Prize for “Annie Allen” in 1950. She was the first African-American to win the prize and continued to collect accolades for her poetry until she died.

But it was not until Haki R. Madhubuti —founder and editor of Third World Press, distinguished professor at Chicago State University and founder and directoremeritus of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center and the university and a person who has devoted much of his career to championing Brooks’ work — pressed Maud Martha upon me a few weeks ago did I understand that her talent extended to the novel.

When the novel was published in 1953, Fanny Butcher, the Tribune’s literary editor, praised in her review headlined, “Swift, sharp prose by a poet.” Since then, though, Brooks’ venture into the long form has eluded significant public attention despite Madhubuti’s valiant efforts. He keeps the novel in print but, as he acknowledges, “Most people see her as a poet, not beyond that.”

(Laura H.)