Saturday, August 17, 2013

Confessions of a Book Addict

For as long as I can remember, I have been a book addict. One of my earliest and best childhood memories:
I'm three years old, walking with my mother from our apartment in downtown Warsaw to the public library. Along the way, we stop to look at baby chicks in the feed store window, and on the way back, we may visit the bakery, and if I'm good, I may get a cookie. But the important thing is that we are going to the library, and I will be allowed to pick out one book (usually Dr. Seuss) from the children's section, which, later on, my mother or father will read to me.
Imagine the thrill when I was old enough to get my first library card, and could check out any book I wanted—from any section of the library—and read it myself!

Of course, what I really wanted was to own books. They were my favorite gifts, and I spent much of my allowance on them: beginning with The Hardy Boys, Tom ("Tom said Swiftly") Swift, and paperbacks from the school book club, eventually moving on to grown-up mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, and science fiction.

When I was in college, I discovered my first used bookstore. For a fraction of the cost of a new book, I could buy a used one. I soon did my book shopping almost exclusively at used bookstores—each one unique, depending on the personal taste and character of its owner. I could browse for hours, searching for works by my favorite authors. I craved the thrill of the hunt.

I was addicted to used bookstores.

Then along came e-books. For years, I resisted them. I thought nothing could ever compare with real books. One of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, felt the same way. He refused to allow his books to be published electronically. "Those aren’t books," he said. "You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever.”

I completely agreed with Ray—especially the part about the smell of books. To me, new books smell like fresh paper, glue, and ink, and remind me of the excitement of the first day of school. But old books are the best; their fragrance brings back memories of childhood trips to the library and happy hours spent browsing favorite used bookstores.

Then, a couple of years ago, Loretta gave me a Kindle. Suddenly I was a convert. Are you kidding me? Think of any book you want to read and—presto!—you've got it on your Kindle! An entire library you can carry in the palm of your hand! And best of all, some of my favorites—classics in the public domain—were free!

Fortunately, just before he died, Ray Bradbury changed his mind about e-books, too. He allowed Fahrenheit 451—his cautionary tale of a future society where books are outlawed and firemen burn them—to be published in electronic format. Since his death, more and more of his books have been released as e-books. A few days ago, I purchased half a dozen of them at $1.99 apiece as "Kindle Daily Deals." In case you hadn't heard about this, every day Amazon lists several e-books for just $1.99. (These days, it's hard to find a used paperback for that price!) Of course, you have to check every day. Otherwise, you might miss a deal on a book you really want.

I've become addicted to Kindle Daily Deals.

I still love libraries and used bookstores, of course, and I certainly hope electronic publishing doesn't put them out of business. Because, with all of the convenience, there is still one thing you can never get with an e-book—

That smell.

Warsaw Public Library

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Summer School

Believe it or not, the happiest memories of my high school years in the Chicago area are of summer school. I loved how cool, quiet, and peaceful the school building was during the summer. It was practically deserted, with only a small fraction of the thousands of students who crowded its halls during the school year. And the courses were actually fun.

First, there was driver's education. Yes, when I was in high school, you had to take driver's education. And if you couldn't get into one of the classes during the school year, you had to take it in summer school. (Apparently they don't teach driver's ed in high school anymore, which may explain why these days nobody seems to know what a turn signal is for.)

We didn't have video games back then, but the driving simulators we used came pretty close. Step on the gas pedal, and the movie goes faster; step on the brake, and it stops. A ball rolls into the street: if you don't hit the brake in time, an alarm goes off. You idiot, you could have hit a kid! At the very least, you probably destroyed his ball.

The simulators were fun, but even more fun were the Volkswagen Beetles we got to drive around the parking lot obstacle course. Then there were those great horror movies that showed in gory detail what happened if you didn't keep your eyes on the road, or if you drove when drinking. The only part I didn't enjoy was when we actually had to go for a drive. The surface streets weren't bad, but the expressways scared the hell out of me.

The other summer course I had to take was biology, which was probably my all-time favorite course in high school. It's one of the main reasons I decided to major in biology in college (although I soon discovered that college science courses were nothing like high school science courses, and I changed my major from biology to theatre, then from theatre to English).

We spent most of our time in the classroom, of course, performing mad-science experiments such as stimulating frogs' hearts with caffeine and giving testosterone injections to male chicks. (I sure hope no one from PETA is reading this. If you are, please keep in mind that this was over forty years ago. I'm sure that today's high school biology classes are much more enlightened, and only perform such experiments—if they perform them at all—on consenting frogs and chicks.)

The best part of biology class was the field trips: to Chicago's wonderful museums, and across the state line to Indiana Dunes State Park. At Indiana Dunes, we explored the many ecosystems that can be observed within a short hiking distance. As we passed through a wooded area, our teacher told us to keep an eye out for a rare red salamander that could only be found there.

Of course, this wouldn't be much of a story if I wasn't the one who spotted the salamander. Not only that, I captured it, and offered it to my teacher to keep in the classroom terrarium.

Yes, I was a terrible brown-noser.

Now that I think about it, what we did—transporting a rare, possibly endangered species across state lines—is almost certainly illegal. (Again, I hope no one from PETA is reading this.)

Fortunately the statute of limitations, like that salamander, must have expired a long time ago.

If you want to read more about the ecosystems of the Indiana Dunes, Wikipedia has a nice entry. (Unfortunately, they don't mention my salamander.)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Summer of Tricksters

You can learn an awful lot from the Internet, and some of it is probably true. For instance, last week I learned about the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, which is the experience of encountering something for the first time, then suddenly seeming to encounter it everywhere. After reading about Baader-Meinhof, I realized that this summer I have been experiencing it myself.

I'm calling it my "Summer of Tricksters."

Technically, this summer wasn't my first encounter with tricksters. As an English major, I already knew something about those mischievous, trouble-making gods and demigods that can be found in just about every mythology. (Puck, from A Midsummer Night's Dream, is probably the most famous example.) But it's been over thirty years since I took that Folklore in Literature class, and I haven't really thought much about tricksters since then.

Until this summer, when I suddenly seemed to be encountering them—well, if not everywhere, at least in several movies and books.

For instance, there's the Norse trickster, Loki. This summer, I've been catching up on the Marvel Comics movies I missed in the theater the last few years, including Captain AmericaThor and The Avengers. I have to confess that I loved these movies. I was probably one of the only people on the planet who saw them knowing next to nothing about the characters. (I read some Marvel Comics as a kid, but I was more of a Spider-Man and Fantastic Four fan.) And so I was completely surprised to find that the villain of both Thor and The Avengers was Loki, son of Odin and brother to Thor.

Now, I never studied Norse mythology, but I knew a bit about Loki the Trickster and Odin the All-Father (who also has quite a reputation as a trickster), having just encountered them in Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel American Gods, a strange and beautiful book that is slated to become an HBO series. While not without humor, American Gods is, for the most part, as dark as a mid-winter day in the northern Midwest, when and where much of it takes place. One might categorize it (to the extent one can categorize any Gaiman novel) as "trickster noir." It certainly has many of the elements of noir fiction: murder, betrayal, a beautiful femme fatale (who happens to be undead), and a mysterious protagonist named Shadow, who quickly finds himself over his head in a deadly trickster con game.

Tricksters love con games.

If American Gods is trickster noir, Gaiman's 2005 novel Anansi Boys is almost pure trickster farce, calling to mind the brilliant comic fiction of the late Douglas Adams. Anansi, aka "Mr. Nancy," is a West African trickster who is living a relatively quiet life of retirement in Florida when he drops dead of a heart attack while singing in a Karaoke bar. Yes, gods can die—at least in Gaiman's universe—and, as Shadow learns in American Gods, "when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered." However, Anansi is neither unmourned nor unremembered, and there is some doubt that he is truly dead. "Fat Charlie" Nancy certainly remembers his estranged father, and he tries his best to mourn him in spite of that fact. Of course, he has no idea that his father was a god—at least not until his brother Spider, who seems to have inherited all of their father's talent for magic and mischief, shows up at Fat Charlie's door in London, bringing all manner of chaos into his life.

Tricksters love chaos.

Samson Hunts Alone also discovers this fact in Christopher Moore's 1994 novel, Coyote Blue. As a teenager, Samson was forced to flee the Crow Indian Reservation after accidentally killing an abusive police officer. Now, years later, he seems to be doing quite well in Santa Barbara, California, as insurance broker Sam Hunter. That is, until the trickster god Coyote turns up, reminding Sam of his Native American roots and turning his seemingly perfect new life upside down. Like Anansi Boys, Coyote Blue is a comedy—a laugh-out-loud, at times extremely low comedy.

Tricksters love low comedy (the lower the better).

I've included links to the movies and books mentioned above, and if you want more information on Loki, Anansi, Coyote, and other tricksters, I'm sure you can find everything you want to know on the Internet. However, the only thing you really need to know about tricksters is that they are Trouble, with a capital 'T'.

But they certainly do make life more interesting.

Coyote Changing the Moon by Eating It