Jan 5, 2008

A Contract with God by Will Eisner (Plus more book giveaways and Trouble at the library)

A Contract with God is a collection of four short stories, all set in tenement at 55 Dropsie Avenue, The Bronx, New York, somewhere in the 1930's. According to Will Eisner, the stories are semi-autobiographical - they were based on his memories of growing up in New York city at around that time, among other immigrants, many of which of Jewish origins. The stories are based both on his experiences and on those of the people who surrounded him. In the preface to this edition, he says, Call me, if you will, a graphic witness reporting on life, death, heartbreak, and the never-ending struggle to prevail...or at least to survive.

These themes are indeed present in all four stories. In the first one, which gives the novel its title, a man, heartbroken over the death of his 16-year-old daughter, feels betrayed by his God. He believes that he had a contract with God, and that God did not honour the terms of the contract. Therefore, he decides that he is going to break the contract as well, and cheats his way into a rich and luxurious life. Things take a turn, however, when the man decides to make a new contract with God.

"Cookalein" is about a summer at a Jewish country getaway, where some of the tenement's inhabitants spend their holidays. It is a story about social ambition, love, passion, and betrayal. Like in the other stories in this collection, there is quite a bit of irony in the way things turn out.

"The Street Singer" is about a poor street singer just misses his chance of becoming successful… or does he? The singer will never know, nor will the reader. A perfect illustration of life’s much too common “what ifs”.

Finally, "The super" is about – you guessed it - a super who suffers the consequences of his just for young girls.

Like I said, I really liked the way all these stories perfectly illustrated how ironic life can sometimes be. The stories are full of disappointment and heartbreak, but also of hope and joy – they tell us how harsh defeat can be, but they also celebrate life’s little triumphs.

It was only some four years or so ago that I began to read comics and graphic novels more or less regularly. And because I am so used to reading text only books, I really have to push myself to give the artwork the attention it deserves. It goes without saying that, unlike in an illustrated novel, in a graphic novel the art is not just a companion to the text. It’s a fundamental storytelling tool that says as much – and often much more – as the words. All this to say that I am in awe of Will Eisner’s art. His drawings often say much more than words ever could. He is especially masterful when it comes to the character’s expressions – they can be powerful and subtle, intriguing and deeply emotional. Whenever I read one of Will Eisner’s comics, I always make sure that I go slowly enough to truly take in everything that is on the page, and read the bits of the story that are not written down.

There are a lot of exciting book giveaways going on right now! On my last post I mentioned Eva’s and Rhinoa’s. Also to celebrate Buy a Friend a Book Week, Melody is giving away copies of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Men of Courage by Lori Foster, Donna Kauffman & Jill Shalvis and Left to Die by Taylor Kincaid. Just let her know which books you are interested in before the 8th of January.

Also, Dewey is buying the winner of her giveaway any book under $20 that they want from Amazon. The deadline to be entered is the 7th of January. If you spread the word about the giveaway on your blog, you get to be entered twice!

Yesterday when I got home I had a letter from the library waiting for me. It was a very stern letter telling me to immediately return a book that was overdue since the 4th of December—the only problem being the fact that I had never requested or even heard of the book in question in my life. It was an YA book called Amelia’s Star. I thought, okay, obviously they somehow mistook me for someone else, and tomorrow morning I will go there and explain, and this will all be solved.

Well, I did go there this morning, but unfortunately it wasn’t that easy. The lady I talked to would just not believe that I had never requested the book. I would tell her again and again, and all she would say was, “well, it’s in your card.”

I told her that maybe the code of that book got mixed up with the code of something else I did request – I do request a lot of books from the Children’s and YA section – and she would say, “yes, maybe”, but then her next sentence would be something like, “Are you sure you don’t have it? Have you looked properly at home? Maybe you just forgot.” She just assumed I was lying or making excuses.

I told her from the start that even though I had never set eyes on the book I was willing to pay for its replacement. I just wanted to understand how something like this could have happened, so that I could rest assured that it wouldn’t happen again in the future. If there was someone out there requesting books with my library card number and never returning them, the safest thing to do would probably be to cancel my card. Unfortunately, she didn’t take any of my concerns seriously, because she did not for a moment believe me. I pointed out that I had checked out and returned other books between the 4th and the 14th of December, before I went home for the holidays, and if I had a book overdue how come I wasn’t reminded then? She said that the staff member I had talked to was probably busy and forgot to tell me.

Eventually she suggested that I go upstairs to the children’s section to see if the book was there. I wish I had asked her to come with me. The book turned out to be there alright, and when I returned with it she gave me a suspicious took. I think she thought I had it hidden with me all along, and was pulling a stunt to avoid paying the £3 overdue fine. I told her I would pay it, but I still wanted to cancel my card, because I couldn’t be sure that this wouldn’t happen again in the future. She told me it wouldn’t, because things like this did not happen, and she said she would “forgive me” the fine this time. The last thing she said to me was, “When you returned the book, you probably just put it back on the shelf. Just make sure you give it to a staff member next time.”

Sigh. At this point, I wanted to tell her, “Excuse me, I’ve been using libraries since I was ten years old. Also, if you check on your records you will see that I have requested and safely returned over twenty books in the past few months. I think I grasp how this works.” But I just said, for the tenth time, “Yes, that’s what I always do. It’s just that I never requested that book.”

I love the libraries here, I seriously do. They are so much better than the ones we have back home. They have a great variety of books, the staff is normally friendly and helpful, and they are just nice, cosy, friendly places. I’ve only been here for a few months, but in those months I’ve gone there every week to request books. I’ve always returned them in time and undamaged. Also, I supported them by buying more books at their sales than I probably should have. Which is why it’s so upsetting that this librarian just assumed I was lying and treated me like, to quote Dewey, a library pillager.

I really wouldn’t have minded paying the fine – or even the replacement of the book if it hadn’t been found. It’s not about the money. I wouldn’t have minded it if she had said, “Look, I believe you, but unfortunately the book got on your card somehow. Since we cannot figure out how, if you don’t pay the fine we’ll have to pay for it ourselves unless you talk to our superiors and explain this to them.” Then I would have understood. But she never took me seriously, and that’s why this is so upsetting.

I cannot for the life of me figure out how come that book was on my card. Since it turned out to be on the library, I think I can rule out the possibility of someone using my card number to steal books. The place where I found the book was quite close to the place where The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones is, and I think that when I checked that one out, the due date was the 4th of December. So I thought that maybe the codes of those two books got mixed up. Except that Amelia’s Star did have a stamp with the 4th of December on it, so it was checked out by someone around that time. Maybe someone checked it out right after I checked out the Diana Wynne Jones book and it got put in my account instead of theirs? But since it was at the library, they obviously did return it, so how come the system didn’t show it had been returned?

Has anyone had anything of this sort happen to them? Should I be worried about being accused of stealing books I’ve never heard of again in the future?

Anyway, the good news is that I found my first book for the Sci-Fi Experience there: Slaughterhourse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Today I managed to finish Thomas the Rhymer (one word: wow), so I’ll start it tomorrow. I also got Voices by Ursula Le Guin for the YA Challenge, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo just because.


  1. I'm sorry you had an icky library experience. :( What a piece of work-first treating you like a thief and then like an idiot. Once, I was explaining to a reference librarian at uni that an e-mail I sent to another librarian hadn't gone through. This woman was very loud, and in the middle of the crowded first floor, she goes, "Well, you have to put the AT sign and then DOT EDU. I bet you forgot to do that." *rolls eyes* The circumstance of the book sounds so weird-nothing like that has ever happened to me before. I have to say, though, that fine was so low for almost a month! My current library doesn't fine, but my uni library had a dollar a day policy. Brutal.

  2. Grrrrr!! Don't you just hate being taken for an idiot? Especially at a place that's so dear to you like the library? I'm so sorry that happened to you Nymeth :( It figures you'd get stuck with the bitchy librarian when there are so many nice ones out there. On the plus note, you found some great books! Slaughterhouse-Five was good. It wasn't my favorite read of last year, but it's definitely classic sci-fi and I did enjoy it. And I'm so happy that you got Edward Tulane! It's a beautiful little book. Did I tell you that I picked up LeGuin's Gifts while I was in Texas? I'm so excited about it after your review! They had Voices for cheap too...I should've bought it...oh well...

    A Contract with God sounds great. I've really been in the mood for reading Jewish books lately for some reason. I think it's because I just bought The Book Thief. And I know what you mean about focusing on the art in Graphic Novels. It took me awhile to train myself to do the same. I've been such a comic nut for long and they've come such a long way that there's so much of the story that you can miss if you just skim the art. There are so many layers to the story within the art. It's the wonderful thing about Graphic Novels!

  3. I had a similar experience at the library once. I check my account regularly, so one time I saw that a copy of "Of Human Bondage" was listed as one of my loans. Except I did not borrow the book.

    I went to a librarian to clarify the mistake, but she wasn't interested in listening either. Like the bitch that spoke to you. (Not very yogi of me, I know) She tried to brush me off, told me to go home and check because I "might have forgot about it."

    It was like talking to a brick wall. I was at the verge of raising my voice at her. I explained, "I have a copy of the book! I don't need to borrow it!"

    I insisted we check the computer again. She did not want to, but I was being difficult. I am a big, angry girl dressed in black, and I refused to walk away -- and that was the only reason they bothered: Because I looked like trouble.

    It seems the loan was made at another branch. So I insisted that they call the librarians at that branch. (They were most reluctant to pick up the phone to help me.) As it turns out -- just like your case -- the book in question was sitting on the library shelf at that branch.

    So, The Librarian Who Refuses to Listen shrugged. She refused to look me in the eye. Just told me they returned the book at that branch, and that was that.

    No apologies. No admission of any mistake of any kind.

    The best part about this? As I was walking away from the counter, the Librarian turned to her colleague and said, "She claims she did not borrow the book."

    It took all my self-restraint not to turn back to argue with her that in fact, we have proved that I did not borrow the book.

    No one can explain to me why the mistake happened. But someone did suggest it could be the scanners at the library were too sensitive, or they misread the barcodes on the books. It was probably computer error -- a common thing -- but the librarians trusted the computers more than humans.

    That's why you need to check your records frequently. In case of glitches like these.

  4. Hi Nymeth! Thanks for entering my contest. Good luck! ;) I enjoy reading your reviews; I will add your link to my blogroll.

    I'm sorry to hear about the library incident. That sucks. A few months ago, I received a notification from the library, stating that I didn't pay the fine of 30cents on an overdue books which was dated 9 years back. I can't even remember if I have borrowed the book in the first place, and what most shocking is, how could they demand for an overdue payment which has happened 9 years back?! Isn't it ridiculous? Anyway, I paid the fine, and was glad someone else mentioned this on the papers. At least I wasn't the only one who thought this was absurd. Oh well...

  5. How annoying, I hate when people are like that but well done for keeping your cool.

  6. I'm sure she is just a frustrated librarian, wishing she was a bigger fish in a bigger pond and was taking it out on you. Sounds like you showed remarkable restraint. I would not have. Kudos to you.

    I was proud of myself, I made my first trip to the library in about a year (all part of my plan to try to at least cut down slightly on the book buying this year) and checked out the first two Foundation books by Asimov. I'm really enjoying the first one so far.

    I've heard nothing but great things about Wils Eisner, but the closest I have ever come to reading his work is reading Darwyn Cooke's interpretation of his character, The Spirit. One of these days I'll have to read this one as it is certainly one of the most respected graphic novels out there.

  7. Taking a little liberty with a Seinfeld episode, you obviously ran into the Book Nazi! Every once in a while she/he shows up...I had a run in with her when I was really young and she wouldn't let me check out books from the teen section of the library because she said I was too young. My mom took care of her quickly. Would you like me to send my mom over to straighten her out?

  8. Your experience at the library reminded me of something similar that happened to me at a hair salon. Because of a computer mistake they made, I was in the wrong. The manager actually told me that the computer was never wrong. It was all over a bounced check. A check they showed me. I shared a first name with the check bouncer, but that's it. The address, surname, even bank name were completely different (not to mention I've never paid by check there). Two times I went there, they brought this up (the second time I thought for sure they'd resolved it). They wouldn't believe any of my protestations, not even when I offered to show them my drivers' license. So frustrating. I don't go there anymore. I recommend to everyone I know to avoid the place. It's different with a library, I know, but your story brought back my frustrating memory.

    Anyhow, that's not really what I wanted to comment about! I loved your review on your graphic novel reading. It sounds very good. I think you made a very good point about the art being a significant part of the story. It's something I have to remind myself whenever I pick up a graphic novel to read.

  9. Haha! I love Robin's comment! And I'm really enjoying the comments of this post...it's like an evil librarian support group :)

  10. Oh Nymeth, I can't tell you how sorry I am! Frankly that just sucks! I so admire your composure though...not sure I could have kept my cool like you did. And I'd give just about anything to go back in time, so you could have made said librarian come with you to check the shelves.

    And I agree with Chris...Robin's comment made me laugh out loud!

  11. What a bitch of a woman! Oh well, some people are just like that I guess. The graphic novel sounds good though, I like the idea of The Street Singer story best I think.

  12. After my first experience like yours, back in high school, when I went to find the "overdue" book on the shelf and the librarian acted like I had snuck it in to avoid a fine, I learned to always send THEM to look for it on the shelf, the several more times that same situation happened since then.

    My husband has both a really common first name and a really common last name. There are four guys with his exact name in our library's system. And they're very casual at circulation, never ask for your card, just ask you your name if you don't have your card out when you approach them. So he's always got these other guys' books on his card, but the librarians always take his word for it, which is a relief for him.

    Our old library wasn't so reasonable. My worst library experience was when a Barney video was mysteriously pushed behind the entertainment center by the small hands of a Barney fan. The library never told me it was late or missing or anything, even though we went there a couple times a week. Then when we moved, I found the video behind the entertainment center and put it in the book drop. Next time I went in, they said I had a FORTY SOMETHING DOLLAR fine! I asked if I could just buy a new Barney video, and she said no, too late, if I wanted to do that, I shouldn't have dropped off the video! I protested silently by checking everything out on my son's card for the next couple years. I eventually did have to pay the fine, which I'm still mad about.

  13. Eva: lol, forgetting to put at and dot edu... yeah, that sounds very likely :P I bet she said that to you because SHE had forgotten to do it in the past. And yeah, the fine wasn't very high... back home it's 50 euro cents a day. I think the library was closed for some time between Christmas and New Year, so maybe they didn't count that time? Still, that's not very much a day. Then again, they do charge people for other things. If you want to borrow DVDs and videos you have to pay, and putting a hold on a book is 80p.

    Chris: Yeah, I think I was just unlucky with the librarian I got. I'm enjoying Slaughterhouse-Five so far! And you did tell me about Gifts..I can't wait to see what you think of it! I hope you enjoy it. If you're in the mood for books with a Jewish theme, Will Eisner is the way to go! I recommend both this one and The Name of the Game, which follows several generations of a family of Jewish immigrants in NYC since the 19th century.

    Dark Orpheus: While it's awful that you also got treated like that, I must say I'm relieved to know I'm not the only one. Misery loves company :P I will definitely check my records online regularly from now on. They won't catch me off guard ever again!

    Melody! Hi! and thanks! wow, 30 cents from a book borrowed 9 years ago...that's so ridiculous and petty of them! It reminds me of a Seinfeld episode where a librarian goes after Jerry because of a book he supposedly didn't return back when he was in high school. I didn't know those things actually happened in real life!

    a book in the life: It really is annoying. Ah well, unfortunately we all have to deal with those things every now and then.

    Carl: Looking back now, I wish I had given her a piece of my mind. She certainly deserved it. But I guess it was wiser to remain calm. I've heard many good things about the Foundation series..I look forward to your review! And you need to give Eisner a try. I haven't read his Spirit books, but in his non-fiction book "Comics and Sequential Art" he used several panels from The Spirit as examples, and they seemed wonderful!

    Robin: lol, a book nazi! You should send your mom over, she'd be most welcome :D

    Literary Feline: wow, I think that story's even worse than mine. It's SO easy to see that the whole thing had been a mistake... all she had to do was look at your ID! And yeah, I always have to remind myself too...but it's well worth the extra time.

    Chris: lol, evil librarian support group..I like the sound of that :P

    Debi: I sort of wish I had shown her how upset I was, though. I'm not a very confrontational person, and I often suspect that swallowing my feelings can't be good for me :P But what's done is done. I definitely DO wish I had made her go find the book herself, though.

    Rhinoa: Yeah, unfortunately there are some idiots out there, and we all have to deal with them every now and then. The Street Singer was probably my favourite story in the book. The ending was a great mixture of ironic and sad.

    Dewey: Like I told Dark Orpheus, even though it sucks that you were treated like that too, I'm glad I'm not the only one. I'll never be caught unaware again. If this happens again, I'll be sure I'll make THEM look for the book. And wow, that's ridiculous about the tape. How hard would it have been for them to have TOLD you?

  14. i cannot believe it! i am aghast! well, aghastness has connotations of surprise, so perhaps i am not aghast as in surprised, but aghast as in just plain aghast. amazed. horrified. that aghast.

    that is SO ANNOYING. beyond annoying. i know you've deliniated the whole thing, but really, the mind boggles. why did she not believe when

    A) a thief would never come in and face the music and say they don't have it. how many times could one get away with that caper? once at most.

    B) why did she go on and on about "are you sure you don't have" it, when you clearly were sure.

    C) you clearly aren't a moron or some ditz or something like that. you knew there was some error. she could see you were an intelligent person, why didn't she just see where you were coming from...? (hang on, maybe thats where my assumption is wrong - she probably couldn't see you were an intelligent person 'cause she was a narrow-minded ... narrow-minded person!)

    D) especially after you're being so reasonable as to offer to pay the fine, couldn't she see that this wasn't the action of a thief.

    E) and then when you found the book...! oh its those moments in my life... those are the few regrets i have. if that had happened to me i'd have regretted till the day i died that i hadn't dragged her up there with me to see the book sitting on the shelf... 'cause that has happened to me and i do regret it. (thankfully i can't actually remember the incident in question, but i definitely remember the feeling very clearly). i cannot believe she still didn't believe you after you found the book on the shelf...! well, i can believe it, 'cause she's a narrow-minded Narrow-Minded Person. (but i still can't believe it!).

    F) there are just loads of other unspeakable frustrations.

    i DEEPLY sympathise and empathise...


  15. I had a very different experience at the public library about 10 years ago. I had a problem remembering to return my books and after a number of fines my license was finally suspended. I haven't used the public library since then. Of course I've used the university libraries a ton, but I have little confidence in the reshelfing skills of freshmen. :)

    Both on another note, the short story collection sounds very interesting. I think I've given up on my challenge ban and will probably join this one. Ha!!

  16. JP: Thanks for the sympathy! I wonder if they actually had any bad experiences in the past with people pretending to find overdue books at the library. Still, I wish I had been given the benefit of the doubt.

    Trish: I'm always paranoid about missing the return dates! Fortunately this library lends books for quite a long period (3 weeks) so I always finish them and go back for more before then. And do join this challenge! It's a great one.

  17. What a disheartening library story! My blood would be boiling. The only bad library story I know was of a lady who couldn't return books because of a snowstorm. The library was closed and the police wanted people to stay off the roads anyway. They insisted she pay the late fees the next day.

    Of course they probably see all kinds there. Ever read the blog @ the Library?

    I miss my old library. They knew me since I was a kid and were always friendly. *sigh*

  18. Signed up! I think, though, that I'm just going to read on a whim from a number of collections I own.

    And one of my favorite elements in a short story is irony. Hmmm--where to start? :)

  19. Oh, nymeth, your library story could have taken place at my library! Where I work!

    I sat by helplessly once while a patron was charged a ten dollar billing fee for a book she had returned -- and found herself on the shelf. I didn't have authority to waive the fine (I would have!) so had to call my supervisor who had to call the main branch to get the okay (the billing fee is different than a fine because it goes to the collection agency), and the higher up said no waive it never, EVEN WHEN IT IS TOTALLY OUR FAULT. I also heard the grumble, "Well, she (the patron), could've snuck the book onto our shelf to avoid paying the fine."

    So what! The book was in good condition; the reason we fine people is to get them to return their books not to punish them. Besides, we (employees) make plenty of mistakes (few percentage-wise, but that's no comfort if it happens to you) and we'd never be able to make payroll on fines alone, anyway, so why not give the benefit of the doubt? You can tell by looking in the patron record what their history is like; if they keep taking advantage it's obvious.

    Thankfully, we have new bosses. I think they're going a little overboard in the make nice with fined patrons (the previous administration incurred a lot of bad feelings), but I guess I'd rather err on that side.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.