Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt, follows the lives of several families through the turn of the 19th century up to World War I. The central family, the Wellwoods, is headed by Humphry and Olive, a forward-thinking, unconventional couple with a large and growing family and a creative, bohemian social circle. Much of the story is told from the point of view of the children, and it opens with a feeling of potential and imagination that echoes the hopes that greeted the turn of the century. The Wellwood children at first seem to be living in an ideal world, a magical bubble of both safety and wildness; but as they and their peers grow up, their world crumbles from the outside, under the influence of poverty, abuse, and social turmoil, and the inside, where long-held family secrets threaten the relationships between parents and children.

Byatt follows so many of the Wellwood's peers and their families, over such a period of time, that you only get an occasional window into each character's life. There's a feeling of distance, and then, toward the end, when you've finally gotten to know all the children and they're old enough to be making interesting choices about their lives, World War I comes through like a bulldozer. Byatt, although very skilled, occasionally slips from novelist to history professor; there are certain jarring asides where she could not keep herself from pedantic explanations of how people behaved and thought at the time.

On the other hand, the design of the plot is very impressive, so that the world itself seems to be going through a kind of disillusionment and adolescent upheaval even as the children do. The characters' emotions are never clichéd or simplistic, but complex, individualistic, and often inconvenient. The story is haunting and tragic, with much food for thought about interpersonal relationships, mental illness, and the effect of social change on individual lives (and vice versa). The book is admirable, but not for the faint of heart or those attached to their rosy pictures of what it might have been like to be a parent or a child 100 years ago.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Chilling in Shanghai

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro is a beautifully-written and richly detailed novel set in London and Shanghai in the early twentieth century. A secret lies at its heart, and its narrator may be totally unreliable. Or maybe not.

Christopher Banks seems to be a quintessential Englishman -- indeed,the opening paragraphs of this book show that he is at pains to seem that way. But he spent the early years of his life in Shanghai, where his best friend was a Japanese boy, Akira. When Christopher was ten, his father and mother were kidnapped. For months, Christopher and Akira played at detectives, finding Christopher's parents again and again in their imaginations. Then Christopher was sent to England to live with an aunt. He has been obsessed with crime and and mysteries ever since.

In 1937 Christopher, now a renowned amateur detective, returns to a Shanghai threatened by Japanese invasion. He is determined to solve the case of his missing parents and seems confident that, after over twenty years, they will be found alive. At this point several things began to trouble me -- surely Christopher is being a trifle unrealistic? I realized that many of Christopher's statements have been awfully grandiose, even deluded. And really, outside of mystery novels, how many renowned amateur detectives were there in 1930s London?

After finishing this lovely but uncanny novel, I longed for a group of intelligent friends -- a book club, perhaps -- with whom to discuss it. The author's limpid prose hides levels of deception and confusion, so that, in the end, I was unsure what was real, what existed only in the narrator's mind.

If all this sounds intriguing to you, I hope you will pick up When We Were Orphans. And then tell me what you think happens, because I'm not sure.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter by Susan Wittig Albert

We all know Peter Rabbit, and many of us know author and illustrator Helen Beatrix Potter, at least in name. Susan Wittig Albert gives us a wonderful opportunity to get to know Beatrix Potter better, but in a very different way. Albert has grown a wonderful mystery series based on the life of Beatrix Potter, as she breaks physical and family ties with London in the early 1900s. She takes us to the places in the Lake District countryside that so captivated Potter, and in a wonderful twist, gives voices to Potter’s animal friends, domestic and wild.

Yes, Albert lets us hear the animals talk, and yes, they help solve the mystery. Although the mystery is important to the story, it often does not take front and center until chapters have gone by with descriptions of the current state of affairs, both animal and human, in and around the towns of Near Sawery and Far Sawery (yes they do exist).

The newest addition to the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter is The Tale of Applebeck Orchard. The two towns are abuzz with the closing of the shortcut through Applebeck Orchard, but it’s the animals that bring us the details.

If hardcore crime fiction is the only real mystery that interests you, please leave the goings-on at the Ferret’s home and art studio, Hill Top Farm, the Brockery – home of Bosworth Badger - and the other wonderful surrounding countryside to the rest of us who delight in a little whimsy with our detecting.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

A Duty to the Dead is a historical British mystery set in the midst of World War I. Bess Crawford, a nurse who has a brush with death when the hospital ship she's on runs into a mine, uses her convalescent period to deliver a message from a young soldier who died in her care. The soldier's family seems to be hiding something, and Bess is drawn into a dangerous quest to discover old secrets.

The book has some flaws; most notably, one has to make an effort to suspend disbelief in parts. However, the plot is engaging and Todd's new protagonist has that charming combination of stubborn intelligence and ladylike manners that have worked for female sleuths since the time of Miss Marple; if you enjoy Laurie R. King's Mary Russell or Jaqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, you will enjoy Bess Crawford.

I enjoyed Todd's previous and ongoing series of Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries, also set in England around the time of WWI, but I eventually grew tired of the repetitive melancholy tone despite my fondness for the stories and characters. Bess Crawford may be the antidote; Todd's evocative writing, always haunted by the grim realities of war, is lightened by Bess's compassion and hope.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On The China Road With Rob Gifford

From 1999 to 2005 Rob Gifford was National Public Radio’s Beijing correspondent. During that time, he reported on the revolutionary changes that swept China then and continue to dramatically alter the lives of the Chinese people.

Just before leaving China to become head of NPR’s London office, Gifford spent his final Summer traveling Highway 312, China’s equivalent to Route 66. From Shanghai on the east coast to the border with Kazakhstan in the west, 312 cuts a multi-lane swath across modern China, illuminating the rapid pace of the country’s economic, social and technological development. In “China Road”, Gifford, a fluent Mandarin speaker, shows us a China not often seen along the tourist routes. And what an eye-opening trip it is.

Gifford displays an open curiosity, sincere enthusiasm, as well as a sometimes roiling frustration with his adopted home of six years as he describes the country’s uneven development. He attends a provincial Amway meeting, preaches a church sermon when the regular minister doesn’t show up, and spends the night under desert stars with an ethnic Uighur talking about everything from radical Islam and Chinese wine, to educational opportunities for minority populations. People like talking to Gifford and it shows. The book is filled with conversations with ordinary Chinese people explaining their country to him and to us, as well as posing questions they themselves have about the future of their own rapidly changing homeland.

“China Road” is a fascinating look at a country riding a roller coaster into the 21st century. And it’s a delightful book to start out your 2010 reading list.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Magazine Giveaway

Our ever popular annual magazine giveaway is scheduled for Thursday January 7, 2010 in the McEntee meeting room from 10AM to 6PM.

The public is invited to take away as much as they can carry from our large collection of old magazines covering every interest from arts and crafts, interior design, religion, current affairs, sports, business and lifestyles. First come. First served. This is a great opportunity for students, crafters, collagers, and collectors. Come early for the best selection!

Bring your bags, boxes and Sherpas.!

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Demon Under the Microscope

Chemistry was my worst class in college. I worked so hard, and learned so little. The experience left me frustrated and bitter, so it would take an awfully good author to interest me in a story about an innovation in organic chemistry. Thomas Hager is a good author, and The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug is a good book.

In 1932 a team at Bayer AG (a division of the infamous German chemical company IG Farben), headed by Gerhard Domagk, developed a new chemical. The chemical, marketed as Prontosil by the Germans and containing the compound sulfanilamide, was a powerful medicine, one of a group that came to be known as sulfa antibiotics. Sulfa revolutionized health care all over the world. In 1924, Calvin Coodlidge, Jr., the 15-year-old son of the President of the United States, died of an infection that spread from a blistered toe. After sulfa came on the market, not just the treatment of infections but the medical establishment's entire attitude towards illness was different.

Hager grounds the story of Domagk and his chemical innovation in its cultural relevance, going all the way back to the first observation of "animalcules" (or bacteria) by a Dutch lens-grinder named Antoine van Leeuwenhoek in 1676; through the use of antiseptics in surgery by Joseph Lister in the late 19th century; through the bloody battlefields and septic operating rooms of World War I; to the sulfa experiments performed by the Nazis on women prisoners in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

The book's many digressions are fascinating. I learned about the development of the German chemical industry in the 20th century, and the way it was affected by the rise of the Nazi party. I learned about the 1937 recall of one sulfa-containing cough syrup after it was linked to the deaths of over 100 people, and the subsequent strengthening of the powers of the FDA to ensure the safety of medicines. I even learned a little about chemistry.

The Demon Under the Microscope can be found in our catalog here. If you prefer to listen to it on audiobook, click here.