Friday, February 26, 2010

Let the Right One In

This weekend I saw a really bad horror movie. I mean a boring, not-scary horror movie.

I won't try to explain why I like movies to be scary; but the experience did get me to thinking about what is scary, and what isn't.

The thing I learned from the bad horror movie was this: realistic gore does not scare me. It doesn't matter how genuine those entrails appear to be -- I know they're not real, and I'm not scared. Horror happens in the imagination of the viewer. A movie has to engage my empathy, make me imagine myself in the horrifying situation. Somehow, it has to get behind my skeptical thoughts and chill my spine. And showing me every bit of violent mayhem (enhanced with excellent computerized special effects) is exactly the wrong way to do this. Far scarier are the movies are the movies that don't show me much at all.

Take The Blair Witch Project (available from the library only on VHS), in which three college kids get lost in the woods and encounter something terrifying. The movie never shows us the terrifying thing, and it's not at all clear what happens to those kids in the end.

Or Let the Right One In, a weird little Swedish movie. In it Oskar, a lonely, desperate 12-year-old, meets Eli, his new neighbor. Oskar thinks that maybe Eli is lonely and desperate too. He may be right about that, but he's definitely wrong in thinking that she's human. Eli seems to like Oskar, but perhaps she just has a use for him. The fact that we aren't really sure is part of what makes this movie so unsettling.

All children are afraid of the dark. Spare me the entrails; the really creepy movies are the ones that just show you the darkness, and let you imagine what might lurk there.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Song of Ice and Fire

George R. R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire is a vast and complex fantasy epic with a dark and tragic edge and a twist of sardonic humor and hope. His deft characterizations allow the book to transcend expectations; his characters will haunt you. Little Bran, who climbed like a monkey over the towers of Winterfell until he saw something he shouldn't have; Tyrion Lannister, with a stunted body and a bitterly sharp intellect, unable to curb his tongue; Aria, daughter of a lord, who can't sew to save her life but who practices sword-play in secret with the butcher's boy; Jon Snow, the bastard, loved like a true-son and a favorite brother, but with none of the privileges; Daenerys, abused by her half-mad brother and sold to a foreign and barbaric-seeming people.

Each character is as vital and real as the last, and their stories intersect in surprising and fascinating ways. Martin describes events from various perspectives so convincingly that you fully understand why the characters make the choices they make, even when they lead inexorably to more trouble and tragedy. In this world, where summers and winters can last for a decade, the hard-won season of peace is cracking ominously under the threat of coming winter, sending lives askew.

There are four books published so far out of a projected seven; A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows. Each book is a treasure, intense and long-lasting; you won't want them to end, but they will. Book 5 is overdue, and when you finish number 4, you'll be joining hordes of fans in waiting, very impatiently, for it!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Public libraries are dying!

Actually, no. A lot of people predicted the public library would go extinct, since information is so easily available on the Internet. In fact, more people are using the library than ever.

In January of 2010, the Newport Public Library circulated 23,648 items. That's up 13 per cent from January of 2009. December 2009 was up 10 per cent from December of 2008. November was up 25 per cent. And so on.

That trend is statewide. According to statistics collected by the Oregon State Library, Oregon ranks number 2 in the nation in items circulated and patrons served.

Now, don't get the idea that we're lighting our cigars with dollar bills. We are supported mostly by the City of Newport, where the budget is tight and the councilors have a lean and hungry look. But even though we're forced to spend less money, we are serving more people and checking out more items than ever before.

In all, we are happy to inform you that reports of our death are greatly exaggerated. It is the support of our loyal patrons that keeps us alive, so we thank you for that.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Read a Dick Francis novel today

One of my favorite authors died last week. Dick Francis was a British mystery writer whose well-written, civilized thrillers have kept me entertained my whole life.

My favorite is Proof, published back in 1985. It tells the story of Tony Beach, a quiet widower who owns a wine shop. One day he accompanies a policeman acquaintance named Ridger to a pub called The Silver Moondance. Tony orders a Bell's scotch; Ridger has a tomato juice.

I sucked a very small amount of whiskey into my mouth and let it wander over my tongue. One can't judge whiskey with the taste buds at the tip, up by the front teeth, but only along the sides of the tongue and at the black, and I let everything that was there in the way of flavor develop to the full before I swallowed, and then waited a while for the aftertaste.

"Well?" said Ridger. "What now?"

"For a start," I said, "this isn't Bell's."

The scene is classic Francis: deceptively simple; full of interesting details without being a lecture; and containing a hook. If you read Proof you'll learn a lot about alcoholic beverages, about how they're made and transported, how they're bottled and labeled. You'll learn how to run a profitable scam, and how to launder your ill-gotten gains. You'll learn how an ordinary man, thrown into dangerous circumstances, surprises himself with his own courage.

And you'll want to learn more about what The Silver Moondance is really pouring out of its bottles instead of Bell's whiskey.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


This past weekend I had a lot of things to do. But I didn't get to very many of them, because I could not tear myself away from In the Woods by Tana French.

Rob Ryan loves his job as a police detective, especially the close friendship he shares with his partner, detective Cassie Maddox. He has a secret that only Cassie knows: when he was a child, he was the sole witness and survivor of a bloody crime that took place in the woods near a Dublin suburb called Knocknaree. He believes that that this mostly-forgotten episode had no lasting effect on his psyche. That changes when he and Cassie land the case of the murder of a twelve-year-old girl in the Knocknaree woods. The mystery of who killed Katy Devlin makes for an exciting and scary mystery. But what makes this book impossible to turn away from is the way Ryan slowly falls apart, the closer he and Cassie get to the truth.

My colleague Stacy has blogged about this author before, and she wasn't kidding. If you like thrillers, give this novel a try. I know it's a cliché, but I truly could not put it down.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A good book -- and a night out

When a tsunami washes over Mau's island, he is the only one of his people left. Then he encounters Daphne, an English girl who was shipwrecked by the wave. With everything they know gone, Mau and Daphne find ways to communicate, work together, and survive.

Nation by Terry Pratchett, which won the Los Angeles Prize for Young Adult Fiction in 2008, isn't just an exciting adventure story about brave and resourceful teens -- although it is that. Nation also explores what civilization is, and what it means to take responsibility for your own destiny.

Sound interesting? If so, you might want to check out the performance of Nation that's taking place in Newport on Friday, February 19. The dramatic adaptation, which features music, dance, and puppetry, is being staged by the National Theatre in London and broadcast in High Definition to the Alice Silverman Theater at the Newport Performing Arts Center. The play is appropriate for everyone ages 10 and up, and should be a lot of fun. For more information and to buy tickets, call the PAC at 541-265-2787.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Lindsey Davis, better known for her Falco series of mysteries set during the Roman Empire, has travelled forward in time to England’s Glorious Revolution in her latest door-stop of a book, “Rebels and Traitors.”

At 752 pages, this is a book that, if you can get into it, revels in a well-developed sense of place: England’s Civil War in the 1640’s. Charles I and Cromwell’s Parliament are engaged in a political tug of war with catastrophic results for just about everyone involved. If you like your historical novels chock-full of historical scenery, you’ll love “Rebels and Traitors.” I’d never known that whole towns such as Oxford and Chester were terrorized, their inhabitants punished and some - like Birmingham - razed to the ground for backing the wrong side. One thing is for sure: you’ll learn a lot about 17th English history reading this book.

Rebels and Traitors” is an unusual book. Half novel, half historical narrative, Davis forcibly injects her characters into the era’s major moments with, to my mind, mixed results. The historical bits read like a rather dry factual re-telling, with the novel protruding here and there as if two books were written simultaneously, then cut and pasted together.

Davis follows two characters, Gideon Jukes (Roundhead) and Orlando Lovell (Royalist) as they fight their way across England, Scotland and Wales. Unfortunately the characters of Gideon and Orlando are constructed so similarly and their lives so paralelled, I found myself frequently forgetting which character was which. I guess this was a deliberate conceit on Davis’ part: telling the story of two simple men at the mercy of history. But stupid me, I just kept mixing them up.

But maybe you won’t have that problem. At page 200, I thought I probably wouldn’t finish it. At page 300, I was sure I wouldn’t finish it. I’m up to page 400 now. Will I finish it? Ask me when I get to page 500. Or 600. Or 700. Then I’ll have just 52 pages to go.

Click here to reserve “Rebels and Traitors”, although I can’t promise exactly when I’ll finish it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Smilla's Sense of Snow

This movie is -- not good, necessarily -- but very enjoyable. It stars Julia Ormond as Smilla Jasperson, an antisocial, frosty Danish scientist. She wants to discover why a small boy, her neighbor, ran off the roof of their apartment building to his death. The child was one of Smilla's few friends, and when she examines his footprints in the snow, she becomes convinced that the boy was fleeing from something.

The mystery of the boy's death leads Smilla to some pretty strange places. The fact is, this movie doesn't actually make a lick of sense. But it is atmospheric and suspenseful, and Ormond really is terrific as the determined and icy Smilla. Watch it for her still, cool performance, and try not to slap your forehead when you get to the big mystery-solving reveal at the end.

[Note: The image I used to illustrate this post comes, not from the movie, but from a terrific photoblog by Joseph Holmes.]

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Art and power

In The Portrait by Iain Pears, an artist named Henry MacAlpine sits down to paint his old friend, influential art critic William Naysmith. The two men were art students in Paris together, and have enjoyed a long and complicated relationship. As he paints, Henry talks. The narration of this book is entirely Henry's monologue as he paints.

It's hard to believe how well this works, and how well the author manages to build plot and suspense through Henry's talk. Quickly we understand that the two men's friendship has always been one of unequal power; gradually we realize how Henry feels about that. Suspense begins to build as we start to wonder what Henry intends to do about it.

I can't tell you much more than that, because one of the pleasures of this well-written little novel is the surprises it has in store for the reader. I will say that The Portrait has inspired me to read more books by Iain Pears.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Librarians On The Floor

Usually here on Salmagundi we review new and old favorite books, movies and music. We also like to highlight library services and classes, and keep our patrons informed of the latest changes at Newport Library.

But every once in a while we just want to show you librarians on the floor.

No, it’s not librarian story time. It’s part of our weekly staff shelf-read. You know all those books don’t keep themselves in order, right? It takes a baker’s dozen of dedicated professionals working on their hands and knees all morning (or at least an hour once a week) to maintain some semblance of Dewey Decimal order.

Shelf-reading is sort of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time you finally finish painting the thing, it’s time to start all over again.

Take this quick librarians test: which book comes first on the shelf, 751.0123 PICASS or 751.001 ADAMS?

Monday, February 1, 2010

It's Toddler Time!

Many years ago, the Newport Public Library began providing programming for toddlers and their care-givers. Each Tuesday and Thursday morning the library echoes with little voices, as children aged birth to 3 years (with older siblings and friends) gather to listen to stories and songs. Sometimes those little voices are unintelligible. Or wailing.

So, what does a toddler learn at Toddler Time? How much does a baby absorb in a whirlwind of sounds, colors, and movement?

When children first come to Toddler Time, most only sit in wide-eyed wonder. Some don’t make it through the 15-20 minute session – there are many more exciting things to explore. (I take second fiddle to the trains a lot.) They usually don’t participate in the activity songs at the beginning and end (“Open and Shut Them” and “Blow Kisses to Friends”). They are tentative about participating and interacting with each other. The flannel board is a lesson in listening; a few have the courage to come up and add to the growing collection of pieces on the board.

Sometimes it only takes a few sessions, sometimes it takes months or even years. In the end, children become more comfortable with their surroundings, with the program, and with their own abilities. It’s exciting to see young minds grow and engage the world.

If you have a toddler, please join us! And thank you to all the families who have participated in Toddler Times over the years…we enjoy watching all “our” children grow, and invite you to let us know how your “once a toddler” is doing.