Monday, June 28, 2010

Memories of a grand master

Gateway, by Frederik Pohl, is one of the finest science fiction novels I've ever read. Published in 1977, it's undeniably an oldie, but I think it's still fresh and exciting.

Gateway is an adventure novel, featuring a vanished alien race, mankind's exploration of their incomprehensible technology, and perilous journeys of discovery into the unknown. But what makes it timeless is its powerful human story. Bob Broadhead is a space wildcatter, who once experienced a ghastly calamity, and is struggling to come to terms with it. As Bob speaks to a psychiatrist, what really happened, and how he survived, are slowly revealed.

Interestingly, Frederik Pohl, at 90, is an active blogger. Pohl is one of science fiction's most influential figures. Not just a brilliant novelist, he was an agent, anthologist and publisher throughout a long and prolific career. He was a lifelong friend of Isaac Asimov, and his capacious memory is filled with anecdotes about the most interesting authors of science fiction, like Arthur C. Clark, Donald Wollheim, Robert Heinlein, and more.

For instance, he was friends with Frank Herbert, author of the sf classic Dune. In a recent blog post, Pohl writes that Herbert was inspired to write his epic novel of the desert planet Arrakis by the Oregon Dunes. He also writes this: "Arrakis was Frank Herbert code for Iraq, The Baron was Dick Cheney, Selusa Secundis was Afghanistan and so on."

When I read that, I said "Wow!" If you agree, or if you're interested in golden-age science fiction, you really must start reading The Way the Future Blogs, by Frederik Pohl.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Finding the Good Samaritan

Ted Dekker is a novelist I've enjoyed for years, whether it is his childrens' and young adult fantasy series or his hard hitting suspense novels for adults. He's a writer I've come to expect a good read from, so when I spied his non-fiction book, Tea with Hezbollah, setting at the enemies' table: our journey through the middle east, I checked it out. Reading it was a fortuitous experience. Dekker and his co-author, Carl Medearis, took a trip to the Middle East to talk to the enemy, leaders of various groups bent on the destruction of the United States and Israel, about the viability of Jesus' greatest commandment "love your neighbor as yourself" and the story of the Good Samaritan. An admission here, I did not know that Jesus is a great prophet in Islamic teachings and is called Prophet (Jesus) Isa Alleh Islam, which is where the name Islam came from. I do love filling in the holes in my knowledge of the world.

Dekker and Medearis, an expert in the field of Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations, made arrangements to meet with leaders of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah during a two week journey. They began in Egypt then went on to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank, for it is "commonly said in the Middle East that Cairo writes Islamic law, Saudi Arabia lives that law, and Beirut fights over that law." Dekker's interview transcripts with not only the above leaders but also common folks are included as is Nicole's story. Nicole is a young woman, raised in the U.S., who travels to the region searching for her dead mother's past and finds that good Samaritans still exist.

This very accessible account of an amazing journey could well lead to further reading on many subjects.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I hate mysteries...sort of

I am not a reader of mysteries. There. I said it.
“Oh, but you MUST read this....” And they shove the latest cat/quilt/cookie/English village/whatever-themed whodunit across the desk. And I politely oblige.
And I get 20 pages into it and I could not care less whodunnit. Snore... cue the sound of me snapping book closed.
And then along came British author Colin Cotterill.
Dr. Siri Paiboun didn’t ask to be a forensic coroner. But as one of the last surviving medical doctors in post-war Laos, he really has no choice in the matter. More out of a sense of duty than anything else, Siri assembles a rag-tag band of helpers and starts work. Nurse Dtui certainly has more practical forensic skill, but as a woman, and a politically unconnected one at that, she, too, has little choice but to play the second fiddle. Add the slightly addle-brained but big hearted mortuary attendant Geung, liberally toss in absurd revolutionary socialist bureaucracy and rudely insistent ancestor demons, and you have a weird and wonderful setting for some of the most enjoyable books, and least mystery-like mysteries I’ve ever read.
And if that’s not enough, proceeds from the now globally popular Dr. Siri series go towards sending books to Lao school children.
The first in the six book series is “The Coroner’s Lunch” and you can reserve it here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Spoonful of Sugar

To motivate myself to exercise, I signed up for a walking program, with a goal of walking 101 miles in 100 days. Sessions on an elliptical machine can be deadly dull, though, and even walking can seem like a chore when I have to keep checking my pedometer. It's amazing how much more pleasantly the time goes by when I am listening to an audiobook.

Ever since our library subscribed to Library2Go, I've been an avid fan of downloadable audiobooks! Of course, I still love to read regular books, but I find that I get much more "reading" done with my ears, listening to my tiny little Mp3 player while I'm driving, washing dishes, or exercising. It's a little smaller than a credit card, and holds over a dozen books.

Not every device is compatible, but Library2Go provides a list of players that are: If the model you want isn't available locally, you can get it online or at an electronics store.

So what do I listen to? Right now I'm reading Starburst by Robin Pilcher, and I recently finished Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I've been through many of the classics, and have also enjoyed titles written for teens and middle school kids, like the The Giver trilogy and the Ender's Game series. Whatever your taste in books, Library2Go has something for you. Go to and see what is available. You might even be inspired to exercise more!

Hill House, not sane

I don't believe in ghosts, and I don't really care for ghost stories. But I do like The Haunting of Hill House, a surprisingly creepy book written by Shirley Jackson in 1959. Its opening lines are famous:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Four people decide to spend a summer at the notorious Hill House, documenting any paranormal activities they may observe. One of these is Eleanor Vance, a lonely woman who, we soon learn, has a rich and weird fantasy life. Eleanor does observe paranormal activities at Hill House; oh yes, yes she does.

Maybe that's because Hill House is haunted. Or maybe it's because Eleanor is going crazy. While I don't find ghosts scary, there is certainly something about the prospect of losing one's mind that chills the blood.

The neat thing about this book is that you can read it either way: it works as a ghost story, and it works as a psychological profile of a woman who's cracking under pressure. Not many authors are skilled enough to make that work.

Incidentally, a couple of movies have been based on this book. Do yourself a favor: skip 'em, and read The Haunting of Hill House instead.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

I'm venturing gingerly into the field of nonfiction, led by a tentative new interest in running. I was always an anti-jogger, dubious about all that repetitive motion and the possibility of joint damage, but the few times the sun has shined this spring have found me longing for some brisk activity in the sun. Strangely enough, I seem to have crossed some invisible milestone; jogging has become enjoyable and energizing.

Naturally, a new interest means research-- what running shoes are best, how to gradually and fairly painlessly increase endurance, what's the science behind muscle development, et cetera. In the process of my research, I came across Born to Run, which is the saga of a runner/journalist doing some research himself. Christopher McDougall’s question: Why does his foot hurt?

Since he's a former war correspondent and world traveler, McDougall didn't just go to his library to research or to his doctor for diagnosis (although he did of course do both of those things). McDougall traveled and interviewed extensively in his quest for understanding, and his question grew to encompass all kinds of other questions: Why does the U.S. not produce internationally competitive runners anymore? Is being an excellent competitive runner about being more aggressive, hungry, and focused, or about being light of spirit and full of love and other mushy stuff? Why are we strapping $100 shoes to our feet when ultramarathons have been repeatedly won by guys with tire treads tied on to their feet with long leather straps?

You know what a name dropper is? McDougall is a story dropper. He packs so many odd little tidbits of information into the book that you might want to read sitting next to a computer so you can fact check. Did a Tarahumara woman from Northern Mexico really run all the way to Kansas in the 80's and then get thrown into a mental institution for 10 years because no one understood her language? Apparently, yes. I find his writing style very entertaining, but you have to be willing to go for a bit of a ride. Don't worry, it's a good one, especially if you're into running (even a little bit.) This will also appeal to those of us with serious doubts about consumer culture. (Nike gets slammed.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I am Joanna, hear me ROAR!

She outlived four husbands, most of whom died violent, bloody deaths at the hands of political enemies and hired assassins.The Pope excommunicated her for heresy because she refused to give in to papal economic pressure. Her own family, including some very angry in-laws, continually plotted to overthrow her and even to kill her. Deceit and betrayal plagued her rule. Despite all this she managed to reign over a glittering and sophisticated court that was the envy of medieval Europe.
Joanna’s remarkable life is chronicled in Nancy Goldstone’s “The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem and Sicily.” 
The “Lady Queen” reminds me why I love reading history so much. Truth is not only stranger than fiction. It is often richer and much more complicated than anything a writer could make up. Joanna’s life was no exception. In addition to licensing one of the earliest legitimate brothels in Europe, Joanna also opened up the field of medicine to women. Well educated herself, she invited the greatest artists and intellectuals of the day to join her court. Becoming queen at the tender age of sixteen, Joanna was one of the very first European female monarchs to rule in her own right. And rule she did until she could no longer control the swirling forces of political and economic intrigue that had dogged her 39-year reign.
To find out how Joanna met her end, reserve “The Lady Queen” here.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Portrait of a forger

The Forgery of Venus is a thriller about the highly-profitable crime of art forgery. It's also a smart exploration of what it's like to be an artist in America today. That's a lot to pack into one 300-page novel, but trust me: Michael Gruber makes it all fascinating.

The book's narrator is Chaz Wilmot, a tremendously talented painter whose father was a renowned Norman-Rockwell-type illustrator. Chaz knows that realistic artists like his father get no respect in the art world. He also knows that he cannot be a stylish postmodern artist. "I used to think I'd been born out of my proper era," says Chaz. "I mean, it'd be like a major league pitcher being born in 1500. His ability to throw a small ball at a hundred miles an hour through any sector of an arbitrary rectangle is totally unsalable." Similarly, Chaz's ability to create ravishing portraits in the style of the Old Masters has no value to the 20th century New York art establishment.

Chaz's struggle for artistic authenticity leads him to become a forger. In his neurotic world, creating a magnificent fake is more honest than producing what he knows art galleries will pay for. It also leads to other things: experiments with drugs designed to enhance creativity; the hallucinatory (or is it?) conviction that he is 17th century Spanish master Diego Velazquez, at least some of the time; and a paranoid breakdown in which he wonders if he's gone mad, or if someone wants to make him think so. And one lovely, mysterious nude portrait.

The Forgery of Venus is tantalizing and totally original. Give it a try!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Summer Reading fun at your library

As Newport Library's staff and volunteers get ready for our 23rd annual Summer Reading programs, we are reminded that this library tradition continues to be a vital part of summer for so many families. Whether it is the pre-schooler eager to be read to, the brand new reader stoked about earning a library t-shirt, the veteran 4th grader adding to his library t-shirt collection or the teenager planning how she will use her gift certificates from local businesses, the library has programs to fit all ages of youngsters. For a list of those programs and information about how they work, check out our Summer Reading page.

Sleepless . . . at the end of the world

Park is a cop, a new father, a madly-in-love husband. But he just can't sleep-- and neither can 10% of the world's population, including his wife, Rose. The baby is crying and crying-- but can she sleep?-- or does she too, have the disease?

It's July 2010, and plague is remaking the world. Something that refolds the proteins in the brain, something related to Mad Cow disease and fatal familial insomnia. Civilization seems to be falling apart in tiny, subdued pieces, barely ameliorated by the controlled substance DR33M33R, which allows the desperately suffering to rest, just for a little while. Park's assignment is to determine if DR33M3R is being stolen and sold on the black market, but he uncovers more than he was meant to.

Where did the plague come from? Who's profiting? And how can he leave his Sleepless wife alone with the baby, when she spends her days in a confusion of waking dreams?

Sleepless by Charlie Huston is an apocalyptic fantasy, where the world is not quite ending but becoming something other, where fantasy gaming, the refuge of the Sleepless, has attained the value of art, and where a killer may be your baby's best hope. The book has some of the flavor of a cyberpunk novel, with a dark, edgy and technophiliac lyricism, but it also holds a beautiful story of love and sacrifice.

I have not yet read Huston's previous popular work The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, but I plan to. Both it and Sleepless are available in our catalog.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Final Exam

Anax has spent her life studying for this moment: she faces a grueling three-day Examination which will determine whether she is to become a member of the ruling Academy. Genesis, a slim, intelligent science fiction novel by Bernard Beckett, tells the story of her Examination: the questions she is asked, the answers she gives, and the judgment that she faces when it is all over. In this way, the story of her civilization is also told: the way one society ended and another began, all because of the actions of one man, Adam Forde. Was Forde a very great hero or a despicable villain? And why do the Examiners keep returning to that question?

The Examination format makes this book highly suspenseful: will Anax pass the test? And what will that really mean? Like most good works of science fiction, it also raises all sorts of thought-provoking questions. The Examination reveals much about who Anax is, and who the Examiners think she ought to be.

That's an awfully vague summary -- sorry about that -- but it's best if this wonderful little book reveals its own secrets. If you like clever and well-written sci-fi, or if this review has intrigued you, pick up Genesis.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The murderer was in the house

One morning in 1860, a three-year-old child went missing. His name was Saville Kent, and he was the youngest son of a prosperous family, living in a gracious English country home called Road Hill. By the time the morning was over, his body had been found, brutally murdered and thrust down the hole of an outhouse. The case was bungled by local policemen, and two weeks later a Scotland Yard detective was called in. The detective was Jack Whicher, and his investigation into the murder of Saville Kent exposed rottenness and madness in the bosom of this conventional English family.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is not a mystery novel, though you could be forgiven for thinking it sounds like one. The development of English mystery fiction - the country house with its prescribed number of suspects, the detective who comes in from outside to uncover its secrets - developed as a direct result of the public's fascination with the Road Hill case. The author, Kate Summerscale, argues that such seminal suspense novels as The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James were all directly influenced by the Road Hill murder.

I thought that this book was a bit padded. The author did a lot of research, and she seemed determined to include it all, whether it advanced her story or not. In spite of this, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a very interesting read, a good bet for both true crime junkies and connoisseurs of classic mystery fiction.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Three (going on four) Trilogies of Robin Hobb

Fitz is a royal bastard-- no, not a big jerk, but the illegitimate offspring of a prince. In the first book of Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy, Assassin's Apprentice, he's desperately lonely boy, rejected by his father and left to be raised by the stable master. The one warm spot in his life is provided by his telepathic bond with animals, until the stable master finds out and punishes Fitz, with anger and disgust. Fitz has to look for friends and allies elsewhere; in the spymaster, the fool, and even the king. As a bastard dependent on the royal house for survival, he is always a pawn in the machinations of others. Learning to navigate those machinations without dying is an ongoing challenge.

Robin Hobb, who has also written as Megan Lindholm, writes fantasy novels characterized by rich, original world-building and complex character development. The Farseer Trilogy, The Liveship Traders Trilogy, the Tawny Man Trilogy, and the still-in-progress Rain Wild Chronicles take place in the same universe, in overlapping but drastically different cultures. She has a great sense of story and of history, winding the mythology and the past of her characters' worlds into a background narrative that gives greater depth and meaning to the ongoing plots.

I recommend you start with Fitz's story in the Farseer Trilogy, and then read all the other books she's written, possibly twice. I have been informed the newest book in the Rain Wild Chronicles is on order and coming soon!

(A postscript apology-- I had read something that implied that the Rain Wilds books would be a trilogy true to Hobb's pattern, but further research shows it to be complete in just two books.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

How to read the most popular book in the world

I wanted to read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

I'm not alone. The book (and its sequels, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest) have been wildly popular here at the library; as of this writing, Dragon Tattoo has a waiting list with 54 people on it. I'm number 41.

So I bought a copy, which (when I'm finished with it) I will donate to the library. That'll bring the system's holdings up to nine copies of the book. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were more?

Sometime this year, the Newport Library plans to unveil a new program in which people who want an upcoming bestseller can donate the money for it - at a discounted price, usually about 35 percent off - and then they will be first in line for that title. We hope that this will be a popular way to put more books into more readers' hands; and until it comes into effect, patrons who just can't wait (like me) can always take the buy-and-donate route.

Now, let me talk about the book. Imagine an island with one bridge to the mainland. Imagine that the bridge was blocked for twenty-four hours by a jackknifed semi, and that during that twenty-four hours, a sixteen-year-old girl vanished from the island. Imagine that this occurred forty years ago. That's the mystery that disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired to solve. His investigation brings him into contact with one of the most extraordinary characters you'll ever read about, Lisbeth Salander, a skinny twenty-four-year-old hacker with a photographic memory, an offputting demeanor, and a dragon tattoo. Mikael and Lisbeth's investigation into the disappearance of young Harriet Vanger leads them to a series of very ugly, hateful murders.

The book's mystery is suspenseful, and its exposure of decades-old secrets is gripping. Most of all, its characters are fascinating. One thing you'll come away with: do not get on the wrong side of the girl with the dragon tattoo.