Friday, July 30, 2010

A Serendipitous Conjunction of Narratives

I recently read a strangely provocative conjunction of two personal narratives: one by Dean Karnazes, ultramarathoner extraordinaire, and one by William Powers, global conservationist and aid worker. Each book made more of an impression on me because of the contrast between the two; an effect that professors and reading groups strive for, but was purely serendipitous for me as a free-range reader.

Dean Karnazes, whose web site can be seen at, is a 47 year old man whose personal mission is to push the limits of human physical endurance farther than anyone thought possible. I read his book Ultra Marathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, in which he talks about his lifestyle metamorphosis from fairly standard businessman to crazy professional runner. This guy sleeps four hours a night and spends the other four running thirty miles or more. He has a family, owns his own business, and is constantly training for the next big challenge.

Then we’ve got William Powers. Powers also has a website, at I read his newest book Twelve by Twelve: a One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream. Powers talks about the time he spent staying in a friend’s 12x12 foot cabin in North Carolina after returning from working in the Bolivian rain forest. This book encompasses Powers’ reflections on aspects of both his conservationist and humanitarian aid work and his efforts to find a meaningful way to live in a consumer society. He found a valuable distinction between communities that have achieved a sustainable and fulfilling lifestyle of "enough" versus those communities torn by war, famine, disease, and poverty-- a distinction which sometimes goes unnoticed when lumping societies together as "undeveloped." During his stay in the 12 x12, he learned to live closer to the standard of "enough", and found that the benefits of living lightly and sustainably left him hours of leisure to use for socializing, writing, walking or bike riding, and appreciating his own life and the lives of those around him.

Karnazes is a man who achieved material wealth, found it wasn’t enough, and has thrown himself into twenty hour days following his unique and painful bliss, pushing himself to new heights of endurance. Powers is a man who seeks to make a difference in the world by doing environmental work all over the globe, and has been able to find meaning and sustenance in extreme simplicity. Very different people, different lives, different struggles, but each seeking meaning in his own life. The similarities and differences between the two made each more interesting to me. They’re also a reminder of the incredibly broad range of life experiences represented at the library.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Looking for a good read?

Every once in awhile people ask us if we keep a record of the books they have returned to the library. They remember they especially enjoyed a particular book, but can’t remember the author’s name or the title.

The answer for now is, “No, once a book is turned in, it is erased from your record.” That is disappointing to some people, but part of our job as librarians is to protect your privacy, including lists of what you have read. However, several online options are available for you to keep track of your reading, and to get ideas for that next great book to read.

The one I use is called Goodreads, which is free. All you need is an email address, a username, and a password, then you can start adding titles you are currently reading, books you’ve read, and what you would like to read. If you want to, you can add tags to books (Goodreads calls them “bookshelves”). Tags can be any words that help you describe a book, such as “mystery,” “classic,” “set-in-England,” or “I’d-rather-chew-on-nails-than-read-this-again!”

As on other social networking sites, you can make “friends” and share your reading selections with each other. You can also rate books, write reviews, and comment on other people’s reviews. It’s always satisfying when someone reads and enjoys a book you recommended!

Other sites for tracking reading are Shelfari, LibraryThing, and WorldCat. They all have slightly different features, so you can create an account in each one if you’d like to see which you like best.

Of course, you don’t have to use a computer to keep track of your reading. Old-fashioned index cards work just fine, and you won’t have to worry about the longevity of a website. But part of the fun of reading is sharing your observations and finding out what others have to say about a book.

Someday our catalog will give you the option to save your reading record, but in the meantime, why don’t you give Goodreads, LibraryThing, Shelfari, or WorldCat a try?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

At Swim Two Boys

The other day a colleague was putting together a bibliography when she brought up the title of a book we both remembered and loved. It all came back to me in a wonderful flood of images that I just had to tell you about.
At Swim, Two Boys, by Irish novelist Jamie O’Neill is one of those achingly beautiful books whose vibrant images and deeply drawn characters remain etched in my brain almost ten years after I first read it. Jim and Doyler are boyhood friends in 1916 Dublin during the height of the Easter Uprising against British rule. Navigating their way through those violent and uncertain times, the two boys have only each other to rely on as their families and friends choose sides and draw blood. The boys’ ever-deepening relationship draws you in and you find yourself wanting to protect them from the chaos swirling around them.
The story unfolds in a stream-of-consciousness style which a number of reviewers have compared to James Joyce. I might suggest O’Neill is better than Joyce if only for the empathy which he feels for his characters. At Swim Two Boys is a beautifully, lovingly written book about the safe place where friendship and love live and the solace we can find there. And you can reserve it here.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Never let me go

I've written about novelist Kazuo Ishiguro before. I've read three of his books now, and they all somehow ended up somewhere I didn't expect when I started. I like it when a book surprises me.

Never Let Me Go is a story about three friends who met at an English boarding school called Hailsham. Does that description make you think of Harry Potter? Don't. Something very strange is going on at that school.

Kathy, the narrator, remembers her childhood at Hailsham and her friends there: vital, strong-willed Ruth, passive Tommy. The fate of these three unfolds eerily. The reader only slowly understands that they, and their England, are quite different from the ones we know.

I was reminded how much I liked this book when I saw the trailer for the upcoming movie. Carey Mulligan stars as Kathy, Keira Knightley as Ruth, and Andrew Garfield as Tommy. Check out the trailer:

Intrigued? The movie comes out in September; before you see it, give the book a try.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Interested in an great thriller?

Take a look at what NPR is doing. They've compiled a huge slate of suspense novels and are inviting the public to vote on the best. The winners will be announced on August 2.

The selection is wide: there are classics like The Hound of the Baskervilles, current favorites like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and loads of other excellent reads, like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John LeCarré and The Poet by Michael Connelly.

There are some oddball selections: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is an undeniably suspenseful young-adult sci-fi novel; Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson is a postmodern brick that draws connections between WWII codebreakers and 20th-century programming geeks. You should go and vote -- I did!

Not only that, but NPR is featuring columns by well-known authors like Scott Turow and Tess Gerritsen on their favorite thrillers (Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle, respectively).

The whole thing is giving me all kinds of good ideas for what to read next.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bird guides

I saw two hawks hunting from the Waldport Bridge.

I'm not sure what species they were. I saw them while driving, so I didn't really get a good look. One of these days I'm going to have to take a walk across that graceful bridge with my binoculars and my favorite bird book.

I like the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Perhaps because it's the book I'm used to, I find it well-organized, with clear illustrations and useful maps. I know someone who swears by the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds; she likes it best because it uses photographs rather than illustrations. The library carries both of these books, along with the Sibley Field Guide and the Peterson Field Guide.

All bird field guides are shelved in Dewey Decimal number 598.2. You might find it interesting to compare and contrast them, and find the one that's best for you. The next time you're headed out on a beach walk or nature hike, why not check out a bird book for the trip? But be responsible; never bird and drive.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What if?

What if the Axis had won World War II? Several authors have explored this premise. Philip K. Dick wrote about it in 1962 in The Man In The High Castle; Len Deighton tackled it in SS-GB in 1979. I believe that alternate-history master Harry Turtledove has written several novels with the scenario, although I admit that I have a hard time committing to Turtledove's books. There are probably lots of others.

Jo Walton has written a sensitive and powerful trio of books that examine a related premise: what if Great Britain had pursued a policy of appeasement with Germany, remaining isolated from World War II?

In Farthing it is 1949. England is apparently at peace, and several members of the upper class are gathering for a country-house party. When a prominent man is murdered, it appears to be a setup for a traditional murder-mystery. However, in this alternate England, political considerations soon override the search for truth. A scapegoat is framed for the murder; blackmail is used to get the police to go along with the official story. Apparently, even though Great Britain has avoided war, all is far from well.

In the second and third books, Ha'penny and Half a Crown, it is clear that England is sliding inexorably into fascism, and the police serve an entirely different function than solving crimes and keeping people safe. The entire trilogy is a thought-provoking portrait of a devil's bargain.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Down with Vampires!

When you start finding books where Abe Lincoln is a vampire hunter, or Louisa May Alcott’s Jo,Beth, Meg, and Amy are vampires, you know the topic has been just about beaten to death. No more vampires, please! Not even if they look like Santa Claus or have cute furry ears and hop like bunnies! Enough, I say, enough!

Of course, there is a but.

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’m enjoying Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Book critic Alan Cheuse on NPR didn’t sound too crazy about it, and I dismissed it at first glance because of the stupid vampires, BUT . . . I really needed something to read. Right away. And the book was sitting right there. As it turns out, it doesn’t really feel like a vampire book. It’s much more in the genre of apocalyptic, damn-we’re-going-to-kill-ourselves-with-our-greed-and-shortsightedness kind of fiction. Forever doomed by our own darker natures, the human race nonetheless soldiers on, finding brief moments of transcendent joy, et cetera et cetera. I’m all for that kind of stuff. Cronin’s book is pretty well written too, with fully fleshed out characters and a slow building of suspense. Granted, I’m only about a fifth of the way through the 784 page book, but I’m hooked.

I promise I’ll come back later and amend this if it turns out to be awful, and if it is, I’ll never ever read another book with vampire characters ever again. I swear. Although I’m starting to wonder if in the future that will even be possible . . .

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Divided against ourselves

Lately a friend and I have been talking about the Civil War. We've discussed the role of rifled weapons and armored steam-powered watercraft; the cultural and economic differences between the South and the North; the things that had to happen before Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

My friend and I both have a good layman's understanding of the war, partly because we've both seen the incredibly watchable Ken Burns documentary series. My friend is into military history, and has studied the way technology affects battlefield tactics. I'm more interested in the big social trends that led to the war, the the issue of slavery, and the reasons people fought. I've been reading Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, a big survey of the war that won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989.

Battle Cry of Freedom is beautifully-written, and it presents highly-complicated situations in a way that illuminates without oversimplifying. It begins in 1847, fourteen years before the war erupted, presenting a detailed portrait of a country that was deeply divided but by no means on the verge of dissolution. McPherson's description of how the threat of secession became a terrible inevitability is riveting. Descriptions of troop movements and battles are detailed enough to allow me to keep up with my military-history-buff friend.

The title of the book comes from a marching song that both Northern and Southern soldiers sang, with slightly different lyrics. McPherson points out that both the Union and Confederacy fought for freedom -- but they meant very different things when they invoked that word. He spends much of the book exploring the meanings of the word freedom in the Union and in the CSA.

It's that kind of interesting insight that makes Battle Cry of Freedom such a treasure. It's a good and important book, and it's a great conversation-starter, too.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pushing Ice: a cool read on a hot day

It’s the year 2057 and Janus, one of the moons of Saturn, has just shed its icy shell, left orbit around the planet and is now heading out into deep space towards the constellation Virgo. The closest available ship, the comet-miner Rockhopper, is commandeered in the name of the world government and sent out to investigate.
Pushing Ice is the 2006 novel from sci-fi writer Alastair Reynolds. What starts out as a relatively ordinary request to investigate a rather extraordinary astronomical event turns into an all-out fantastical journey through space and time as the scientists and engineers aboard the Rockhopper are forced to accompany Janus on its interstellar odyssey.

Reynolds’ strength as a science fiction writer is his ability to combine hard science with the believable, almost mundane social and psychological motivations of his characters. His people are not super-heroic. They’re just folk doing their jobs. It just so happens that their job is chasing a rogue moon halfway across the galaxy. And what a wild ride it turns out to be.
You can reserve Pushing Ice by clicking here.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

More than your average basketball story

Conversations circling basketball player LeBron James are about more than the game this week as he leads the sports headlines. Following in the footsteps of athletic superstars like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, LeBron stands to carry a similarly large purse after his announcement of which NBA team he will choose to sign with.

Between the multi-million dollar NBA negotiations and the news of a legal paternity lawsuit that are bouncing around, I find myself intrigued by this young, global icon. Leading me to the question “Where did LeBron James come from?” The answer is simple to find at the library. Look no further than the DVD ‘More Than a Game,’ a documentary released last March which explains the remarkable story of LeBron’s humble beginnings.

The film follows five talented young basketball players from Akron, Ohio in a remarkable coming-of-age story about uncommon friendships in the face of all too common adversities. Coached by a charismatic but inexperienced player's father, and led by LeBron James, the "Fab Five's" improbable seven-year journey leads them from a decrepit inner-city gym to a national high school championship.

Along the way, the close-knit team is repeatedly tested--both on and off the court--as James' exploding worldwide celebrity threatens to destroy everything they've set out to achieve together. Combining a series of unforgettable one-on-one interviews with rare news footage, never-before-seen home videos and personal family photographs, this documentary brings a heart-warming and wholly American story to life.

If you are interested in more than the commercial news of basketball trading and looking for a fascinating human interest angle, you can check out ‘More Than A Game’ from Newport Library today.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton

I love how you can start thinking you've read pretty much every author worth reading, at least in one genre, and then -bang. One day you run out of things to read and give a chance to an author you’ve dismissed because of bad cover art or who knows what, and you discover a whole new vein of gold.

Steve Hamilton’s Cold Day in Paradise is a noir thriller with a reluctant private detective who has a bullet lodged in his heart. Alex McKnight is an ex-cop whose nightmares are full of his partner’s blood. Now, he’s working for a lawyer, doing innocuous research and surveillance work that doesn’t require him to carry a gun, and pining after a married woman. When a serial killer comes to town who seems to be connected to the man who killed his partner, McKnight looks like a favorite for the crimes. Then, the husband of the woman he longs for disappears.

Considering Cold Day in Paradise won both Edgar and Shamus Awards for Best First Novel, it seems I am remiss in my late discovery-- but I’m betting I’m not the only one. Alex McKnight’s exploits continue in Winter of the Wolf Moon, The Hunting Wind, North of Nowhere, Blood is the Sky, Ice Run, and A Stolen Season.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Vive le Tour!

In 2005 Lance Armstrong retired from professional cycling after winning an unprecedented seven consecutive Tours de France. At 37 years of age, Armstrong left at the peak of his career, choosing instead to concentrate on his fight against cancer through his Livestrong Foundation.
But competitive cycling kept whispering in his ear: “Comeback. Comeback.”
And in 2009, Armstrong announced he was coming out of retirement to race again in the Tour. Bicycling magazine editor and author Bill Strickland chronicles Armstrong’s return to professional cycling in “Tour De Lance: The Extraordinary Story Of Lance Armstrong’s Fight To Reclaim The Tour De France.”
And extraordinary it is. After four years of a fit but non-competitive life-style, Armstrong had less than one season to retrain his body to face the grueling demands that his sport requires. Armstrong’s laser-like singularity of purpose and almost super-human dedication are fodder not only for the skeptics but for his fans as well. Strickland’s book describes in alternating chapters the 2009 Tour De France stages as well as the training and races Armstrong competed in leading up to the Tour itself.
Tour De Lance is a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at one of the most intense athletes of our era as well as an homage to the equally intense race he rides. And you can reserve it here.