Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Quest for Heritage

Is there a 12-step program for recovering ancestry addicts? I knew I had a problem shortly after I purchased the three month trial membership on-line to Ancestry.com. I would be sitting by the glow of the computer at 2:00 in the morning, in a pathetic cycle of looking at “just one more page,” but I couldn’t put down the mouse and be sensible enough to go to bed! Yes, I admit to being addicted to census records.

I’m a detective by nature and although I love a good mystery, I will confess that I’m much more interested in real history and biography than the latest Janet Evanovich novel. I have spent dozens of hours scouring the non-fiction stacks for the “real story.” My favorite books growing up were memoirs and recollections of another generation.

My ancestry research addiction started innocently, but how could I help it? The rush of my first discovery was tremendous and I was hooked. On the 1860 Yamhill County census records, I found my pioneer ancestors and their McMinnville neighbors. I located where to obtain their marriage record from the Yamhill County Courthouse. I went on to find the family history all the way into 1910 and I began recording my family tree. I used the recorded addresses to locate on Google maps where they had homesteaded property.

I continue to be consumed by the collection of information I have found on-line on my family history. My craving has been tempered by the fact that I am not limited to a three month membership. Anytime I feel the urge, I can use the Genealogy Research link on the library website and every time I fall back into the search, I find something new has been added.

Among the databases of United States census records, Civil War muster roll reports and recorded genealogy books I have discovered amazing family connections. My DNA is linked to the Union Army, the Pennsylvania Dutch colonies, and the hills of Tennessee. The most intriguing connection is family roots tracing back to Birmensdorf, near Zurich, Switzerland and the family’s birth records recorded in the Reformed Lutheran Church in the early 1600’s. I also cleared up a family myth that we are related to actor Lon Chaney. Does fifth cousin on my father’s side count?

On October 1st, the library staff will offer a class on how to get started on your own Genealogy research. Using HeritageQuest and its many resources is free when you have a library card. You can do the work from home on your own computer or use a public computer at the library. I invite you to try it. I admit it’s an unusual addiction, but one that I am now proud to say I’m in control of.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ghost Map

A young mother with a sick baby rinsed her daughter's diapers, then threw the dirty water into a cesspit beneath her home. It was August of 1854, and within a few days a frightful cholera outbreak seized London's Soho district. The disease spread fast through the crowded working-class neighborhood, killing hundreds within a few days.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson tells the story of that awful epidemic - the way whole families died together in their apartments, the way local hospitals were flooded with the sick, and the way two very brave men went into the neighborhood to comfort the dying and to try to make sense of what was happening. The result of their work was the realization that cholera did not come from smelly air, or from any inherent moral weakness in its victims. John Snow, the doctor who made the connection, did not know about germ theory or bacteria, but he made a map that linked almost every single victim of cholera to one well. The visual representation of the outbreak on a map made clear, as no amount of argument could have, that the problem was in the water.

The interesting thing about this book is that it's about more than just the cholera outbreak. Johnson uses that to discuss a whole host of other, fascinating topics. Victorian London, he persuasively shows us, smelled terrible; it was a city with an exploding population, 2.4 million people living within 30 square miles, with no effective sewers, no water treatment, no city-run programs of waste removal.

Johnson discusses why the city was growing so rapidly: where all these people came from, and why they lived like this. Why people believed that cholera was caused by the city's undoubtedly horrific smells, and why they refused to believe otherwise. How the sewer system of London was upgraded in the Victorian era, and how this paradoxically made the water less safe to drink. The history of toilets; the delights as well as the dangers of urbanization; the genius of amateur researchers; the rise of health as a public policy issue; all are discussed in this absorbing book.

You'll look at your tap water in a whole new light after reading this one.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Kiss your dentist goodbye by Ellie Phillips

I'm not really advocating kissing dentists, or dental hygienists, of any gender or marital status, for any reason--unless, for example, you happen to be dating one. Nevertheless, this is a really neat book to flip through, especially if, like me, you’ve inherited some less-than-perfect teeth-genes. (I’m not entirely blaming my parents for my cavity-prone teeth-- I do accept some responsibility. A little.)

Dr. Ellie's message in Kiss Your Dentist Goodbye: get rid of bad bacteria in the mouth. Use both anti-bacterial and fluoride mouthwashes, and try "xylitol," the good sugar alcohol, which has been proven to reduce the population of cavity-causing "sticky" bacterias in the mouth, nose and throat. But it’s much more convincing to actually read the book, and understand the rationale. I especially enjoyed the case studies-- bad mouths made good!

Dentists usually tend to oversimplify and to repeat the same advice checkup after checkup, which sometimes makes me tune the message out. (Yes, we all know we should floss more, what else is new?) Despite being written by a dentist, this book is different. It made me think twice about my dental regimen, and change some things. The payoff-- the dentist and hygienist both noticed a positive difference in my teeth and gums at my last checkup, about two months after I read the book.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Where are they now? Tracking boats and planes on the Internet.

Do you know someone going off on a cruise, flying to LA, or out in the ocean fishing? If so, you may want to know about these two websites, flightaware.com and marinetraffic.com.

Flightaware.com gives you information on specific airports, airlines, and flights. You can view all flights coming to and leaving from a specific airport, track a specific flight, or enter the departure and destination cities to view all flights between those cities. The following map shows real-time information about flights to and from Portland.

Marinetraffic.com is a map of ships around the world that are equipped with Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders. These transponders provide real-time information on the location and path of vessels, some docked at marinas, and other on waterways or the open sea. The ships are represented by small icons, and when a mouse hovers over the icon, information about the ship appears, including the name of the ship, its speed, and sometimes a photo of the ship. You can search for specific ships, types of ships, or ports.

Few ships and boats actually participate in this program. At this exact moment, the Port of Newport shows three ships in port, three departures, four arrivals, and one expected arrival. Still, it’s kind of fun to see what is available, and if you know someone on one of the AIS equipped vessels, you can see where they are!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Island shudder

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane is a fiendishly good suspense novel. I have not yet seen the movie that's based on it, but I recommend the book enthusiastically.

Shutter Island lies somewhere off the coast of Massachusetts, and on it is a high-security hospital for the criminally insane. U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule have come here to investigate the escape of a patient, Rachel Solando, who murdered her children, and who seems to have evaporated from her locked cell.

It has to be an inside job: Solando, barefoot and crazy, cannot have escaped without help. The doctors, orderlies, and even the patients seem strangely reluctant to help the Marshals. Of course, Teddy isn't telling them everything he knows, either.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic. Secrets and lies that swirl around Teddy; nothing is as it seems, but clues to the unacceptable truth drop chillingly. I've rarely read an ending to a novel that was both so shocking and so right. If you love a good page-turner, pick up this one. I could scarcely tear myself away.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Are You Some Kind Of A Kook?

In surfing parlance, a "kook" refers to a hopeless beginner in the sport, an ignorant newbie flailing about in the lineup, a danger to all around him. It is not a polite term. I must admit, however, that in the 20 years or so that I’ve been surfing, I’ve never actually heard anyone called a kook out in the water.
Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, And Catching The Perfect Wave is also the title of a new book by outdoor writer Peter Heller. Approaching middle-age and not wishing to antagonize his girlfriend by purchasing a red Maserati, Heller decides to take up surfing.
Did I mention he lives in Denver, Colorado?
Together with his aforementioned and infinitely patient girlfriend, Kim, Heller buys a VW van dubbed “The Beast,” heads out to California and takes up surfing. Or, to put it more accurately, surfing takes him up... and down the California coast into Mexico. Along the way he meets up with a motley but mostly lovable cast of characters, eccentrics and artists of the sport: shapers, teachers and Zen surf masters, all of whom guide our bumptious hero on his quest to the ultimate surfing high: getting tubed.
Kook is a whimsical journey of self-exploration and a tribute to one of the most spiritual of sports and the people who follow their bliss by walking on water.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Some great resources for local crime information

Have you ever seen police activity on the street or in a nearby building, and wondered what was going on? Or wanted to know about the crime rates in your neighborhood? There's a pretty nifty website that shows you.

All you have to do is go to CrimeReports.com and type in a zip code. (Not all communities in the U.S. send information to CrimeReports, although all the cities in Lincoln County do.) A map appears, and as you zoom in you will see little icons showing where a crime has been committed. Click an icon, and details of the crime that took place there will pop up. It's quite interesting. If you look at a bigger city, like Eugene, patterns emerge: it's pretty easy to see which parts of town are safest, which plagued by crime.

Want to know more? Not everyone realizes that the roster of the Lincoln County Jail is available to the public. Head over to the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office Inmate Roster, where you will see a current list of inmates. If you click on a name, you can see a mug shot and details.

Both of these sites are free, and are kept up to date by local and county law enforcement officials.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lost in the woods

Let me clear up two things about The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King: it's not a horror novel, and it's not about baseball.

It is the story of a nine year old girl, Trisha McFarland, who gets lost in the woods. On a family hike, Trisha gets sick of listening to the endless arguing of her mom and brother, so she leaves the trail. Her shortcut to get back to the trail doesn't pan out, and pretty soon Trisha has no idea where she is. Armed with a backpack containing Twinkies, a bottle of water, and a portable radio, Trisha eventually decides to follow a stream downhill, reasoning that this will lead her to civilization. A bad decision, and the beginning of a terrifying ordeal.

The forests of western Maine are vast and lonely, and Trisha is a city girl. But she is intelligent and resourceful. She keeps moving. She forages for food. She battles loneliness by listening to Red Sox games on the radio.

No one is better than Stephen King at getting you inside the heads of his characters, and anyone who has ever been lost, even temporarily, can easily relate to Trisha's fright and disorientation. As the days go by and Trisha grows sick from hunger and tainted water - as she begins to hallucinate - the suspense becomes almost agonizing.

If you've never tried Stephen King - or if you have, and just didn't like him - give this quick, riveting novel a try.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher is well known for his urban fantasy series "The Dresden Files," which was developed into a short-lived but entertaining television show. His "Codex Alera" series is pure fantasy, taking place in a realm where people bond with elemental spirits called “Furies” in childhood or adolescence, and are able to call upon their powers to accomplish feats of magic. I recently listened to Furies of Calderon, the first book in the series, which I borrowed from Library2Go in MP3 format.

Tavi is a fifteen year old boy who lives on his uncle’s steadholt, kind of a frontier fortress where the holder is the law. He is considered a freak by many because he has no Fury yet, but his uncle treats him with respect and is willing to give him a chance to follow his dream.

Amara is a young woman who is becoming a Cursor, which seems to be a combination mailman/diplomat/spy/special-ops position. She’s on her graduation mission with her favorite teacher, Fidelius, investigating reports of a buildup of rebel military power in a part of the country distant from the capital.

Tavi lets his uncle down for the sake of a girl who doesn’t even like him; Fidelius lets Amara down for the sake of a lost ideal. Amara and Tavi are both propelled into the machinery of what could be a savage bloodbath, nearly losing their lives and everything they love.

Butcher's solid world-building and willingness to take his characters to the brink in vivid, visceral detail make this an outstanding book, and I’m eager to read the rest of the series-- we got the sixth one in not too long ago. For those considering listening rather than reading, Kate Reading is an excellent narrator, but the library does have the series in book form as well.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Fanciful yesteryear

I love historical fiction. I love Patrick O'Brian's addictive maritime adventures. I love Dorothy Dunnett's rich and dense Lymond Chronicles. These series both do one thing very well: they immerse the reader in accurate and detailed depictions of life in a different time. It's that immersion that I love.

There's another set of historical novels that I also love - The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. I adore these three big novels, but wouldn't put them in the same category with O'Brien and Dunnett. There's plenty of very accurate, closely-researched historical detail, but Stephenson is far more playful in the way he presents historical people and events. You can't get lost in a different time if the author keeps throwing madcap historical absurdities at you.

I won't even try to give more than a brief overview of this action-packed series. It is set approximately between 1660 and 1720. There are four main characters. Daniel Waterhouse is Isaac Newton's college roommate, who becomes obsessed with the invention of a computing machine that will operate with golden punch-cards. Jack Shaftoe is an illiterate adventurer whose eventual career as a couterfeiter makes him Isaac Newton's nemesis. Eliza de la Zeur, a native of Qwglm (a land whose language has sixteen consonants and no vowels), is a financial genius, spy, and kingmaker. And Enoch Root is a mysterious, apparently-eternal and possibly backwards-living wizard/alchemist.

The series explores a dazzling array of issues, especially the history of science and mathematics, currency and finance, cryptanalysis and espionage. But there's nothing dry about Stephenson's fascination with math, codes, and economics. For instance, when Jack goes to India, he learns of a job so disgusting that I will not describe it, traditionally reserved for one particular caste. Jack promptly offers to do it for less, introducing capitalist competition and upsetting millennia of unwritten law. Or when Root, unleashing a terrifying weapon that resembles a circular saw blade on a cord, blithely misquotes Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo." In the eighteenth century.

Stehpenson's boundlessly playful imagination never lets you get lost in the past, but the romp he takes you on through the centuries is so much fun you won't really mind. The books in the series are Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. I enjoyed them so much I want to read them again someday - after I rest. Each one is about a thousand pages long, so don't put all three on hold at once.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Typewriter is Holy

I'm right in the middle of reading The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, by Bill Morgan. This book is a "quick and dirty" version of the lives of a very small group of nomadic writers who have influenced or infected – depends on your point of view – our culture for over 60 years.

The Beat Generation had its beginnings in the 1940s when a group of young college students and college student wannabees met, while hanging around bars and clubs near Columbia University in New York City. They liked to drink and talk about great writers and great writing. They had no desire or understanding that they would be instrumental in changing the culture of American society. They wanted to write and be left alone to live life on their own terms. The three most prominent of the group were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

The Beat writers were described in the press as: spontaneous, truth-seeking, imaginative, influential, lovers of individual freedom, artists, poets, writers and geniuses. Other descriptions were not as flattering. Many people characterized this group as prurient, sex-crazed, addicts, alcoholics, felons, murderers, self-destructive, lost, loiterers, bums, selfish, hedonists, motley, thieves, con men, nonconformists, misogynistic and rebellious. In truth, they were all of the above.

This history doesn’t pull any punches. Morgan was closely associated with Allen Ginsberg and had a lot of interaction with the people he writes about. The story he tells is indeed raw and uncensored. There are 16 pages of photos. One is heartbreaking: Kerouac just before he died – penniless, lost and alcoholic.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz
-- excerpted from “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

If you appreciate Beat Generation writers, or if you’d like to get a better understanding of what “went down” back then, read this book. If you know nothing of the cultural history of the 50’s and 60’s, you’ll be surprised at the generational connections that come to light as these nomads crisscrossed the country.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dinnerware of the Gods

What is porcelain? A couple of weeks ago, I neither knew nor particularly cared. (Some variety of pottery, I guess?) When a friend recommended The Arcanum by Janet Gleeson, a book about the history of porcelain, I was a little skeptical.

First of all, porcelain: I learned that it's a type of ceramic in which the clay contains minerals that, fired at very high temperatures, turn vitreous, rendering the finished product glassy and non-porous. Porcelain is typically white, translucent, extremely hard, and does not need to be glazed to render it impermeable. And - this is important - for centuries you could only get it from China, because no one else knew the formula. Porcelain was highly-prized and difficult to obtain: an expensive luxury item. Any European who could figure out how to make it would break the Chinese monopoly and become very wealthy indeed.

(In this painting, completed in 1514 by Giovanni Bellini, the gods are shown feasting from Chinese porcelain dishes - surely a sign of opulence.)

In the early eighteenth century, Johann Böttger, a too-clever-by-half young German alchemist, convinced his friends that he could transmute base metals into gold. Böttger promptly became hot property, and a scuffle ensued between the rival kingdoms of Prussia and Saxony over who would control him. Böttger ended up in a prison in Saxony, where he was informed that he would start producing gold - or else. After spending several years trying to bargain, plead, or escape, he managed to discover the formula in 1707 - not for gold, but for porcelain.

Was the King of Saxony satisfied? Did his discovery instantly make Böttger rich and Saxony the wealthiest state in Europe? No way: this story is just beginning.

The Arcanum has as many twists and turns as a spy novel. It is far more interesting than a book about ceramics has any right to be.