Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Let your fingers do the walking...to the library!

When your parents were young, telephones were used to converse with another person. One could dial the library to ask whether a book was available, and the librarian would nimbly flip through a drawer of dog-eared catalog cards. Or one might inquire about magazine articles for a report, and the librarian would thumb through the subject index of a hardbound Readers' Guide.

The stolid card catalog and printed Readers' Guides are no more. Today's library is continuously morphing, and many services are available not just through computers, but also through phones in ways our parents could never have imagined!

Have a question? You can text a librarian, 24/7, through LNet, the statewide librarian network. Just send the word answers to 66746 and enter your question. A librarian will reply as soon as possible. More information is available at http://www.oregonlibraries.net/sms.

Library2Go is the service that offers free downloadable audiobooks, videos, and eBooks. Until recently, you had to download files to your computer, then transfer them to an external device. Now Library2Go has an app for downloading eBooks and audiobooks directly to the Android, Blackberry, iPhone, and Windows Mobile phones. Go to http://www.overdrive.com/software/omc/ to download the right program for your smart phone.

Our library subscribes to a suite of Gale databases, which include reference books, magazines, scholarly journals, and newspapers. Gale now has "Access My Library" apps that let you search these databases directly from your phone! Need a story from Time Magazine, a biography of Marie Antoinette, or the latest articles on salmon fisheries? You don’t need to use your computer if you have a compatible device and the Gale app. http://www.gale.cengage.com/apps/aml/PublicPatron/.

I still have a plain old vanilla cell phone, which I only use when I travel. But it’s exciting to know that when I finally break down and get a smart phone, I’ll have some smart apps to use with it!

A man and his map

The man who created the modern science of geology was a blacksmith's son named William Smith. The fact of his parentage, which seems innocuous to us, was to have enormous consequences for his career. In The Map That Changed The World, Simon Winchester tells the story of Smith, of the extraordinary geological map of England that he created, and of the birth of a new science.

He also shows how culture has changed since the day that Smith was cheated of recognition for his accomplishments because of his ungentlemanly birth.

Smith was born in 1769, and as a boy he liked fossils. No one really knew what fossils were at that time; nor could they explain how they were distributed, or what they implied. But many fashionable people collected them and displayed them in beautiful cases.

William Smith was not a fashionable person: he was an engineer and a surveyor, and during his work - prospecting coal mines, developing drainage systems, and surveying canals - he collected fossils, observed underground rock formations, and came to understand fundamental truths about the layers of sedimentary rock that make up most of England. Winchester shows how extraordinary Smith's accomplishment was - the layers of rock he observed had been seen many, many times before, but Smith was the first to formulate a theory of exactly what they meant. He embarked upon a monumental project, published in 1815: a huge, hand-colored map that accurately showed the geological underpinnings of England.

Smith was unacceptable to the members of the fashionable Royal Geographical Society, founded in 1807. It wasn't merely that the Society didn't invite him to join. When they learned of the enormous, important map that he was making, Society members decided to make their own, official map, with the Royal Geographical Society's stamp of approval. They stole his data to do it.

The Map That Changed the World is full of fascinating facts, about fossils and stones, drainage, canals, coal mining, cartography and book publishing. It's also the story of a brilliant man and the monumental challenges he faced in getting recognition for his work, all because he was the son of a blacksmith.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Christmas Wish

Jennifer reads A.A. Milne's poem, "King John's Christmas."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

No matter what the future brings, as time goes by

In Connie Willis's universe, you can travel back in time, but you can't change history. History won't let you: if a time-traveler approaches a pivotal moment, one where his presence might alter the course of events, he is somehow diverted. He just can't get there.

Because of that, time travel has become the province of historians, who go back in time and blend with the "contemps" to observe events as they happened. Willis's book Blackout tells the story of three young Oxford students from 2060 who are embedded in England during World War II. Eileen poses as a servant in a country house to observe evacuated London children in 1939. Polly is a London shop girl during the Blitz in 1940. And Michael acts as a reporter, observing the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation from the Dover side of the channel. (Michael can't get to Dunkirk itself, of course; it's a historical pivot point, and no historian has ever been able to approach it.)

Willis obviously admires the courage of Londoners during the nightmare of the war, and Blackout does them homage by showing their stubborn resilience through the eyes of her time-travelers. As Polly sits in a bomb shelter with a group of Londoners, she thinks, "Not knowing. It was the one thing historians could never understand. They could observe the contemps, live with them, try to put themselves in their place, but they couldn't truly experience what they were experiencing. Because I know what's going to happen."

But soon Polly, who has naturally memorized the events of the Blitz so that she can avoid getting killed, notices that bombs seem to be falling when and where they oughtn't. How can that be? Did Polly somehow change history? Did Eileen, when she gave aspirin to a sick child? Or Michael, when he somehow found himself at Dunkirk after all? Maybe the students are mistaken, or the historical record wrong. Or maybe they're trapped in the past forever, doomed to witness a future that should never have happened.

I don't know, and I won't find out until I read the sequel, All Clear. Blackout ends with a killer cliffhanger, so be ready to reserve the second book as soon as you finish the first one!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pluggin' in to Grandmother's time

As the holidays move along, we make plans to go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. We will go by plane, train or automobile, but as suggested by the old song, very few will go by horse drawn sleigh. We will travel in comfort with the aid of our GPS systems and take along our technical devices; cell phones, digital cameras, E-readers and MP3 players.

It’s guaranteed that we will act surprised, once again, at the change of weather, be it sleet or snow, that causes any inconvenient delay in our well-laid plans. We may take pause and recognize that we are lucky to live in such times; with ample travel choices, reliable electricity, even running water and an abundance of technical devices to give as gifts and keep us entertained.

If you’re in the mood for a dose of spirited reality in the midst of the molten glitter of the holidays, may I suggest you plug these downloads to your tech players before you head for Grandma’s house. These stories are guaranteed to give you new appreciation for how much you really have.

Half broke horses by Jeannette Walls – This true life novel was spun by the author, whose Grandmother has an adventurous life growing up on a Texas Ranch. The audio version is read by Jeannette herself, and while listening, you can almost imagine that the wild indomitable spirit of Lily Casey Smith has been channeled through her. A special highlight of the book is her description of attending the film premiere of “Gone with the Wind,” one of her favorite books. She also describes fashioning a new dress for the event out of the red velvet curtains she had purchased a few years prior with S&H Green Stamps.

A tree grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – Originally published in 1943, Betty Smith wrote the American classic about a young girl named Francie Nolan and her coming of age in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1900’s. But upon close examination, Miss Smith plainly tore this tale from her own heart. This profoundly moving and tender story of a valiant and sensitive little girl growing up in a poverty stricken family has been called "a book of the century.” Whether you upload it to your E-reader device or listen to the audio version, this endearing tale makes observations of turn of the century, big city changes in the name of progress and is sure to remind us to be thankful for family and what we have.

All over but the shoutin' by Rick Braggs - This is the first book of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg's autobiographical trilogy (which includes Ava's Man and The Prince of Frogtown) about his family and growing up in the mill towns of northeast Alabama. Braggs writes that the most important lesson his mother taught him is that every life deserves a certain amount of dignity, no matter how poor or damaged the shell that carries it. The road to learning the lesson is bumpy and painful, but the Appalachian backdrop the author paints makes it an enjoyable ride. The southern voice rings loud and clear in the audio version by award winning narrator, Frank Muller.

These are just a few of the library’s offerings of historical fiction and biographies that will take you back to a time when your grandparents had a much different view of the holidays - for some, it was merely a small break in the monotony of daily hard work. So, before heading out in the winter weather, charge up your gizmos and thank your lucky electronic stars that there are interesting stories to be shared. I wish you all safe travels!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Taken by Inger Ash Wolfe

How does one write a unique murder mystery? Surely every possible modus operandi has been explored, surely every motive has been plumbed; surely, every possible neurosis has been assigned to every possible type of detective.

But, no. Somehow, there’s always more. And thankfully, it’s not always about inventing a deadlier, gorier, crazier serial killer. Sometimes, it’s about creating truly bizarre cases of psychotic revenge. In the case of Inger Ash Wolfe’s The Taken, a series of very peculiar clues is scattered in the vicinity of Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef of the Ontario Police. First, a body that isn’t a body; then, a series of black photographs dropped at the station, and a website that shows an empty room, the camera panning slowly back and forth. Micallef gradually comes to believe that these widely disparate pieces are connected and may lead to a killer.

Micallef is a 62 year old divorced cop with a bad back, a pill problem, and a reputation for being a maverick. She’s smart, successful, and popular with those beneath her. One of her grown daughters is a continuing worry to her, never having found her way in the world, and the uneasy mother-daughter relationship is an ongoing motif throughout the novel.

The trail of clues is rather preposterous, and I seriously doubt whether any real-life bad guys would be so peculiarly misguided as to try and lead the police by the nose in such an oblique fashion—but the characterization rings true and the writing is evocative and fresh. The Taken is the second Hazel Micallef mystery—you may want to check out the first book, The Calling, as well.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Put Down that Sudoku Puzzle - Pick Up an eBook!

Instead of playing Sudoku to ward off Alzheimers, how about reading Practical Math Success in 20 Minutes a Day, 1001 Vocabulary & Spelling Questions, or 501 Challenging Logic and Reasoning Problems? Do those sound intriguing? Would you like to know where can you find them? These are just a few of hundreds of eBooks available for free in Learning Express Library, one of the many databases available through the library!

A testing database, Learning Express Library is known for its practice tests for students, careers, naturalization, and basic job skills. In addition, it includes a library of career guides, study aides, and test-preparation books to help people pass licensing, certification, or competitive entry-level exams, or to advance in school or work.

You can download books for the GED, GRE, ASVAB and TOEFL exams. Other books help you prepare for tests to become a fire fighter, police officer, real estate agent, health care professional, electrician, air traffic controller, or teacher. Still others can help you hone your skills in math, writing, and public speaking.

All you need is a library card from any Coastal Resource Sharing Network (CRSN) library to create an account. Log in and find a link to all of the eBooks in the lower right corner of the page. You can also find eBooks paired with corresponding exams. It’s never too late to learn, and keep your brain exercised while you’re at it!

Monday, December 6, 2010

A little bit (two inches wide) of ivory

I love Jane Austen, and I rarely read Austen pastiches - you know, sequels to Austen's novels, or Austen's novels retold from different points of view. These are authors' hopeless love letters to Austen, and I sympathize. But without Austen's brilliance, such books are just a tiny bit boring.

(I know that's a controversial statement. The opinions here expressed do not represent the opinions of the Library or anyone else at all, possibly. But I stand by them.)

Austen's novels are about parties, and picnics, and gossip, and dresses, and who's going to marry whom. Middle-class Georgian English ladies were not supposed to be interested in politics, the stock market, the war, the latest news, or anything interesting. They were largely confined to what made them attractive to potential husbands: their looks, their clothes, their manners, their accomplishments. Attracting the right husband was the most important decision of their lives - until it came time to attract husbands for their daughters.

This is Austen's genius: she shows what a triumph it was for women in such narrow circumstances to grow up straight and true (like Lizzie Bennett) and not neurotic and vapid (like Lizzie Bennet's mother). Emma, Austen's best book, is about a strong and opinionated woman who makes a serious mess out of things, mostly due to sheer boredom.

All of this brings me to a new novel by Mary Robinette Kowal, Shades of Milk and Honey. The plot will look familiar to any Austen reader: two sisters, Jane and Melody. Neither will have a great dowry, but both would like to marry their gentlemanlike neighbor. Then a handsome sea captain comes to the village, as does a mysterious artist. Secrets are discovered; tears are shed. In the end, they find husbands.

The twist is that magic exists in this world. Glamour, it's called; you use it to spin illusions. Because glamour is tiring, it is mostly used for interior decorating and party tricks. It's one of the accomplishments that young ladies are expected to know. In fact, magic is fairly banal and inconsequential, like the other things that women are allowed to occupy themselves with.

This book could have exactly the same plot and ending if there were no magic, which is really a problem for a fantasy novel. Also, the whole premise also seems really doubtful to me: if magic were real, would this setting even exist? If magic were real, is making the parlor look like a forest glade the best use for it you can think of? Even if it's only good for illusions, would not inventors, statesmen, and entrepreneurs of all kinds have poured time, money, and effort into developing applications for it? Would anyone have the resources left to invent the chronometer or steam engines? Would Jane Austen's world have come to pass?

To sum up: I found Shades of Milk and Honey unconvincing and unsatisfying. But if, unlike me, you enjoy Jane Austen pastiches, you might try it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Most Useful Book in the Library

There are great books, moving books, exquisite books, life-changing books—and they each have their place. However, today I would like to recognize the “MOST USEFUL BOOK IN THE LIBRARY!” Obviously, this is a matter of opinion, and probably depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. My nomination, for repeated consistent overall handiness is —drumroll, please-- The Reader’s Digest New Fix-It-Yourself Manual.

In the past ten years, my washer, dryer, refrigerator, dishwasher, and stove have all broken down at one time or another, or, in the case of the washer and dryer, repeatedly. The New Fix-It-Yourself Manual helped diagnose and, when possible, repair each one. (The refrigerator, sadly, was a lost cause.) For the first couple of breakdowns, we checked out a dizzying array of repair books, but the Reader’s Digest New Fix-It-Yourself Manual outshone them all.

Finally, this last time, we decided to buy the dang thing. We’re not ones to buy an unproven reference book lightly in my family—only the very best time-tested texts for us! So, thank you, Reader’s Digest, for diagnostic trouble-shooting trees, cogent instructions, and clear diagrams. And thank you, Library, for being the place where I can test out the utility of books before buying them willy-nilly.