Monday, January 31, 2011

Grace Under Pressure

In World War II, Jewish refugees poured from France into the tiny northern Italian province of Liguria. The area was occupied by German troops, and Jews were hidden throughout the region, in basements, monasteries, hidden rooms and cowsheds. Up in the mountains, Jews joined the Resistance movement. In spite of vicious, disproportionate reprisals upon civilians by the Germans, thousands of Jews were saved by the people of Liguria.

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell presents a fictionalized portrait of the war in Liguria, as seen through the eyes of several characters. There is Jewish teenager Claudette Blum, fifteen years old and traveling through the mountains in her father's worn-out shoes; Renzo Leoni, a brilliant local Jew who willingly risks his life spying on the Germans; rabbi Iacopo Soncini and his pregnant wife and seven-year-old son; German-born Catholic priest Osvaldo Tomitz, who shelters and protects refugees; Nazi deserter Werner Schramm. Their stories crisscross, connect and disconnect, as they struggle to hide, fight, and survive under the brutal regime of an insufferably smug Nazi commander.

The book is made up of little stories that are woven together into a shimmering whole. Like the rabbi's little boy, concealed in a Catholic boarding school, who believes that he was sent away because he was noisy and bothered his newborn sister. Or the stunning scene, one of the book's most powerful, in which a Nazi war criminal offers his confession to an appalled priest.

Russell treats her characters with great compassion, and though this is book is full of mayhem and death, the result is surprisingly warm and optimistic. Atrocities will happen, the author seems to be saying; and when they do, the courageous will resist.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Another word for nothin' left to lose

What if our lives were examined in minute detail, from our childhood traumas, to our fears and accomplishments while a young adult, to the disillusionment and search for fulfillment of middle age?  In Freedom, Jonathan Franzen does this with the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund, two 'nice' people who meet in college, live with high ideals, and eventually stray from their values while trying to squeeze more meaning from life.

The story moves around in time, starting in the near present and going back to the early days of their marriage. The time travel eventually goes back to the lives of distant ancestors, and how their lives influence succeeding generations. Several sections of the book are a diary that Patty keeps as a form of therapy, giving insight into her story, and becoming an element in the overall story.

Politics plays a big role in Freedom, with Walter becoming obsessed with overpopulation and its effect on nature, most specifically, birds. Walter's conservative son, Joey, has to choose between getting rich selling worthless truck parts to a contractor in Iraq, or becoming a whistle blower.

I listened to this on an audiobook, and thoroughly enjoyed the narrator. It was long, and at times I wondered how it could keep on going, but once I came to the end, I felt like I lost friends I had grown to care about.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Void Trilogy

Today's topic is Space Opera: cast of thousands, countless alien species, some millions of years old and highly evolved. Humans have evolved too: quaint, anachronistic Physicals, bio-enhanced Advancers and Highers who have gone “post-physical” and uploaded themselves into a neural network that takes up most of the space around a now depopulated Earth. And in the center of the universe, a big black Void is swallowing up whole galaxies, causing their inhabitants to flee and creating one heck of a refugee problem. And if that wasn’t enough, someone inside the Void is infecting the dreams of the rest of the universe with a siren song about the idyllic life within.

This is the ambitious setting of Peter F. Hamilton’s three-volume space opera, The Void Trilogy. Set around the year 4000 AD, Hamilton’s epic is a rambling, raucous adventure across time and space. Can the Commonwealth get its multi-species act together to stop the expanding Void? Will the pilgrimage by the believers of The New Dream save or destroy the universe by piercing the Void? And will all 38 versions of Mr. Bovey succeed in bedding the beautiful Araminta?

High-tech gadgetry abounds; faster-than-light travel, real-time streaming of the internet inside your head, and some truly bizarre alternatives to being “just” human. Multiple bodies anyone? The vast number of weird alien cultures, colonized planets, dangerous religious cults and cool technological capabilities is enough to get my sci-fi imagination a-bubbling.

If you like your high-tech high, your space travel FTL and your aliens multi-limbed and multi-colored, Peter F. Hamilton’s The Void Trilogy may be just up your inter-galactic alley. The first volume is entitled The Dreaming Void and you can reserve it here.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Theoretical Elevators

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead is set in a city that's a lot like New York, in a time that might be the 1950s. This city has not spread into suburbs, but rushed upwards into towering skyscrapers. Elevator inspectors command great respect in this city. Children long to be elevator inspectors someday. Lila Mae Watson carries the badge, wears the suit. But she has three strikes against her: she is a woman, she is black, and she is an Intuitionist.

You see, there are two schools of thought: the Empiricists believe that an elevator is simply a machine. The Intuitionists, followers of James Fulton, the brilliant and mad former dean of the Institute for Vertical Transport, believe in a spiritual elevator, one that lies beyond the physical details that one can measure and describe. They yearn for ascent, find meaning in verticality, reject the merely rational Empirical world. Lila Mae inspects elevators without looking at them. She has the best record in the Department.

Then an elevator, recently inspected by Lila Mae, plunges in freefall. Her reputation is ruined and she is the subject of an investigation by the Department of Elevator Inspectors' fearsome Internal Affairs Bureau. She goes on the lam to find out who sabotaged the elevator, and why. Is she a pawn in a larger plot by Empiricists to discredit Intuitionism? Did the other black inspector, the ingratiating Pompey, have something to do with it? What about the delightfully-named mobster Johnny Shush?

The Intuitionist is funny and thoughtful, both utterly fanciful and unexpectedly serious. It's a tremendously sensitive book about race, depicting a society that is unintegrated and racially polarized. Lila Mae and other "coloreds" (as they are called) face constant discrimination; they mistrust all white people on principle. The language people use is racial, even when they're not openly talking about race. Lila Mae is a true outsider. For her, Intuitionism represents a longing to purify the world’s corruption, a calling for people to look beneath the surface.

My very favorite thing about this book is its beautiful prose. This paragraph, taken almost at random, describes the Department's annual ball:

Rick Raymond and the Moon-Rays, smart in white tuxedos, summon ditties upbeat in tempo and inconsolate in lyric from the instruments they have purchased on lay-away. Rick Raymond notices that the elevator inspectors do not dance. This is not a solid rule among their clan so much as the tasteless fruit of learned helplessness. They don't know where to place their feet, have untold psychic bruises still tender from adolescent embarrassments and don't, collectively, dance. But Rick Raymond and the Moon-Rays are pros. They have weathered much worse gigs than this.

This book is especially good aloud. Check out the book or try the audiobook.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Vampires in Suburbia

Keeping up with the Joneses, overly groomed lawns, stultifying marriages, false friendships . . . No, I’m not blogging about Desperate Housewives (actually, I’ve never watched it, so forgive me if I’m jumping to conclusions)—I’m blogging about Matt Haig’s latest book, The Radleys. Oh, did I mention the suburban family we’re talking about is secretly made up of vampires?

Helen and Peter Radley are a respectable couple with two teenagers, Clara and Rowan. Their terrible bloodlust has been repressed since Rowan was conceived, and they’ve even weeded all the vampire-made music and movies from their DVD and CD collections. They eat lots of rare meat and take ibuprofen by the bushel to combat the constant migraines caused by dietary deficiency, and they have never told their children what they really are.

Of course, the truth will out, as they say, and the truth outs when teenaged Clara, attempting to become vegan, starts craving blood at just the wrong moment. Hijinks ensue.

I was not wowed by this book, or even very much amused. Please let me know if you disagree, but I think people who like vampires will be bored by the suburban banality of the storyline, and people who like in-depth family melodramas will be turned off by the vampirism. I really enjoyed Haig’s The Dead Father’s Club for its quirkiness, characterization, and moments of humor, and I will continue to read his work, but this one went sour on me.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A City of Dragons

It is 1940, and the Japanese are not popular - especially in San Francisco's Chinatown. When a young Japanese-American man dies violently during the riotous festivities of the Chinese New Year, no one seems all that eager to investigate. So the private detective who found his body, a cool auburn-haired beauty named Miranda Corbie, takes matters into her own hands.

Kelli Stanley, the author of City of Dragons, writes very strongly in the noir tradition, which includes such novelists as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald. This is not a cozy mystery: Miranda's investigation uncovers corruption, racism, and sex trafficking as well as murder. The plot doesn't hang together perfectly (I'm still puzzling over the clue of the two green cars) - but that was certainly true with Chandler's books, as well. The real draws are the grittily realistic evocation of Depression-era San Francisco, and the intriguing main character.

Beneath her lovely exterior, Miranda is a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, hard-drinking PI, very much in the tradition of such 'tecs as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Embittered by loss and by the greedy cruelty of men, Miranda is ferociously independent and scornful of anyone who tries to befriend her.

The noir detective's trademark bourbon-soaked cynicism reads a little differently coming from a female protagonist. It was jarring at first, but I soon decided I liked it - especially when mixed with Miranda's willingness to use her Rita Hayworth looks to get what she wants. Miranda has her own brand of honor, but she's not a good girl.

City of Dragons is the first in a planned series, one that looks like it'll be lots of fun to follow as World War II draws nearer.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ethan of Athos

Here's a fun audiobook for Lois McMaster Bujold fans. For those who don't recognize her, she is the esteemed creator of the Miles Vorkosigan science fiction saga, as well as The Sharing Knife fantasy series. Her writing is logical and character-driven, with multifaceted believable worlds.

Ethan of Athos takes place in the world of the Vorkosigan Saga. Ethan Urquhart is a doctor in the most patriarchal society possible. Women are considered evil incarnate. No female has been allowed to set foot upon the planet of Athos for generations, and the Athosians believe themselves far better off without them.

In this society, reproduction must be accomplished entirely in test tubes, relying on cultured samples of ovarian tissue. But over the years, the existing ovarian samples have degraded, and when Ethan unpacks the order of replacement ovaries, it’s obviously been tampered with. It’s time for someone to venture off the reclusive agrarian planet to demand some answers and find viable samples, or the Athosian population will die off. Ethan is elected, and tensely girds his loins against his upcoming experience with the evils of the multi-gendered universe.

This book is a playful, action-packed thought-experiment, and Ethan is a sympathetic character with many hidden strengths. Will he find ovaries? Will he realize the inconsiderate jerk who crashed his aircar is not the man for him? Will he survive being drugged, tortured, and wanted by the space station cops? Listen, and find out.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tax Forms @ Newport Library

It's that time of year once again. Time to run down to the library to get your tax forms.

Except this year, you find out that the library doesn’t have many forms yet. In fact, the library doesn’t have many forms at all. Because of late legislative action by the US Congress, the Internal Revenue Service had to delay printing many forms until final tax legislation was enacted.

Additionally, the IRS will not be able to process the new forms until their own computers have been updated with the new formulas. A recent email sent to Newport Library from the IRS stated that although tax returns will be accepted at any time, returns may not be processed until at least late February.

And since the IRS has stopped sending paper forms to taxpayers’ residences, Newport Library may be the only source of printed forms in the area.

All 2010 federal tax forms are available online here and of course, we will make the paper forms available as soon as they arrive at the library.

Please be aware that the State of Oregon no longer makes paper forms available. Information on Oregon State tax forms can be found at or you can visit the Newport office of the State Department of Revenue at 119 NE 4th St, Suite 4, or call 1-800-356-4222.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Dying of Friendship

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan is the scariest book I have ever read. I'm not made of very stern stuff: I usually prefer scary books that aren't actually scary. Stephen King is good: chilling, except that I don't really believe that (for instance) an industrial laundry machine is going to come hellishly to life and suck me in and fold me. You know: scary, but not scary.

A Prayer for the Dying presents horrors that are all too plausible.

A diptheria epidemic strikes the small Wisconsin town of Friendship in the late 19th century. Jacob Hansen is the town's policeman and undertaker. He is a Civil War veteran, devout Christian, and loving family man. To him falls the duty of managing the epidemic and attending the dead. He blockades the town, preventing (with force) anyone from entering or leaving. He quarantines sick people, preventing them (with force) from leaving their homes. As more and more people are infected, tragedies accumulate, and Jacob grapples with impossible decisions.

And make no mistake, things get very, very, very bad in Friendship. The reader eventually realizes that Jacob clings to his religious devoutness to mask from himself his own terrible darkness. His attempts to save the town become frantic as he strives to flee from the implications of his own deeds.

One of the fascinating things about this book is the narrative style. It's written in a sort of second-person, essentially Jacob's internal monologue, the story he tells himself about himself. Like this:

Friendship's my town, you say, and they think you're too serious, too sentimental, a fool. They think the war did something to you. Maybe so, but for the good, you think. That kind of talk doesn't temper your fondness for them. It is your town, they are your people.

At first I found this distracting. But soon it had the intended effect of getting me intimately inside Jacob's head. I was right there with him when he lied to himself; when he did appalling things, and told himself they were his duty. Can one do good via evil means? When one's world is flooded with evil, is it even possible to recognize goodness any more? Who among us is completely free of self-deception? O'Nan brilliantly winds us into Jacob's moral coils, and it's impossible to find an easy way out.

A Prayer for the Dying is powerful, thought-provoking, masterfully-written, and I'm not ashamed to admit that it completely unnerved me. If it sounds intriguing to you, I heartily recommend it.

(And if the story about the demonic laundry machine sounds a little more comfortable, it's called "The Mangler," and you'll find it in Night Shift by Stephen King.)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Armchair Travel to China

On January 9, 2011 at 2:00 p.m. the Newport Public Library will begin a new series called “Armchair Travel Second Sundays.” Hosted by Assistant Librarian Kay Eldon, the monthly programs will feature photos and discussion by local residents who have traveled to other countries. Eldon, an inveterate traveler herself, has visited close to two dozen countries, including most of Western and Central Europe, Ukraine, Israel, China, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand.

“I know people who’ve had some amazing travel adventures, and brought back fabulous photographs,” Eldon said. “I enjoy first-hand accounts of people’s travels, so thought others would, too.”

The first program will cover Eldon’s two recent trips to China. She first went to China on a tour with librarians, and enjoyed it so much, she went back a year later. In February, Martha Llewellyn will discuss her trip to Japan, and in March Judy McNeil will talk about her “Walk Across England.”

These programs are free and open to the public.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Crown of Stars by Kate Elliot

Series sometimes take so long for the author to complete that fans get lost along the way. That happened to me with this series, and I’m very glad a friend reminded me of it recently! It had been so long, I started back at the beginning. I’m about halfway through now, and looking forward to the four books I hadn’t read the first time around.

This is epic fantasy in a quasi-European world of peasants and aristocrats. The world’s religion is directly based on Christianity, but Elliot has played with gender and created a society where the God is plural, male and female, and the theocracy is largely female-- as are most of the saints and apostles. Gender stereotypes exist, like but unlike those in our world; men are meant to be fighters, while women’s talents lie in administration, creativity, and nurture. Women are ascribed more political and sexual power, while men are seen as arm-candy and brute force. As in our world, the stereotypes reflect and influence, but don’t dictate; the characters are much more complicated than that! The exploration of religion and gender adds an extra layer of interesting texture to the story.

The series follows several characters; Liath, whose father died leaving her in debt with a terrible and magical secret; Sanglant, the King’s bastard and favored child, an obedient son about to suffer some serious trauma; Alain, a dutiful peasant lad who chafes at being promised to the church, and whose fate holds much more. Mysterious changes are afoot, as the King’s sister and those who support her pursue dark sorceries, and strange invaders with alien powers and beliefs begin to encroach upon the borders of Wendar.

This is a worthwhile series for those who enjoy epic fantasy. Our library system owns all seven books, so there’s none of that inconvenient waiting for the author to hurry up and finish writing!

1. King's dragon
2. Prince of dogs
3. Burning stone
4. Child of flame
5. Gathering storm
6. In the ruins
7. Crown of stars

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Abandonment

Caroline lives with her father in a wooded area of Portland. Specifically, they live in Forest Park, in a heavily camouflaged spider-hole. They wash in the stream, keep lookout from the tops of trees, and go into the city once a week for laundry, groceries, and library books. Caroline's father says that they just want to be left alone. But Caroline is thirteen now, and she's starting to question her father's decisions.

My Abandonment is written by Reed College professor Peter Rock. He depicts the lives of the deliberately homeless: Caroline's father chooses to live off the grid, under society's radar, and by his own rules. He tells Caroline that they are happier and better than ordinary people, and Caroline believes that. But whether she believes it or not, she has no choice but to follow along on his doomed quest for glorious isolation.

This book opens up issues of privacy, alienation, captivity, love, and abuse. Caroline is an unforgettable character, a strange and loyal girl who longs for things she can't have. I found this book to be haunting and brilliant; I hope you check out this Oregon novelist.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Great Magazine Giveaway!

Newport Library's annual magazine giveaway will take place on Thursday January 6, 2011 between 10 AM and 6 PM in the McEntee meeting room.

This is a great opportunity for crafters, artists, teachers and students to pick up a variety of recent edition titles in a wide variety of topics, from general interest and news magazines, to craft, gardening and religious titles.

Magazines are available on a first come, first serve basis. And please bring your own bags and/or boxes. There is no limit to the number of magazines you may take.