Monday, February 28, 2011

An Irish Tale of Love and Woe

Darling Jim by Christian Moerk is an odd one, alright. A tale within a tale within a tale, with a few little tales on the side; and I’m not yet certain if all those tales are necessary. But the heart of the story is the lovely relationship between the three Walsh sisters, and the bizarre tabloid style tragedy that led to the death of at least two of them.

So, here’s the thing: old Moira Walsh is found dead in her home, with her head stove in and the emaciated corpses of two of her grown nieces upstairs, one stabbed and the other starved. In the basement, another stained cot and a third set of shackles indicate that someone has escaped. No one has any clue why it all happened until a postman finds the diary of one of the nieces in the dead letter bin and reads it. We get to read it too, and that’s where we learn about Darling Jim, the most handsome, seductive, bad boy storyteller in all of Ireland, and his tango with the amazing Walsh sisters and their wonky aunt.

I haven’t decided yet if the book is really working for me. There are some weak points in the plot that suspension of disbelief has a hard time covering, and I’m still not sure if the book really needs one postman, let alone two (you’ll see.) At the same time the setting of the story in small town Ireland is so evocative of another way of life, and the voices of the dead Walsh sisters are so vivacious and bright, that I just can’t put it down. Check out Darling Jim if you enjoy stories set on Irish soil, or you’re up for a rather fantastical thriller/horror/love story.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A tiny crunching sound, apparently

In The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey describes how she was, for years, debilitated by a chronic mitochondrial disease. She was too weak to stand or sit up, easily exhausted by visitors, disturbed by loud noises and sudden movements, and very very alone. Then a friend gave Bailey a pot of wild violets, which contained a surprise: a live snail, tiny and brown, hiding beneath the leaves.

The snail's slow, graceful life seemed to match Bailey's. It slept during the day. At night it glided out of the violets and explored, nibbling little holes in Bailey's stationery. Belatedly she realized it was hungry (it wouldn't eat the violets) and put out food for it. Watching it move was both interesting and restful. She could look at it just by turning her head.

Most pets are relatively human-like: social mammals that enjoy companionship and communicate with sounds and gestures. A snail, by contrast, is extremely alien: solitary, hermaphroditic, lacking a skeleton, covered with slime. But Bailey came to feel great respect and admiration for her snail.

(Snails are slimy but equipped with a pretty spiral shell. I wonder if Bailey would have felt the same affection if the animal in her violets had been a slug?)

This memoir is a small book, written in brief snippets. It contains some interesting facts about how these little animals eat, sleep, mate, and defend themselves. It also contains a few details about Bailey's illness. I admit I wanted more snail data, and more information about her disease. It's a quick and graceful read; I suppose it's exactly the sort of book an easily-tired person might write.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is an interesting example of the human-animal connection, and a meditation on the beauty of small, easy-to-overlook things.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Social Experiment

Incarceron: an experiment in the ultimate rehabilitation. A paradise, ruled over by the even hand of artificial intelligence. A closed system, where nothing comes out, and nothing goes in, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Or, an absolute, anarchic hell, where life is a never-ending struggle against brutality, injury, sickness, and hunger.

Incarceron was created hundreds of years ago, an experiment in bettering society by imprisoning all dissidents in the best, highest tech, most humane prison system ever created. Outside, the ruling class created their own utopia, deciding that the safety of a perfect past that never quite existed was preferable to the dangers of progress of any kind. Inside Incarceron, a proliferation of cultures; outside, a stagnant but lovely-looking world of women in long dresses, men in cravats, and horse-drawn carriages.

Claudia, the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, is on the outside. Trapped by her father’s ambitions and disgusted by the falseness and constraint of the Protocol which keeps society stagnant, she conspires with her tutor to find a way out.

Finn is on the inside. He has no clear memory before awakening in the prison as a teenager, but he sometimes gets visions accompanied by fits. Gildas, a Sapient, believes Finn’s visions hold the secret to escape from Incarceron, but Finn believes they are scraps of stolen memories. He believes he came from Outside, something his companions think is impossible.

When a strange crystal device allows Claudia and Finn to communicate, events spin out of control. Finn and his companions embark on a wild adventure almost Odyssean in nature, fleeing through the strange and wild landscape of the immense prison world. Claudia is drawn into desperate intrigue, forced finally to take a stand against those who control not only her, but all of society.

Incarceron is shelved in our Young Adult area due to the age of the characters and the themes of rebellion, identity, and dealing with the consequences of your elder’s choices; but the well-drawn characters and gripping action make this an entertaining read for adults as well.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Before and After Browsing

It's an elegantly simple idea for a photography book: side-by-side before-and-after photographs of various places on the earth, taken from the same point of view so you can really see the changes. That's the theme of Earth, Then and Now: pairs of photographs, some of them satellite images, that show the passage of time. Mount St Helens, before and after its 1980 eruption. Switzerland's Grimsel Pass in 1932 (with glacier) and today (without). Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 and today.

The picture to the right (which I scanned from the book) shows the lovely 16th century Mostar Bridge in Bosnia. The top picture was taken in 1993, after years of war took their toll. The bridge was utterly destroyed just a couple of months later. The bottom picture was taken in 2004, after the bridge was completely rebuilt.

I spent quite a bit of time flipping through Earth, Then and Now, sometimes impressed, sometimes horrified, by the changes that are illustrated. Check it out.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Desperate disease, dangerous remedy

Siddhartha Mukherjee's astonishing and ambitious book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, tells the story of mankind's long and awful confrontation with cancer. A physician, he intersperses the historical story with vignettes from the lives of his own patients. Both of these narratives are horrible and fascinating.

This book is at its most engrossing in its description of the 20th century's War on Cancer, a well-funded, highly-publicized attempt to cure cancer with one mighty scientific push, a Manhattan Project for cancer. The effort has so far, obviously, failed. Mukherjee praises those who made breakthroughs, and he is unstinting in his criticism of all the blind alleys and blunders into which researchers stumbled due to arrogance, wishful thinking, and refusal to cooperate.

I was amazed and appalled to discover that, until the very end of the 20th century, attempts to treat and cure cancer were not informed, at all, by any understanding of what caused cancer, how it worked, or how it spread. For instance, throughout the first half of the 20th century attempts to find a surgical cure for breast cancer led to more and more and more extensive surgeries. The mastectomy became "an extraordinarily morbid, disfiguring procedure in which surgeons removed the breast, the pectoral muscles, the axillary nodes, the chest wall, and occasionally the ribs, parts of the sternum, the clavicle, and the lymph nodes in the chest."

Because surgeons did not understand the mechanism of metastasis, they did not realize that such extensive surgery would not work if it was performed after the cancer spread to other organs; and if it was performed before the cancer spread, it wasn't necessary. Only very gradually has the ethos of radical surgery been abandoned; some surgeons are still today reluctant to let go of extensive cutting, even in the face of evidence that it doesn't improve patients' chances.

Just as nightmarish, in a different way, were the chemotherapy trials of the 1960s. Doctors, again not knowing the cause or mechanism of cancer, would produce cocktails of three, four, or five deadly poisons and test them on children dying of leukemia. They made progress, but what terrible risks they took.

Mukherjee explains complicated scientific concepts in a way that's easy for the layperson to understand, and his story is riveting. He explains what makes a good screening test (and why the mammogram is not always a very good one); how AIDS activism in the 1980s affected cancer research; why intensive chemotherapy is more frequently effective for leukemia and lymphoma than for breast and lung cancer; and why cancer can be caused by everything from viruses to bacteria to cigarette smoke.

I wouldn't call this a pleasant read - The Emperor of All Maladies had me compulsively checking my glands - but it is endlessly interesting. Even as I shuddered, I still could not put it down.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

In the Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, a widowed concierge observes the lives of the wealthy tenants of her building with disdain and longing. She pretends to be ignorant, uneducated, and low-class; in fact, she is a self-educated philosopher and lover of the arts who deeply admires Japanese culture.

Also in the building is a twelve-year-old girl, precocious and introverted, who plans to burn her parents’ apartment down and then kill herself with sleeping pills when she turns thirteen. Like Madame Michel, the concierge, she’s an observer preoccupied with philosophical questions and the search for beauty in the midst of banality. Also like her, she is nearly without friends, and feels set apart from those around her by her intellect.

The book is narrated by Paloma, the twelve-year-old, and by Madame Michel in turns. The author is a professor of philosophy, and many allusions are made to various philosophers between the slow development of events in the apartment building. In addition, the book suffers from an obsession with class. Perhaps it is my perspective as an American which leads me to find this both terribly old-fashioned and annoying. Is French society really so stratified that class expectations are destiny?

The plot and structure of the book seem overly artificial to me. Both main characters are so judgmental and lacking in compassion toward almost everyone around them that their overwhelming loneliness seems only fitting, but one can feel the author’s machinations to bring them together out of their constructed cages from the beginning. Paloma especially seemed to be saddled with serving the author’s pleasure, not so much a precocious twelve-year-old as a puppet.

Despite all that, the writing itself is lovely, with many fine turns of phrase and evocative imagery. The Elegance of the Hedgehog may appeal to those who enjoy literary fiction about European cultures, or the interior lives of women. I’ll leave you with a taste of Madame Michel:

Do you know what a summer rain is? To start with, pure beauty striking the summer sky, awe-filled respect absconding with your heart, a feeling of insignificance at the very heart of the sublime , so fragile and swollen with the majesty of things, trapped, ravished, amazed by the bounty of the world. (p 233)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reading Black History Month

Black History Month has its origins in Negro History Week, which was started in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-educated son of former slaves. Observing the dearth of information on African-Americans in history books, he intended that Negro History Week would bring national attention to the contributions of black people throughout American history.

I grew up with little knowledge of literature written by African-Americans. While earning my English degree, I was introduced to the writings of Toni Morrison, but most of my classes focused on the works of “dead white men.” It wasn’t until I became a librarian and worked in a historically black college library that I realized the wealth of writing that African Americans have added to American literature. My favorite discovery was Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. In my opinion, it should be required reading in all high schools!

This month, the Newport Library is highlighting works of literature by African American authors. These include mysteries, novels, science fiction, poetry, children’s books, and biographies. While doing research for the display, I found a poignant story about Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale and When Stella Got Her Groove Back.

Terry McMillan was introduced to literature while shelving books at the library. Stung by James Baldwin’s spotlight eyes, she remembers this milestone moment as the one that introduced her to the possibility that black folks wrote books too. -  Wake Forest University

Take a moment to look at the display when you come to the library, and choose a book to read in honor of Black History Month. If we don’t have a copy available, we’ll put it on reserve for you. Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s legacy continues to educate and inspire!

Monday, February 7, 2011

An oldie, but a page-turner

Mary Grey is peacefully sightseeing in northern England when a strange, good-looking, very angry man storms up and calls her the b-word. That's the attention-grabbing opener of The Ivy Tree, a romantic suspense novel written by Mary Stewart in 1961.

It turns out that Mary looks exactly like Annabel Winslow, the missing and presumed-dead heiress of a local estate. The angry guy is Connor Winslow, Annabel's cousin, who's delighted that Annabel is out of the way so that he can inherit - and less than thrilled when he sees Mary and thinks Annabel's returned. And that gives Mary an idea. After all, no one would really be harmed, if she impersonated Annabel...

This novel is beautifully written and extremely suspenseful. It is also full of people doing things that no one with a lick of sense would do. I was quite alarmed when Annabel's surly old grandpa began taunting his family with the possibility of changing his will. Grandpas, don't do this. People in novels get murdered when they do this. Nor should one deliberately put oneself between a fortune and an obviously-dangerous would-be-heir, as Mary does.

But The Ivy Tree never follows the expected path. It is full of surprises and extremely difficult to put down. I, for one, suspended my sense of disbelief and turned those pages gleefully. Probable or not, I just couldn't wait to find out what Mary and Connor and Grandpa would do next.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Last Lie by Stephen White

Jonas lost his father to murder. He lost his mother to a bomb in Israel. He lost his parents’ house, the home he grew up in, to an uncle overeager to sell, and now new people are moving in. People who talk about destroying the barn, which was his father’s lovingly reconstructed studio, and who hire surveyors and soil-samplers to test and measure in preparation for changing everything. Jonas can’t take it. He can’t let them destroy his home, not without trying to save the most important part.

The new neighbors disturb Jonas’ adoptive father, Dr. Alan Gregory, as well, although he tries to withhold judgment. Information revealed to him through his clinical psychology practice is confidential, and what he learns about his neighbor is inconclusive; yet his suspicions are roused. When the police become involved with investigating a possible acquaintance rape that occurred at the neighbors’ housewarming party, Alan becomes even more concerned. But his hands are tied until it’s almost too late, and Jonas is drawn into danger.

White is a master of the mystery/thriller, but this newest novel in the Dr. Alan Gregory series stands out. Alan’s first-person narrative is strongly flavored by his world view as a psychologist, and offers a unique and sometimes challenging perspective of events. The nature of White’s writing style is somewhat literary, with a flair for the perfect realistic detail and the well-described relationship, and the various story elements are strong and well-woven. Whether you are new to the series or a returning fan, The Last Lie is a novel to savor.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Horticultural Essay

There is a genre of garden writing sorely in decline in today's literature. I'll call it the horticultural essay. There are, of course, many garden writers publishing heaps of compostable prose these days, but I fear the golden age of the horticultural essay resides in the past.

The garden encyclopedias and more practical guides on our library shelves are the seasonal go-to books when you want to get down and dirty with your garden. But it’s the horticultural essay that is called for when it’s still too early to plant, (as much as a nice February day may tempt you otherwise), but not too early to plan. The essayist takes a step back, as you should do at this time of year, to cast a critical eye over the bones of your garden, looking over that dry shady overhang here, a sodden winter bog there. Then, inspired by these writers and their own experiences and observations, you plan a course of action for the upcoming season.

These literary gems not only inspire the gardener, impatient for the last local frost date. They, or the best of them anyway, are a joy to read in themselves. Like armchair travel, the garden essay transports the reader to a greener, more bucolic season, where the apple trees are thick with fruit and the roses suffer nary a hint of mildew or blight.

I’ll leave you with some final words from Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts, to my mind, the best of a regal bunch:

“Heavier dews presage the morning when the moisture will have turned to ice, glazing the shriveled dahlias and lima beans, and the annuals will be blasted beyond recall. These deaths are stingless. I wouldn’t want it otherwise. I gardened one year in a tropical country and found that eternal bloom led to ennui.”

Heaven forbid you’ll experience anything remotely akin to ennui when you read some of my favorite garden writers listed below.

Green Thoughts, by Eleanor Perenyi
The Essential Earthman, by Henry Mitchell
The Gardener’s Eye, by Allen Lacy
Wood And Garden, by Gertrude Jekyll
The Year In Bloom, by Ann Lovejoy