Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Do you believe in the book fairy?

Have you ever wished for a book-fairy, who could magically read your mind and pick exactly the right book for you to read next? Or, the tech version—a metal cap with wires and flashing lights that you screw onto your head? Well, we have that!

OK, Novelist doesn’t have cute little wings and fairy dust, or screw onto your head, but many people view that as a plus. Novelist is simply a database. It lives on our library website, http://newportlibrary.gov. You can access it at the library, or from home with your library card number.

You can find book recommendations in many ways; searching by genre, title, and author, of course, but also by searching by what Novelist calls “appeal factors” like “fast-paced” or “creepy”. If you like books set in Australia, type in Australia. If you like books about entomologists, type in entomologists. If you’re looking for books for a child, you can check the official reading level by grade or by Lexile score.
Once you generate a list of book recommendations, you can print them out or email them to yourself. If you create an account with a name and password, you can save your booklists to a folder that will be there next time you log on. You can use your folder to collect books you want to read, and to track books you have already read.

If you have any questions about using Novelist, give us a call at 541 265 2153. We’ll also be offering an overview class in July; sign up for that at the end of June.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Torn with briers, I can no further crawl

Three woeful losers, Henry, Will, and Molly, enter Buena Vista Park in San Francisco, where they get lost. It is not a very large park, but it lies under an enchantment. The faerie Queen, Titania, has lost her Boy to leukemia, and in her intolerable sorrow and rage, she has committed a rash act. The faeries panic, because Titania has released the malevolent Puck. Molly, Henry, and Will are in trouble.

The Great Night by Chris Adrian is obviously an updated version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is not a sparkly magical comedy of lovers’ folly, but a darker and more tormented experience. Tatiana's grief at the death of her changeling child transforms not only her own life but nature itself. The faeries are pitilessly amoral, indifferent to human suffering but dangerous in their own. The heart of the book is the section in which Oberon and Tatiana camp out in the pediatric cancer ward, as furious and helpless as any merely human parents.

Puck is no merry wanderer of the night, but a terrifying force of evil, whom even the king and queen fear. As the three humans wander through the park, their stories are told in long flashbacks: how they came to be so brokenhearted, what they did wrong that brought them here. They do not know each other, but clues reveal that they are intimately connected nonetheless.

As in A Midsummer Night's Dream, comic relief is supplied by a play within a play. In this case, a loose band of homeless people plan to expose the mayor's corruption by way of a musical. They, too, get swept up into the magic.

The Great Night is an imperfect novel. Its plot is a little muddled; often the flashbacks seem much more immediate, more real, than the things that are happening to our protagonists in the present moment. It's also a very sexually frank book, with graphic descriptions that don't always serve the plot very well. Still, it's a remarkable read, witty and heartbreaking at once.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On the road, again!

New York poet Michael Czarnecki is traveling the length of US Highway 20, from Boston to Newport, writing poems and taking photos along the way. At the completion of his journey, he will share stories, haiku, poems, and photos at the Newport Public Library on Thursday, June 9 at 7:00 p.m.

“US 20 is the longest US highway,” said Czarnecki. “It connects the two coasts, crosses the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and takes you to Yellowstone National Park! Cities, small towns, rolling hills, eastern woodlands and farms, midwestern plains, wild western landscapes. What more could one want in a single route, a route that today is garnering much interest in its historic significance.”

This will be his second trip along US 20. Czarnecki made his first trip in the autumn of 1996, from Boston to Newport. From that journey came a book, “Twenty Days on Route 20,” a haibun (poetic prose and haiku) travel account of the experience, which is now in its second printing.

Czarnecki had originally scheduled this trip for 2010, and made it to Ohio before he was called home for a family emergency. He resumed his trip on May 19, 2011 from where he left off in Toledo, Ohio.

The program on June 9, sponsored by the Newport Public Library and the Elizabeth Street Inn, is free and open to the public.  You can follow Czarnecki's daily progress on his website, US Journey 2011.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Shadowmarch by Tad Williams

Yikes! A new book by one of my old favorite authors almost got by me! Tad Williams, epic fantasy writer extraordinaire, published Shadowheart, Book Four in the Shadowmarch series in November 2010, and I didn’t catch it until now. (Williams is known for Tailchaser’s Song and the Otherland series, among others.) So now, of course, I have to go back and reread from the beginning.

The series starts with Shadowmarch. It has a fascinating central premise: the world was once a dark and magical place, but humans colonized it and forced the magic back. It didn’t fade, it didn’t disappear; it stayed behind the shadowline, biding its time. Now, the Others who dwell behind the line want their lands back, and human life means little to them. The shadowline is moving, inexorably threatening lands already threatened by unstable politics and an emperor across the sea who believes himself a god.

Barrick and Briony are twins, regents of Southmarch now that their father has been taken prisoner and their older brother has been killed. They are young and untried, and the man who was their father’s most trusted advisor is accused of their brother’s murder. Barrick is plagued by nightmares that follow him into day, and Briony is being pressured into a heinous marriage in exchange for her father’s freedom. In the midst of this come tales of mysterious disappearances and madness, impossible things that seem like ridiculous rumors until they are on the palace doorstep.

Other strands of the story include Flint, a human boy adopted by the smallfolk who work the stone in and under the palace, and Ferras Vansen, the Captain of the Guard who loves Briony from afar but who failed to protect her brother the night he was killed. Thus far, I like Briony and Vansen best; she learning on the fly to stay strong and rule a country, he seeking redemption for a death there was no way to prevent.

After Shadowmarch come Shadowplay, Shadowrise, and finally the newest one, Shadowheart.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rotten Rejections

As a writer whose collection of rejection letters is bafflingly large (at least to me), I can draw solace from a little gem of a book, Rotten Rejections. And I thought editors had it in for me? Here’s just a sampling of some of the rotten rejections writers have received:

Rejection letter to Pearl Buck on her novel, The Good Earth: “Regret the American public is not interested in anything on China.”

Advice to Tony Hillerman: “Get rid of all the Indian stuff.”

And the editor who rejected Proust’s first 800 pages of Remembrance Of Things Past told the author that it took him thirty pages just to turn over in bed after reading it.

After another round of the damnable things has arrived in the mail, I make sure to check out Rotten Rejections, if only to assuage my dwindling self-confidence and steel myself to get back to work.

You can reserve Rotten Rejections here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Gee, Wing! It's the OED!

A patron was reading a historical novel, in which a character used the word supersonic. This struck the patron as historically inaccurate - he didn’t think that word was being used during the time period of this book.

To find out when and how people first started saying supersonic, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary, a tremendous multi-volume reference work. As well as giving word definitions and origins, the OED includes quotations that illustrate the earliest known use of the word and the ways its meaning has evolved over time. It is both useful and interesting - I like to dip into it at random, for fun.

Supersonic, meaning “involving, pertaining to, capable of, or designating speeds greater than the speed of sound,” was first used in an aeronautics journal in 1934. Manned faster-than-sound flight was not yet possible in the 1930s, but as this journal shows, scientists were working on it.

The word was in use earlier than that, but with a different meaning. It was once used to mean “of, pertaining to, or designating sound waves or vibrations with frequencies greater than those audible to the human ear.” For this meaning we don’t use supersonic any more; we say ultrasonic. But at any rate, with that meaning, supersonic was used as early as 1919.

The colloquial use of supersonic, meaning something exciting and nifty, entered the lexicon in the late 1940s. The OED cites a 1947 magazine in which appears the phrase “Isn’t he simply supersonic!”

1947 is the year that Chuck Yeager was the first human to exceed the sound barrier in a controlled flight. It must have been the first time most ordinary people ever thought about the speed of sound, and the extraordinary achievement helped the word quickly enter the supple world of slang. In 1955, a novel called Swooping Vengeance by Geoffrey Dorman has a character exclaiming, “Gee, Wing! This is supersonic!”

So did my patron's historical novel use the word correctly? That book is set in 1917, and the detective uses the word supersonic to describe the speed of an object. According to the OED, it’s clearly an anachronism - too early by almost twenty years.

Incidentally, the OED finds its way into the news every year, when pundits express outrage that it has been expanded to include words like muggle and LOL. I am deeply bored with this yearly hand-wringing, because it’s based on a misunderstanding of what the OED’s function is. It does not prescribe how words should be used - no Oxford don pointed to Swooping Vengeance for an example of an elegant and appropriate use of supersonic.

The OED describes how language is being used - and like it or not, muggle and LOL are being used all the time. The more complete it is - the more words in common usage it contains - the better.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

Moonlight Mile, the sixth book in the Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro series, is a smooth, noir ride. Lehane has an uncanny ear for dialogue, and the writing is so good the words disappear; it’s just you and the story. Kenzie is the first person narrator, a PI good at sensing BS and not so good at putting up with it. Now that he’s a married man with a preschooler and bills to pay, he’s trying to prove he can run with the corporate boys and earn a corporate salary, but his reluctance to lose his independence keeps getting in his way. A blast from the past veers him further off the corporate path, when a girl he ‘rescued’ from kidnappers twelve years ago disappears again.

Back then, in Gone Baby Gone, Kenzie found four-year-old Amanda in a nice rural home with a loving family. He returned her to her real mother; a negligent drunk with a bad habit of getting mixed up with the wrong guys. It was a tough choice for Kenzie to make, and a tougher one to live with. (To see our blog about Gone Baby Gone, the book and the movie, click on the link above.) Now Amanda's sixteen. When her aunt calls saying she’s gone again, and he finds out her mother's boyfriend is linked to a Russian mobster, he feels like he owes it to Amanda to get her out of trouble.

This is a mystery with a lot of action, violence, and grit, reaching from upper-class suburbia to the streets of Boston. It can be read as a stand-alone, but it's so good you’ll want to read the whole series. Not for those uncomfortable with strong language.

The series in order:

1. A drink before the war

2. Darkness, take my hand

3. Sacred

4. Gone, baby, gone

5. Prayers for rain

6. Moonlight mile

Monday, May 9, 2011


Have you ever been inside the house of a hoarder? I have. I won't describe the experience, because you may have eaten recently.

I bet a lot of readers can imagine it, though, because hoarding is a much more common condition than once thought, according to an eye-opening book called Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. Most hoarders never seek help, and many experience such shame and stigma that only their families know about the problem.

And it is a problem: hoarding behavior can isolate people from their family and friends, infuriate their neighbors, and create persistent, expensive public health issues.

Frost is a psychologist and Steketee a social worker; together they have studied obsessive compulsive behaviors like hoarding for two decades. In this book they present case studies : the woman whose husband has left her and threatened to take custody of their children due to the impossible living conditions in their house. The wealthy twin brothers who kept filling up luxury Manhattan hotel suites with stuff and then, unable to live there any more, moved to new quarters and began filling those, too. The lady with two hundred cats, whom she believed she was rescuing, though in fact they were starving and diseased. The man whose apartment was so squalid, filled with rotting food and cockroach droppings, that social workers executed a court-ordered evacuation - a temporary solution at best.

Little is known about why people hoard. Though the authors find some common traits among the people they studied, there's a lot of variety, too. The case studies are nothing short of fascinating, but the prognosis is not optimistic. Some of the people they work with are able to improve, but the compulsion to hoard, and the powerful anxiety and distress that accompanies throwing anything away, presents a lifelong struggle. Some never recover, even though they try; most never try. One hoarder said, "This has ruined me ... I could have been happy, but I'm not anything. I have done nothing. I'm collecting life without living it."

Stuff is a great book to help you learn about this difficult, sad, and little-understood phenomenon. It includes suggestions for how to find help, too.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The law that sways my lady's ways

"She loved me, there's no question of that, and I knew it and felt secure in it, but it transpired that she loved me like a favored household pet... I was not a real person to her, not a true soul with all the potential for grace and failure that implies. My error was to not recognize this."

So writes Sally Naldrett about her lady, in the opening paragraphs of The Mistress of Nothing, a historical novel by Kate Pullinger. Lady Lucie Duff Gordon was an upper-class intellectual, a brilliant conversationalist, hostess of salons and writer of eloquent letters. Sally was the orphaned girl who had become Lady Duff Gordon's personal maid years before. Sally is deeply devoted to to her mistress, so when Lady Duff Gordon travels to Egypt in 1862, of course Sally accompanies her.

The two women are not tourists; Lady Duff Gordon is dying of tuberculosis, and hopes that the hot, dry climate of Egypt will extend her life. Sally describes how deeply bereft Lady Duff Gordon is: not only desperately ill, but separated from her beloved husband and children and cut off from her wide circle of friends.

Sally, on the other hand, is thrilled to be voyaging to a strange and romantic land. In Luxor, the two women become closer than ever before: they both adopt Egyptian garb, learn Arabic, and become interested in the politics and culture of Egypt. Sally becomes especially interested in Omar, a handsome Egyptian man.

Sally is happy. She doesn't yet realize how dangerous it is for a servant to be so much happier than her mistress.

Sally Naldrett and Lucie Duff Gordon were real people. Lady Duff Gordon's book Letters From Egypt is considered to be a classic of Victorian travel writing. This novelized account of a real event explores the power relationships between classes, and between men and women, and shows an instance of one person who finds herself on the wrong end of both those relationships.

I wish The Mistress of Nothing were longer: Pullinger only begins to examine the interesting relationships between Sally and the other women of Omar's family, for instance. I wanted to know more - much more - about what happened to Sally after her showdown with Lady Duff Gordon.

But these characters are fascinating and the Egyptian setting is beautiful, and I recommend it. I read it after what felt like two solid months of rain, so I especially loved the descriptions of that hot, dry climate.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman

In Cara Hoffman's So Much Pretty, sociopathic sexism and radical independent morality intersect and blow a community apart. The author strings pieces of narrative from the past and the present together to gradually form a picture of crime and punishment. The crime: months of torture, gang-rape and abuse leading to murder. The punishment: death, meted out by a teenager who believes it’s up to her to do what she can to prevent further evil.

Wendy White, a well-liked hometown girl, disappears, and her body isn’t found for months. When the corpse is finally discovered, the killing is swiftly attributed to “a drifter.” The case is left open, unsolved, with no one even questioning the boyfriend, son of the community’s biggest employer.

Alice Piper is a brilliant teenager, the daughter of radical doctors who fled the city for a more authentic life of organic farming. Alice has been raised to be logical, skeptical, and to act on her convictions. When she hears a joke she wasn’t meant to hear, she draws her own conclusions. If no one else will act, she must; and she does, shockingly and irrevocably.

The story is told from the points of view of Wendy, Alice, Alice’s parents, a reporter, the rapist, and others. Jumping from one time period to another and one narrator to another makes the read a little rough. Despite that, I liked it. There are so many questions that the book invites, some of them quite disturbing. Is the sociopathology of the rapist connected with his sense of entitlement stemming from his family’s wealth and power? His family, successful dairy farmers who are notorious for polluting, use the earth in the same way he used Wendy; until it’s dead. Did he absorb the metaphorical message that everything is meant for him and his to use and use up? Alice’s morality has been carefully nurtured by her parents to be strong and independent, unaffected by social norms. Is she missing a vital part of what makes us human, or is she seeing a truth that others refuse to see?

So Much Pretty is a haunting story with more going for it than easy entertainment. The characters and the questions they engender will stick with you, long after the last page.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Best Mystery Novel of the Year

The results of the Newport Library Best Mystery Novel of the Year contest are in, and there's no question of the winner: Bury Your Dead by Canadian author Louise Penny received more than twice the votes of its nearest competitor.

On Saturday, Bury Your Dead was also awarded the Agatha Award for best traditional mystery of 2010 by the Malice Domestic convention in Maryland.
Bury Your Dead is the sixth in Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, set in the lovely yet haunted town of Three Pines in Quebec. In it, two intertwined mysteries unfold. Gamache investigates the murder of an obsessed amateur historian whose body was discovered in the Literary and Historical Society in Quebec City. Meanwhile, his colleague Jean Guy Beauvoir goes back to Three Pines to look into mistakes made in an earlier case. The twin investigations probe old wounds: of Quebec's violent past, of the tensions between the Anglophones and the Francophones, and of the painful consequences of botched police work.

The first runner-up in the Newport Library contest was Laura Lippman's I'd Know You Anywhere, a taut thriller about a woman who receives a letter from the death-row inmate who kidnapped her when she was a child.

This weekend the Mystery Writers of America awarded the Edgar Award for Best Mystery of 2010 to The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton. The Lock Artist tells the story of a young lockpick, Mike, with a troubled past and a dangerous enemy.

Although Newport readers agreed with Malice Domestic about the excellence of Bury Your Dead, they were less enthusiastic about The Lock Artist: that book received only one vote in our contest.