Friday, July 29, 2011

Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy

Maybe it’s because I’m a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer), or maybe it’s because I’ve been to China, but I think the real reason I loved Michael Levy’s book Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating With China's Other Billion is because it’s FUNNY! There were times I laughed so hard I had to put the book down.

Michael Levy is a nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia who joins Peace Corps and is sent to China to teach English. As soon as he gets to his site he is honored with a banquet where the first course is fried millipedes. How does he explain to the Chinese hosts about keeping kosher? I laughed.

When he was finishing his language training, he tried to summarize what he’d learned in his best Chinese. The teacher was not impressed. She informed Michael that he had just said “I, this water, arrive a little Chinese, egg, ten of me, not this written knife.” I laughed.

Michael’s Chinese students are also funny – without meaning to be – by choosing American names that are ridiculous: Pussy, Ragamuffin, Moron. I laughed again.

But Michael also writes with great insight about the lives of ordinary Chinese. He befriends a couple of school girls from a nearby village of ethnic minority Bouyei people, and is shocked when the 12-year old has to stop going to school and start working in her uncle’s restaurant. The reality is that her parents can’t afford to keep her in school. That's the reality for many Chinese.

Living and working in a foreign country when you don’t speak the language is stressful (I know!), but Michael copes by writing about the absurdity of his situation. Kosher Chinese is a fascinating read and it’s also very, very funny.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Edgar Winner: The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

Michael can't speak out loud. He's trapped in his head, always reliving a particular day that happened when he was only eight years old, a day when he needed to be very very quiet. But he has two survival skills that developed in compensation: he can draw, and he's taught himself to open locks of all kinds. In the back of his mind: the Day, over and over. In the foreground: psychiatrists, teachers, his uncle, all trying to help, all unable to understand what he’s been going through since that Day. And then—he falls in love, and someone who covets his lock-opening talent uses that love to own him. Long story short: Michael goes to jail.

The Lock Artist moves back and forth between Michael’s present, where he’s writing his story from his cell, to his past, where he’s doing safe-cracking jobs for an unnamed much-feared businessman, to his time in high school, where he changed overnight from being a struggling teenager with a chance at art college to being a criminal mixed up with the mob.

I’ve said this before: I’m not generally fond of gangster stories. They tend to be a little predictable— some greedy short-sighted people get rich, some greedy short-sighted people get whacked. This book is different. Michael is no gangster: he’s a kid in love so chained to his past that he can’t see any way to get free. Does he get free? Well, he’s the lock artist, but in real life and good books, things are never that simple.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Baby did a bad, bad thing

Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson is narrated by Arlene Fleet, a graduate student in Chicago whose roots are sunk deep in small-town Alabama. She is a smart, difficult, uneasy young woman; flashbacks take us back to when she was a damaged, furious, self-destructive teenager.

Back then, Arlene promised God that, if he would do one little favor for her, she would never tell a lie, have sex, or go back home ever again. God seemed to come through, and Arlene (who now calls herself Lena) has been a truth-telling celibate Chicagoan ever since.

Then a figure from Arlene's past shows up on her doorstep, asking questions and threatening her fragile peace. All bets are off.

There is a suspense plot here - what really happened to Arlene and her cousin Clarice back when they were teenagers? What terrible thing did Arlene do, to bring her to that desperate bargain with God? Clues to the mystery are doled out nicely in the well-written, gripping flashbacks.

But what I really like about this book is the way Jackson captures the complicated relationships between people, especially between women. Arlene's relationships with her aunt Florence, who raised her, and her cousin Clarice, who is like a sister to her, are complicated - deep and close, but fraught with tension, jealousy, and misunderstanding. Arlene has a hard time with those confusing relationships, even though they are the warm and glowing center of her life.

Gods in Alabama is a good, a fast-paced story, funny and shocking and sad and heartwarming, all at once. Jackson has written other good books, too - I liked The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, another novel that tells a suspenseful story while exploring the relationship between women in an insightful way. Her latest, Backseat Saints, is on my list of things to read.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Margaret Read MacDonald Tells Tales at Newport Public Library

One of my favorite storytellers and children's authors, Margaret Read MacDonald, visits our library this Wednesday, July 27, at 1:00 pm in Literacy Park. Part of the "One World, Many Stories" summer reading program, her show perfectly fits the theme. She travels all over the world to places like Mahasarakham, Kota Kinabalu, and Rio telling stories and collecting new ones which she then tells or turns into a picture book. All children and families are invited to come and listen to her tales.

MacDonald is a folklorist, storyteller, retired children's librarian, and the author of more than 55 books on folklore and storytelling. Most of her books are available from any Lincoln County library. Watch her tell a tandem tale with Thai storyteller Dr. Wajuppa Tossa on YouTube.

MRM, as she’s known in the storytelling world, has been a mentor to storytellers around the world. I’m included in that group. In fact, some of the most popular children's tales I tell have come from her. People attending her programs this week may well hear some of their favorite stories. They can also listen to her tale of A Fat Cat online.

MacDonald’s Lincoln County programs are funded by Ready to Read grants from the Oregon State Library and the Lincoln County Library District.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thanks, Paul!

In 2008, The Newport Public Library acquired a book called 30,000 Years of Art, which I called "a treasure trove for serendipitous flipping." It was true: magnificent full-color images of art from all over the world, printed on thick, creamy paper, arranged in chronological order so that you can compare what was happening in different parts of the world during the same historical period.

30,000 Years of Art was over three inches thick and heavy. It almost immediately began falling apart under its own weight.

The binding was not strong enough to hold all those high-quality glossy pages. The spine broke, was mended, broke again. The book was beautiful, but at only three years old it was falling to pieces. Would we have to get rid of it?

Paul Reed devised a solution. Paul is one of the library's many volunteers. His job is to mend damaged books, which he does with such skill that all our old irreplaceable books go to him for new bindings. He thought that even if he rebound the book, it would still be structurally unsound. He suggested that we break the book into two volumes and bind them separately.

So that's what he did. 30,000 Years of Art is now two handsome volumes, newly rebound and available to the public once again, thanks to Paul Reed.

The Newport Library relies on volunteers for numerous tasks. They work behind the scenes, and their reliability, talent, and hard work keeps the library functioning smoothly.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Grey Ghost

I like mysteries starring animals, especially cats. Animals are insightful in ways not available to less-sensitive humans. Some of my favorite cat detectives are Mrs. Murphy and Pewter (Rita Mae Brown), Midnight Louie (Carole Douglas), and of course Koko and Yum Yum (Lilian Jackson Braun). In these mysteries, we readers are privy to the workings of the cats' minds, but their humans are woefully unable to understand the often very important messages coming from their eager helpmates.

Along comes Grey Zone by Clea Simon. Mr. Grey happens to talk (when he feels like it), not to just to us, but also his owner. Some of us who are cat owners might not find that too big a reach, but here’s the kicker - Mr. Grey is a ghost.

Mr. Grey's human is an often-misunderstood Harvard doctorate student named Dulcinea Schwartz - Dulcie for short. Dulcie is trying to work on her stalled doctorate paper, coping with insecurities about her boyfriend Chris, and puzzling about the suicide on campus that might have actually been murder. And she's wondering if hearing a ghost cat talk is really a sign that she’s headed around the bend.

Oh, and little troublemaker kitten Esme, Mr. Grey’s earthbound replacement … does she talk to Dulcie too?

Grey Zone is the third in this series of humorous cozy mysteries, following Shades of Grey and Grey Matters.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Chayag Plays Literacy Park

If you enjoy the beautiful sounds of the Andes Mountains, join us in Literacy Park this Wednesday for Chayag's show. Part of our "One World, Many Stories" summer reading program, the 1 p.m. show is open to everyone.

Alex Lluminquinga, a Chayag member for many years, promises an exciting program of Latin American folkloric music from the Andes Mountains, using a wide variety of authentic instruments, including the Charango (ten string lute), el Bombo (Andean drum), Quena (native South American flute), and panpipes. Chayag’s musicians bring the sounds of Latin America to life. Through folkloric music, they hope to inspire interest in those beyond our borders and provide audiences with new insights on Latin American culture. Appropriate for audiences of all ages, this performance is energetic, entertaining, enlightening, and very hands-on!

Wednesday, July 20, Chayaq will be at Waldport Public Library (10 a.m.), Newport Public Library (1 p.m.), and Driftwood Public Library in Lincoln City (6:30 p.m.). On Thursday, July 21, they will be at Toledo Public Library (11 a.m.) and Siletz Public Library (1 p.m.).

Chayag’s shows are funded by Ready to Read grants from the Oregon State Library and the Lincoln County Library District as well as funds from the Lincoln County Library District Board of Directors.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Don't Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon

Sam, Lisa, and Evie grow up together, the children of sisters, but Lisa disappears when she's only 12, vanishing into the woods to meet the King of the Fairies who’s been leaving her secret gifts. McMahon slowly pulls the veil away from that summer of their childhood, even as the present unfolds through the eyes of Phoebe, 25-year-old Sam's serious girlfriend. In the past, the three children run wild in the woods, finding what seems to be a refuge from the painful realities of home: a suicidal father, an alcoholic mother, feuding parents--until they find signs of fairies. Sam is skeptical, Evie is cynical, and Lisa is entranced. She draws the others in, until they betray her and she goes to find the fairies alone.

In the present, Phoebe, the child of an alcoholic herself, is smart and sassy despite an abbreviated education and low self-esteem. Sam is her first real love: the first man she cares about because he’s good, rather than because he hurts her in the old familiar ways. When Sam’s cousin Evie contacts him for the first time since that terrible long ago summer, Phoebe accompanies Sam to meet Evie and her husband at their cabin in the woods. The visit goes well, until an elderly woman appears at the cabin, miles from anywhere, singing a song from Sam and Evie’s childhood and then disappearing into the night. She appears again in the morning, knocking at the door, only to stab Evie in the stomach. From there, things get stranger and stranger.

As the book progresses, Phoebe learns more about Evie and Lisa and what happened that summer, and she and Sam come closer and closer to a generations-old secret about the King of the Fairies and Sam’s family ties.

Don’t Breathe a Word will require you to suspend your disbelief quite a bit, and you may balk at some of the twists and turns, but overall, it’s unique and suspenseful. The childhood scenes are especially enjoyable, clear and believable. I didn’t love the ending: I could have done without the last chapter altogether, but the book was a good find and I’ll try more of Jennifer McMahon’s work.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What they're reading in the city

Last Thursday, a man in his 50s with a gray beard was reading Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon on a bench in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. On Saturday, a woman in her 20s, wearing jeans and a tank top, was asleep on an commuter train with a library copy of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen on her lap. The previous Wednesday, another young woman, wearing a red skirt and pink shoes, was spotted reading Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver on the F train.

I know about these people because I've started reading CoverSpy, a strangely interesting blog in which self-described "publishing nerds" make note of who is reading what in and around New York City.

I am unsure why I find these little descriptions so compelling, but I do: the man with a ponytail and a Harvard t-shirt reading Erik Larson's Devil in the White City. The woman with silver earrings, reading Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and using Russian currency as a bookmark. The lady with the romance novel, with red fingernails and leopard-print umbrella. The three different people who, three days in a row, were observed reading Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.

It's almost a little novel, all by itself. I can't explain it, but I check in almost every day to see what those New Yorkers are reading.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Eli the Good

I just finished listening to Eli the Good, narrated by the author, Silas House, in his soft, slow Appalachian drawl. The story is flawless; it is descriptive without being effusive, and carries the reader along its narrative stream like a floating leaf on a lazy summer afternoon.

The protagonist, ten year old Eli Book, has an old soul. He observes his family, friends, and nature with full awareness, and has understanding beyond his years. The story takes place during the summer of the Bicentennial, when Eli's Aunt Nell comes to live with them, bringing her green record player and an endless supply of records. In the 60's, an iconic photo of Nell protesting the Vietnam War was published nationwide, and Eli's father, Stanton, has never forgiven her. He is a Vietnam veteran, with post-traumatic stress disorder. Eli's mother, Loretta, spends most of her attention calming and soothing her husband, while Josie, Eli's sixteen year-old sister, is in a constant power struggle with their mother. Edi, Eli's next door neighbor and best friend, shares his love of trees, books, philosophizing, and bike riding.

Tensions collide when the family attends a 4th of July parade. Veterans of World War I, World War II, and Korea march in the parade and are cheered. Eli wonders where the Vietnam veterans are, and notices a shift in his father's bearing. The full effects of PTSD come to a head, and threaten to destroy the family.

Eli the Good is a sympathetic, loving story of an American family, struggling with the pressure of external conflicts that have become internalized. I foresee it becoming a classic, on the order of To Kill a Mockingbird. Eli the Good is available in print and from Library2Go as an audiobook and eBook.

Drumming in Literacy Park this Wednesday!

Our summer reading program this week features the Oceana Family Literacy Bucket Drummers. This Lincoln City group of children and adults will be making music and teaching the audience how to drum on buckets. The show is at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13.

If you’re planning to come you can either bring your own bucket (or drum) or use one of the empty ice cream, yogurt or coffee ‘buckets’ we’ve collected at the library. Thanks to Sharon Gordon of Flashbacks Diner in South Beach, we should have lots of ice cream buckets.

Oceana Family Literacy (OFL) in Lincoln City is a place that provides youth and adult students with learning opportunities and invites volunteers to be of service. They are an all volunteer community-based organization building community through literacy....including drumming! They share a commitment of providing education for all.

Vicki Menses, OFL program coordinator, tells us, “Our learners are native and non-native speakers of English. The learning center is located at 1426 NW 15th in Lincoln City. The learning environment is welcoming and encourages learning through the exchange of cultures and languages while allowing families to learn together. Children are welcome and have a room dedicated to their learning and play. Oceana was founded by dedicated educators, students, and community members committed to sustaining and supporting literacy services for our families in Lincoln City. We will be two years old in January!!”

“The Oceana Family Literacy Bucket Drummers are an inter-generational, multicultural community drumming group. Why music? I believe that music is an important component of learning and that it is integrated into speaking, listening, reading, and writing....language! Why a drumming group? Many things are learned and taught through a group activity with participants who are working together to achieve a common goal! Having an opportunity to share your accomplishments with an audience is an incredible opportunity for all. We use our drums to spread the word about Oceana and to create awareness about literacy,” adds Menses.

The OFL Bucket Drummers been playing together for a year. Their focus includes both found music (buckets) and traditional Mexican drum and bugle corps style drumming. When one of the volunteer moms vacationed in Mexico, she brought back eleven drums for the group to use. Those drums will be featured in some of the songs played in Literacy Park this Wednesday. Everyone is invited to come and drum, shake and clap at the park.

Bucket drumming will happen at all five Lincoln County libraries this week. Wednesday, July 13, the drummers will be at Waldport Public Library (10 a.m.), Newport Public Library (1 p.m.), and Driftwood Public Library in Lincoln City (6:30 p.m.). On Thursday, July 14, they will be at Toledo Public Library (11 a.m.) and Siletz Public Library (1 p.m.).

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Haunting Audiobook-- The Raising by Laura Kasischke

On the surface, this book is a story about traumatic events on a college campus and how they skewed the lives of the people involved. But more than that, this book is threaded with death and the response of the living to the dead. Based on the title, the cover art, and the brief description in Library2Go, I expected a light and probably cheesy gothic novel. What I found instead was a meandering exploration of the haunting of the living by the dead, by the missing, and by the past. One character is an anthropology professor whose most popular class is a study of death beliefs and rituals. The author uses her to introduce a larger and more informed perspective on some of the ideas and issues raised, although the real focus is always on the subjective experience of death and haunting.
Two timelines are interlaced; before and after the car accident in which sorority girl Nicole Werner allegedly dies. The book follows a number of characters in both time periods. Craig Clements-Rabbitt, a surly and spoiled stoner, is accepted into the Honors College due to his dad’s friendship with the dean. Perry Edwards is Craig’s polite, ambitious and honorable roommate, a small town boy who grew up with Craig’s girlfriend Nicole. Shelley Lockes is a forty-something lesbian who works at the Music College, the first person at the scene of the accident and the only one who knows what really happened. Mira Polson is a one-time Fulbright scholar and untenured professor, whose marriage is falling apart as her stay-at-home husband crumbles under the responsibility of raising their two-year-old twins.
Listening to this book, not knowing where it was going, I was slowly but surely drawn in. (The key word may be “slowly”—don’t go here for a quick read!) I enjoyed it much more than I expected, although the beginning is unfocused. Kasischke has published seven collections of poetry, and her sense of language reflects that. The writing is lovely, and every character has depth and evolves in the course of the book.
At this time, The Raising is only available to borrow through Library2Go. The audiobook is read by Renée Raudman whose voice does Kasischke’s poetic writing credit.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What You See in the Dark

Bakersfield, California in 1959: a dusty, gossipy little town, just close enough to L.A. to know how desperately unglamorous it is by comparison. That's the setting of What You See In The Dark, a noirish novel about race, violence, and inevitable change by Manuel Muñoz.

The most eligible man in Bakersfield, Dan Watson, starts dating Teresa Garza, the Mexican woman who works at the shoe store. The entire town, both Anglo and Latino, is deeply scandalized. The farm worker who had hoped to marry Teresa is cast aside. The girl who longed to attract Dan's attention is furious. Arlene Watson, Dan's mother, won't let him bring Teresa around. The relationship ends in shocking violence.

At the same time, an Actress arrives in Bakersfield, along with a Director, to scout locations. Any reader who likes old movies will soon know who they are, but since the author doesn't identify them by name, I won't spoil the surprise. The Actress observes the Bakersfield townspeople and struggles to find a way to play a dishonest character while retaining the sympathies of the audience.

The townsfolk struggle, too - with the new freeway that will soon bypass the old motels, the new consciousness of racial minorities, and the crime that has taken place in their midst. In one passage, Arlene "tried to think back to the day when everything had gone wrong . . . She looked as hard as she could into the dark, but she couldn’t see it."

What You See in the Dark doesn't have a tight plot or a straightforward narrative arc; there's no mystery to be solved or question to be answered. There's just a dusty, bitter little town, haunted by its own secrets. It's an unusual and daring novel, beautifully written - check it out.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Cello Bop in Literacy Park

CelloBop is what Gideon Freudmann calls his own style of cello music, a fusion of blues, jazz, folk and much more. On Wednesday, July 6 at 1:00 p.m. you can hear what Cello Bop is when he plays in Literacy Park.

Freudmann has performed at The Montreal International Jazz Festival, The Prague Swing Jazz Festival and throughout the US. His music is also frequently heard on NPR's All Things Considered and on the TV show, Weeds. His creative workshops at schools, colleges and music camps, as well as his tunebook, New Music For Cello, have inspired cello choirs and string ensembles to perform his music from coast to coast. Gideon's original compositions have been commissioned for film, theatre and dance. His recent project has been performing live soundtracks for classic silent films. Gideon has 12 original CDs to his credit and has performed on dozens of albums by other musicians. Samples of Freudmann’s music are available online at

Freudmann's Lincoln County shows feature music selected especially for children, providing them an introduction to the cello and the music it can make. His programs are funded by Ready to Read grants from the Oregon State Library and the Lincoln County Library District. His lodging is provided by La Quinta Inn and Suites in Newport and the D Sands Condominium Hotel in Lincoln City.