Monday, December 31, 2012

La Verité

Have you ever read a book that was so interesting that, once you were done, you started over and read it again? I have read perhaps three books in my life that made me do this. Code Name Verity, a World War II espionage novel by Elizabeth Wein, is one of them.

Verity is the code name of a young British spy who has been captured by the Gestapo. (Her other aliases include Queenie, Scottie, Eva, and Katherine.)  After a week of torture, she’s broken and she is giving it all up: wireless codes, airfields, everything she knows.

Her captors give her paper and she begins to write, hoping to dribble information out slowly enough to delay her inevitable execution. What she writes makes up the first portion of this novel.

It is not so much a confession as a story - the story of Verity's friend, Maddie, a motorbike mechanic before the war who becomes a radio operator in the WAAFs. It was as a radio operator that Maddie met the girl called Queenie. Maddie, gallant and straightforward, learned to fly and and became a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary. Queenie, with a gift for languages and for lying, was recruited into the Special Operations Executive, which conducted undercover espionage and sabotage operations. And they became solid friends. “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend,” writes Verity.

The first time I read the Code Name Verity, I found it breathlessly suspenseful. We follow these two young women through their wartime careers, knowing that one of them is going to end up spilling her guts to the Gestapo. How did she get there? What happened to Maddie? What is going to happen to them? How long can Verity stay alive, trading time for secrets?

Then, after the book concludes with a head-snapping change of perspective, I started over.  This time I read it more slowly, puzzling out the clues, unraveling the mystery. Because this book is a mystery, one whose the end shows you that nothing is the way you thought it was when you started.

Look for the hints. Verity introduces her narrative by writing, “I am a coward. I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending.”

She is.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

Caren Gray, single mother and law-school drop-out, is the manager of Belle Vie, the historic Louisiana plantation where she grew up as the cook’s daughter. She accepted the position to provide a safe home for her own nine-year old daughter, but when a woman’s dead body is discovered on plantation land, and Caren finds blood on the sleeve of her daughter’s school uniform, all sense of safety flies out the window.

What did her daughter see, and why isn’t she telling? Are police suspicions of Caren’s staff justified? Why do the old slave quarters, preserved as part of the plantation tour, seem more haunted than ever? And how can Caren restrain her desire for her daughter’s father, who’s soon to remarry but who comes running when Caren needs help?

 This is a book of mysteries, both past and present, and of race and the shadow that slavery still casts. Caren, a black woman whose ancestors were held in slavery by the same white family for whom she now works, has a unique perspective, as do her employees, who daily re-enact a sanitized educational drama about plantation life for the benefit of schoolchildren. Belle Vie also abuts an active sugar-cane plantation which employs illegal immigrants, who live in conditions not all that different from Caren’s ancestors.

I enjoyed The Cutting Season, which dissolves any sense of Gone with the Wind-induced false nostalgia for plantation life, while evoking Caren’s love/hate relationship for her childhood home with all of its painful history. The many threads are handled well, but the haunted, lyrical, steamy tone of the piece contradicts the subject matter, and characters sometimes blatantly overreact to events to force the plot along. Three out of five stars, plus an extra half star for the uniqueness of the setting and the interesting point of view.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Poetry à Trois

The Newport Public Library is hosting a poetry reading on Sunday, January 6, at 1:00 p.m. Poets Sandra Ellston, Ruth F. Harrison, and Dorothy Blackcrow Mack will give readings from their latest works, debut volumes from Turnstone Books of Oregon. The three authors, who are all retired English professors and award-winning poets, are members of the Tuesday Writers.

Ruth F. Harrison is author of several volumes of poems. Her new work, "How Singular and Fine," is a substantial volume with poems in several established forms: the sonnet, villanelle, epic, ode, terza rima, and other lyric structures. Of these poems, Marjorie Power says they "show us a world both fresh and mysterious, like newly fallen snow when the sun breaks through."

Sandra Ellston is President of Writers on the Edge and a practitioner of t'ai chi. Her volume, "Poems Along the Way," consists of modern reworkings of ancient Chinese texts from the T'ang dynasty. These poems describe the joys and heartbreaks of life's journey and have been called calming and serene. Poet Matt Schumacher says that her book is a "Taoist treasure chest that frees fleeting flute notes and turtledoves thousands of years old, gives us pause under the 'study huts' of our ancestors, and braves the same mountain summits as the T'ang Dynasty's finest poets. A very old muse runs through these poems."

 Dorothy Black Crow Mack is President of the Coast Branch of Willamette Writers and is active in writing endeavors throughout Lincoln County. Her book, "Anuk-Ite': Double-Face Woman," honors "the elders who blessed her life on Pine Ridge Reservation. She writes for the 7th generation, the young ones coming, to share the stories." Her book is illustrated with personal portraits and images of life on the South Dakota reservation. Of Black Crow's poems, Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen says, "Black Crow has the wisdom and heart to do an ancient, ageless work: delving '. . . deep / to pull out all those designs / pricked in the night sky. . . ."

Each poet will read samples from her book and copies will be available for purchase at the event. This program is sponsored by Turnstone Books and the Newport Public Library. Admission is free and open to the public.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The yoke of inauspicious stars

 Books about kids with cancer are pretty high up on my list of things I don’t generally want to read. That does not mean I think cancer is an inappropriate topic for fiction. It’s just so sad.

So I didn’t read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green when it first came out earlier this year, even though it got rave reviews from everyone. As the months went by it continued to get great reviews, and people I knew and trusted continued to love it and to talk about how good it is. Finally I was intrigued enough by what I can only describe as an avalanche of good buzz, and I picked it up.

It is really, really good.

Hazel is an intelligent, witty 16-year-old girl, who is also a terminal cancer patient. Her tumors aren’t growing, but they’re not in remission, either. She and her parents know she may not have much time.

At a cancer support group, she meets Augustus, a very cute, equally smart boy. They swap favorite books. They discuss everything from video games to family pressures to the meaning of life and the afterlife. They become friends - the best of friends.

Because they have both confronted death, Hazel and Augustus are fearless about painful topics - indeed, they find that there are things they can only talk about with each other, topics that discomfort their healthier friends and family. And they eventually become more than friends, too:

Augustus Waters read to me while Mom, making lunch, listened in … As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once. 

The Fault in Our Stars is extremely sad. But it’s overflowing with joy, too; it made me cry, but sometimes with happiness. Hazel and Gus are clever, self-aware, hilarious observers of the absurdity as well as the tragedy of their situation. The writing is so good, what could be a heavy tear-jerker actually feels as light as air.

I’m so glad I read it at last.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cold Kill by David Lawrence

 David Lawrence’s Cold Kill is the third Detective Stella Mooney mystery, published in 2005. A series of “thrill-kills” have filled the London tabloids with stories of dead young women who were attacked with no apparent motivation.

 D.S. Mooney’s on the case, and she has a likely suspect: a floppy-haired young man who was following one of the dead women and has confessed to her murder. A search of his flat reveals that he doesn’t just follow, he uses a zoom lens to take photos which he attaches to explicit and violent handwritten stories. And it wasn’t just the one woman, it’s an alphabet-full.

 But during questioning, the stalker is shaky on some of the details of the murder, and completely wrong about others. When DNA results come in, his doesn’t match the material found on the body. Mooney has to cut him loose, because he’s an “innocent” man. Or he was. Someone read about his confession in the newspapers. Someone was impressed. And now the stalker has a new friend, who’s really not fooling around.

The rest of the world keeps moving on in the midst of this high-stakes murder investigation. Mooney and her boyfriend are trying to figure out if it’s lust holding them together, or something more. She’s not sure if she can set the boundaries necessary in a relationship between a cop and a reporter, and he’s not sure he’s willing to follow them. Meanwhile, Mooney’s team struggles with their own issues, from ending affairs to being targeted by gangs of young burglars.

Lawrence has a literary style and a postmodern sensibility, where not everything gets tied up in a neat bow at the end. It’s not a cozy mystery, but it is a good one. I would suggest reading the series in order.

The dead sit round in a ring 
Nothing like the night
Cold kill
Down into darkness

Friday, December 14, 2012

The right note

I love books that take me to other worlds, be it the Middle Earth of Tolkien, the deep space of C.J. Cherryh, or the wide, unpopulated Wyoming of Craig Johnson.

Marcelo in the Real World is one of those books. Author Francisco Stork takes the reader into the world of Marcelo, a seventeen year old boy with Asperger Syndrome. Asperger Syndrome is on the high functioning end of the Autism Disorder Spectrum.

 Marcelo is comfortable with his life. He attends a special school and in the fall he’ll be starting his senior year. He's excited about his plan to spend the summer working with the school’s therapy horses. He has a doctor friend who likes to study him and he’s paid a small amount for allowing special tests on his brain.

Marcelo lives in a world where he is liked and understood; but suddenly everything changes. Marcelo's father tells him that he won't be going to the special school in the fall. He'll be going to a traditional high school instead. When Marcelo protests, his father insists that he needs to deal with the "real" world.

The two finally reach a compromise. Marcelo will work for his father for the summer and if he succeeds at his job, he'll be able to go to the school of his choice. Marcelo agrees unhappily, and girds himself to do the best he can.

All perhaps would be well if his job wasn't in a law firm. Marcelo is thrown into the shark tank of a highly successful legal partnership, where he is forced to deal with multiple distractions and people who aren’t what they seem.

 How Marcelo learns to cope with the “real” world is fascinating. His character is very likeable, and I was deeply engaged by his problems and the evolution of his understanding. I also admired the author’s beautiful control of voice and plot. Marcelo in the Real World is a compelling read.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A romance of the patriarch

Herman Wouk has written such epics as The Winds of War, and his new book, The Lawgiver, is about Moses. So you might think it would be a huge sweeping beast of a novel. In fact, The Lawgiver is a charming story, told on a small scale.

In The Lawgiver, an elderly author named Herman Wouk is struggling to write a novel about Moses. He is contacted by a filmmaker who wants him to make a Moses movie.  The venture capitalist who's bankrolling the film, an eccentric Jewish billionaire, has insisted that Wouk be involved.

Betty Sarah Wouk (referred to throughout the book as BSW), is the author's agent and wife.  She's skeptical, but Wouk is intrigued, and signs on as a consultant. They hire as screenwriter and director a young woman named Margo Solovei, a brilliant wunderkind who rebelled from her Hasidic upbringing to make movies. Margo knows her Book of Exodus, but can she turn it into a movie that’s relevant to modern audiences?

The novel tells the story of the making of this movie. It also shows how writing about Moses helps Margo resolve her conflict between her independent, questioning mind and the religion of her fathers. It is an epistolary novel, told entirely in emails, faxes, text messages, and Skype transcripts.

 A few criticisms:  Margo does not really come across as a 21st century professional woman - she says things like “horsefeathers” and “glory be;” but you know, her creator is 97 years old. The ending to the novel is also not very surprising.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this sweet-natured romantic comedy. The epilogue is sweet too, and sad. In it Wouk reveals that BSW died, at 90, while he was writing The Lawgiver. They had married in 1945. Betty Sarah Wouk is portrayed in the novel as an incisive critical thinker who suffered no fools. The Lawgiver can be read, in part, as a tribute from the author to his wife, and it is a lovely one.

 Herman Wouk has produced an engaging, funny, fast-paced trifle. I liked it very much; it also made me want to re-read some of his heftier fare, like the excellent The Caine Mutiny.

Monday, December 3, 2012

How long must we sing this song?

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty is set in Northern Ireland, 1981. While Pope John Paul is recovering from an assassination attempt, Charles and Di are planning their wedding, and Spandau Ballet is topping the charts, men in a Belfast prison are starving themselves to death in protest against their treatment by British authorities.

It is one of the worst years of Ireland’s decades-long agony known as the Troubles. Northern Ireland is convulsed by bloody riots. Paramilitary groups are armed with automatic weapons and rocket-launchers. Incendiary devices kill civilians in restaurants. Sergeant Sean Duffy of the Ulster Royal Constabulary checks his car for bombs every morning.

Duffy is assigned a homicide: a young man was shot twice and his hand severed. At first Duffy assumes the man was killed by paramilitaries, perhaps in revenge for informing to the police. But the clues add up to something stranger, and when a second body is found, Duffy suspects Belfast has a serial killer.

The Cold Cold Ground is a gritty police procedural, at once grim and darkly funny. Duffy’s ability to investigate is constantly hampered by the partisan struggle; no one is willing to talk to a policeman for fear of reprisals, even when he’s investigating a murder.

The fact that the killer seems to be hunting homosexual men makes people even less interested in cooperating. Deeply conservative Northern Ireland is not worried about its gay men.

What I adored most about the book is how well it evokes the setting of a city tearing itself apart. McKinty, who was born in Carrickfergus, knows better than to simplify the conflict or to assign noble motives to any one side. He presents the Troubles in all their poisonous complexity: the Catholic Irish, the Church of Ireland Irish, the Presbyterian Irish, the Boston Irish; the police, the military, the various illegal paramilitaries; the Marxists, the Scots, the English. By making his Northern Irish cop a Catholic, he shows that none of these groups was monolithic.

The Cold Cold Ground is the first in a planned trilogy set during the Troubles. If you like grim, noirish mysteries, give it a try. The claustrophobic paranoia of Belfast in 1981 will stay with you.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Intruders by Michael Marshall

Jack Whalen retired from the LAPD after writing a book, and now spends his time smoking and staring out the window at his rural Washington property in a vain attempt to write another. Meanwhile, his advertising executive wife, Amy, flies back and forth to Seattle and California, busy with her career and content to support his creative efforts. At least, that’s what Jack thinks is going on—until Amy loses her cell phone in a taxicab and the cabdriver uses the contact list to call “Home.”

To notify her about the phone, Jack tries to reach Amy at her hotel, but learns she never checked in.  Then he tries to reach her through her boss, who knows nothing of her supposed business trip.  Jack and Amy have a good marriage, a close marriage, and she wouldn’t go incommunicado without reason. Confused and frightened, Jack rushes to Seattle. But when he retrieves the cell phone from the cabdriver, its memory holds pictures of a man he doesn’t recognize, and music he knows his wife hates. Amy is gone, something is terribly wrong, and the police won’t listen.

The Intruders is a supernatural thriller with some action and a lot of creepy suspense. If, like me, you’re not crazy about gore, skim over the prologue: the rest of the book is much lower on the gross stuff, much higher on psychological chills. It’s a fun, light read with a paranormal evil that hasn’t already been done to death.

There are several Michael Marshall thrillers in the Oceanbooks catalog. He also writes award winning horror and science fiction under the name Michael Marshall Smith.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bring on the comfort reads

It’s November, and the chilly breeze carries the sounds of the season - sniffling and coughing. You’re drinking your juice, making sure you get your yearly flu shot, and washing your hands after you touch, well, anything. And you’re probably going to get sick at some point this winter anyway.

For me, getting ill means undemanding reading. The award-winning novel, the controversial history, the troubling memoir - I put those aside for later. Sick time is the time for Agatha Christie.

During my last bout of the crud, I read Peril at End House, a rather excellent Hercule Poirot mystery. I devoured the whole thing in one bedridden day, and then got to thinking - just why is Agatha Christie such good comfort-reading?

It certainly isn’t the characters. Peril at End House is about a young woman named Nick who is the target of someone’s murderous wrath, and once you meet her you can understand why. When Poirot explains to her that someone is trying to kill her, Nick says brightly, “I think the whole thing is perfectly marvelous. Too, too thrilling.”

Whatever. Poirot himself is not much better - there’s a reason no one cares about him the way they care about, for instance, Sherlock Holmes: he’s one-dimensional and annoying.

But Peril at End House is a splendid puzzle: it exercises the brain without engaging the emotions. Who tampered with the brakes of Nick’s car? Why was Nick’s cousin wearing her red shawl? Why did the servant behave so strangely the night of the fireworks, and why was Nick sent two identical boxes of chocolates?

Even though (or maybe even because) I don’t care about the characters, I found getting to the bottom of the whole business very satisfying.

The Newport Library has a great selection of golden age mysteries: for your sick days, I recommend Dorothy L. Sayers and Rex Stout as well as Agatha Christie.

What’s your favorite comfort read?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Say you're sorry by Michael Robotham

Say you’re sorry is the latest book in Michael Robotham’s series featuring psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin.

Three years ago, two teenage girls disappeared, and their community drew together, forming search parties and supporting the bereft parents. But when it came to light that missing teens Piper Hadley and Tash McBain weren’t the innocent, straight-A students everyone thought, the focus shifted, and the girls were categorized as probable runaways. The families were regarded with pity and suspicion instead of sympathy, and the case became colder and colder.

 Now, a husband and wife are murdered at the farmhouse where Tash used to live. Her parents moved after she disappeared, and the fact that she once lived there seems to be a coincidence, a detail hardly worth mentioning in the case file. The case against the couple’s mentally ill caretaker seems to be airtight, to everyone except his mother and Joe McLoughlin, the psychologist called in to assess him.

 But if the caretaker didn’t kill them, why were they killed? McLoughlin believes it may have something to do with Tash’s disappearance three years ago. If he’s right, the girls definitely didn’t run away—and they may still be alive.

The story is told alternately by Joe and by entries in Piper Hadley’s secret journal. It works as a stand-alone novel, but there are some family plotlines that build from book to book, so you may prefer to start with the first one, Suspect. Robotham’s characters are reliably well drawn and sympathetic, and his plots genuinely suspenseful.

  1.  Suspect
  2.  Lost
  3.  Shatter
  4.  Bleed for me
  5.  Say you’re sorry

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Teens-- Enter to Win a Free Book!

18 or under? Read any YA books lately? Take a couple of minutes to fill out a book review form in the Young Adult section, and we’ll put you in a drawing to win a new YA hardcover, like the new Patterson, Stiefvater, or Rennison.  Book reviews don’t have to be formal, just a few lines about what you liked, what you didn’t like, and if you would recommend the books to others.  We’ll post your reviews in the YA section so you can check out what others recommend, or don’t.   Drawing will be December 1st.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Above us only sky

Arcadia started out as a horde of hippies following a traveling jam-band from gig to gig. Led in part by the intellectual idealists Abe and Hannah Stone, these groupies settled in 1968 at an abandoned mansion in western New York, with the idea of forming a perfect Utopian society: communist, vegan, totally free of such societal ills as sexual jealousy and materialism. Bit, Abe and Hannah’s son, was born in Arcadia. He is incapable of imagining any other life.

Lauren Goff’s beautiful novel Arcadia examines the rise, collapse, and disintegration of the Arcadia commune from the point of view of Bit - Arcadia’s most vulnerable member.

We see Bit when he is five, when the commune is still new, freshly optimistic, and already beset by poverty, hunger, and a chronic inability to support itself. Bit watches as his mother, Hannah, struggles with debilitating depression. The commune’s freaky free spirits cannot see Hannah’s problem clearly enough to help her; only tiny Bit knows that she is suffering. He concludes that it is his job to cure her.

Later, when Bit is a young teen, he again assumes responsibility - this time to protect and nurture the illegal activities that his parents have secretly adopted to survive within the commune. Arcadia has grown impossibly huge, nine hundred of society’s dropouts crowded into one place, rent apart by chaos, drugs, and factional infighting. It cannot possibly last.

 The novel’s last section takes place after Arcadia is gone, all its children scattered into the world. Bit, now a father himself, is a relative success; we see that many of his peers are less able to cope.

Arcadia is an extraordinary novel, lovely and sad and completely unforgettable. The story of the idealistic society torn apart by its own contradictions is perfectly paired with the story of Bit Stone, the big-hearted child, grown into an adult bewildered by the hardness of the world.

 This tiny summary hardly does justice to Groff’s rich and haunting novel. I have rarely been so moved by a book; I could not recommend Arcadia more highly.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Rory and the Whitechapel Killer

Louisiana native Rory Deveaux is excited to have the opportunity to spend her senior year in a London boarding school. The classes are tough, the kids are competitive, and she has to play field hockey - but it's London. Rory’s not even bothered by the fact that a crazy Jack the Ripper copycat has murdered someone near the school. Well, not at first.

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson starts out as a funny fish-out-of-water high school story. It gradually morphs into a very suspenseful supernatural thriller with a truly nail-biting climax that had me awake at midnight, reading instead of getting my beauty rest.

Rory settles in to life at Wexford Academy. She adjusts to her new schedule, befriends her new roommate, and wows her new peers with tales of her weird southern family.

But then another murder happens, this time on the school campus. It’s shocking and brutal, and Rory sees something that no one else saw. Worse, the murderer saw her, too. Now he seems to be seeking her out, and Rory isn’t sure if she can trust the strange trio of policemen who say they want to protect her. They are obviously not telling her everything.

The Name of the Star is the first in a series called The Shades of London, and it’s a witty, fast-paced, and exciting read. It has a charming heroine and an incredible cliffhanger ending. I’m craving the sequel.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

In J. Robert Lennon's Familiar, Elisa—called Lisa by all, to the point one wonders if the E is silent or possibly symbolic—is driving home from visiting her son’s grave when the world changes, seamlessly, between one moment and the next. She is suddenly driving an SUV, wearing pantyhose and fifteen extra pounds, with a name-tag pinned to her shirt and a conference schedule on the seat next to her. Apparently, she hasn’t been to her son’s grave at all, but to a leadership conference for a job that’s never been hers. She returns home to find her husband no longer cool and prickly, and her younger son no longer dead.

Psychotic break? Slide through to a parallel universe? Or just a little fantasy that took on a life of its own? Elisa panics, thinking she might have had a stroke—but when brain scans come back clear, she can either get herself committed to a mental hospital, or fake her way through a life she has no recollection of. She begins the process of testing herself against her new situation, finding out which new strangenesses she can bear and which ones are unacceptable, which old compromises were unnecessary and which are integral to her personality. The heart of her disorder seems to be her separation from her grown sons, living and/or dead.

Just so you know--this is not my kind of book. I read it in one sitting out of curiosity and insomnia, but I found it a little pretentious, with the kind of stylized complex characters who feel to me like puppets acting out a grim “Modern Life” farce. If it were a drawing, it would be charcoal with lots of straight lines and angles and some plays on perspective. It’s not that I don’t appreciate shades of gray, I do—I like my bad guys vulnerable and my good guys mean and my greater goods tainted by lesser evils. But this is the kind of book with no bad guys and no good guys, just a lot confused people hurting each other, sometimes unintentionally.

With that said, I think Familiar is well written and occasionally insightful, especially about the effect of a difficult child on family dynamics. If you enjoy contemporary literature where flawed middle-aged characters are struggling to redefine themselves and their relationships in a complex world—this one’s for you.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Computer Classes @ the Library

The Newport Public Library will offer the following classes during the months of November and December.

  • On Friday, November 2 at 9:00 a.m., Introduction to Computers will be taught. This class will teach the basics of turning on a computer, using the mouse, and saving files. At 10:00 a.m., Beginning Internet will be taught. This class teaches how to use a web browser, click on links, and search for information on the Internet.
  • Introduction to Facebook will be taught on Friday, November 9 at 9:00 a.m. This class will cover the basics of creating an account, finding friends and pages, and adding photographs. Introduction to Google Docs will be offered at 10:00 a.m. This class will introduce students to creating documents online.
  • Beginning Word (2007) will be taught at 9:00 a.m. on November 16. This class introduces people to the basic commands to create a word processing document. Intermediate Word will be taught at 10:00 a.m. This class teaches how to insert photographs, create lists using bullets and numbers, and set margins, tabs, and line spacing.
  • On November 30 at 9:00 a.m. a class on Making Greeting Cards with Publisher will be offered. The 10:00 a.m. class is AtoZ Databases, a directory that is used to find businesses, jobs, and people.
  • On December 7, Beginning Excel will be taught at 9:00 a.m. This class teaches the basics of creating a spreadsheet and adding rows and columns. At 10:00 a.m. Intermediate Excel will teach creating a checkbook, using multiple worksheets, and making a chart.
  • Beginning Internet will be offered again on December 14 at 9:00 a.m. At 10:00 a.m. the class will be Travel Planning on the Web.
Classes are free and last one hour. Registration is required. For more information, please call (541)265-2153 or check the library website,

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Fabric Of The Cosmos

Some people have always wanted to learn a foreign language or write the great American novel. Me? I’ve always wanted to understand quantum mechanics.

So many aspects of modern life: the internet, cell phones, laptop computers and space exploration to name but a few, have been made possible because of advances in physics since Albert Einstein first chalked E=mc2 on his blackboard in 1905. Today, physicists have added sub-atomic particles, space-time and the multiverse to their fields of study. 

If, like me, you’ve ever been the least bit curious about quantum mechanics, check out The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene’s latest NOVA series from PBS. And get ready to have your mind blown wide open. Using easy to follow, non-mathematical analogies even a math-phobe like me can understand, Greene makes it all crystal clear. Why does time travel in only one direction? How can there be dimensions of space and time that we cannot apprehend? And is teleportation really possible? Watching The Fabric of the Cosmos makes me feel a bit less puzzled by the great leaps we’ve made in the fields of astro-physics, quantum mechanics, and digital technology. And I no longer feel like someone just waking up Ichabod Crane-like into the twenty-first century.

And just so you know: about the whole teleportation thing? According to Greene, it may indeed be possible. So, beam me up, Scotty!

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid

The Vanishing Point opens in an American airport, where British writer Stephanie Harker is about to go through security with her 5-year-old soon-to-be adopted son Jimmy. She knows she’ll be searched—she always sets off the metal detectors, due to the metal plates in her leg from an old car accident. Warning Jimmy to stand right by his belongings and wait for her, she allows security to lead her to a clear plastic cubicle where she can keep an eye on him. As she waits for a female frisker to arrive, she sees a man wearing a cap approach Jimmy—and lead him away by the hand.

The kidnapping is so quick and so understated, and Harker so panicked, that when she bursts out of the cubicle the security agents Taser her, thinking the woman who set off the metal detectors is now launching an attack. By the time the ‘misunderstanding’ is cleared up, Jimmy and the kidnapper are long gone, leaving no trace.

In the absence of physical evidence and witnesses, the FBI needs all the information it can get, and Harker tells all—how she came to be Jimmy’s guardian, who his parents are, who might have a motive to snatch him.  The FBI helps Harker mine her past, and Jimmy’s, for leads to the kidnapping, and they end up all pointing one way.  But is it the right way?

The Vanishing Point is a fun, unique, original thriller, which touches on the world of tabloid celebrity and explores class stereotyping.  The characters are well-realized and sympathetic, and the plotline veers wildly through a maze of unexpected possibilities. The pacing for the last quarter of the book is really quite strange, because of the twists. I enjoyed the surprise, but . . . OK, I realize that I can’t really discuss my reservations without making this blog a complete spoiler, which I don’t want to do. So read it, and let me know what you think, especially about the end! Val McDermid is a consummate writer, and I promise you’ll enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore

Beatrice Palmer is an innocent Irish girl, who makes lace and longs to escape her dreary hometown in County Mayo. A strange woman who claims to be a countess provides her with an opportunity to leave Ireland, and Beatrice seizes it.

The Countess says that her dear friends, Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg of Berlin, love lace and would be delighted to have a lacemaker of their own. But when they arrive in Germany Beatrice finds that the Metzenburgs do not actually seem to need a lacemaker at all. By the time Beatrice realizes this, the Countess is gone and she is stranded in Germany. It is 1938.

 Beatrice feels like a girl in a fairy tale, whisked away from drudgery to a life of beauty and luxury. The Metzenburgs are extremely rich and far too well-bred to reject the young Irish woman on their doorstep. But they are also in big trouble: Dorothea Metzenburg is rumored to have Jewish blood. They are packing up and fleeing Berlin, hoping to lie low in their country estate until the danger is past. They take Beatrice with them, along with a few elderly servants and an enormous stash of valuable stuff: porcelain and silver, medieval altarpieces and Rubens sketches, crystal chandeliers and antique manuscripts.

 Gradually, the shy outsider becomes an integral part of this strange, frightened little family. Surrounded by constant danger and exquisite things, they soon run out of food and money. What good is your lovely Meissen porcelain when you’re eating herbs and roots found in the woods? Beatrice’s new life is no fairy tale; the war playing out across Europe is cruelly indifferent to her plight.

 The Life of Objects is the story of World War II told from the point of view of people who did not support it or fight it. They endured it, because they had nowhere to go. The minute details of what happen to them as the years go by make for a captivating novel.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Let the Devil Sleep by John Verdon

Retired cop Dave Gurney has been depressed, uncomfortable with retirement and obsessing about his slow recovery from the bullet wounds incurred during his last case. When Kim, the daughter of an old friend, calls on him to act as a consultant for a college journalism project, he’s reluctant. When she adds that she’s also dealing with an ex-boyfriend who seems to be stalking her, he feels obligated to at least spend a day accompanying her and looking into it. Both the journalism project and the stalker turn out to be more intriguing—and dangerous—than he could have imagined, and Gurney’s propelled out of depression and into the kind of high-stakes deduction that he lives for.

Let the Devil Sleep kept me enthralled for hours at a time. Gurney’s an intelligent, cynical, detail-oriented detective whose deep love for his wife lightens his own dark view of the world. Set largely in rural New York, the plot runs along three lines: the cold case Kim is creating a documentary about, Kim’s stalker/ex-boyfriend, and a new series of murders that seems as if it could be related to the ten-year-old case. There’s a strong emotional undercurrent which gives the characters greater depth and makes their actions more believable: Gurney’s depression and self-doubt, Kim’s desperation for success, and the pain echoing into the present from the decade-old murders.

Let the Devil Sleep is Verdon’s third Dave Gurney mystery, after Think of a Number and Shut Your Eyes Tight, but it can certainly stand alone. I can’t wait for the next installment.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dark Glamour

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is about a deadly rivalry between two ancient enemies, a strange circus, and a forbidden love.

The two enemies are magicians who have developed differing schools of thought. To ascertain which is right (and it is essential to them that one of them be right), they each adopt a child and bind it to a lifelong magical competition. The two children, Marco and Celia, are cruelly trained throughout their childhoods to defeat the other.

The magical competition results in Le Cirque des Reves, which mysteriously appears in a random location, opens at night, and closes at dawn. In the black-and-white circus tents, customers encounter some of the usual circus acts - contortionists and fortune-tellers - but there are also a variety of experiences that can only be magical. An endless labyrinth of rooms, some filled with trees, some with snowstorms, some with burning desert sands. A bonfire that burns with multicolored flames and without apparent fuel. A wishing tree covered with flickering candles; when you make a wish, a candle lights; when your wish comes true, the candle is extinguished. Et cetera.

These strange exhibits were created by Marco and Celia, competing and, eventually, collaborating. The two realize that they cannot just make circus spectacles forever; one of them must win, the other lose. Is there any way for them to escape the onus to which they are bound?

My favorite thing about the novel is the way that the intricate dance between Celia and Marco gradually enmeshes other people. Drama builds as our protagonists must try not only to escape their own fate but keep others from getting hurt or killed in the process.

 Unfortunately, I was less enchanted by the actual circus than I was supposed to be. I’m afraid I don’t really like circuses very much, and I found myself skimming some long descriptions of supposedly-wondrous circus delights. I was relieved to find no magical clowns.

Morgenstern’s novel of love, hate, and magic is dreamlike, endlessly creative, and sometimes a little slow. Her goal in The Night Circus is to immerse the reader in another reality, and she succeeds. Though her constant evocation of marvels seems a little stifling, I can promise that The Night Circus is not quite like anything else you’ve ever read.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Of Means And Ends On The Campaign Trail

This past summer, the citizens of Troy, Michigan voted on a tax measure to continue funding their public library. As election time approached, polls showed that the “No” vote was ahead by a considerable margin.

A community group in support of the bond measure took creative, if somewhat controversial, measures to state their case. The following video outlines their strategy.

What do you think? Did the Yes On Libraries group go too far or was it simply a case fighting fire with fire?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Tragedy of a strong man

Everyone is afraid of the brutal and ruthless Okonkwo, especially his downtrodden wives and children. But that’s a disguise:

“His whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness … It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness … Okonkwo was ruled by one passion -- to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness.” 

As in a Greek tragedy, Okonkwo’s fatal, secret flaw leads inexorably to his downfall.

 Okonkwo is the protagonist of Things Fall Apart, the 1958 novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It is the story of the transformation of colonial Nigeria, shown from the point of view of a man who is unable to change with it. It is also a piercingly observant story of a man whose pride and fear lead him to behave cruelly, especially to those he loves.

Achebe was born in southern Nigeria 1930, many decades after the events portrayed in this novel. He does not portray precolonial Nigerian society as a paradise, but reveals its injustice and brutishness as well as its beautiful stories, complex rituals, and rich spiritual life.

Things Fall Apart is a classic novel, one of the first to explore the complexities of the colonial experience in Africa, and taught in college classes all over the world. (I read it in a cultural anthropology class in the early ‘90s, and then picked it up again and reread it with pleasure this year.)

If you haven’t read it, or if your only experience with it was as an assignment, I recommend you give this beautifully written, psychologically acute novel a try.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Remember Childhood?

I refuse to believe that summer is over.

Growing up in suburban Washington D.C. in the 19??ʼs, I recall summers that seemed to last twice as long as they do now. I also remember leaving the house at first light and not returning home until well after dark. The days, and sometimes the nights, were filled with unsupervised adventure, both real and imaginary. Parents? Babysitters? Who needed them?

Today, it seems that vacations are a much more organized, chaperoned activity: theater camps, recreation centers, play-dates. Donʼt you long for the days when summer was a more spontaneous, (read: fun), time of the year?

Arthur Ransomeʼs classic childrenʼs book, Swallows and Amazons, harkens back to just such a time. This first in a series was published in 1930. The story revolves around two households of children: the Walkers and the Blacketts, and their summer spent sailing and exploring the Lake District of England. Authority figures are confined to the background, mostly preparing take-along lunches or obligingly walking the plank, as in the case of one amenable uncle-turned-pirate-captain. The characters are selfsufficient,plucky and remarkably responsible for one another; i.e. just the sort of traits we should instill in our children.

So if you and the kids canʼt quite commit to autumn, reading Swallows and Amazons together may help to extend those glorious days of summer just a bit longer. And you can reserve it here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

First they banned the books

Banned Books displays often elicit impassioned responses. “Why are you banning books?” “Who would want to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?” “Don’t people know this is how Hitler started?”

All of these are valid questions, and I’d like to take a few moments to address each one.
  1. Our library is not banning books; we have a display about books that have been banned. Our annual recognition of Banned Books Week highlights our belief that freedom in reading is closely tied to freedom of thought and speech.
  2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been challenged and banned since it was written. It was banned in Concord, Massachusetts in 1895 as “trash and suitable only for the slums,” excluded from the children’s room of the Brooklyn Public Library in 1905 on the grounds that “Huck not only itched but scratched, and that he said sweat when he should have said perspiration,” and for the past sixty years it has been challenged for its “liberal use of racial slurs.”
  3. Throughout history, authoritarian leaders have tried to control how people think, and one of the methods is to prohibit books that represent alternate viewpoints. Akhenaton, a pharaoh who tried to introduce monotheism to ancient Egypt, ordered books on polytheism burned. William Tyndale, the first person to translate the Bible into English from its original Hebrew and Greek, was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1536, along with copies of his Bible. Most infamously in modern history, on the pretext of affirming traditional German values, the Nazi German Student Association burned upwards of 25,000 “un-German” books.

Not every banned book necessarily leads to a totalitarian society, but the loss of one right can make the next loss easier to accept, until at some point, the freedom once taken for granted cannot be regained. That is the message of precautionary stories like George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and the reason we highlight Banned Books Week every year.

The American Library Association has a list of the most frequently challenged or banned books in the 21st Century.  Are any of your favorite books on the list?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Journey to Home

The Immigration Information Response Team (IIRT) and the Newport Public Library will host an opening event for the traveling photo exhibit Borderless Stories on Saturday, October 6, 2:00 p.m. at the library.

Borderless Stories was created by the Immigrant Family Advocates (IFA) in Central Oregon, who interviewed and photographed members of eight immigrant families, documenting why they left their home country, the challenges they have faced, and why they chose Oregon as their new home and community. Sue Nell Phillips of IFA will attend the opening event as guest speaker.

Ann Miller, IIRT member and contact for the Borderless Stories Project in Newport said, "It's not only IIRT that celebrates the full racial gamut of who we are as a town; our Newport Public Library is hosting the Borderless Stories Project to dovetail with Dos Culturas-Una Comunidad, two months honoring Latino culture through the arts, at the Newport Visual Art Center.

Miller encourages the engagement of all immigrants. "Everyone in our community is invited to contact us with their immigration story, and most of us are immigrants. Some will then become part of the current Borderless Stories Project as it continues to travel throughout Oregon, and all will become part of an archive to deepen our knowledge of the full history of our own cultural diversity here in Newport."

Both IIRT and IFA are member groups of the Rural Organizing Project (ROP), a statewide human dignity organization.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A thriller for football season

Thrillers and football don’t seem to go together, so perhaps Michael Koryta's The Prophet is unique in intertwining a somber-toned tragic suspense story with the life and philosophies of a football coach and an ex-star player.

Adam and Kent Austin are brothers who lost their sister to a psychopath when they left her to walk home on her own one day back in high school. Now in their forties, guilt colors both of their lives, and they have each taken very different paths to cope with it. Bail bondsman Adam keeps a shrine to sister Marie and won’t get close to anyone. Football coach Kent visits prisoners in jail, bringing them a religious message and the story of his own forgiveness for the man who killed his sister.

When Adam tracks down an address for a high school girl who wants to meet and forgive her ex-con father, another murder occurs. The address belongs not to her father but to someone who created an intricate and deadly trap. But who is the trap really for, and why? Adam and Kent are forced to confront their demons and question the choices that have carried them into the present, separately and together.

 As someone who is completely and deliberately ignorant of all things football, I was surprised by the complexity and intensity of the men’s interaction with the game: how they viewed the strategies and carried them into other parts of their lives, how they tried to keep the game in perspective and use it as a tool for better living. I didn’t become a football fan, but I was able to understand better why some people are. Kind of an odd takeaway for a thriller!

Koryta’s writing succeeds in creating a heavy atmosphere of guilt and redemption. I wasn’t that fond of the two supernatural thrillers of his I read previously (The Ridge and So Cold the River), but The Prophet works much better, with more sympathetic characters and a plot that hangs together.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Heart of a Samurai

Manjiro is a teenaged Japanese fisherman working with four other villagers when a great storm comes up, destroys their boat and leaves them shipwrecked for 5 months on a small island. It is the 19th century and Manjiro knows that there will be no return to Japan, even if they should be saved by a passing ship, for Japanese law at the time forbade the return of anyone who left Japan, even unwillingly.

An American whaling ship finds the boys and the captain takes a liking to Manjiro, taking him aboard as a galley boy. Manjiro returns to New Bedford, Maine with the ship and for ten years works on the captain’s farm and on his ship before returning to Japan where he spends time in prison before finally reuniting with his family.

Preus’s debut novel is a testament to the power of research when writing fiction. Her descriptions of life aboard a whaler, the village of New Bedford, the racism Manjiro faces no matter where he was and life in pre-contact Japan give the reader everything needed to transport herself to that time and that place. Manjiro is made of staunch hero material, after all he does fancy himself a samurai in spite of his humble birth, rising to every challenge with a stout heart. Preus's deftness in writing is especially evident in two poignant scenes, one in which Manjiro realizes the similarities between Japanese and American people and the other when he reunites with his Japanese family.

An excellent bibliography, historical notes and glossary help flesh out this fictionalized version of the same story told in Rhoda Blumberg’s Shipwrecked! The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy.

Heart of a Samurai was a 2010 Newbery Honor Book and is one of the titles on the 2013 Oregon Readers Choice Awards nominee list.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Spilled Blood by Brian Freeman

Christopher Hawk’s wife left him three years ago, taking their teenage daughter with her to rural Minnesota. Since then, Hawk has buried himself in his big-city legal practice, trying to keep up a long-distance relationship with his daughter via cell-phone. Now a call comes from his ex-wife out of the blue: sixteen-year-old Olivia is in trouble. She’s the prime suspect in the murder of another teenager, and Hawk is determined to exonerate her.

Olivia Hawk and the victim, Ashlynn Steele, were on opposite sides of a feud between two small towns. Barron, Minnesota, is the prosperous home of Mondamin, a cutting-edge research facility. St. Croix, Minnesota, is right across the river, a tiny town where cancer is having a field day. When a prominent epidemiologist found no possible connection between the cancers and the company’s research, the lawsuit brought against Mondamin by the families of the stricken failed and the feud began. No one in St. Croix can accept that it’s just random chance that so many loved ones are dying; and the teens of Barron won’t put up with the accusations. Graffiti, vandalism, and assault have become common, and Ashlynn’s murder seems like another bloom on the same poison tree.

Hawk digs beneath the surface of the feud despite the strong evidence pointing Olivia’s way, and slowly uncovers proof of something even darker than murder, which threatens the lives of his family and the populations of both towns.

Spilled Blood is Edgar Award-winner Brian Freeman’s latest psychological suspense novel. With plenty of twists and an interesting issue at its heart, it’s well worth checking out. I also recently enjoyed The Bone House, Freeman’s previous book, where a teacher accused of misconduct is the perfect fall-guy for a murder.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Death Benefits by Thomas Perry

In Death Benefits by Thomas Perry, John Walker is a color-within-the-lines kind of guy who never wanted anything more than stability and respect. He keeps his head down at the upscale insurance company where he works as a data analyst, believing that eventually he’ll move up the ladder, thanks to his hard work and reliability. But one day he gets noticed by insurance investigator Max Stillman, who chooses Walker to accompany him on a fraud investigation. Walker’s life will never be the same.

Stillman didn’t pick Walker out of a hat. Walker’s ex-girlfriend signed off on a life insurance payout to a man claiming to be the only son and sole heir of a rich man, and then she disappeared before the legitimate sole heir showed up. Stillman’s hope is that Walker will lend him insight into the missing woman: was she complicit in the fraud, or was she duped? Might Walker have some idea where she would go?

The plotline becomes slightly ludicrous, but it is fun, with lots of action and odd twists and turns. It’s a cheesy, formulaic action movie just waiting to happen, complete with a smart and gorgeous love-interest spinning her wheels until Walker comes along to impress her. (Spoiler warning: Literally. The character literally walks away from her job and her whole life when he shows up. Unbelievable.)

My favorite part of the book is the relationship that grows between Stillman and Walker, as the roguish older investigator finds in Walker the potential to be more than a lonely workhorse, and Walker unexpectedly finds a mentor in Stillman. (Walker also finds a heretofore undiscovered penchant for fistfights and gunplay. Maybe every insurance agent has an action hero inside him, just waiting to get out.) Perry also has a gift for throwing in the occasional literary description or observation: while they can’t save the plot from its predestined cheesiness, they redeem it somewhat.

Death Benefits is a stand-alone novel. Perry is also the acclaimed author of The Butcher’s Boy series and the Jane Whitefield series, along with many other stand-alone mysteries and thrillers.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A lady's disgrace

Isabella Robinson was not happy. She told her diary that, although she loved her sons, she regretted her marriage and felt suffocated by her husband. She longed for companionship, affection, and (shockingly), sex. The year was 1860, and respectable married ladies weren’t supposed to long for those things.

They certainly weren’t supposed to put it in writing.

In 1858, the laws that governed divorce in Great Britain were loosened to make it easier for people to unshackle themselves from miserable marriages. Two years later, Henry Robinson sued Isabella for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Also named in the suit was her lover, from whom Henry hoped to win damages for the ruination of his now-unwanted wife. The true story of this shattered marriage and extraordinary lawsuit is told in Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale.

Summerscale explains that, even under the more permissive 1858 law, divorce could not be consensual; two people couldn’t just decide to call it quits. Someone had to be wronged, and it was easier for a husband to be wronged than a wife. A man could divorce his wife for adultery, cruelty, abandonment, or bigamy; for a woman to divorce her husband, she had to prove that he had done two of those things.

What made Isabella’s divorce extraordinary was the diary, in which she poured out her misery, her sense of failure as a wife and mother, and her yearnings for other men. During the divorce case the diaries were presented as evidence, and large, deeply private sections were printed in newspapers and pored over by the public. People chatted about Isabella’s innermost agonies over the breakfast table: Was she a vile seductress? Or mad? Did she have some kind of uterine disorder that made her feel this way?

The case opens a window onto a time when the world was quite different, when any sort of challenge to the social status quo had the potential to be enormously degrading. Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace is as fast-paced as a domestic novel, full of betrayal and scandal; but for one unfortunate woman, the stakes were real.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Broken Harbor by Tana French

Tana French’s Broken Harbor draws you in with apparent brash simplicity, and then makes you second guess everything even as you hang desperately on to the narrator’s single central truth—Scorch Kennedy’s a good cop. Isn't he?

Irish police detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy lives by the rules. He’s a thorough cop with a great clearance rate, even on the tough cases, and that means everything to him. When a family of four is attacked in their home in a failed and nearly abandoned “luxury development” on the coast of Ireland, Scorcher and rookie detective Richie Curran think it’s going to be an easy one—mom or dad must have been into drugs or gambling, and made one of the usual suspects homicidally angry. Then the false notes begin to add up—holes in the walls, wounds that may have been self-inflicted, and a neighbor boy with flat eyes and something to hide. The only surviving family member is the mother, and when she regains consciousness, it makes the case even murkier.

When Scorch was a kid, his family visited the coast for two weeks every summer, just about where the “luxury development” is now, and working there brings back memories, for him and for his unbalanced sister. The memories illuminate the events that made Scorch the man he is today, and cast doubt on his current interpretation of events and the motivation behind his actions. When everything is taken into account, is Richie Curran a loyal and gifted partner, or a twig waiting to snap? Is the prime suspect the father, the best man, or a stranger?

Broken Harbor is an intense 450 page mystery, twisting through the mad ins and outs of the case and Scorcher’s life, and you will be fascinated if you like mysteries, police procedurals, Ireland, or just plain good writing. (Unless you only like cozies, or pet detectives.) Get on the wait list!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Early Literacy Classes for Preschoolers

Christina and Jack Simonsen join Helyn and Quinten Layton at
the Storytime craft table.
Newport Public Library offers four programs each week that help preschool children gain the skills needed to learn to read and develop lifelong reading habits. The free programs, held in the library’s Hofer Children’s Room, feature readings, songs, and activities led by early literacy professionals. Programs begin this week.

Research shows that preschoolers who have the library in their lives are better prepared to become readers and it is the readers who succeed in this technologically complex world. In addition to the obvious language and listening skills, children also develop cognitive skills, fine motor skills, early math concepts, and social skills at the library’s preschool programs. A bonus for parents and caregivers who bring their children to the library is the opportunity to socialize with other adults who have children the same age.

Toddlertimes for little ones up to age 3 are held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Storytimes for preschoolers ages 3 to 6, are held on Tuesday evenings at 7:00 p.m. (bilingual Spanish) and on Friday afternoons at 1:00 p.m. No registration is required. If you have questions about the program, please email us or give us a call at (541) 265-2153.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A History, A Theory, A Flood

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick is about, well, information - how it is stored and transmitted and manipulated, and how these things have transformed society. I thought it looked a little dry; to be honest, I was intimidated by its serious cover and its air of mathiness. But Gleick is the author of a biography of Isaac Newton that I enjoyed very much, so I gave it a try. I found it really interesting.

Gleick starts out with talking drums. Early European visitors to Africa knew that the forest was filled with the mysterious sound of drumming, but they didn’t realize until the middle of the 19th century that those drums were actually quite complex coded messages.

Europeans consistently thought of Africans as primitive, animal-like or child-like, which might be why it took them so long to understand the significance of the drums. After all, Europeans had been struggling to find a way to send accurate and complex long-distance messages for a long time. They wouldn’t succeed until the invention of the electric telegraph. The Africans had been doing it for centuries.

Gleick also explains the way the drums worked. The African peoples who used them did not have a written language - so how did they encode these messages? The answer is quite ingenious.

The Information is (to me) most interesting as it delves into history: the differences between Aristotle and Socrates, one literate and one pre-literate; the codebreaking work of 17th century natural philosopher John Wilkins, which foresaw the development of the binary system; the fascinating, failed invention of a thinking machine by Charles Babbage in the 1800s, and the even-more fascinating programming of that machine (entirely conceptual, since it was never built) by Ada Lovelace.

Alan Turing was already one of my heroes due to his World War II codebreaking work and tragic fate; in this book he gets his due as one of the pioneering mathematicians of the modern age. Gleick also delves into how information science came to profoundly influence other sciences, like biology (in the study of genetics) and sociology (memes).

I admit I got a little lost when we got to quantum mechanics, black holes, and chaos theory; but Gleick is such a good writer that I almost understood it. Well, some of it. Maybe.

Even if your grasp of math and science isn’t quite on the cutting edge, The Information is clear, rich, and worth reading if you like history and ideas. It’s much more riveting than that plain black-and-white cover might suggest.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms

Richard Francis Burton, Mungo Park, Henry Morton Stanley: these famous names readily conjure up an exotic world of adventure and daring during the Age of Exploration by the British in Africa during the 19th century. But have you ever heard of Heinrich Barth? Probably not. A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, by Steve Kemper, is a fascinating new account of a much-overlooked explorer and his incredible journey.

In 1850, Barth joined a now almost-forgotten expedition to explore the Sahara, Sudan, and central and west Africa. Its main purpose was to establish legitimate trade relations with the various kingdoms in an attempt to eradicate the slave trade in those areas. The British Foreign Office chose a tactless and grating proselytizer, James Richardson, to lead the expedition. But the Foreign office also wanted a scientific team on board to report on the region’s natural history, geography, and social conditions of the local population. Greater names like Alfred Russell Wallace were already engaged in other expeditions, so the Foreign Office scrambled until they found a prickly, anti-social, German academic named Heinrich Barth. Until that time Barth wandered around Europe and the Middle East unsuccessfully applying for academic positions.

The usually reticent Barth blossomed as the expedition got underway. He had a gift for languages and was soon conversant in most of the dialects of the southern Sahara. But even more astonishing for a 19th century European explorer, Barth was genuinely curious and genuinely interested in the people and things he saw around him. In letters sent back to the Foreign Office, expedition leader Richardson frequently complained that Barth was holding up the team with his incessant exploration and note-taking.

Within a few months, Richardson and another scientist on the team were dead, leaving Barth alone on Lake Chad. Richardson’s incompetent management of the expedition had also left Barth without funds or trading goods. The plucky German explorer not only re-supplied the expedition, but also decided to travel to the city of Timbuktu. He became only the third European to see the fabled city and the first to return to tell the tale.

Along his six-year, ten thousand mile trek, Barth took daily copious notes of everything he saw and everyone he met. He discussed religion with Islamic scholars, mapped a reliable chart of the Niger River, and created a comparative dictionary of local dialects. Upon his return to Europe, Barth published a multi-volume account of his adventure, Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa, which is still used by scholars today for its encyclopedic collection of data about the area.

Unfortunately, Barth’s acerbic nature and the anti-German sentiments in England at the time, relegated his accomplishments to obscurity in favor of home-grown heroes like Stanley, Park and Burton. In November, 1865, Barth died of an intestinal infection he acquired while on his travels. He was forty-four years old.

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is a fascinating tale of adventure and individual resilience. I hope the name of Heinrich Barth will be better known because of this great book. And you can reserve it here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Say “Cheese” for Banned Books!

The Newport Library would like to take your photo holding a banned book, to use in our display case and website to promote awareness of Banned Books Week. Come to the library on Tuesday, August 28, and have your picture taken with a book of your choice! We will have plenty of books for you to choose from, or you can bring your own.

Perhaps you don’t read “those kinds” of books? What about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alice in Wonderland, The Grapes of Wrath, Fahrenheit 451, or the Bible? Each of these titles has been considered dangerous, inappropriate, or unsuitable by someone who has sought to keep others from reading them. The most frequently challenged books of the last decade can be viewed on the American Library Association’s website.

Don’t take threats to our freedom to read lightly. As George Bernard Shaw so aptly expressed it, “Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Still time for summer readers to collect their t-shirts

Do you have a young reader in your home who's been working on a summer reading contract and is almost there?  Did your young reader set a goal of 75 books for the summer then became hooked on reading really thick chapter books and is on book #14?  If you answered yes to either question, your child can still collect her Dream Big, Read! t-shirt.

For the reader who is almost at her goal, perhaps a bit more daily reading time will get them there.  It's also just fine if she wants to read a few shorter books or graphic novels to finish off her summer list before the August 31 deadline.

If your child fits the latter profile, please urge her to come in and talk to us. We are quite willing to discuss modifying her reading contract because what is most important is that she has been reading all summer. After all, that is the goal of all our summer doings, keeping children reading, using their skills and retaining what they learned in school last year.