Monday, February 27, 2012

Come to our party!

The Newport Library Foundation has selected Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to be the book for this year's Newport Reads! celebration.

Newport Reads! kicks off this Tuesday at 6:30 here at the library. We'll be talking about the book, the movie, and about Ken Kesey himself. There will be snacks and a trivia game.

Come join us!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Black fantasy

Not for you, the golden glades of Lothlórien, where the elf-queen rules amid the dream-flowers? Looking for something grittier? Try White Cat and its sequel, Red Glove, by Holly Black, for fantasy that owes a lot more to the shadowy world of The Sopranos than to Tolkien.

Cassel Sharpe is a smart teenager, trying to stay out of trouble and fit in at his expensive boarding school. But that's not easy for a kid from a family of con artists, killers, and curse-workers.

You see, magic is illegal but available through organized crime channels; if you want curse-work done, you need to make a bargain with the mafia. Cassel is inextricably connected to the mob by blood, even though he doesn't do work himself. He'd like to avoid the business, in spite of his complicated loyalties to his family.

Most fantasy novels present magic as basically neutral - a tool that can be used either for good or evil. But in these novels, it's hard not to see the inherently malignant implications of curse-work: you can tamper with someone's memories; or make them feel emotions that they otherwise wouldn't; or, you know, murder them, in either straightforward or devious ways. This seems to be dark power. Maybe people who can't do it are right to be afraid of those who can.

The more we learn about Cassel, the more we suspect that someone has been working on him. He's in up to his neck - he just doesn't know it.

White Cat and Red Glove present a malevolent and dangerous world, in which no one is innocent and no one can be trusted. I'm excited to grab the third book, Black Heart, but unfortunately I'll have to wait - it's not out until April.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier

The man drew his last drag and flipped the butt away, like it wasn’t trash at all, it having had such intimate relations with his breath for a few moments. The smoking butt glanced off a pine tree and landed in brown needles.

Luce went over and picked it up by its flesh-tone filter and dropped it into the red dirt of the drive and crushed it out with her shoe. She wiped her thumb and forefinger on the thigh of her jeans three times, which was probably once or twice too many.

The man said, You probably wouldn’t believe how little I get paid to do this goddamn job.

—I probably might, Luce said.

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier is a beautiful book, constructed with a love for and an ear for language like you wouldn’t believe, but it’s not without flaws. The same qualities that eventually seduced me at first put me off, so if you give it a try, hold your judgment for the first chapter or so until you get used to the rhythm and the turns of phrase.

Set in rural North Carolina in the 60’s, Nightwoods is about Luce, a young woman whose early experiences left her with a need for peace and space. She lives alone as the caretaker of a ramshackle lodge, growing her own food and spending most of her time by herself, observing the slow cycles of nature.

When her murdered sister’s children are sent to stay with her, they are strange, violent, and mute. It slowly becomes apparent that they not only witnessed the murder, but had been abused at the hands of the killer. Luce’s efforts to extend to them the kind of healing peace that she has found in self-sufficiency at the lodge, and to curb their violence, are frustrating and often fail. But the deep compassion that she develops for them, recognizing in them not only her sister but likely herself, has a lasting value that may offer hope to them all.

Nightwoods is beautiful, and leavened with a careful romance growing slowly between Luce and the owner of the lodge, but it’s also grim and tense. Not only are the wounds of abuse evident in the lives of Luce and the children, but the killer is still hunting them, and justice has a careless, lazy hand.

The library offers this book in hardcopy, eBook, or audiobook (Book on CD or download through Library2Go.) I especially recommend the audio-- actor Will Patton reads Nightwoods as it was meant to be read, with a patient husky drawl that allows the long evocative sentences to breathe and the dry wit to catch the light.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Journey to a strange land

In 1985, renowned travel writer Jan Morris spent six months in the mazelike Middle Eastern city of Hav. She got to know the mysterious city a little, and wrote a book about it called Last Letters From Hav.

She describes Hav’s ancient crusader castle, which Saladin conquered while an Armenian trumpeter played a lament from the battlements. She describes the Armenian trumpeter who still played to greet every dawn. She describes the even more ancient Greek acropolis, and the island community where Greeks still live, separated from the mainland by a huffing steam ferry. The Arabic seaport and marketplace, from whence Venetian traders once secured their hold on the spice trade of the eastern Mediterranean. Its onion-domed administrative buildings, built by the Russians, to oversee their only (regrettably shallow) Mediterranean port, as well as their summer homes in Little Yalta. Then there's New Hav, the League of Nations experiment in multicultural governance, during which Italians, French, and Germans cooperated to govern the city until this tenuous system fell apart during World War II. She describes the cave-dwelling aboriginal mountain people, rumored to be Celts. I could go on and on. It's utterly fascinating.

War arrived in Hav in the summer of 1985, forcing Morris to flee, and destroying much of the strange and secretive city that she loved.

Last Letters From Hav won critical acclaim upon its publication in 1986. Now a new volume, simply entitled Hav, has re-published that fascinating book, coupled with a new work: Hav of the Myrmidons, in which Morris recounts her rare visit to Hav in 2005. She compares the city before and after its transformational 1985 revolution.

Are you wondering where Hav is, exactly? So did people when Last Letters From Hav was originally published; readers contacted their travel agents, and were nonplussed to discover that they couldn't go there. Not because of the war; because it's fictional.

This detailed, complex travel memoir is actually an unusual, riveting sort of novel, about a place that feels extraordinarily real but is as imaginary as Middle-Earth or Narnia.

Or, almost that imaginary. Undeniably a stunning work of creativity, Hav is an impressive work of scholarship, too. To seamlessly embed a fictitious city in the real history of a real region - to describe its poetry, its wildflowers, its culture and its conflicts in a way that don't seem to contradict anything that we know - that's kind of amazing.

Hav is not quite like anything else you've ever read, and it’s wonderful.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Outsider in Amsterdam by Janwillem van de Wetering

Outsider in Amsterdam is a strangely enjoyable mystery combining existential attitudes and police work, laced with random musings about God, interpersonal relations, and the workings of the mind.

When the founder of the communistic Hindist Society is discovered hanging from a noose in his quarters, two police detectives from the Murder Brigade of the Amsterdam Municipal Police decide to investigate, just in case it’s not suicide. Adjutant-Detective Henk Grijpstra and Detective-Sergeant Rinus de Gier are a unique pair, prone to spontaneously playing music together on drums and flute and grumbling at each other. Grijpstra (pronounced HRAYP-strah) is older, fatter, bossier, and married, while de Gier is a charming blond Buddhist bachelor who will commit to no one but his cat. They philosophize their way through the case of the hanged Hindist with a dry and jaded wit, among repeated comments about the meaninglessness of life and occasional appreciation for singularly beautiful moments.

Not so very long ago I blogged about Donna Leon’s Commisario Brunetti series, noting its slow pace and Venetian flavor. I suspect that many who enjoyed her work might also like Grijpstra and de Gier: similarly slow-paced, dry-witted, and with a foreign perspective. I found the Dutch work to be both more humorous, with its existential asides, and more dated, with some off-putting stereotyping. Van de Wetering opened the series with Outsider in Amsterdam in 1975, and continued writing about Grijpstra and de Gier until 1997; it might be interesting to check out the later books and see if the detectives modernized their attitudes over time.

Author Van de Wetering was a member of the Amsterdam Special Constabulary, spent time in a Zen monastery, and travelled widely. He seems a very interesting fellow; more information can be found about him at

Friday, February 10, 2012

What could be simpler?

The library has a thick book of rules that tells us how to organize things. Since fiction is shelved in alphabetical order by the author's last name, this might seem kind of unnecessary. What could be simpler than alphabetical order?

But take pseudonyms. Everyone knows that Mark Twain's real name was Samuel Clemens. The rule book tells us that when an author uses a pseudonym, we should consistently use the pseudonym. So Mark Twain's novels are shelved under T for Twain, not C for Clemens.

That brings me to the strange tale of Richard Bachman. Sometime in the 1970s, Stephen King, already a mega-bestseller, began publishing books using the pseudonym Richard Bachman. This was a secret. No one knew that Bachman was really Stephen King. King faked the author biography and supplied a photograph of some guy, not himself, for the jacket flap.

Eventually it became general knowledge that Bachman was King, and all the Bachman books were re-released with Stephen King's name on the cover (and "writing as Richard Bachman" in smaller letters below).

Since our rule book tells us to consistently use the pseudonym, these books - even though they do say "Stephen King" on the cover - are all filed in B for Bachman, not K for King.

Then there's the interesting situation involving books by Qiu Xiaolong and Ch'iu Hsiao-lung. This is the same person, whose name is spelled differently on different books. What to do? If we use the spellings on the books, then books by the same author (and in the same series) will end up in two different places. But if we pick one spelling and use it for everything by that author, then some of his books will be in a place on the shelves that contradicts the name on the book.

The rules tell us to consistently use the authorized spelling of the author's name, which is assigned by the Library of Congress. In this case, the Library of Congress says that the author's name is spelled Qiu Xiaolong. (The Library of Congress also tells us that Qiu is the author's family name.) So you will find books by this author in the Mystery section, filed under Q for Qiu. If you're looking in C for Ch'iu, or X for Xiaolong, or H for Hsiao-lung, you will just not find him.

Now, let me tell you about my favorite. This is mystery author Arnaldur Indridason, who you will find filed in A for his first name, Arnaldur. Why? Because Arnaldur Indridason is Icelandic, and the Library of Congress instructs us to file Icelandic authors by their first names. Again, why?

If I am understanding correctly, in Iceland, what appears to be your last name is actually an honorific made up of the first name (usually) of your father. It's not a surname or a family name. (Were I Icelandic, my name would be something like Jennifer Jamesdottir; my mother would be Laura Johnsdottir and my father would be James Jamesson.) There is no family name that gets passed down from generation to generation.

This means, for instance, that fabulous Icelandic pop singer Björk is not being all Sting or Madonna with the first-name-only; Björk is, in fact, her entire legal name. And Arnaldur Indridason's entire legal name is Arnaldur. So you won't find his books in I for Indridason; you have to look for them in A, the first letter of his name.

The point of all this is that sometimes just browsing the shelves may not find you the book you're looking for.

If you can't find books where you think they should be, try a catalog search - alternate spellings should cross-reference to the correct Library of Congress spellings.

Or, if in doubt, you are always welcome to ask a staff person for help. Sometimes alphabetical order is more complicated than it seems.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A book, with drugs

Mike Doughty first gained fame as the lead singer of Soul Coughing, a late-90s band that gained a pretty fierce cult following without quite breaking through to big mainstream success. The band broke up, bitterly, in 2000. Doughty's solo career has consisted of a series of thoughtful albums, quite unlike Soul Coughing in mood and style. In his songs, he often confesses to a sordid past: addictions, women, family problems.I like Doughty's songs; I've been a fan since the 2005 album Haughty Melodic. When I heard that he was writing a memoir, I knew I wanted to read it.

That memoir, The Book of Drugs, takes Doughty's confessional songwriting style a step further. It is a pitiless airing of his worst failings and biggest problems. His description of his lifelong compulsion to lose himself in drugs, alcohol, and meaningless sexual encounters is nothing short of self-lacerating.
The memoir also covers his journey to sobriety. He seems almost bashful about describing his recovery, as though he fears that a healthier life might be inauthentic in a rock star:

"As a teenager, I scoffed at the TV stars in pastel sweaters, on the cover of People magazine, I'm-off-the-drugs-and-high-on-life! But here I was. Off the drugs and high on life. I was awakening to what was around me, and in doing so, realized I'd no idea just how shut off I was. One evening I had the TV on, and the weather man said, 'It was unseasonably cool today.' Yes it was! It was unseasonably cool. I was there!"

Does anyone remember the controversy surrounding James Frey? Frey's addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces was enormously successful and well-reviewed; then the book's fabrications were exposed. I'm pretty sure Doughty remembers that incident. Turning memories into a coherent story is an act of imagination, and Doughty repeatedly reminds us that his memory might be unreliable.
The Book of Drugs is the rambling, sometimes-funny, bitterly candid story of one messed-up guy. It's an interesting read; I recommend it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Skellig by David Almond

Michael worries. He and his family have just moved into an old, neglected house. His premature baby sister is ill, and he is terrified that she will die. As his father tries to make the house livable and his mother hovers over the baby, Michael investigates the falling-down garage. He finds someone living there.

Who is this person, covered with blue-bottle flies and dust? Why is he here, sitting in a corner behind an old tea chest? Or perhaps a better question is: what is he?

In the midst of fear for his baby sister, the ramshackle house, and his parents crumbling under stress, Michael tries to understand the creature. The strange girl who lives on the other side of the wall becomes Michael’s friend, and the two children attempt to solve the mystery of Skellig.

Generally, when I read a book written for children, I am very aware that is what I am reading: a children’s book. Not with Skellig. I became immediately engaged in the story and beautifully drawn characters. Michael, his new friend Mina, and Skellig are extraordinarily vivid. The prose flows so effortlessly that I felt like I was listening to the story and not reading it. There are scenes filled with such simple beauty, I was deeply moved.

David Almond has a wonderful empathetic touch for the feelings of young people and the frequent difficulty they have in expressing them. I hope to see this beautiful novel as a classic for all ages. As Mina would say: extraordinary.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Kvothe is the hero of a hundred tall tales, a larger-than-life figure with power, intelligence, and bravery to spare. So why is he pretending to be an innkeeper in a rural village in the middle of nowhere, while everyone thinks he’s dead? And why are there creatures straight out of the old tales, creatures that no one believes in anymore, coming after him?

Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, Day One of the Kingkiller Chronicles, is a story within a story. The past unfolds from Kvothe’s own mouth as he relates his tale to a bard who’s tracked him down, and the present frames it. In the present, a few clues gather, but only days pass—and in the past, Kvothe’s life spins out from idyllic childhood as the son of traveling players, through tragedy and madness as an orphan on the streets, and into the University, the great school of knowledge and magic. Rothfuss uses Kvothe’s self-awareness and background in drama to explore the gap between reality and legend, hero and man.

Kvothe the younger is brilliant, precocious, and deeply scarred by his losses. Kvothe the elder is a cipher, a bit two-dimensional, and not all that engaging. Fortunately, we see very little of the elder. I’m hoping that as the tale progresses in books two and three, he will come into clearer focus as his past catches up with him.

Our library system has books one and two, The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear. Book three is due for publication in March of this year.