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.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thirty-three Teeth by Colin Cotterill

In Thirty-three Teeth, Laotian national coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun is summoned to investigate the deaths of two men in Luang Prabang, a city in northwest Laos. There, he spends an intoxicating evening with the deposed Laotian king, earns the gratitude of a noble elephant, and is almost pulled down below the surface of the earth by evil spirits. Meanwhile, back in Vientiane, the capitol, his ambitious assistant Nurse Dtui follows the trail of a weretiger who may be committing a series of grisly murders.

Thirty-three Teeth is the second book in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri series, which takes place in 1976, shortly after the socialist revolution. Dr. Siri is seventy-two years old, a dignified and compassionate man with a fine sense of the absurd. Although he devoted much of his life to bringing the Party into power, he cringes at the increasingly bizarre evolution of its bureaucracy. As a skeptic and a medical doctor, he was amazed to learn in book one, The Coroner’s Lunch, that his body is also host to the thousand year old spirit of shaman Yeh Ming.

The juxtaposition of the poverty-stricken and struggling newborn socialist nation and the elaborate and powerful ancient spiritual beliefs of the populace is a fascinating thread that runs through the whole series. Dr. Siri is a trickster-like character, at one hapless and wise, and his friends and compatriots are generally well-fleshed out and complementary. The actions of mischievous spirits give a supernatural dimension to the plotline, but please do not be put off if you normally avoid the ‘paranormal’ genre. In this case, the spirits are not gratuitous but part of the local culture, and part of what gives the books their truly foreign flavor.

I listened to this book through Library2Go, and found that the reader, Clive Chafer, channeled Dr. Siri’s wry observations perfectly. Thirty-three Teeth is also available on the shelf at Newport Library. If you enjoy Cotterill’s work, check out his website and learn more about his writing, cartooning, and philanthropy at

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Portrait of the author

HHhH by Laurent Binet is a novel about the real-life assassination of Nazi mastermind Reinhard Heydrich. The book got excellent reviews and won a prestigious French literary prize, and the topic could hardly be more fascinating. I enjoy historical fiction, and I was looking forward to it.

But I did not like HHhH.

 Laurent Binet opens the book not by describing Heydrich or the resistance fighters who killed him, but by talking about the novelist Milan Kundera, who (Binet says) was ashamed to assign names to his fictitious characters. “In my opinion,” concludes Binet, “Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?”

In this way, Binet sets up what is the central conflict of the novel: the author’s struggle over how to write historical fiction. He frequently interrupts the story of Heydrich to write about his own feelings - how he came to be interested in this topic; how the writing of this book changed his life; the dreams he had as he became immersed in his research; how he wrestled with what to leave in, what to take out.

The reviewer for the New Yorker (who liked HHhH) says that the Binet “makes use of novelistic invention while apologizing for doing so.” It’s a good description.

For instance, at one point Binet calls attention to an error in an earlier chapter -- “I’ve been talking rubbish, the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination.” Instead of either fixing the mistake, or leaving it in in the interests of good storytelling, he both leaves it in and points out its inaccuracy, so that we can see the historical novelist at work.

This technique absolutely did not work for me; in fact, I found it extremely annoying.

There’s the scene in which Binet, having been dumped by his girlfriend, writes, “I wonder if Tukhachevsky felt this bad when he realized he’d lost the battle.” Tukhachevsky was a general of the Red Army whose stunning 1920 defeat at the hands of the Poles Binet has just described. Breaking up with your girlfriend probably doesn’t feel worse than that, actually. Who would even make that comparison?

Or the scene in which he obsesses over the presence of an Opel car in Jonathan Littell’s World War II novel The Kindly Ones. “If Blobel really drove an Opel, then I bow before [Littell’s] superior research. But if it’s a bluff, that weakens the whole book. Of course it does! … I’m driveling, aren’t I? When I tell people that, they think I’m mental. They don’t see the problem.”

The problem, in my opinion, is that this book is duller than it had to be, because Binet is degrees of magnitude less interesting than his historical subjects. I kept thinking:  if you're so agonized by the artificiality of fiction, don't write it.

I suppose it’s all about expectations. If you would like to read about a novelist struggling with his novel - with how to tell the truth in a work of fiction, and where the line lies between honest storytelling and deceptive manipulation - you might enjoy HHhH very much.

But if you’re interested in the the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, you will probably be disappointed to discover that HHhH is largely about Binet and his artistic journey. You may come to find the whole thing to be a bit juvenile, and more than a bit pretentious.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Can you get hooked on lip balm?

Do you have to be obsessed with beauty products to be interested in this book? No. Many people will use sunblock, soap, shampoo, or deodorant at some point in their lives, and some of us use some of these things on an almost daily basis. We’re barraged by advertising on the one hand, telling us we NEED this stuff to be beautiful or at least, you know, not socially outcast—and on the other hand, by scary rumors telling us this is all soaking into our skin and giving us cancer! It’s good to read a book that reminds us to be skeptical, about both the advertising and the questionable info we get from the internet and our best friend’s cousin’s dog-walker.

This book grew out of the blog, created by a group of chemists with experience in “developing and testing beauty products at major cosmetics companies,” and who hope to “help you cut through the confusing, misleading and sometimes false information that the beauty companies bombard you with.” Bottom line, they try to be unbiased, scientific, and layperson friendly, and they succeed fairly well. Some of the topics are:

 · Does antidandruff shampoo really work?
 · Why do grey hairs look and feel different?
 · What is shark oil and why is it in skin cream?
 · Why armpit hair doesn’t grow down to your knees.
 · Is your lip plumper making you sick?
 · What does organic really mean?
 · How salon brands get away with lying to you.
 · Why are companies allowed to use nanoparticles?
 · And many more . . .

 I picked up Can You Get Hooked on Lip Balm? because I have often suspected that I may in fact be hooked on lip balm, and I ended up skimming it like a magazine—there were a lot of topics I skipped over, about products that I’d never heard of or would never consider using. But I learned some interesting and comforting facts that will surely inform my future purchases of sunblock, conditioner, and lip balm, and you may too.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The unseen

“So the stories aren’t just stories, is what you’re saying. They’re really secret knowledge disguised as stories.” 

“One could say that of all stories, younger brother.” 

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson starts out like a street-level Arab Spring thriller, then takes an unexpected turn into myth and fable. I thought it was terrific.

The novel is set in an unnamed Persian Gulf city sweating under an oppressive regime. Alif is the online alias of a young computer programmer and hacker who has carved out a niche for himself, protecting various online groups from surveillance. He doesn’t care who his clients are - Islamists, feminists, criminals - he’s willing to use his skills to hide them all from the State, no questions asked.

Then he gets into girl trouble. His lover’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and she doesn’t want to see Alif again. Furious and hurt, Alif resorts to stalking her online.

This is a mistake for more than one reason: the State uses his tracking program to find him. Worse, the girl has given him a strange book of stories that, for some reason, the State is willing to kill for.

Alif is blown, his clients are in jeopardy, and he is on the run. Tangled up in this mess with him is Dina, a young woman from his apartment building, whom he has known and ignored his whole life. Alif and Dina are forced to seek help from a legendary smuggler and criminal known as Vikram the Vampire.

And Vikram turns out to be … something else. Not a vampire, but not human, either. Something unseen, something that most people don’t even notice because he’s too dangerous and too strange. Will he help Alif and Dina? And what price will he ask?

Alif the Unseen mixes modern-day Middle Eastern politics with Arabian and Persian folklore, a blend that I found exciting and entertaining. The arc of Alif’s character (he grows out of his jilted cyberstalker phase, I’m happy to say) is satisfying, and Vikram the Vampire is a scary, funny scoundrel who was great fun to get to know. The book has interesting things to say about symbols and myth and storytelling, too.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Alligators, Snakes and Snapping Turtles at the Library!

Reptiles of many shapes, colors and eating habits will occupy Literacy Park this Wednesday, August 8 at 1:00 p.m., when the Reptileman joins us for the last summer reading show of 2012.

Richard Ritchey is the Reptileman. A huge favorite with kids in Lincoln County, he brings his reptilian creatures to the libraries for a very up-close encounter. Ritchey is a herpetologist with unique insights, observations and a great sense of humor. His shows are always highly entertaining and educational. Among the many snakes and lizards he’ll bring with him are a King Cobra, rattlesnake, monitor lizard and, perhaps, an alligator snapping tortoise. 

The above photo was taken in 2010 when Sam Hurst held a boa constrictor during Reptileman's Literacy Park show.

 If you have questions about the Reptileman or other library programs, please call us at 541-265-2153.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Real-Food Fuel

In sports, there’s a rising trend away from synthetic sugary sports drinks, goos*, and bars and toward healthier, real-food based energy. I’m not going to name any names, because I’d just be contributing to some brands’ household-name-recognition and no one’s paying me for that**, but certain over-touted sugar-waters and gummy-thingys are no longer popular among some ultra-athlete types.***

On that theme, if you or someone you love (or at least cook for) is into on-the-go energy for strenuous activities, I have a couple of recommendations. Thrive Foods, by Brendan Brazier, has 200 plant-based recipes for peak health. (I didn’t count them, it says so right on the cover.) This includes a section on do-it-yourself energy bars and gels, of which I tried a couple. This one came out really well:

Spiced Acai Energy Bars
 ¾ cup raw almonds
 ¾ cup pitted Medjool dates (I couldn’t find these, used regular)
 3T acai powder
 2T raisins
 ¼ c dried apricots (I left these out, hate apricots. Yuck.)
 1T chia seeds
 ½ t ginger powder
 ½ t cinnamon
 ¼ t vanilla extract

(Oh, and I added 1 T carob powder and 1 T coconut oil and 1T agave nectar, because that’s how I roll. No, actually, I started one recipe then switched to another one part way through, and it worked—must have made up for skipping the apricots.)

Everything just gets thrown in the blender, then squished onto wax paper in approximate bar-shape, then tossed in the freezer. DELICIOUS quick energy before or after a nice beach run. I had to check out Oceana and bulk foods at Fred Meyer to find all my ingredients, but in the end, it was no more expensive than a commercial energy bar. Maybe a little stickier, but that’s probably my fault.

 Another good book for this is Raw Energy: 124 raw food recipes for energy bars, smoothies, and other snacks to supercharge your body by Stephanie Tourles. From this book I made a lovely almond milk, carob, coconut and banana smoothie that you wouldn’t believe, and found so many ideas that I may have to buy a copy for myself. Raw foods is also a rising nutritional trend, and if you’re interested, search raw food diet in the Oceanbooks catalog and see all the inspiring books you’ll find! (Personally, I also eat cooked foods, but as a working mom I’m attracted by any healthy food that takes less than 5 minutes to prepare and clean up.)

*You know, those little foil packets full of sugar and sometimes caffeine.
**This blog is 100% free of product placement ads, except for books, and we don’t get paid extra for those, I promise.
***see Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and Finding Ultra by Rich Roll.  OK, that's it for the footnotes.