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.