Thursday, March 28, 2013

Give me everything you have

In Give Me Everything You Have, James Lasdun describes a sustained attack by an obsessed former student. The book is subtitled On Being Stalked.

Lasdun, a novelist and poet, met “Nasreen” in a writing workshop he was leading. He thought her budding novel was good, and he encouraged her. When she emailed him a few years later, asking him to help her find an agent, he agreed.

The friendly email relationship that developed seems to have been perceived as a romance by Nasreen. That
lasted until Lasdun asked her opinion of the middle-eastern custom of veils (Nasreen was of Iranian descent), and she replied with a suggestive, “Would you like to see me in a veil, sir?” Belatedly awakening to the impropriety of the relationship, Lasdun tried to end it.

What followed was a torrent: several emails a day, every day, for years, filled with accusations, delusions, and death-wishes, occasionally interspersed with invitations and supplications.

Nasreen also used the Internet to smear Lasdun's reputation, accusing him of plagiarism and rape in Amazon and Goodreads reviews, editing his Wikipedia page, and sending letters filled with blood-curdling accusations to his employers and colleagues.  Nasreen found a way to use online forms to impersonate Lasdun online, a further assault on his image.

Lasdun’s memoir tells how this sustained and constant stream of abuse transformed his life. He also describes his completely fruitless attempts to stop it. As with other cases of extreme and hateful cyberbullying, there are generally few laws to describe this crime, and few legal methods for stopping it. At the time Lasdun finished his memoir, Nasreen’s unreasoning campaign of hate was still continuing.
It is probably going on even now.

 This book is beautifully-written and completely of the moment: right now, when Internet makes stalking and bullying easy, but the legal infrastructure hasn't found a way to deal with such crimes. Lasdun shows, chillingly, how easily it could happen to anyone.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tic talk

I have Tourette’s but Tourette’s doesn’t have me is a short Emmy-award winning documentary made up of frank and inspiring interviews with kids who have Tourette’s syndrome. Tourette’s is a neurobiological disorder characterized by uncontrollable or semi-controllable physical and vocal tics, like sudden twitches or vocal outbursts. This is a great film for people of all ages to gain some understanding of how it can feel to have Tourette’s, and to be reminded of what it's like to be different and misunderstood.

Tourette’s was once considered to be very rare, but is now thought to affect up to 3.8% of children. Thanks to sensationalist portrayals, many people associate Tourette’s with the spewing of obscenities and insults, when in fact most tics are less severe, and often decrease throughout adolescence.

The children who share their experiences in the documentary range from 6 to 13 years of age, and they talk about homeschooling, public school, relationships, and home life with Tourette's. One little girl describes how she pretends to drop her pencil in class, so that she can camouflage a stomach-grabbing tic while bending down.  Many tics cannot be so cleverly disguised, and tend to become more frequent and insistent in stressful situations. One of the boys explains how some teachers don’t understand that he can't fully control his tics, and punish him for actions outside of his control, while another boy with a more supportive teacher spreads understanding of his condition by campaigning to his whole class.

 All of the kids are different, but they have Tourette’s in common, as well as a sincere desire to be understood and appreciated, and great courage in facing ignorance and unfair judgment. I have Tourette’s but Tourette’s doesn’t have me is only a half-hour film, but moving and incredibly worthwhile.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Corelli's Mandolin

If, like me, you can’t swing a sunny Mediterranean getaway this Spring, stop by Newport Library and pick up Corelli’s Mandolin, by the English writer, Louis De Bernieres. And be prepared to get carried away by a magical story of love and war set along the beautiful coast of Greece.

Despite being on the wrong side of history, Capitano Antonio Corelli isn’t such a bad guy. True, he is a soldier in the Italian army occupying the Greek island of Cephallonia in the early days of World War II. Naturally, the islanders must therefore consider him the enemy.

Instead of acting the conqueror, Corelli has fallen in love with the place. He loves the music, the food, and the wine. And he gets along famously with the islanders, who mostly understand that he’s just doing his job. Capitano Corelli has also fallen in love with Pelagia, the beautiful, headstrong daughter of the island’s Doctor Iannis.

A local fisherman, Mandras, also loves Pelagia. But Mandras isn’t nearly as well-liked as Corelli. And then there’s Carlo Piero, another Italian soldier, who loves Capitano Corelli and who would do anything to protect him. At first, the romantic twists and turns between Greeks and Italians on this Aegean paradise far from the main theater of war are all a bit of sun-splashed, wine-soaked fun.

But then the Germans arrive on the island and spoil everything.

It was a terrible movie. But it’s a terrific book, just the sort of thing to brighten the gray days. And you can reserve Corelli’s Mandolin here.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Necessary Silence, Poetry by Lisa C. Taylor

The Newport Public Library is hosting a reading by poet Lisa C. Taylor on Wednesday, March 27, at 7:00 p.m. Taylor’s fourth poetry collection, Necessary Silence, was published in early 2013. Its poems explore the range of human vulnerability from strangers meeting in a grocery line, “forgetting how invisible we all are for most of our lives” to a Virgin Mary sighting. In this image rich collection, tones of despair and celebration comingle, “a parade of contrast” showing the resilience of the human spirit.

Taylor also has two published chapbooks Talking to Trees and Insufficient Thanks and a full-length collaborative collection of poetry with Irish poet and writer, Geraldine Mills, The Other Side of Longing. The Other Side of Longing was chosen for the Elizabeth Shanley Gerson Honor at University of Connecticut and both Taylor and her co-writer Mills were Lecturers of Irish Literature in 2011.

She holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and teaches part-time at Eastern Connecticut State University. Her honors include two AAUP Faculty Development Awards, a Pushcart nomination and several book finalist designations.

Taylor’s work has been widely published in many national and international journals and magazines such as Crannóg, The Birmingham Poetry Review, The Worcester Review, Haight-Ashbury Literary Journal, Pacific Review, Midwest Review and Connecticut River Review. She has also had poetry featured in two national anthologies, Written with a Spoon: A Poet’s Cookbook and XY Files: Poems on the Male Experience.

Taylor has been a guest on radio and television shows in Connecticut, Connemara and Galway, Ireland. She has received residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and will be in residence at Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland in 2013. For more information about the program, go to the library’s website at

Monday, March 18, 2013

Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?

The year is 2006, and Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler works for the Greater Manchester Police. While on a case, he is struck by a car, and wakes up in 1973, where he is a newly transferred Detective Inspector working at the same police station.

The atmosphere of Life on Mars is spot on. Weed-choked vacant lots surround derelict factories in “pre-urban revitalization” Manchester. The color brown is ubiquitous; people wear brown clothes, drive brown sedans, and live in brown houses; the town itself seems to have a dreary brown cast over it. The police station is dingy, with surplus metal desks and cabinets covered in a disarray of paperwork, filtered through a smoky haze.

Tyler frequently clashes with Gene Hunt, his superior officer, regarding their different policing methods. Where Tyler is procedurally and politically correct, Hunt uses violence, corruption, and his gut instinct to catch criminals. In spite of their differences, they come to respect each other and develop a love-hate relationship.

If this was a simple time-travel story, it would be intriguing enough for its “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” aspects. Tyler misses his cellphone and longs to search a database instead of slogging through hundreds of case files. But is it really time travel? Sometimes when the phone rings, Tyler hears a voice imploring him to fight, to return to consciousness.
On the radio, he hears hospital equipment beeping, and a doctor telling his mother that his brain waves show no activity. Strangest of all, in the middle of the night he is taunted by the “Test Card Girl,” a young girl clutching a grotesque toy clown, who then dissolves back into the telly.

John Simm is brilliant as the scrupulous and tortured Sam Tyler, as is Philip Glenister as detective-on-steroids Gene Hunt. Is Tyler mad? In a coma? Can he return to 2006? Produced by BBC, the full two seasons are available through our library; check them out and decide for yourself!

Under the Harrow

No one emulates Charles Dickens anymore. We modern readers like our novels fast-paced and snappy. Well, Mark Dunn has bucked that trend with a novel called Under the Harrow that takes Dickens as its literary inspiration. 

 Imagine a valley, completely isolated from the outside world, whose inhabitants have based their society upon the only books available to them: the Bible, the Encyclopedia Britannica (9th ed., 1897), and the complete works of Charles Dickens. They name their valley Dingly Dale and  live a hybrid neo-Victorian lifestyle, complete with social inequality, petty crime, and lots of tea-cakes. 

The people who do business with the Dinglians tell them nothing about the outside world and refuse to give them books, newspapers, or any other source of information. Then eleven-year-old Newton Trimmers accidentally uncovers a conspiracy that may destroy the Dale and everyone in it. 

Under the Harrow is written in the style of Dickens: 

As was her habit, Mrs. Gargery opened her front door each morning and put herself into a decaying rush-bottomed chair that had been permanently emplanted upon her porch. There she would sit, holding her pug-dog in her lap and making his little paws to wave and salute at passersby when not sharing with her snub-nosed pet a rasher of bacon, the canine nibbling from one end and the ancient hominian nibbling from the opposite end and the two coming together into something resembling a kiss, which was either droll or revolting depending upon one’s opinion of pugs. 

In this leisurely manner, the narrator, Frederick Trimmers (uncle to Newton) investigates the mysteries of Dingly Dale. How did the unnatural isolation of the valley come to be? Who enforces it? What really happens to those who try to leave? Are there people within Dingly Dale who know more than they are telling? 

At first, I will confess, I found this book a little slow. But once I adjusted myself to its unhurried pace I found it very enjoyable. (I have to do the same with Dickens and other Victorian authors, too.) I became quite engaged by the curious plight of the Dale and its inhabitants. 

Under the Harrow is not like anything else you’ve read: a Victorian suspense novel, rife with political corruption, greed, and class conflict, set in the modern day. (Sort of.) If you don’t mind waiting a little for its secrets to unfold, give it a try; I liked it. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

After the incident which puts a bullet in Detective Sergeant Carl Morck’s head and leaves one of his partners dead, the other paralyzed, Morck’s a changed man. He’s darker, more cynical, and can’t be bothered to pretend to care about anything. He used to be a good detective—now he’s just a guy who didn’t pull his weapon in time.

He’s also a guy who’s just been handed his own department, albeit a one-man, basement-office, cold case department. Being sidelined doesn’t bother him, he’s ready to put his feet up and stew in his own juices, but his new assistant, Assad, shames him into actually looking at the cold case files. Assad, a Syrian refugee with a mysterious past and an eagerness for policework, impels Carl to focus on Merete Lynggaard, a young and idealistic politician who disappeared off of a ferry more than five years ago and was presumed drowned.

When Carl’s half-hearted efforts to retrace the original investigation immediately turn up irregularities, the case develops an irresistable momentum of its own, leading Carl and Assad into danger, and redemption.

The narration flips back and forth from Merete in the past and Carl and Assad in the present, and the contrast between her situation and their investigation creates so much tension it’s impossible to put down. The careful layout of each piece of the puzzle is set up so that in the end, everything falls together perfectly without being too predictable.

Amazing book. The audio version had me so enthralled I was making up extra errands and chores as an excuse to keep my headphones on. This is a mystery in the popular “Nordic Noir” subgenre, which includes  Scandinavian crime writers like Steig Larssen, Henning Mankell, and Jo Nesbo. Nesbo is my favorite of those three, and Adler-Olsen is as skillful and enjoyable as Nesbo.

The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first book in Jussi (YOU-see) Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series, followed by The Absent One, and the upcoming May release A Conspiracy of Faith.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Captain Alatriste

Do you prefer your adventure novels on the literary side, a la Patrick O’Brian or Alexandre Dumas? Then Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste series might just be the thing for you. Set in 17th century Madrid, Diego Alatriste is a world-weary veteran of the imperial Spanish army. Along with his sidekick and protege, sixteen year-old Inigo Balboa, Alatriste brawls his way into and out of courtly political intrigue, usually disastrous military expeditions, as well as an occasional scrape with the Spanish Inquisition.

Most of each novel is written in conventional third person. But we are also told the story in the first person by Inigo Balboa, years later as an old man, as he reminisces on the adventures of his youth. There is a tenderness and poignancy to the old man’s memory of himself as a brash young soldier of fortune that is quite charming and often melancholic.

In the first book of the series, Captain Alatriste, the captain and a compadre (and soon to be nemesis), Gualterio Malatesta, are hired by two mysterious masked men to assassinate a pair of English visitors to Madrid. What appears to be a straight-forward hit job may well spark a European war as the identities of the two Englishmen become known.

Set amid the pompous grandeur of a fading Spanish empire, the Captain Alatriste novels are soaked in the wine, sun, literature and blood of another, perhaps more romantic time. The language is refined and a bit archaic, a tone that perfectly suits the setting of the books.

And you can reserve Captain Alatriste here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Magical Mystery Oregon Authors Book Tour

The Fab Four are coming to take you away this coming Sunday. Am I referring to the Magical Mystery Tour? No, it's the Oregon Book Awards Author Tour, arriving at the Newport Library on Sunday, March 17, at 3:00 p.m. Oregon Book Award finalists Kerry Cohen, Aria Minu-Sepehr, Jean Esteve, and Carrie Seitzinger will give readings from their nominated works.

Kerry Cohen has written six books, including three young adult novels. Two of her books are 2013 Oregon Book Awards nominees. Seeing Ezra: A Mother's Story of Autism, Unconditional Love, and the Meaning of Normal is the memoir of the author’s struggle to protect her son from a system that seeks to compartmentalize and “fix” him. It is a finalist for the Sarah Winnemucca Award for Creative Nonfiction. Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity features stories from self-admitted loose girls across the country, adolescent girls who use sex as a means to prove their worth. It is a finalist for the Frances Fuller Victor Award for General Nonfiction.

Jean Esteve grew up on Long Island, studied art at Cornell University's School of Architecture, and now writes and paints in Waldport, Oregon. Her collection of poetry, Off-Key, is “tender and cutting, and absolutely brilliant,” said Leah Maines, author of Beyond the River. Off-Key is a finalist for the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry.

Aria Minu-Sepehr lived in Iran during the overthrow of the Shah, and his family sought refuge in America. Professionally, he has strived to bring a greater understanding of Iran and the Middle East to his new home and to highlight the respect that exists between East and West outside of politics. His book, We Heard the Heavens Then, is a memoir of a boy in revolutionary Iran. Seen through the eyes of a ten year old with unusual access to the two poles of his society – modern and traditional – the tale recounts the rising tension, collision, and eventual fallout of the split. It is a finalist for the Sarah Winnemucca Award for Creative Nonfiction..

Carrie Seitzinger is a finalist for the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry for her book Fall Ill Medicine. She is also the author of the poetry chapbook The Dots Don't Connect. Seitzinger has been writing, publishing and performing poetry since 2004. A graduate of U.C. Irvine's program in English, she currently lives and works in Portland. She is the Poetry Editor for Smalldoggies Magazine, and co-hosts the magazine's reading series.

Winners of the Oregon Books Awards will be announced on April 8, 2013 at the 26th Annual Oregon Book Awards Ceremony in Portland.

Sponsored by Literary Arts, this program is free and open to the public. It is made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen

Liz Jensen’s The Uninvited is a fascinating new thriller with an apocalyptic twist.

Corporate investigator Hesketh Lock is a brilliant man, adept at pattern recognition and mental origami. He’s also “wired differently,” showing many signs of Asperger’s syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism characterized in part by difficulty with social skills. Lock uses Venn diagrams to discover order in the world by categorizing events, relationships, and people in overlapping shapes. Despite his inability to experience or express common emotional reactions in a conventional way, he feels some emotions deeply. In the first person narrative, his close observations of the world have a deceptively simple poetry. Lock’s character, his voice—they make this book extraordinary.

The book opens with Lock returning to his isolated island home from a business trip in which he identified an anonymous saboteur at a Chinese factory. We learn that Lock has recently left his girlfriend. We learn that he misses his seven-year-old not-quite-stepson. We learn that the saboteur has killed himself. We learn that the media is full of the story of a sweet and beloved little girl who deliberately killed two family members with a nail gun, out of the blue. Each anecdote is offered in short bursts, as if enclosed in a Venn diagram, seeking organization and meaning. I will not hint to you how all the parts are connected, or why I said “apocalyptic”—you'll have to find out for yourself.

My only criticism: the ending fell a little flat for me: possibly it was the disappointment of having a good book end too soon, possibly the sad truth that a mystery is almost always more compelling than an explanation.  In any case, this was heavily outweighed by the characterization of Hesketh Lock, who I will not forget, and the quality of the writing.

Liz Jensen is the author of several other books, including one we have at Newport: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, which I plan to put on hold immediately.  

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Under The Volcano

It is the day of the dead, November 2, 1938 and the last day on earth for Geoffrey Firmin, British consul to Mexico. As the faithful wend their way along the ancient streets of Quauhnahuac towards the cemetery, Firmin embarks on his own mescal-fueled journey to oblivion. His wife Yvonne and half-brother Hugh look on, powerless to help. Or are they complicit? Perhaps they hope to re-kindle an old love affair, long-dormant like the smoldering twin volcanoes Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl that loom above the town.

In 1998 the Modern Library ranked Under the Volcano as number eleven in their 100 best books of the twentieth century. I would place it even higher. Lowry writes with searing insight into one man’s complex psyche; Hamlet’s “how like an like a god” comes to mind. He chronicles one day, the last day, in the life of someone too sensitive to bear the burden of life any longer. With language that makes the reader savor every sentence, the consul’s meandering final hours come into crystalline-sharp focus despite his alcoholic haze. We see the world as he sees it and it is almost too much for us bear as well.

I am hardly able to contain myself whenever I confront someone who has not read Under the Volcano. Shoving the library’s paper-back edition into their hands, I shout: “You. Must. Read. This!” And I hope that they, too, can appreciate the awesome power of this book. 

And you can reserve it here.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Have libraries had their day?

Author Terry Deary

Recently Terry Deary, a successful British author, argued that public libraries should be closed. This has sparked a rather interesting online debate about libraries and their relationship with authors, communities, and the public's money.

Deary, who writes quite fun and interesting history books for children, said that the whole concept behind public libraries is obsolete and damaging. He said, “We've got this idea that we've got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that."

You can read Deary’s argument here. In it, he condemns libraries for injuring the publishing industry, closing bookstores, and taking money out of authors' pockets.

Several other authors have responded to these comments, usually in ways that are heartening in their support for libraries. Science fiction author John Scalzi wrote lovingly about his lifelong relationship with public libraries in this article.

Alan Jacobs, who writes for The American Conservative (not exactly a bastion of support for publicly-funded agencies) wrote an essay that specifically counters Deary’s argument that compulsory education has made libraries obsolete. “I was not the beneficiary of a very good education in the Birmingham city schools,” he writes. “Most of what I now know that I consider worth knowing I learned not at school but at these libraries.”

(An aside:  no matter how you feel about this issue, you must check out some of the priceless dissenting comments to The American Conservative article. I especially like the one that says, “As far as I can tell [libraries are] mostly crappy government bureaucracies that provide work for the unemployable whackjobs who come out of Universities. Welfare for half-educated feminists.” I beg to differ: I am a highly educated unemployable feminist whackjob.)

Both Scalzi and Jacobs emphasize the importance of libraries in developing the reading habits of children, and they’re right. Library storytimes and programs emphasize to kids that reading is fun, not just homework. Reading is not a thing that you have to do in order to get a good grade; it is not always educational in an obvious way. Let us put a Captain Underpants book in your child’s hands, and you might end up with a student who likes books - even school books.

There are plenty of other things in Deary's argument that I would challenge, including the idea that libraries "give nothing back" to authors. (Does he not realize that we buy all these books?  With real money?)

But that's enough of my opinions.  If you have thoughts about this issue, now’s your chance to let us know. Do libraries cost more than they give back? Are they obsolete? Are there things libraries should be doing differently? Join the debate; tell us what you think in the comments.