Friday, May 31, 2013

Triangle in the sun

This is true: in the 19th century, astronomers saw canals on Mars. Peering through telescopes, they drew detailed maps of the elaborate intersecting lines they saw on the surface of the red planet. Had those lines represented physical canals, then the canals would have to be truly enormous, excavation projects far beyond the capacity of Earth technology. The world was transfixed by the idea of a far-superior Martian civilization.

Ken Kalfus sets his elegant new novel, Equilateral, at this moment. It is 1894, and astronomer Sanford Thayer is certain that Earth must communicate with the advanced people of Mars. His passion has convinced governments and private shareholders to invest in a huge project: the creation of an enormous equilateral triangle in the Egyptian desert.

The triangle will be three hundred miles on each side. Each side is a deep trench, five miles wide, paved in black pitch. At the moment when Earth will be most visible to Mars, it will be filled with petroleum and set on fire. Surely Martian astronomers will see this shining beacon of geometric perfection, and will understand that Earthlings, too, are intelligent and civilized people.

Into this work of intelligence and civilization, the labor of hundreds of thousands of North Africans is pressed. They dig in the hot sun, while Thayer keeps his eyes on the skies.

Equilateral is a remarkably thoughtful novel that, in its short 200-page span, evokes questions about race, colonization, sex, and evolution. Above all else, it’s a compelling portrait of the way 19th century Europeans thought about themselves and others.

Add to all that some messy personal complications and some even messier political developments, and you end up with a tragedy of Grecian proportions, played out on a baking black triangular stage.

I’m still thinking about Equilateral, days after I finished it. Don’t miss this terrifically interesting book.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Iran: Modern and Medieval

Oregon author Aria Minu-Sepehr returns to the Newport Public Library on Sunday, June 2 at 2:00 p.m. to present “Iran: Modern and Medieval.”  He was here in March as one of four Oregon Book Award Finalists, and read from his book, We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran.

Minu-Sepehr had a privileged childhood as the son of a major general in the Imperial Iranian Air Force. Following the fall of Shah of Iran in 1979, his family sought refuge in the United States. The hostage crisis, a year later, would prove that the edicts of the Iranian Revolution could impact the global community and destroy the goodwill of one people for another. 

Any future involving Iran is now considered to be volatile. Will Iran seek nuclear armament? Will sanctions deter Iran’s rogue bent, or will they further radicalize the nation?

Minu-Sepehr argues that Iran itself is torn—a nation at once modern and medieval. Without a proper understanding of this fundamental divide, the West continues to peg Iran erroneously as this or that, in turn feeding a foreign policy that rests on half-truths and quicksand assumptions. 

Aria Minu-Sepehr has lectured on issues concerning Iranian culture and U.S. foreign policy, and created and directed Forum for Middle East Awareness at Susquehanna University, where he taught world and Middle Eastern literature.  He teaches writing at WoodSprings Institute and is the copy editor of Judicature.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler

In Lars Kepler's The Hypnotist, there’s a psycho on the loose, responsible for the violent and gory deaths of a family in Sweden. Detective Joona (Yo-nah) Linna must speak to the one victim that didn’t die, a boy who lies in a coma with more than a hundred stab wounds all over his body. The only way to speak to him safely, without causing more trauma—hypnosis.

Erik Maria Bark is the eponymous hypnotist. Ten years ago, he was an international expert in the use of hypnosis to treat survivors of trauma and abuse, until a tragedy forced him to promise never to hypnotize another person again. However, under the pressure of a life-or-death situation, he breaks his word, inviting a terrible revenge.

What an odd story! I’m listening to the audio version from Library2Go, and have been making up chores to do to give me more time to walk around with headphones on, because it’s completely engrossing. However, there are so many places where my suspended disbelief just falls and shatters, where someone acts terribly out of character or the police behave with such stupidity that I’m propelled out of the storyline and into sarcastic critiquing mode. And places where you expect the author to turn a cliché around, but instead he plays right into it! You’d think it would be awful, but somehow it works: it's suspenseful, twisty, and sometimes downright frightening.

Lars Kepler is the pseudonym for a Swedish husband and wife team, who have continued to write Joona Linna novels. The Nightmare is number two, The Fire Witness, to be published in July, is three, and The Sandman, whose publication date I have not been able to find, will be number four.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, by Charles Mann

Until the Spanish (or perhaps the Vikings?) brought infectious diseases that decimated the native population, America was home to sophisticated urban centers that stretched from the Mississippi south to the Amazon River. At their peak, the population of some of the larger cities, such as Cahokia, located near present day St. Louis, may have reached upwards of 40,000 people. It wasn't until after the near total depopulation of the Americas that the land became the "uninhabited wilderness" that European colonists found when they landed centuries later. 

With 1491, historian Charles Mann reveals a dynamic culture stopped dead in its tracks. Gone were the irrigation systems and grain storage facilities that fed multitudes. Gone was the complex web of trade routes that supplied Gulf of Mexico salt to northern plains tribes and volcanic glass to the Iroquois. And gone, too, was a people’s ability to fend off the relentless physical and cultural assault that eventually robbed them of all they possessed.

1491 is a fascinating and controversial look at the land and cultures of the New World on the eve of Columbus' "discovery" of the New World.  This book opened my eyes to a millennia of history I never knew, and was never taught, about my own country. And you can reserve it here.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Memoir of a badly-behaved woman

Storm Large -- who may have the greatest rock-and-roll name of all time -- is well-known in Portland entertainment circles. Frontman of The Balls and frequent guest chanteuse of Pink Martini, she is a versatile singer whose can easily switch styles from heavy metal to torchy ballads. She won rave reviews for starring in Cabaret on Portland Center Stage in 2009, and is widely known for rocking the house on the short-lived reality show Rock Star: Supernova in 2006.

She also just won the Oregon Book Award for her excellent memoir, Crazy Enough, in which she describes the enduring effects of her mother’s mental illness on her life.

Large’s mother, Suzi, displayed aggravating, painful episodes of attention-getting delusions and compulsive lying, interrupted by bouts of suicidal depression. Diagnosed with everything from bipolar disorder to multiple personalities to something called “mental epilepsy,” Suzi was impossible to live with, even for the daughter who adored her.

Large (her family called her “Stormy”) rebelled early and hard, embarking upon a wild career of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. She recounts her adventures, good and sometimes very bad, in this funny, profane, and audacious book.

One of the greatest things about reading Crazy Enough was that it sent me hunting for Large’s performances online. She is remarkably talented.  Here is a clip (from Rock Star: Supernova) of her beautifully performing “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. I can be a harsh critic towards artists who cover songs I love, but I think that is wonderful. If you listen until the end, you’ll hear that she dedicates it to her mother.

If you’re interested in the story of a brilliant, troubled, difficult, and funny woman, check out Crazy Enough: A Memoir.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Godzilla and the China Syndrome

Godzilla’s emergence from the sea to destroy Tokyo was a potent figure of nuclear annihilation in 1956 when the film appeared on American screens. The film was directly linked to the controversial aboveground hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean at the time. How is the threat of nuclear radiation being presented today through films and other media?

This is the focus of  Tracking Godzilla: Images of Nuclear Radiation in Film and Media, a free conversation with cinema studies scholar Isabelle Freda on Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 2:00 p.m. at the Newport Public Library. This program is sponsored by Oregon Humanities, with additional help from the Sylvia Beach Hotel.

Freda is an independent scholar who has taught at numerous universities and colleges in the U.S. and abroad. She received her Ph.D. in cinema studies from New York University, and her research and publications include studies of the modern American presidency, German-American relations, 9/11, the imagination of disaster, the Cold War and nuclear national security state, the presidential campaign film, eco-politics, and film.

Through the Conversation Project, Oregon Humanities offers free programs that engage community members in thoughtful, challenging conversations about ideas critical to our daily lives and our state's future. For more information about this free community discussion, please contact the Newport Library at 541-265-2153 or go to its website,

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Rain Wilds Chronicles by Robin Hobb

Far up the Rain Wild River, whose poisonous waters dissolve the wood of normal boats and cause mutations in those who live too close, the Elderling city lies in ruins. According to the old stories, the dragons of long-ago created Elderlings to serve them, but now both seem no more than legends. Then a small group of dragonkind hatches and emerges from the sea, stunted and sickly but undeniably real. By hook and by crook, a party of low-caste young adults is forced to shepherd them up the treacherous river, seeking the riches of the fabled city to which the dragons may have the key.

The four books of The Rain Wilds Chronicles follow this seemingly hopeless quest through the eyes of several of the main characters. My favorite, Alise Finbok, is a scholar trapped in a sham marriage. After years of studying the few remaining Elderling artifacts in the world, she’s uniquely qualified to follow the party of young humans and dragons up the river, and to be there for what she hopes will be the historic rediscovery of the Elderling city. Other characters include Thymara, an outcast girl with severe mutations, Tats, a former slave, and Leftrin, a barge captain. Each struggles with the weight of the past as well as the challenges and wonders of the present.

Robin Hobb is also the author of the Farseer Saga, the Tawny Man Series, and the Soldier Son Trilogy, among others. She is renowned for her ability to create fantastic fully-realized worlds and strong character-based plots. The Rain Wilds Chronicles are meticulously crafted if a little slow, and although I enjoyed them and became engaged with the characters, I would recommend them mostly to dragon-lovers and fans of her previous series. If you have not yet discovered Robin Hobb, start instead with the Farseer Saga or the Liveship Traders books, both of which have faster pacing and perhaps more suspense. Hobb has also written a number of books under another pen name, Megan Lindholm, which are worth checking out if you find you like her style.

 The Rain Wilds Chronicles
 Dragon Keeper
 Dragon Haven
 City of Dragons
 Blood of Dragons

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Water Music by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Take a healthy serving of 19th-century picaresque adventure, stir in a generous handful of between-the-sheets, Tom Jones-like ribaldry, bake it all in the ironic literary stylings of the late twentieth century, and you might just come up with T. Coraghessan Boyle’s first novel,Water Music.

First published in 1983 and now in its 21st printing, Water Music follows the parallel adventures of British explorer Mungo Park, and London low-life, Ned Rise. The two men’s alternating narratives wend and weave their way through England and Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century. Eventually their fortunes collide in the middle of the African jungle when the ever-resourceful Ned joins Park on his second expedition up the Niger River. 

This wonderfully atmospheric novel fairly bursts at the seams with larger-than-life characters. You will meet Fatima, the four-hundred pound African queen and Katunga Oyuo, aka Johnson, who offers to guide Park up the Niger River for the price of a complete set of the works of WIlliam Shakespeare. Inhabiting exotic and dangerous settings, from the slums of old London to cannibal-infested African swamps, Boyle’s writing vividly displays a lust for life that knows few bounds and even less propriety. 

Water Music is a hilarious romp across two continents and you can reserve it here.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Start of Everything

Cambridge, England police detectives Chloe Frohmann and Morris Keene are investigating a badly decomposed corpse found in a drain. They know nothing about the victim, except that she was wearing a red sweater when she died.

Unknown to the police, someone else is investigating, too.  Mathilde is an intelligent and perceptive young woman who can barely tolerate human interaction. She works in the dead letter office at the University of Cambridge, where she is trying to track down the intended recipient of a series of passionate love letters (which Mathilde reads), sent to someone called Katja at Corpus Christi College. One of the letters mentions Katja’s red sweater.

These two investigations converge and intertwine in The Start of Everything, a British thriller by Emily Winslow.

The Start of Everything is fraught with confused identities, lost objects, undeliverable mail, and mistaken assumptions. The timeline spirals backwards, from the discovery of the body to the previous spring at a former manor house, once grand, now chopped up into a warren of apartments. There, tenants can easily listen to each other through the walls. As you might expect, they misunderstand what they hear.

The cops, Frohmann and Keene, are smart and well-trained, but preoccupied with their own separate emotional problems. This makes them only slightly more effective than the autistic girl, who views the world through a lens of fear and alienation. They stumble over vital clues without realizing their importance, misunderstand what they’re being told (and what they’re saying to each other), and allow the ragged edges of their lives to intrude upon their jobs.

The Start of Everything is messy, twisty, and atmospheric. It’s really different from the Golden Age writers I cut my teeth on - authors like Sayers and Christie, in whose hands clues always add up to tidy solutions. Nothing is tidy in Emily Winslow’s world - it’s a lot more like ours.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Strongest Librarian in the World!

With wry humor and clear-eyed optimism, librarian Josh Hanagarne shares his beautiful, unique, difficult and lovely memoir of life with Tourette’s Syndrome in his book The World’s Strongest Librarian. I feel like some disclaimer is in order—yes, he’s a librarian, I’m a librarian—but despite my natural sympathies for the breed, I swear I would have enjoyed this book anyway. I have no particular liking for weightlifters, after all, (no offense intended) and yet I hung on every word in those sections of the book as well.

Hanagarne's memoir is peppered with amusing commentary from the present, where he works at the Salt Lake City Public Library, but it starts back when he was a little kid with a huge love of books.  His Tourette’s first announced itself during the first grade Thanksgiving pageant where Hanagarne's efforts to act like a tree were undermined by constant and worsening facial tics. His childhood was defined by his loving and supportive parents, his love of reading, his family’s Mormon faith, and his Tourette’s Syndrome. These threads stayed with him, to be joined by the desire for his own family, and his own place in the world—which is where weightlifting, libraries, and now writing fit in.  His journey is both unusual in its details and familiar in its trajectory, so one can empathize and also marvel.

One thing I find fascinating about Hanagarne’s story is the way his family dealt with his condition on their own terms, and how that influenced his experience and his eventual adult choices. The other thing I love is the happy ending—well, there’s no ending, in the sense that Hanagarne is alive and well and currently enjoying his success as an author. But the memoir follows him through some difficult and even suicidal periods, when everything seemed grim—tics getting so bad he couldn’t eat, being too ‘weird’ to find love, not being able to hold down a job or stick with school due to periodic flare-ups—and yet, he pushed on, to greater control, greater understanding, and a good life of his own.

Hanagarne’s blog, established in 2009, is at

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Post-Neawanaka Blues

Newport Reads is over for another year, but the pleasure of reading Mink River, viewing the Readers Theater program, and attending Brian Doyle’s high-energy conversation lingers on. I am especially tuned in to Brian’s talk, because I just finished splicing a recording of it into eight segments, which I uploaded to YouTube.

I laughed along with the audience as I reviewed the footage, and felt a chill in my heart as he talked about the bombing in Boston (Brian’s talk was just three days after the Marathon) and the tragic, necessary stories that arose out of the events of September 11.

Brian shared so much with us in the space of 90 minutes, that it’s hard to encapsulate his talk in a sentence or two. We learned that he comes from a large, Catholic family; he learned Gaelic from his grandmother; he believes in miracles (people came out of his wife!); and he cries in public. We also learned that he didn’t write his book, his characters did, and he was just as surprised as his readers were that a crow spoke English and Cedar could talk to bears.

If you could not attend this memorable Newport Reads event, or even if you did, join us in the wonder of an evening spent with the lyrical, inventive mind of Brian Doyle. He doesn’t disappoint. - Sheryl

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Best Mystery Novel of the Year is ...

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny is the winner by a landslide in the Newport Library’s Best Mystery Novel of 2012 contest.

Newport voters gave the book three times more votes than any other contender.

(Interestingly, Penny was also the clear winner the last time we held this contest, in 2011. That year her novel Bury Your Dead got more than twice the votes of its nearest competitor.)

The Beautiful Mystery, part of the popular Canadian author’s Chief Inspector Gamache series, deals with the murder of the choir director of a famously reclusive monastery. Only reluctantly do the monks of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups open their doors to admit the police. Gamache uncovers deep conflicts in the silence of the cloister.

Three novels tied for a distant second place. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is the suspenseful story of a missing woman and a marriage gone horribly wrong. The Buzzard Table by Margaret Maron tells of an ornithologist who discovers a body while studying the habits of vultures - or so he claims. And The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins links small-town crime with big-time drug cartels in the hills of northern Mississippi.

This weekend major awards were given to mystery novels, not just by Newport Library, but also by the Mystery Writers of America and by Malice Domestic.

The Edgar Award, presented by MWA, went to Live By Night by Dennis Lehane, a story of gangsters and crooked cops set in Boston in the 1920s.

Malice Domestic agreed with Newport voters by granting the Agatha Award to Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Have you ever wondered what the earth would look like if all the people suddenly vanished? What would happen to our houses, our pets, our bridges and buildings? How long would it be before the last traces of our existence finally disappeared?

According to award-winning journalist Alan Weisman’s 2007 book, The World WIthout Us, it wouldn’t take very long. In fact, it’s rather disturbing how quickly our cherished possessions and grand monuments would turn to dust, as if we’d never been here at all. Makes ya think, don’t it?

Weisman’s book takes the reader along a fascinating timeline that counts off days, weeks, months, years, and centuries after the last human has gone. After a few days, our pets, those that have not already died from hunger or thirst, will wander the streets in feral packs. After a few months, power grids and water supplies will fail from lack of fuel and upkeep. Let a few years go by and our homes, apartment and office buildings will begin to rot from the inside out as insect-chewed 2x4 framing fails and glass windows shatter and fall onto the street. And centuries after our demise, our roads, tunnels, bridges and other monuments of steel and stone will turn to vegetation-covered heaps.

After a few thousand years, probably the last visible sign of our time here on planet earth will be four weather-worn faces carved out of the granite escarpment on Mount Rushmore. 

The World Without Us is a sobering but also highly entertaining look at just how transitory our lives are. And you can reserve it here.