Monday, December 30, 2013

A window to days gone by

Sometimes I stumble upon a plain little book that has drifted about the periphery of my consciousness, and realize with wonder and delight that I’m reading a true classic. Cold Sassy Tree is one of those gems.

Narrated by Will Tweedy, the novel’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, the book is set in the small town of Cold Sassy, Georgia, in nineteen ought six. Will’s Grandma Blakeslee has just died, and the family is in mourning. Besides having to wear a black armband, Will has to sit inside and eschew anything fun, which includes missing 4th of July festivities. His Grandpa Enoch Rucker Blakeslee, however, sees no value in wasting time mourning. Three weeks after his beloved Mattie Lou’s passing, he announces his intent to marry Miss Love Simpson, the beautiful young milliner who works in his general store.

Well-written and strong on character development, Cold Sassy Tree is also a page-turner. When Grandpa goes off to get married, Will decides he’s had enough of mourning and sneaks away to go fishing. As he saunters back home along a train trestle, a train approaches, and he has to lie between the rails as it roars above him.

Throughout the book, Will bears witness to the danger of secrets not kept, the cruelty of class prejudice, and the transforming power of love.

Cold Sassy Tree was inspired by family stories told to its author, Olive Ann Burns. Published in 1984, the book was adapted into a movie in 1989, starring Richard Widmark as Grandpa Blakeslee, Faye Dunaway as Love Simpson, and Neil Patrick Harris as Will Tweedy. Composer Carlisle Floyd wrote an opera based on the book, which premiered in 2000. I hope to see both someday.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Not Just Another Austen Wannabe

While I wouldn’t call myself a Jane Austen fanatic, I like me some Mr. Darcy action as much as the next gal. I have read Pride and Prejudice twice and watched the fairly recent movie version as well as the classic BBC miniseries. I tried in the past to read P&P spinoffs, the last attempt being P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley. I was not impressed. So it was with considerable trepidation that I picked up Jo Baker’s Longbourn, a version told from the perspective of the Bennets’ overworked maid, Sarah.

My verdict? I finished the book in two sittings, once before bed and again before work the next day, if that’s any indication! Believe it or not, Sarah’s love story rivals (and, depending on your taste, perhaps trumps) Elizabeth and Darcy’s in its simplicity and sacrifice. Jo Baker is a writer to take seriously—her prose is polished, sophisticated, and totally captivating. I will definitely keep an eye out for her future books and will be recommending Longbourn to Janeites (and others) in the meantime.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An Eccentric List Of Children’s Picture Books

... and one or two sentences on how they lay claim to my heart.

Dogzilla/Kat Kong by Dav Pilkey - (two books, actually) With great visuals and a playful irreverence, these books always make me laugh.

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey - Although I’ve never met a bear in the woods while picking blueberries, I hope I would do what brave Sal did: keep eating.

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell - A gentle look at what makes a family: love.

The Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin and Rosana Faria - A children’s book that can awaken in anyone a new way at “looking” at the world. Deep.

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak - This is the classic children’s book on the adventures of someone I can relate to, a willfully disobedient child.

Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough: Belief in yourself is the first step to your dreams coming true. And it rhymes!

Julius, Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes: I have an older sister and I’m sure she felt the same way about me, especially after I brought home my first all-A’s report card.

Eloise by Kay Thompson: Don’t we all sometimes wish we could live in the Plaza Hotel with our pug and spend our days ordering room service and playing on the elevators?

Pat The Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt: What’s not to like, it’s interactive!

The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright - Creepiest book ever. ‘Nuff said. How anyone could read this to a child is beyond me. I know this is more than two sentences but this book is truly the stuff of my nightmares. (see above photo)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Spinoff series from an old favorite

I’ve always admired Harlan Coben’s writing, and enjoyed many of his stand-alone mysteries and thrillers, like Gone for Good and Six Years. But I’ve largely avoided his well-known and popular Myron Bolitar series. I have no interest in the world of celebrity athletes, and Bolitar runs a sports agency, so I assumed the plots would be too sports-centered. However, Coben is a great writer, and I like books with teen protagonists, and so I’m edging up to the Bolitar series from the other side—from the point of view of Myron’s fifteen-year-old nephew, Mickey.

In Shelter, the first book of this spin-off Bolitar series, Mickey has just moved in with Uncle Myron and started attending high school as an incoming sophomore. His parents are out of the picture, but not out of his thoughts-- Mickey’s dad died in a car crash the previous year, and his mother, unable to cope, turned to drugs and is currently in rehab. Grief, confusion, and self-loathing run underneath Mickey’s generally easygoing exterior as he tries to move forward. He has a few things common with his newly-found uncle—one is, they’re both very tall, gifted basketball players. But an old rift in the family has left them awkward with one another, and Mickey keeps Myron at a distance, even as Myron tries to respect his space and be a responsible guardian at the same time.

Alas, Mickey and Myron are not left in peace to work things out. When Mickey’s new sort-of-girlfriend stops showing up at school, and her parents claim never to have heard of her, Mickey tries to track her down, drawing three new friends from his high school into the search. They learn that Ashley wasn’t at all what she seemed-- and she’s in danger that’s way over their heads.

Meanwhile, a neighbor known as “Crazy Bat Lady” tells Mickey that his father’s not dead. She locks herself back into her house before he can react. It drives Mickey crazy with heartache and curiosity, leading him to break into the bat lady’s house in a desperate attempt to find out if she's just loopy, or if she might know something. This makes him the target of a great deal of interest from an intimidating bald man in a black car, who turns up wherever Mickey goes.

Coben deftly draws out the multiple plot-lines, focusing on Mickey’s new friendships, which are a source of great strength as events force him into crisis mode. One of his new friends is annoyingly two-dimensional, but otherwise the secondary characters are well-developed. Coben is big on principled heroes, and Mickey is no exception, showing an idealistic devotion to standing up for others and seeing through outward appearances. But he’s also hotheaded, confused, and willing to break rules when necessary—someone most teenagers—or heck, most adults—can relate to. Mickey’s a likeable character, and when you reach the end of Shelter, you’ll be glad to know the second book, Seconds Away, is also available.

As a matter of fact, I liked this book so much, I think I’m going to have to set aside my sports-agency aversion and give the older Bolitar a chance.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Inner Beauty Wants Out!

Mirrors are more dangerous than guns or cars or crystal meth, because they’re cheap, readily available and everyone’s addicted. 

 Hankering for a clever, funny, and whimsical read? Look no further! Gorgeous, longtime New Yorker writer Paul Rudnick’s first attempt at young adult fiction, is part fairy tale, part gossip magazine, and part Laverne and Shirley.

Recent high school grad Becky Randall has always been average, not particularly tall or thin or pretty. Her life is totally upended one afternoon when her much beloved (and morbidly obese) mother dies in their trailer in East Trawley, Missouri. She soon learns that her mother had quite a past; far from being just a small-town woman, she was once a world-famous supermodel. Becky is contacted by Tim Kelly, a formerly reclusive fashion designer and old friend of her mom’s, who offers to make her three dresses that will magically transform Becky into Rebecca, ravishing model and actress extraordinaire.

What follows is funny, absurd, unbelievable, and totally charming. She’s on the cover of Vogue, she catches the eye of the Prince of Wales (no, not Charles, a much younger and appealing stand-in), she stars in a blockbuster movie. And she has an awesome best friend named Rocher (yes, like the chocolates) who keeps the laughs coming. Give Gorgeous a try—once you start it, you won’t want to put it down!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Love … Perish

Today I’m going to recommend a book that I know doesn’t sound very good when I summarize it.

It’s a short novel, a series of brief, sensitive vignettes about people whose lives are connected to each other by their actions - loving actions or cruel, selfish actions. And it’s written in verse.

I know. Stay with me.

The book is Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel by David Rakoff. The poetry is not beautiful stuff; it is a sort of jaunty, Noel-Cowardish doggerel that makes an interesting contrast to the sometimes quite serious tone of the stories.

In this snippet, for instance, Helen has been jilted by her married lover, who is also her boss:

The very next Monday, from others she heard, 
That, without her knowledge, he’d had her transferred. 
At least (tiny comfort) they didn’t demote her 
But Helen became what is known as a “floater.” 
Doing steno for this one, or helping with filing 
And through it all Helen made sure to keep smiling. 
The salt in the wound was the sight that then faced her, 
The looks he exchanged with the girl who’d replaced her. 

Once you get used to this - and I admit that it didn’t happen for me immediately - the power of the stories takes hold of you. They’re satirical, sharply-drawn, full of piercing observation and kindness and razor-blade wit. I really enjoyed reading it, and I know I’ll read it again.

Rakoff is known for his excellent essays and for his contributions to the NPR show This American Life.  (That link takes you to a really extraordinary live talk he did for This American Life; it's kind of long, but it's worth watching all the way through to the end.)

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is the book Rakoff wrote as he was dying of cancer in 2012. It’s an ambitious and impressive gem of a book, one-of-a-kind, as entertaining and lovely as it is unusual. Next time you’re in the mood for something different pick it up.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Thank you, Library2Go

Ever find yourself at a loss for something to read, but unable to get to the library? If you have a home computer or other compatible device, the library can come to you!

Last week I was stuck at home in the snow, but a quick search on Library2Go for currently available eBook mysteries led me to a list of reading options.  (To limit your search to available items, use "advanced search" and check the box that says "only items with copies available.")

Newer bestsellers won't show up on this list, because they generally have patrons waiting.  However, Library2Go has a large enough collection that there’s always something worthwhile available, if you take the time to look.

For instance, Anne Holt was unfamiliar to me, but her books sounded intriguing.  It turns out she's a Norwegian author who’s been nominated for an Edgar Award and won the Norwegian Bookseller’s Award.  I checked out and downloaded two of her books, What Is Mine and the sequel, What Never Happens.

Holt's work is notable for gritty, finely-detailed characterization and an emphasis on relationships, which made up for a slightly rambling plot in What is Mine, the first in a series of mysteries featuring Johanna Vik and Adam Stubo. Vik is a researcher and profiler, in an unofficial consultant capacity. She shares custody of a special needs child with her caring but immature ex-husband. Stubo is a police detective, who lost his wife and only child to a terrible accident. The two are drawn together during an investigation of child disappearances, when Vik agrees to profile the killer. A lot of time is spent developing the dynamic between Stubo and Vik, exploring their histories and current circumstances, and fleshing out the factors that affect their attitudes toward each other and the case.

What Never Happens, the second book, isn’t quite as well done. The concept is a little too pat—the perfect murderer, Johanna Vik tells Stubo at the beginning, would be a woman with no motive and no empathy, circumventing the standard lines of inquiry of the police, able to act coldly, without guilt or fear. And voila—one appears, killing random celebrities in a grotesque and unlikely fashion. Despite that, and an ending I found much too abrupt, I still enjoyed the characters and the way their relationship grew and changed in the years between the two stories.

Library2Go and Anne Holt saved me from hours of daytime television, and for that, I will be forever grateful. For more information on how to use Library2Go and what devices are compatible, please check out their website, stop by the library, or call us at (541) 265 2153.  Anne Holt's books are also available in hardcopy at the library-- see our catalog.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A flower behind barbed wire

Elizabeth Wein’s last book, Code Name Verity, was one of my favorite reads of 2012 (you can read my review here). I’ve been eagerly looking forward to her follow-up book, Rose Under Fire, ever since.  It doesn't disappoint.

Rose Justice grew up on her father’s Pennsylvania airfield and learned to fly as a young girl. When World War II broke out, Rose’s British uncle pulled some strings to get Rose admitted to the British Air Transport Auxiliary, where she and other women pilots fly non-combat missions, freeing up the male pilots for wartime flying.

After the liberation of Paris in 1944, she’s flying in France when she goes astray and gets taken by the Germans. Rose Under Fire tells the story of her ordeal in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Over 30,000 women were imprisoned at Ravensbrück. They included Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, lesbians, and political prisoners (like Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who hid Anne Frank).

Notoriously, around 80 of the Polish prisoners were subjected to cruel, often crippling medical experiments. Known as Kroliki (Polish for “rabbits”), those who survived the experiments were protected and cared for by the other women inmates. When, in the waning days of the war, the Germans began exterminating the prisoners of Ravensbrück, inmates hid the Kroliki, secretly moving them from barracks to barracks in an effort to keep them alive.

In Ravensbrück, Rose suffers from overcrowding, cold, hunger, and the constant fear of violent death. She also finds a desperate, determined community of women there, and takes part in the terrifying efforts to protect the Kroliki.

Rose Under Fire is an absorbing and suspenseful tale of resilience and sacrifice during the one of the darkest episodes of the War. I love the historical setting and exciting plot, and it’s my opinion that no one writes about the complicated friendships of women better than Elizabeth Wein.

You don’t have to read Code Name Verity before Rose Under Fire, but these books are so good - why not read both?

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Impossible Lives Of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

Greta Wells is a 30-something photographer whose life has come to a shuddering halt. It is Halloween night, 1985. Greta's twin brother Felix has just died of AIDS and his beloved partner Alan is now sick. To make matters worse, Nathan, her lover of ten years, has walked out on her. Only Greta's eccentric Aunt Ruth is the one stabilizing force in her life.

After falling into a debilitating depression, Greta undergoes electroshock therapy. Her doctor cautions she might experience certain feelings of detachment, but Greta is not prepared for what happens next. Over the course of twenty shock treatments, Greta travels back and forth in time.

It is Armistice Day, 1918, and Greta Michelson's husband Nathan has just returned home from the war. New York is in the grips of the Spanish Influenza and despite his shell-shocked condition, Nathan dives into his medical practice treating victims of the outbreak. Greta's brother Felix haunts the city's men's haberdasheries seeking furtive intimacy. Her eccentric Aunt Ruth is the one stabilizing force in her life.

 A few weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Greta Michelson is severely injured in a car accident, in which her Aunt Ruth, the one stabilizing force in her life, is killed. Her brother Felix, about to marry a senator's daughter, has been having an affair with Alan, the family attorney. And Greta's husband Nathan spends far too many evenings away from home.

 Three Gretas. Three lives. And one fascinating journey into the heart of grief, love and what it takes to mend a woman's broken soul. The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a hard book to describe but an easy one to dive into and enjoy. I did.

And you can reserve it here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Value Line Investment Survey

Newport Library now subscribes to the online edition of Value Line, one of the most respected names in investment research. Since 1931, The Value Line Investment Survey has followed hundreds of stocks in its portfolio, charting their performance and investment potential.

Patrons of Newport Library now have access to the complete investment survey. Our subscription also includes overview and commentaries sections which discuss portfolio additions, highlight stock picks and contain articles on the macroeconomic outlook as well as trends within specific industries.

Stock screens can be used to pick stocks based on a variety of variables including p/e, dividend growth expectations, industry growth projections, among others. Patrons can enter the stock name or ticker symbol under “Quotes.” Clicking on “View Full Research Report” brings up a pdf of the Value Line report for that stock. You can also view the complete report survey, or survey chapters, by clicking on “Investment Survey” and scrolling down to any chapter. This includes the small and midcap survey.

If you are new to investing, click on ‘Investment Education” and work through Value Line’s four-part tutorial. The Minot Public Library in North Dakota offers a great You Tube video which covers many features of the Value Line online subscription. You can access that tutorial here.

Value Line is available both in the library or from your home computer with your Newport Library card number. Navigate to the Newport Library homepage and click on “Databases.”

The Value Line subscription is a gift of the Newport Library Foundation.