Ken Scholes is an Oregon author of a five volume series titled the Psalms of Isaak (Lamentation, Canticle and Antiphon; Requiem and Hymn are still forthcoming). While this series has all the trappings of traditional epic fantasy he's really describing a post-technological society that has collapsed into near barbarism; the "magic" is all that remains of technology. While I normally don't enjoy audio books, the first is well worth listening to. It's a great production with different readers for each character's chapters.

Long ago there was a great civilization ruled by wizard kings. After a great war the world was destroyed by fire, disease and madness. Now much of the world is a terrible wasteland filled with rubble. Legends of the world before the destruction abound. One character tells another that there's a green place on the moon because one of the wizards went up there and created a great garden in which to live (and might be there still...). There are mechanical servants, dug out of the rubble and repaired and little mechanical birds act as message bearers.

We're introduced to this world when the city of Windwir is destroyed by a "great spell" that consumes everything in a blast of noise, wind, light and fire. The only survivor is a boy waiting for his mentor on a hill far outside the city. The blast is so powerful that it knocks him senseless. Windwir had a great library run by an order of monks, an archive of all the knowledge of the ancient world. The monks went out into the wastelands to scavenge old papers or bits of technology. They carefully doled out this knowledge in order to maintain power. A steam engine here, a bit of medicine there, some books to this king and some to that merchant lord; the weapons were never let out into the world.

The destruction of the library creates a power vacuum. The lords jockey for power and the remaining scraps of knowledge. There are also two competing sets of prophecies and in the finest human tradition the two factions are merrily slaughtering each other. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one character, so we hear from the stripling boy who survived the destruction, Rudolfo, a lord of one of the kingdoms, and a mechanical servant who is self aware enough to go by a name instead of a number. The world is well developed and the characters interesting. It's a great read for anyone who likes a lot of politics and power struggles (best served with a side of assassin.)

I'm not much into mysteries, especially when the puzzle is the main draw and the characters play second fiddle. But when the mystery is part of what makes a character tick, that's compelling reading. I'm reminded of one of the players in The Usual Suspects (name withheld to protect those of you who haven't seen this brilliant film - place a hold here!) and how the secret of his identity is revealed only in the final scenes.

Often when a story is narrated by a child, the tension comes from what is called the 'unreliable' or 'naive' narrator. The child gets to tell the story, but doesn't know everything or even understand all that he sees. The trick for the reader then becomes to read between the lines, and infer the part of the story the narrator can't tell you.

Emma Donoghue uses this technique to good effect in Room, the story of a boy and his mother who have lived all of his short life confined in an 11 by 11 foot room. The reason for their captivity is only slowly revealed as 5 year old Jack gains the intellectual capacity to start asking questions.

Peter Carey creates a sense of tension in His Illegal Self by telling the story through a narrator alternately known as 'the boy', Che and Jay. Jay lived a comfortable life with his grandmother in an apartment overlooking Central Park; When he is spirited away by a woman he supposes to be his mother, Che lives in a van, or a trailer, or anywhere else they can find to lay down, somewhere in Australia.

Nine-year-old Lawrence struggles to recount the story of his road trip from England to Rome with his mother and pesky little sister in Matthew Kneale's When We Were Romans. But why did they leave home so abruptly? And why does his mother believe they are being followed by Lawrence's father? The bewildered Lawrence tries to make sense of the strange adult behavior around him but prefers to read about science and history - the only bits of information that seem true to him.

A narrator can also be unreliable because of a mental illness or a disorder. In Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher, an autistic 15-year-old, sets out to solve the mystery of the murder of a poodle who is found on a front lawn with a garden fork through it. Christopher admires Sherlock Holmes and sets out to prove his favorite detective's methods by using them in the investigation of the death. Christopher has amazing powers of focus, but can't see the social clues between people that might lead him to understand the incident.

In a recent Portland Literary Arts lecture, author Elizabeth Strout talked about how fiction provides one of the few ways to really understand what it's like to be someone else. Even when seeing through a character's eyes is like looking through a hole in a wall and trying to figure out what's on the other side, the mystery is worth exploring.

After a day of work, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to sit on the sofa and have obedient and loving children welcome me with my slippers and a cup of tea while a well-trained dog fetches the newspaper (which has not been torn asunder and scattered to the winds in the required-by-law daily comics raid.) This imagined scene gives me a hopeless little chuckle as I enter what I affectionately call "The Battle Zone of Wars Eternally Lost", also known as "My House." For the sake of brevity (the soul of witless parenting) my dear husband and I call this place, simply, "The Zone."

My homecoming assessment of "The Zone" begins on the street as I monitor the noise level from outside the front gate. Silence does not guarantee détente, but screaming, yelling, and whining do almost certainly guarantee impending misery. The sound of a child practicing piano is a good sign, but the sound of, say, deafeningly determined Rachmaninoff means that my co-parent is waving the white flag of surrender and is completely ignoring the children in a last-ditch attempt to save any scraps of sanity he might have left after a day of endless screeching demands. There is no sitting on the sofa (unless my spouse has gone beyond Rachmaninoff and is huddled in the far corner of the couch with a blanket over his head.) There is no tea if I do not prepare it, and instead of a dog we have a cat with a personality disorder who bites only me, routinely and somewhat enigmatically, with no provocation or warning. Whatever The Zone holds, the objective is always the same: survive through Bedtime. If I live to tell the tale, my reward is a little television. I am sorry to say there are only three existing seasons of my latest favorite BBC show, Clatterford. On British soil it goes by the title Jam and Jerusalem, but they changed it for the American audience. Don't ask me why--trading reference to a familiar food and a known geographical place for the name of an obscure English town is the sort of sensible exchange that goes through my cat's brain just before she sinks her fangs into my flesh.

The show is a kinder, gentler comedy from the brilliant mind of Jennifer Saunders, creator and star of the searingly hilarious Absolutely Fabulous. The show centers around the life of Sal Vine (Sue Johnston), a nurse and recent widow in the small town of Clatterford St. Mary. Sal's efforts to reorder her life after her husband's death orbit around her grown children and the town Women's Guild, which is populated with fascinating minor characters. Outrageous comedic bits--Rosie (Dawn French) nursing a lamb in the pub; accidental vacuuming of church displays of the Nativity/Palm Sunday/Resurrection in which the primary players have been carefully crafted using stalky roadside weeds with googly eyes; Caroline's (Jennifer Saunders) constant misuse of pornographic sexual terms--are balanced with sincere drama. Loneliness washes in and out of lives as the characters struggle with relationships lost and found. Clatterford is complicated and messy. It's funny and familiar and at the end of the day you can't wait to go there. Just like home. Without the cat bites.

In the early 1960s a librarian and a postal worker fell in love and married. They loved art and began to collect what they could afford, living on her salary, buying with his. At the time what they bought was modern and conceptual art. It was cheap and many of the artists were starving. Now the artists are household names and the librarian and the postal worker own one of the largest and most important collections in the world. And they still live in their one-bedroom, rent controlled Manhattan apartment.

"We never realized something was going to become important...we never thought of that." Dorothy Vogel

Megumi Sasaki tells the inspiring story of this couple in Herb and Dorothy. The film has garnered a number of awards, including winner of the "Audience Award" at the Hamptons Film Festival, and winner of  the "Best Documentary" award at Provincetown Film Festival.

 A portion of their collection was recently in Portland as part of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: 50 Works for 50 States Projects, which distributes their vast collection across the country for all to enjoy.

*quote by Patrick Mimran

Here's a rare treat for music lovers, armchair travelers, and those who value the cultural background of current events: the 68-minute DVD documentary "Umm Kulthum: a voice like Egypt", narrated in English by Omar Sharif.

Umm Kulthum was an immensely influential Egyptian classical singer. For decades she performed to sold-out houses across the Arabic-speaking world, reviving and expanding the tradition of sung poetry. She was a patriot and a nationalist -"Music must represent our Eastern spirit", she said -  but she was an artist above all. Learn by ear, play by heart, she instructed her musicians; and like "a preacher inspired by her congregation", as novelist Naguib Mahfouz described her, her hours-long concerts would bring her audiences to a state approaching ecstasy. She has no counterpart in the West. She swayed kings and presidents; when she died in 1975, four million people came out for her funeral; and even now, every day at five o'clock Cairo radio plays a song by Umm Kuthum. This short, well-edited film is a fine portrait of a great singer, but it also provides a remarkably compact, insightful look at the evolution of modern Egypt.

Mesdames et Messieurs, I bring you a tale of love and betrayal and revenge. It is the year 5053. Young friends from Paris’s most powerful families are set against one another after one of them meets a mysterious stranger during Carnival on Luna. The stranger calls himself the Count of Monte Cristo, and he has come to live in Paris after amassing a huge fortune in the far reaches of Eastern Space. No one knows the details of his past, but soon he begins to influence every aspect of Parisian society, and the dark secrets of those who are in power begin to be revealed.

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo is an animated Japanese television series, a retelling of Alexander Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo. It had me captivated from its first moments and kept me that way for all 24 episodes with its suspenseful, sensuous plotting, beautiful artwork, and its brilliant 19th/51st century atmosphere.

A new edition of Letters from America by Alexis de Tocqueville has arrived at the library and what a find it is for me! Chatty, opinionated and full of history from the perspective of a Frenchman in America, these letters were written in 1831 and many of the trends and characteristics that struck Tocqueville are still evident even today. I can't resist commenting below.

His main opinion about the American character is that Americans have an "immoderate appetite for wealth, and a desire to get rich quickly."

Did this play out in the financial melt down of recent years?

He also characterizes Americans as living "in perpetual fickleness, a continual need for change, the total absence of old traditions, ancient mores, a commercial and mercantile spirit applied to the most incongruous things."

Perhaps this seeking spirit is why we are such an inventive, creative and industrious people today.

He and his companion and fellow lawyer, Gustave de Beaumont came to America to study the American prison system. They wrote that in the prisons of New York absolute silence was required of all inmates and harsh punishment for violations was rigorously applied. Tocqueville goes on to say, "Strength lies not in numbers but in association, and thirty individuals united by constant communication, ideas, common projects, schemes, have more effective power than nine hundred people whose isolation is their fatal flaw."

Does our strength lie in always being in touch through Facebook, Twitter and texting?

Tocqueville was concerned for his family left in France during much political turmoil. He writes, "While the political world engenders revolutions in Europe, here physical nature is prey to frightful convulsions. All the talk is about enormous hurricanes and appalling devastations; New Orleans, the Antilles, have been the theater of these calamities."

I couldn't help, but think about the recent devastation in New Orleans and Haiti.

De Tocqueville and Beaumont, visit the virgin forests of the Detroit area. I was surprised when he wrote, "some of the forest dwellers use the bears as guard dogs; I saw a few tethered near doorways."

I was also surprised to learn that "The custom among women of the forests (Chactas Indian)  is to have their feet pointing inward...It is achieved by binding the feet of female infants. By age twenty, a woman walks pigeon-toed, and the more pigeon-toed her walk the more fashionable she is thought to be."

I admire Tocqueville's endearing honesty: "In short, there is no one in the world I know less well than myself; I am a permanently insoluble problem. I have a very cool head and a reasoning--even calculating--mind; at the same time, ardent passions carry me off without convincing me, subdue my will without compromising my reason. I see the good very clearly, and spit it every day."

Tocqueville is clearly thinking of writing a book about his experiences and ideas about America when he writes, "I shall write what I think or write nothing at all, while bearing in mind that wisdom does not want every truth aired." This book would be his famous Democracy in America published in 1835.

My friend told me about a 2006 book by the Frenchman Barnard Henri Levy called American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. He apparently traveled in America recently. Shall I make this my next read? What new surprises will I find?

Awards. No matter what contemporaries may think of them when they are given, no matter how arbitrary they may be, over time they come to represent 'the best' of an era, a must-see, must-read, must-have. Few of us have time to read everything that we would like, so often we look to these awards as guideposts.

I confess, I don't think I would have read The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi if it had not won the Hugo Award (tying with China Miéville's The City and the City). And that would have been my misfortune. It's an extraordinary novel that takes place in Thailand after fossil fuels are kaput and genetic modification has led to waves of plagues. Energy, in joules or calories, is the population's obsession. The story is slow going at the beginning, but once the titular character is introduced the pages fly. Emiko is a genetically augmented human, trained to be a courtesan but discarded and surviving as a sex worker of a far less genteel type. To the people she encounters she is an aberration, but within herself she is at least as human as any of them. She shares the book with several less sympathetic characters, chiefly an American Calorie Man looking to manipulate the Thais into letting him access their seed bank and a Chinese refugee who has been taught by cruel experience to be relentlessly self-interested.

The Windup Girl does what much of the best science fiction does, concocting a future from germs of the present while placing the characters squarely in the center.

And we know it's among the best that 2009 had to offer because it won an award, right?

While I've already named a number of good books in earlier entries (and you really should go put a hold on the first book in the Dresden Files), I didn't cover them all by any means. Here are a few more titles that you shouldn't miss from 2010.

Steven Brust has been writing books in the Jhereg series since 1983. His latest, Iorich, brings the total number of volumes to thirteen. Vlad Taltos, is a thief...and an assassin....and a gang boss running drug dealers, prostitutes and engaging in other illegal activities. He's also a witty and likable underdog. He's an amateur chef owing to a childhood spent in a restaurant (don't read Dzur if on a diet) and loyal to his friends. You can't help but like a character who you'd want to see in jail for life if he were a real person. Brust's writing style has improved over the last 27 years but all the books are slim and quick reads. The first books in the series are available as omnibus volumes starting with The Book of Jhereg.

Speaking of main characters who really should be facing the hangman's rope instead of being protagonists, try The Conqueror's Shadow by Ari Marmell. The story could be summed up as "what happens when the Evil Overlord retires...". Corvis Rebaine cut a bloody swath across the world and was known as "the Terror of the East". Now he lives quietly under an assumed name, with his wife and children in the middle of nowhere. Obviously that's not going to last or it would be a boring book.

N.K. Jemisin published her first two books this year. I've already praised her debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Her second book The Broken Kingdoms is also very good. Ohree, a blind artist who can only see magic, takes in a strange, homeless man on a charitable impulse. This lands her in the middle of a conspiracy. Someone is murdering the godlings that live among mankind and leaving the desecrated bodies all over the city. Ohree's guest is somehow entangled in the mess.

Lastly, gentle reader, peruse Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate, a steampunk urban fantasy series set in an alternate Victorian England with vampires and werewolves. Alexia Tarabotti is a young lady of good family who is far too firm willed and practical to be appropriate in a lady of breeding. While not great classics of literature these three volumes are pleasing diversions for any lady of discerning tastes.

Last spring, I finally got to visit Scotland, Land of the Tartan and black slugs, which I dubbed the MacSlug. Part of that trip included a 73 mile trek on The Great Glen Way, one of the many long-distance paths in Britain. Most of the walk was through or alongside beautiful scenery including placid lochs, rolling pastures filled with cute little lambs and a few shaggy Highland cows, and forests (although I was shocked to see some pretty darn ugly clear-cuts as well). Shortly after coming home, a mystery passed my desk entitled A Small Death in the Great Glen.  I knew I had to read it, and although I couldn't figure out if the fictional village was based on one that I had passed through, I was pleased to revisit the landscape if only in literature. The small death is that of a young boy who has been found in a canal (the Caledonian Canal that along which I had walked miles?). Turns out that he had been murdered and dumped in the water. Who would do such a thing? Several young girls might know, but they're not telling. Employees of the local newspaper are the amateur detectives in this debut novel and they're a pretty interesting bunch. I'm looking forward to the second in this series. I just polished off another new debut mystery from Scotland, this time set in 1860s Edinburgh. In The Unbelievers, our middle-aged detective, Inspector Allardyce, is trying to figure out who has bumped off the Duke of Dornach. What was, at first, a missing persons case, turns into a murder investigation when the Duke is found shot. We travel with Allardyce through the dirty underbelly of Victorian Edinburgh society and politics as we visit the Duke's questionable haunts and hope that we get to the murderer before he or she strikes again. If you're still hankering for Scotland after these two, read Raven Black by Ann Cleeves, set in the Shetland Islands. But don't blame me if you feel the need for a shot of whiskey after all this death!

Flowers are very important to me. I put up a couple vases at a time in our house. One has to be on the dining room table and another on the fireplace mantle. And if I am really flower rich, I will put a couple vases in the bathroom or bedroom. I am usually flower rich when flowers are blooming in our garden. In the dead of winter I splurge for flowers on payday.
I mark certain times of years by which flowers are in bloom. February is all about hellebore and daphne. Because it can be dark and gloomy in Portland in the winter, seeing these plants in bloom means the sun is coming with spring on its heels.
So when I found the book The Flower Shop by Sally Page I was thrilled! The Flower Shop is one year in the life of a flower shop in a village in England. Each chapter is about a month of the year. Every month is marked with holidays that are celebrated with flowers. Birthdays, parties and weddings are celebrated throughout the book. Pictures and tips for flower care weave their way through the pages. If you are looking for something touching and colorful, this is the book for you. 

Suzanne Jauchius and Jeanne Boylan, collaborators and friends, have both been asked,"Why can't you just be normal?"

Both Suzanne Jauchius, a modern day psychic, who sees things about people, and Jeanne, who works with crime victims to draw pictures of assailants, have written books about their search for authenticity.

Suzanne was only eight when her mother declared,"You can only go to the party if you promise not to bring home all the prizes…It's not normal."

But even with a blindfold, Suzanne could see where to pin the tail on the donkey or who had the thimble. She thought she was just clever and smart. Shamed for who she was, Suzanne began the lifelong quest to find her place - to find where she fit in - to find her way home. It took eight years of intense therapy, supportive friends and constant work to gain a new awareness of who she is and how she can use her gift.

Suzanne read excerpts from her new book, You Know Your Way Home, at a recent Brown Bag Lunch and Learn at the Central Library. She detailed how she overcame a lifetime of criticism and skepticism from those closest to her to follow her passion.

Now an intuitive consultant with an office in West Linn, Suzanne uses her ability to help others discover some truths about their lives. She and Jeanne Boylan first became acquainted when working together on a case in England. Jeanne was able to produce a sketch that is the precise face of the last person seen with the victim. Over the years, the two women became friends and have worked on many cases together including the PollyKlaas kidnapping.

Early in her career when Jeanne was still trying to leave the business of interviewing victims and drawing police sketches in order to have a normal life, Suzanne sees Jeanne "doing a lot of work for the FBI, writing a script or manuscript and working with a man named Ron or Rod… this work will never let you go..." All of this comes true.

Jeanne did work with the FBI, wrote a script and continues to work with police. She worked with law enforcement on the Susan Smith case and the Oklahoma City bombing and was the one to produce an accurate sketch of the Unabomber. Read about her interview techniques and details of the cases (as well as Suzanne's predictions) in Portraits of Guilt: The Woman Who Profiles the Faces of America's Deadliest Criminals.

They say Americans don’t read in translation. I bet that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo torpedoed those statistics. Looking over what I’ve read in the past year, I only see three titles originally written in a language other than English, and two of those are Swedish mysteries Roseanna and Faceless Killers.

It’s amazing how ‘bits of elsewhere’ can be experienced through fiction – from weather to architecture to a completely different way of understanding the world.In their ‘Read My Country’ series, the BBC World Service asks authors “If you had to recommend three books or poems that would deepen a visitor's understanding of your country and culture, what would they be?” So far they have spoken to writers from eight countries, and I have only read one of the books named: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, one of the Nigerian author’s choices. The series of course makes me wonder – what books deepen a visitor’s understanding of our country and culture?



Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service by Mark Pendergrast The Epidemic Intelligence Service is a rarely-heard-of division of the Centers for Disease Control, and the medical equivalent of the CIA. How cool is that?! These folks, epidemiologists by trade, try to study and prevent virtually every threat to public health that's around--and they've been at it since 1951. They've dealt with smallpox and Ebola, found that people can get rabies from bats without being bitten, started the first surveillance system for birth defects and helped identify folic acid as a preventative for spina bifida. They've investigated mass hysteria in schools, sick-building syndrome, proved that aspirin can cause Reye's syndrome, that toxic shock syndrome was caused by super-absorbent tampons, and that Lyme disease came from ticks. They've investigated lead poisoning, multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis, parasites, pesticides, and cholera. But they also study things like cancer clusters, obesity, heat waves, binge drinking, violence and suicide.This book is graphic--not for the squeamish. But for those among us who love this kinda thing, it is just the ticket. Plus that cover illustration is the shiz.

Every so often over the course of my life, I've pondered my happiness. Sometimes (during most of graduate school), I was decidedly NOT happy. Other times (say, when I'm hanging out at my favorite place at the beach reading or crafting), I feel quite peachy. Gretchen Rubin asked herself whether she was happy and came up with something like "Yes, but I could be happier." That question (and answer) began a year long quest to create more happiness in her life. It's not the totally self-indulgent project that it initially seems to be; she realized that if she were happier, the people around her (like her husband and kids) would also be happier. She designed a project for each month of the year starting with decluttering her apartment in January. Other endeavors included eating less "fake food", writing a novel in one month, and tackling nagging tasks. To find out if she did, indeed, get happy, read The Happiness Project.

Unlike Gretchen, who made a conscious choice to be happier, Dominique Browning's shift toward happiness was forced upon her when House & Garden, the magazine for which she was the editor, folded. Fortunately she had resources, unlike so many Americans who have lost their jobs and are up Unemployment Creek without a paddle. Dominique basically slowed life down - sold her big house in New York and moved to a smaller one in Rhode Island where she lived in her pajamas, gardened, swam and, apparently, finally got over her decade-long, on-again, off-again relationship with a man whom she dubbed Stroller. She was going to call him Walker, "as that's what he did best: walked away", but apparently he objected. She relates her year in Slow Love.

Now don't you wish you had a whole year of freedom (with financial resources) to get all happy and content?



I'll start with this: I don't hate to cook. I just hate to cook for my current captive demographic, which includes a child who begs for sushi in his wretched school lunch every day and a child who maintains a firm company policy of automatically rejecting anything that is not a fruit. Which kids in America scorn spaghetti and

meatballs for dinner? Mine. Or homemade macaroni and cheese? Mine again. In all honesty, we would do best to just cut out the middleman and throw the children's portions of most any given meal directly into the garbage.
Verily I say unto thee, the joys of the kitchen are never-ending. When it falls outside of the Three Most Favored and Accepted Meals (as it is wont to do most every night given the laws of physics and statistics and the fact that I can only consume so much frozen Trader Joe's Orange Chicken), supper can degenerate into an elaborate theatrical production of gagging noises and dessert bribery or the very occasional pyrotechnic parental meltdown, quickly proceeding to premature bedtime for the juvenile offenders and a brat-banishment victory trip through the neighborhood Dairy Queen take-out window for celebratory Blizzards and onion rings by the most fed-up adult. For parents of picky eaters, maintaining maturity is a rough and rocky road. You are practically guaranteed to fall off a cliff or find yourself gnawing off a limb at some point.
Imagine my delight to discover that another woman declared my same sentiments of the superior suckatronic suckitude of supper fifty years ago. Peg Bracken published The I Hate To Cook Book in 1960. While there are a few recipes I might actually try (Hellzapoppin Cheese Rice!) the brilliance is in the confessional sarcastic tone and the wary wearied optimism of it as a whole. It is book before cookbook and time travel to a place where there are no locavores or slow food movements. Tempeh arugula wraps have yet to be invented. If a can of Cream of Chicken got you out of the soul-deadening kitchen and back in front of the typewriter (or other preferable creative endeavor) faster, then all the glory and honor to advancing food science and pass the scotch and soda. And just to put some Fake Hollandaise on the Sole Survivor (or icing on the Hootenholler Whisky Cake) there are fantastic little Hilary Knight drawings to introduce each cleverly-named chapter. If I lived in 1960 I might be tempted to scoff copyright laws and embroider these on tea towels.  
I was even more delighted to discover that this is only the most famous of Bracken's many books. I am happy to have a whole treasure trove of material written by a woman who once lived here in Portland (and worked as an advertising copywriter along with Matt Groening's father, Homer.) If Erma Bombeck was a character in The Simpsons, she would sound like Peg Bracken--eternally lighting cigarettes while staring sullenly at the sink, waiting for some souped-up thing to simmer and declaring that dinner should never take longer to cook than it does to eat. 
Amen, Sister.

The Disappearing Spoon (and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean

For those of us who struggled with high school chemistry at the hands of a sadistic middle aged teacher having an affair with the trigonometry instructor (and I know you’re out there) we can now make anotherattempt at understanding the periodic table, and thank God, I say. Kean’s writing makes the subject matter so wonderfully approachable--he welcomes you in, pours you a cold one, and just starts telling great stories about the elements.

There’s neon rain, gas warfare, ruthless scientists, passion, betrayal, adventure and obsession. What cool prank can you pull with gallium and a cup of tea? Why was cadmium the Godzilla killer? And did you hear about Marie Curie’s sullied reputation? There are some black and white illustrations and photos, and one of them is of an old ceramic urn-like device called a Revigator, a pottery crock lined with nuclear radium. Users, back in the day, filled it with water which turned radioactive overnight. The manual suggested drinking six or more refreshing glasses a day. Yum. Maybe there’s a chance for me to love chemistry after all. 

There are only four of authors I "follow", eagerly awaiting each new book. I even have alerts set up in the 'Books in Print' database available through the library – as soon as any of them have a new book announced, I get an email. They are: Kate Atkinson, Connie Willis, Laurie R. King, and Kage Baker

I remember my discovery of Baker very distinctly. I read the review of her first novel, In the Garden of Iden, in Library Journal in October 1997, which summarized the plot as follows: “The initial assignment for 18-year-old Mendoza, transformed into an immortal cyborg by the 24th-century Company, is to retrieve from Renaissance England an endangered plant that cures cancer. Posing as a Spanish lady accompanying her doctor father, she falls in love with the mortal Nicholas Harpole, secretary to the owner of Iden Hall and its exotic gardens. Amidst the raging Catholic/Protestant powerplays revolving around the English throne and the fervent religious bloodlust of common folk, Mendoza is torn between her task and her love.” Immortality, time travel, and the Reformation! I was highly intrigued. The next week I saw a copy on the new book shelf, and a love affair began. Oh, the highs and lows as I followed The Botanist Mendoza through centuries of pining over Nicholas (and his Company-fabricated reincarnations). Oh, the horrendous cover art. Before it was over, The Company series spanned nine novels, two short story collections, and four novellas. I loved Baker’s characters, and while I occasionally had serious problems with her plot choices, I was passionate about everything she wrote.

Her other series has no name, and is usually referred by the title of the first book, Anvil of the World. Each of these humorous, original fantasies stands up well on its own. My favorite is House of the Stag, which chronicles the life of the half-demon Gard from outcast among the extremely-peace-loving Yendri, to slave held by evil magicians, to his adulthood as Master of the Mountain – loving father, devoted husband, feared by the entire continent.

There will be no more 'alerts' for Kage Baker. This year we lost her.

The library’s stock of In the Garden of Iden had dwindled down to one copy, but it was recently reprinted and more are on the way. Don’t let the cover art scare you.

Brandon Sanderson is one of the strongest new voices in fantasy. He has written several novels set in his own worlds before starting his newest series, a ten volume epic fantasy. Tor books is gambling that it will be a hot seller for years to come. Sanderson is also currently finishing off Robert Jordon's Wheel of Time series. Honestly, I think Sanderson is the better author and suspect the last few books of the Wheel of Time may be the best because of him. His biggest strength is his careful and detailed world-building.  

Sanderson's newest book The Way of Kings is the first in a planned ten volume series and clocks in at a mere 1001 pages. The tome is illustrated: one of the characters is an artist so the pictures are "her" sketches of the world. This is a big help as the world is very different from ours and the pictures show some of the oddities. The world is subject to terrible scouring storms that blow everything down to the rock. Plants and animals burrow into the ground or have shells to protect them. A person trapped outside with no shelter is probably dead. The magic system is based on infused gemstones powered by these terrible storms. 

Long ago, to the point it has become mostly legend, there was an order of powerful Knights protecting the world from something (this is book 1 of 10 after all, we don't get to know much yet). All that remains of them are their suits of Shard plate and their Shard blades. Either of these will turn a regular man into a terrifying force on the battlefield. A man who owns both objects is nearly unstoppable and wars are fought over them. Don't let the length of the book scare you off. It flows well and moves quickly. One tenth of the way into the series and I'm really looking forward to the next book. I'm even happier that Sanderson writes quickly and gets his books out in a timely and regular manner. I will be surprised if book two isn't out a year from now.

Sanderson's other books include Elantris, where the gods have lost all their powers, the Mistborn trilogy where a thousand years ago the Evil Overlord won and Warbreaker, where each person has a "breath" of power and the more you collect the more powerful you are (and the poor souls that sell their breath out of desperation are doomed to a drab life, dulled by the lack). They're all good. He's also writing a children's series, Alcatraz, meant for about 9-12 years old.  I read the first book in the series and it was a fun little read even for an adult reader. 


Our guest blogger is Emily-Jane, a reference librarian at Central and Belmont libraries, and a regular contributor to Furthermore: Where the Headlines Take You, where you can read her latest raves about books and films that have something to do with current news stories.   

There's a real trend in public radio these days for shows that focus on storytelling. The long running story show This American Life has been joined by Snap JudgmentRe:SoundThe Moth Radio HourState of the Re:Union, and Radio Lab, all shows centered around personal narratives, anecdotes, and other tales. The focus on stories brings the human element to the forefront in these shows, and let me tell you, I am hooked. I haven't been so in love with the radio since I was a kid in the 1980s, in the midst of another fad in public broadcasting: radio theater.

Starting in the late 1970s, regular series like NPR Playhouse, Earplay, and National Radio Theater of Chicago presented drama miniseries every week.  Some were imported from abroad, and some were produced in the U.S. Many were dramatizations of popular novels or adaptations of films, and if my memory serves, an awfully high percentage were some kind of science fiction. I wasn't too picky – I memorized the radio schedule and listened faithfully to whatever story was on offer. And although I haven't found any regular radio dramas on the air in Portland nowadays, I can still get my radio play fix at the library!

The most famous public radio dramas of the 1970s and 80s, no doubt, were Star Wars and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but I think my personal favorite was The Fourth Tower of Inverness. It's a mystery/science fiction tale about Jack Flanders, a likeable young man who travels to visit his aunt Lady Sarah Jowls at her mansion, Inverness.  The place is fully stocked with odd characters – the Madonna Vampira, Old Far-Seeing Art, a million-and-a-half year old Venusian named Little Frieda, Dr. Mizoola the alchemist, and several others. Lady Jowl's husband, Lord Jowls, is missing, having disappeared some years before into the mysterious fourth tower (most folks only see three towers on the mansion, but Jack sometimes catches a glimpse of that fourth one), and Jack sets out to find him.  With, of course, the help and hindrance of all the other strange folk who live at Inverness.

I listened to The Fourth Tower of Inverness originally when I was about 12 years old, and always remembered it fondly – especially the introduction to each episode when the narrator announces in stentorian tones, "The FOURTH. . . TOWER . . . of INVERNESS."  My that gave me chills!  So, when I realized the library had it on CD I listened to it again.  Here's what my adult drama critic has to say: This is a weird, weird story with a major helping of spiritual and quasi-spiritual concepts: past life regression, Sufi mysticism, shamanistic communication.  The narrative is erratic and the sound effects are wild and vivid.  The characters are boldly drawn, but less cartoonish than you might imagine. The mystery is indeed mysterious, the setting is compelling, and the theme at the beginning of every episode gave me the same chills it did when I was a child!

If The Fourth Tower of Inverness suits you, there are a number of other radio tales about Jack Flanders.  If not, never fear – you can get a wide variety of other radio dramas, including This American Life, at the library.