Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

This is one of the historical novels by Anya Seton, whose actual name was Anne Seton Chase and who died in 1990.  The book can be characterized as “Gothicism” or as influenced by the “Dark Romanticism” which is represented within Edgar Allen Poe’s writing.  This genre suggests that humans are fated to suffer from impulses that are destructive to their happiness.  Dragonwyck is a mansion on a 19th century feudal estate of the Hudson River Valley in New York.  The estate and others around it are holdovers from the Dutch Patroon system, where the farmworkers and their families were considered as part of the landholder’s property.  

Seton presents Nicholas Van Ryan, the current owner of Dragonwyck, tall and arrestingly handsome, with noble features.  His eyes, instead of being black, are piercingly blue, which effect makes our heroine uneasy, in spite of her admiration.  For this is a story about love.  The book’s heroine is Miranda, a girl brought up on a farm, but one who always yearned for riches and romance.  Van Ryan is her distant cousin, and she has come to Dragonwyck to live for a time, to benefit from her cousin’s patronage and to help look after his young daughter.  

The duckling Miranda is thoroughly awed by all she sees, and although there are hints and dark foreshadowings that there is no real serenity in Dragonwyck’s luxurious surroundings, under Nicholas’ tutelage she begins her transformation into a graceful and beautiful swan.  The fly in the ointment is Nicholas’ wife, Joanna, who having failed to provide a son and heir to the estate, has been essentially banished from her husband’s esteem.  While he is excessively polite to her, he ignores her, and she has consoled herself in eating, becoming enormously overweight.

Seton sets her story in a time of rapid change on this continent, showing the small towns becoming centers of commerce, with trade increasing due to the railroad and the thriving industrial revolution.  The tenant-landlord arrangement of the Hudson manors is doomed to fall, with the tenants waking up and demanding, not asking, for the right to own their land.  Nicholas’ iron will has to grapple with these changes, and with the people around him who do not suit his desires and ambition.  

Miranda is bound by her own ill-fated desire for Nicholas.  Her fate is happier than his, since she will allow herself to bend under grief and disappointment.  Nicholas, who will not yield, must suffer the tragic consequences of his character.  Seton weaves her story well, making Miranda a sympathetic character by virtue of her unreasoning childishness, which seems realistic given her upbringing. 

Dark Gothic undercurrents thread themselves through the narrative.  The old Creole servant tells of a haunted presence in Dragonwyck, and we hear Edgar Allen Poe’s melancholy poem, “Ulalume”, recited by the poet himself, next to his wife’s sickbed. 

For a satisfying excursion into a simpler time, with characters that engage your interest and your emotions, Anya Seton’s Dragonwyck is well worth the read.  Click here for the entry in our catalog. 

In One Person / John Irving

I've read enough John Irving books by now that I think it's safe to say that if you pick up nearly any of his novels, you will inevitably find one or more of these motifs in it:
  • boarding school
  • wrestling
  • the Northeast
  • Austria
  • fatherhood issues (usually involving an unknown father)
  • the narrator's reflection on his life from the vantage of old age
  • the Bildungsroman (a coming-of-age novel)
I say that not to deter you from his stories, which are wonderfully written, but to point out that it takes a talented author to keep things fresh when he repeatedly returns to what are obviously subjects that are dear to his heart. Irving makes them dear to you, too, with his trademark storyteller's touch and his subtle but incisive sense of humor.

You'll find all of his favorite motifs in full force in his latest novel, In One Person (FIC IRVING and AD FIC IRVING). The protagonist, writer Billy Abbott, reflects on his life and and how it has shaped his sexual identity as well as the other way around — how his sexual identity has shaped his life.

Billy, we soon learn, is a bisexual man; he is attracted to both men and women. As a boy growing up in a small Vermont town, he struggles with the notion that he has "crushes on the wrong people." He grapples perhaps most of all with his infatuations with the callous but charismatic star of the wrestling team at his school, First River Academy, as well as with the town librarian, the mysterious Miss Frost. So it's no surprise that Billy's interactions with both his objects of desire prove unerringly formative.

Irving populates his story with a colorful cast of characters, each of whom leave their mark on Billy Abbott: The caustic Winthrop women of Billy's family and their patient, genial husbands, including the cross-dressing Grandpa Harry. There's Billy's best friend Elaine and her compassionate, unflappable mother Mrs. Hadley. Even Billy's biological father, curiously absent from his life, plays a role.

We follow Billy as he makes his way in the world, from small-town New England to Austria to the Big Apple. Irving does not shirk from exploring the HIV epidemic of the 1980s and the heartbreak it inflicts on Billy and many of his friends. We see Billy in his many forms: a writer, a lover, a friend, a son, a man — a person of many facets, his sexuality being but one of them.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The spark: a mother’s story of nurturing genius by Kristine Barnett

Kristine Barnett and her husband Michael’s oldest child, Jacob (Jake) was a bright and winsome baby and there were indications that he was special.  He listened to a favorite DVD and changed the language on it so he heard it in Japanese and Spanish too – which his parents weren’t really aware of until they heard him murmuring in Japanese in his crib at age 1, saying the story to himself.  But as Kristine says, a lot of parents think their child is gifted, so that they didn’t quite catch on to what his world was really like. 

But in the next year or so, Jake drifted away from them, and by age two and a half he was diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder similar to autism, and eventually diagnosed as being moderately to severely autistic.  He was not talking and not responding to those around him. 

Although Kristine and Michael testified to the special intelligence that Jake showed in his play – laying out hundreds of crayons (Kristine ran a daycare center from their house) exactly following the color spectrum, making complicated mazes of colored yarn that wound all through the house – the experts just told them sadly that often autistic children do have “high-functioning” areas, but that doesn’t make up for their isolation from others, which severely compromises their life as a human being.

Jake’s parents got on board with intensive therapy for Jake, with therapists coming to the house working one on one with Jake on social and motor skills.  Kristine noted that Jake was bored and restless in therapy, but when doing his own “playing”, he was focused and intent.  Finally Kristine realized that all this “therapy” took up so much time that Jake was missing childhood.  At age 3, he didn’t interact with kids, didn’t go running out to play with them.  So she started taking him for evening drives, out in the country….where they parked by a stream and listened to music, lay on the car hood and watched the stars, and ate popsicles.  Finally after six months of this, when she kissed him goodnight, Jake unexpectedly kissed her back and spoke to her, “night-night, baby bagel.”  

There are many such moments in the book.  Simply and straightforwardly narrated, Jake and Kristine’s story tells us how Kristine elected to “listen to her gut” and take Jake out of the Special Education preschool class, and work on getting him ready for “real” kindergarten.  For her, the wakeup call was when the Special Ed teacher asked her to stop Jake from bringing in his colored alphabet cards, which he loved, and Kristine realized that the school had no expectations that Jake would ever learn to read.

Already running a daycare, Kristine also started a twice a week night program for autistic kids to help stream them “back” into regular school classes. Her approach was to focus on their “spark” – what they loved to do, and work with that. For Jake it was puzzles, maps, and numbers.  The book shows how Jake and other autistic kids relaxed and opened up with this new world, a world not trying to push or pull them into something, but celebrating who they were and what they were good at. 

That’s why Kristine keeps reiterating that Jake’s story is for all parents. Jake had a textbook on star charts that he “found” at a bookstore and wouldn’t be separated from, so Kristine bought it.  He loved the stars and knew all the constellation names.   Kristine took Jake to a presentation at the local planetarium where Jake at 3 years old answered a question no adults seemed to know the answer to.  Never mind that he didn’t really talk yet to his family – but when the subject was right, there he was, raising his hand, unafraid and in the moment.

So, read this book if you want to hear more – how Jake went to college classes, and then went to college. Right now he’s working on his Masters in Quantum Physics at age 15.  There are certainly other youthful geniuses, but this particular story stands out – illustrating how those who don’t “fit in” can be an eye opener to us all.  

Find the book in our catalog here.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Some science books for your summer

Photo by Leo Reynolds available through a Creative Commons license

If you're a fan of reading science books, these titles may be just the thing for you. They're books in our collection that are nominated for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, which go to science books written for the general public (rather than specialists). The winner will be chosen in November.

The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body
By Frances Ashcroft
612.01427 ASHCROFT
"Beautifully clear, engaging and accessible. A live wire account of the body electric.
Bird Sense
By Tim Birkhead
"A wonderful glimpse into an alien world. Imagine how birds hear, taste and feel."
The Particle at the End of the Universe
By Sean Carroll
539.721 CARROLL
"Fizzing with enthusiasm. Makes you realize what the fuss with the Higgs Boson is all about."
Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change that Shape Life
By Enrico Coen
576.8 COEN
"Daring and ambitious. Succeeds in making transparent the mechanisms of evolution and development."
Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory
By Charles Fernyhough
Available soon
"Illuminating. This book is not only about how memory works but what memory means to us."
The Story of Earth
By Robert Hazen
"Brilliantly explains the origin of earth and life. Skilfully compressed into a punchy text."
Air: The Restless Shaper of the World
By William Bryant Logan
551.5 LOGAN
"Lyrical — the poetry of this book is beautiful. Delights in dust and scent and all that fills the air around us."
Ocean of Life
By Callum Roberts
551.46 ROBERTS
"A celebration and a wake-up call. The changing state of our oceans has never been made clearer."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Recommended Summer Reading for 2013

It's almost the beginning of summer, even though it really feels like it already is summer outside. With the start of our Summer Reading Program, (Please stop by and pick up some reading logs for the whole family, or you can print them directly off the website, if that works better for you.), I wanted to give you a heads up on the books that have shown up on recommended summer reading lists all over the United States. Give one of these a try! Happy Reading!

Maya's Notebook 
by Isabel Allende     FIC ALLENDE (also in large print and in audiobook)

After the death of her beloved grandfather, nineteen-year-old Maya Vidal, turning to drugs, alcohol, and petty crimes, becomes trapped in a war between assassins, the police, the FBI, and Interpol, until her grandmother helps her escape to a remote island off the coast of Chile where she tries to make sense of her life.

Ladies' Night
by Mary Kay Andrews    FIC ANDREWS (also in audiobook) 

Cut off from her palatial home and checking account after an act of post-divorce rage forces her to move in with her widowed mother and attend court-mandated group therapy, rising media star Grace Stanton bonds with three fellow patients who she helps plot respective pursuits of justice and closure.


by Max Barry        FIC BARRY  (coming soon)

At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as “poets:" adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive. As the two narratives converge (Emily Ruff and Wil Jamieson), the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. 

I'll Be Seeing You
by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan          FIC HAYES

Two women forge a friendship during World War II through their letters to each other, allowing them to survive the loneliness and uncertainty of waiting on the home front and giving them the courage to face the battles raging in their very own backyards.

Bad Monkey
by Carl Hiaasen       FIC HIAASEN   (also in large print and in audiobook)

Andrew Yancy, late of the Miami Police, soon-to-be-late of the Key West Police, has a human arm in his freezer. There is a logical explanation for that, but not for how and why it parted from its owner. Yancy thinks the boating-accident/shark-luncheon explanation is full of holes, and if he can prove murder, his commander might relieve him of Health Inspector duties, aka Roach Patrol. But first Yancy will negotiate an ever-surprising course of events, from the Keys to Miami to a Bahamian out island, with a crew of equally ever-surprising characters, including: the twitchy widow of the frozen arm; an avariciously idiotic real estate developer; a voodoo witch whose lovers are blinded-unto-death by her particularly peculiar charms; Yancy's new love, a kinky medical examiner; and the eponymous Bad Monkey.

by Joe Hill            FIC HILL   (also in large print)

Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go, whether it's across Massachusetts or across the country. Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4A2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing--and terrifying--playground of amusements he calls "Christmasland." Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble--and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx's unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He's on the road again and he's picked up a new passenger: Vic's own son.

And the Mountains Echoed
by Khaled Hosseini        FIC HOSSEINI  (also in audiobook)

Afghanistan, 1952. Abdullah and his sister Pari live with their father and step-mother in the small village of Shadbagh. Their father, Saboor, is constantly in search of work and they struggle together through poverty and brutal winters. To Adbullah, Pari, as beautiful and sweet-natured as the fairy for which she was named, is everything.

by Stephen King     FIC KING

Set in a small-town North Carolina amusement park in 1973, Joyland tells the story of the summer in which college student Devin Jones comes to work as a carny and confronts the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and the ways both will change his life forever.

Red Sparrow
by Jason Matthews     FIC MATTHEWS

Drafted against her will to serve the regime of Vladimir Putin as an intelligence seductress, Dominika Egorova engages in a charged effort of deception and tradecraft with first-tour CIA officer Nathaniel Nash before a forbidden attraction threatens their careers.

The Son
by Philipp Meyer       FIC MEYER    (also in large print and on audiobook)

Comanche Indian captive Eli McCullough must carve a place for himself in a world in which he does not fully belong -- a journey of adventure, tragedy, hardship, grit, and luck that reverberates in the lives of his progeny.

                The Yellow Birds
by Kevin Powers      FIC POWERS     (also on audiobook)

In the midst of a bloody battle in the Iraq War, two soldiers, bound together since basic training, do everything to protect each other from both outside enemies and the internal struggles that come from constant danger.

Big Brother
by Lionel Shriver     LP FIC SHRIVER  (only in large print)

"When Pandora picks up her older brother Edison at her local Iowa airport, she literally doesn't recognize him. In the four years since the siblings last saw one another, the once slim, hip New York jazz pianist has gained hundreds of pounds. What happened? And it's not just the weight. After his brother-in-law has more than overstayed his welcome, Pandora's husband, Fletcher, delivers an ultimatum: it's him or me. Putting her marriage and her adopted family on the line, Pandora chooses her brother--who without her support in losing weight, will surely eat himself into an early grave."

One Last Thing Before I Go
by Jonathan Tropper     FIC TROPPER

Silver has begun to accept that life isn't going to turn out as he expected. The ex-wife he's remained friends with is about to marry a terrific guy Silver can't quite bring himself to hate. And his Princeton-bound teenage daughter has just confided in him that she's pregnant—because he's the one she cares least about letting down. As the wedding looms and the pregnancy sinks in, this broken family struggles, bonds, and wrestles with each member's individual anxieties. Lives begin anew, change radically, or, in Silver's case—as he discovers that he could die at any moment without an operation he refuses to have—may be about to end in an instant.

The Silver Star
by Jeanette Walls       FIC WALLS   (also on audiobook)

Two motherless sisters--Bean and Liz--are shuttled to Virginia, where their Uncle Tinsley lives in the decaying mansion that's been in their family for generations. When school starts in the fall, Bean easily adjusts and makes friends, and Liz becomes increasingly withdrawn. Then something happens to Liz and Bean is left to challenge the injustice of the adult world.

Beautiful Ruins
by Jess Walter         FIC WALTER

A novel that spans fifty years. The Italian housekeeper and his long-lost American starlet; the producer who once brought them together, and his assistant. A glittering world filled with unforgettable characters.

The Blood of Heaven
by Kent Wascom      FIC WASCOM

"The Blood of Heaven is the story of Angel Woolsack, a preacher's son, who flees the hardscrabble life of his itinerant father, falls in with a charismatic highwayman, then settles with his adopted brothers on the rough frontier of West Florida, where American settlers are carving their place out of lands held by the Spaniards and the French. The novel moves from the bordellos of Natchez, where Angel meets his love Red Kate to the Mississippi River plantations, where the brutal system of slave labor is creating fantastic wealth along with terrible suffering, and finally to the back rooms of New Orleans among schemers, dreamers, and would-be revolutionaries plotting to break away from the young United States and create a new country under the leadership of the renegade founding father Aaron Burr."

                A Hundred Summers
by Beatriz Williams     FIC WILLIAMS

Returning to an idyllic Rhode Island oceanfront community for the summer of 1938, New York socialite Lily Dane is devastated by the appearance of her newly married ex-fiance and her former best friend.