Authors Neal Stephenson & Emily St. John Mandel: Different Visions for the Future of Mankind

Today’s guest post is by Harold Kramer, our go-to sci-fi guy!

While his works are usually categorized as science fiction, author Neal Stephenson’s novels span many genres, since they interweave politics, religion, archaeology, philosophy, technology, computer programming, and cryptography.  His novels take place the past, present, and future and often include actual historical characters.  His early, innovative cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash was named one of Time magazine’s 100 best English-language novels.

My favorite Neal Stephenson book is Cryptonomicon.  It takes place during two distinct periods, World War II and 1997.  The main characters are from the same family, but they are from different generations.  It’s a novel for people who like science-based, thought-provoking, fiction.  The plot focuses on the British government’s efforts at code breaking during World War II. If you are familiar with the movie The Imitation Game, many of the real-life characters in that film appear in this work of fiction.

I recently read Stephenson’s latest novel Seveneves.  In this book, Earth becomes uninhabitable when an unidentified object strikes the moon that bursts into fragments.  These fragments eventually surround and smother the earth.  Humans survive by migrating to “space arks” where they must live for thousands of years.  Through various circumstances, political squabbles, and other unforeseen events, seven women, the seven Eves, are left to re-populate mankind. However, five thousand years later, humans have been discovered still living on earth resulting in complications between those who are earthbound and those who are space- bound.  While this topic has been covered by many other science fiction novels, Stephenson’s book has a unique perspective and it is based on hard scientific facts that make it stand out from the usual “earthlings migrate to space” novels.

Another dystopian novel, with a radically different point of view is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It  was a National Book Award Finalist and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award.  In this book, the earth is ravaged by a mysterious plague that wipes out much of mankind.  Earth has become a world with no technology – not even electricity.  The story focuses on a group of survivors who are musicians and actors and are called The Traveling Symphony.  They travel from town to town performing works of art from the past.  The book concerns their amazing journey and is full of colorful characters who end up at an abandoned airport called “The Museum.”  There is a villainous “prophet” who provides an interesting plot element.

Thanks to the readers who responded to my first blog post with some suggestions for authors worth considering.  I’m happy to mention Larry Niven, author of The Ringworld series, a classic work of science fiction and Anne McCaffrey, author of the Dragonriders Series and the first woman to win both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award. Let me know if you have more science fiction or fantasy authors worth noting.

 

Myth-ing Persons : Heroes of Myth and Legend

January began as one of the last months of year, not the first.  The start of the Roman calendar (and the astrological one) was March. Back then there were only ten months to the year, totaling 304 days. Between was a miasmic 66 monthless days of “winter.” According to legend, Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome (after Romulus himself), added January and February to codify that winter term (along with a catch-up month every other year of 22 days).

Was Numa a real figure? History leans toward yes, born around 753 BC. Both Plutarch and Livy (major Roman writers) wrote about him. He codified Roman laws and religion, so we know he actually lived, but like many legends, there are stories about him that are most likely fable.

Every culture has their grandiose heroes of myth and legend. Some we know are fantasy (Beowulf), while others we know are fact (Jesse James). Let’s look at some famous heroes that history can’t make up its mind about.

Mulan

Disney’s Mulan is based on a Chinese poem called The Ballad of Mulan. She is believed to have lived somewhere between 386 CE and 620 CE (if you’re not up on your history, Common Era has replaced the Anno Domini). She takes her aging father’s place in the army, and serves for twelve years without her fellow soldiers realizing she’s a woman. Depending on the source, her name might be Hua Mulan, Zhu Mulan, or Wei Mulan. Although she’s first mentioned by the 500’s, historians can’t decide if she’s real or just an interesting story.

 

 

 

 

John Henry

The steel-driving African American of song fame who managed to hammer more rock than the new-fangled steam drill before collapsing and dying was likely a real man. In the 1920’s, sociologist Guy Johnson tracked down not only people who claimed to have worked with John Henry, but one man who claimed to have seen the showdown. The front runner for the actual location is during the cutting of the Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia, around 1870, but no one has definitive proof.

 

 

 

 

William Tell

A folk hero of Switzerland, Tell was an expert bowman. When Switzerland fell under control of the Habsburgs, a magistrate put his hat on a pole and demanded all citizens bow before it, or be imprisoned. While in town with his son, Tell refused to bow, was arrested and sentenced to death – though, since he was such a marksman, the Magistrate would let him go if he could shoot an apple off his son’s head. Tell did so, was arrested anyway, escaped, and the people rose up in rebellion, in an act considered the founding of the Swiss Confederacy, around 1307. Some historians believe Tell is merely a new twist on an old Danish fable.

Robin Hood

     The story of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Prince John, King Richard, and the Band of Merrymen has been told for almost a thousand years. We know King Richard and Prince John are real (Richard took the throne in 1189), but there is debate about Robin Hood. Most likely a yeoman, not a noble, the name Robin was about as common as fleas, and the word Hood (sometimes Wood; the Old English were creative spellers) simply meant a man who made or wore hoods – more common then than hats. History’s been singing about him since the 1300’s, but his true identity isn’t known. If you can, check out the BBC series Robin of Sherwood.

 

 

 

 

 

King Arthur

Oh, Arthur! How we want to believe! Of all legends, yours is perhaps the most influential of any! Your mage Merlin/Myrrdin is the direct ancestor of Gandalf, Dungeons and Dragons, Dumbledore, and more.  “Arthur” (depending on spelling) is believed to have actually been a military leader who fought battles against the Saxons around the end of the 5th century. The earliest possible references to him date to the 600’s, though some discuss a Battle of Badon but give no mention of a king named Arthur.  Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to give a romanticized version in the 1100’s, then Thomas Malory came along in the 1400’s and standardized the legend. T.H. White called him the Once and Future King, and Lerner and Loewe put it all to music so we could remember it easier. Arthur was probably real, but not quite as mystical as we’ve been made to believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January’s a harsh month, but 31 days is sure better than 66, so curl up with a legendary figure, real or possibly not, and decide for yourself.

 

Coffee – Boosting Brain Power and Late Night Reads

If you’re looking for coffee in Cheshire, you don’t have to stray far to find a good cup. You can go to one of what seems like fifty Dunkin Donuts (or is it just Dunkin now?) or stop in to Cheshire Coffee for one of their seasonal pumpkin spice blends. But as crafty and creative person, I’ve always wanted to perfect the art of brewing my own cup at home. Usually I just pop a pod in the Keurig, and add some overly sweet creamer. But if you’re looking to learn a bit more about coffee, or add some books to your late night reading list, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve gone through the shelves and picked out a healthy selection of books on the art of brewing, and a few thrillers for library night owls like myself.

 

First off we have Craft Coffee : A Manual – Jessica Easto

Written by a coffee enthusiast, for coffee enthusiasts, this beginners guide to craft coffee explores different techniques of coffee making at home. Learn about different techniques, pour over, immersion, and cold brew, using up to ten different devices. This guide also goes over the basics of selecting brew by roast, selecting equipment, and deciphering the coffee bag.

 

Next, if you’re looking for something to keep you up at night, try Stephen King’s The Outsider .

In the aftermath of a boy’s brutal murder in Flint City, a local detective is forced to arrest a popular Little League coach who, in spite of an alibi, presents with open-and-shut evidence that is called into question when the suspect’s true nature and the realities of the crime come to light. King never fails to disappoint, and his latest novel is no different.

 

If you’re more interested in how your coffee gets from the farm, to the store, and to the cup, then Robert W Thurston’s book Coffee – From Bean to Barista is for you.

This engaging guide to coffee explains its history, cultivation, and culture, as well as the major factors influencing the industry today. The first book that coffee lovers naturally will turn to, it will also appeal to anyone interested in globalization, climate change, and social justice. This book has it all, especially if you’re   a person who needs to know every detail about what they enjoy.

 

If you’re looking for a fresh take on thriller, try Gillian Flynn, specifically my favorite of her novels, Gone Girl .

When a beautiful woman goes missing on her fifth wedding anniversary, her diary reveals hidden turmoil in her marriage and a mysterious illness; while her husband, desperate to clear himself of suspicion, realizes that something more disturbing than murder may have occurred. This book is really a treat, the way the author describes her characters makes you both love and hate them at the same time. I didn’t know which characters to hate and which to root for, which is a testament to her writing ability. If this book draws you in, you’re in luck, it’s also a movie! Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, it’s a faithful adaptation of a great book.

 

Last but not least, it’s important to take a break, smell the roses, and sip the coffee. Check out The Little Book of Fika .

While the Danish concept of hygge as caught on around the globe, so has lagom—its Swedish counterpart. An essential part of the lagom lifestyle, fika is the simple art of taking a break—sometimes twice a day—to enjoy a warm beverage and sweet treat with friends. This delightful gift book offers an introduction to the tradition along with recipes to help you establish your own fika practice.

 

You can find all of these books, and more, at the Cheshire Public Library! Take a mid day Fikagrab a cup of joe and indulge in a good book.

 

That Wild Wild West

Westerns are not my bag. They cover a very short piece of history (usually post-Civil War to the early 1900’s), they’re often trite, and too many of them bore me. You can run down a checklist for almost every one: Horse? Check. Damsel? Check. Angry Indian? Check. Sheriff?  Check. Big shootout? Check.

Clichéd

No doubt, much of my boredom has to do with Hollywood Westerns. Though I’ve never seen the entire Terror of Tiny Town, I’ve suffered a few westerns. I did like Tombstone, and the remake of True Grit, Young Guns, Maverick, and yes, I admit, I did enjoy The Lone Ranger – three times. Maybe I’m un-American, but I can’t stand John Wayne or his films, and while I was excited to watch High Noon (it was mentioned in the TV show M*A*S*H*, and actor Harry Morgan appeared in both), it was a terribly disappointing, tragically dull film to someone used to modern Hollywood. It turned me off from ever attempting My Darling Clementine or Shootout at the OK Corral. So while I can handle modern westerns, those old classic hallmarks aren’t found on my shelves.

Nor had I ever read a real “Western,” although a couple of Best-Western Literature lists include children’s books like the Little House on the Prairie series, as well as Old Yeller (you could probably throw in Young Pioneers, Caddie Woodlawn, Seven Alone, and the sequel to Old Yeller, Savage Sam), and those I loved just fine. If you read through twenty different lists of what’s considered the best of Old West literature, you’ll find ten books are on every list, so let’s call them the Best Westerns of Literature (not to be confused with Best Western, the hotel, or Western Lit as opposed to Asian):

The Virginian – Owen Wister
Hondo – Louis L’Amour
Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
True Grit – Charles Portis
All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
The Shootist – Glendon Swarthout
Riders of the Purple Sage – Zane Grey
The Time it Never Rained – Elmer Kelton
The Ox-Bow Incident – Walter Van Tildenberg Clark
Shane – Jack Schaefer

Fresh and Award-Winning

I could have lived the rest of my life just fine without Westerns, except for one thing: someone I knew was writing one. I’ve seen Howard Weinstein for many years at various conventions, attended some of his writing workshops, and we know each other at least in passing. Howard’s written more than 18 books, from science fiction to dog training to Mickey Mantle, and some 65 comic books. To make sure he got it right, he visited several of the places he wrote about, making sure he got the details, and over a year or more I listened to him talk about his work and read excerpts from it. It was interesting, but… It was a western.

Galloway’s Gamble was published last September, and now it’s won an award: The Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award for Best First Western Novel. So I had a quandary: support a fellow writer in his award-winning endeavor, or ignore his success on a project he loved dearly. I thought I’d done my duty by having the library order a copy, but I buckled down and opened my first western.

photo courtesy of Howard Weinstein

Galloway’s Gamble is the story of Jake and Jamey Galloway, two brothers who shift about aimlessly looking to find their purpose and not doing well at it. They join the Civil War too late, they miss marrying the girls they had their eyes on, they get taken by a cheating card shark, and horse-shy Jake just can’t manage to hang onto a hat. Yet, little by little, they take steps and missteps to change their fortune, and wind up trying to save their little Texas hometown from the villainous cattle baron Wilhelm Krieg and the corrupt banker Silas Atwood. 

As a western, I can’t judge Galloway’s Gamble, since I’ve read nothing to compare it to, but winning an award is pretty good sign. As a novel, you certainly don’t have to like westerns to enjoy it. The story of the Galloway brothers is a timeless tale of the little man against the powerful, with a cast of characters that never lets you walk away for long – you have to pick it back up and find out what happens. While the influence of films like Maverick is evident (which is not a bad thing), there isn’t an overwhelming number of bullets, horses, swaggering men in hats, and no cliché’d slang that could be a turn-off to the casual reader. Instead, you get a solid, interesting story that just happens to take place in the late 1800’s.

Give it a try. If you like it (and I’m sure you will), you might find some of the classic westerns to your liking, too. I think I’m going to go watch Maverick again.

This Year’s Best Crime Novels So Far

Today we are featuring a guest post by Cassie Peters:

Crime novels offer glimpses into the minds of those who choose to either take the law into their own hands or ignore it entirely. Through the author’s words, we are able to contemplate, observe, and judge the motivations that make the criminals tick. If learning about the underworld is within your literary interests, here are some of the best crime novels of 2018. Following a long tradition of crime-based literature, many of these novels are brilliant subversions of the well-known and popular genre. Get ready to take a harrowing leap into the minds of 2018’s fictional criminals.

The Outsider by Stephen King

Terry Maitland is a Little League coach, family man, and all-around beloved pillar of the community who was arrested for the mutilation and murder of a young boy. Honest cop Detective Ralph Anderson struggles with deciphering all available evidence for fear of convicting the wrong suspect, until his wife Jeannie asks all the right questions that leads the investigation to the truth. Meanwhile, time-warping details both obscure and provide glimpses into hidden, deeper truths. Stephen King’s The Outsider is a masterful twist on the classic crime genre. A smooth and effortless tale of modern day crime with just the right amount of noir, politics, and psychedelics. Not a lot of writers can so pleasurably disorient readers like King.


Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz

An orphan who at 12 was enrolled in a top-secret government training program for assassins escapes to become an unlikely vigilante in Hellbent. The novel is the latest in author Gregg Hurwitz’s international bestselling series of books in the Orphan X series. It’s a sordid look into the all-too-fragile lives that evolve on their own amid government motives and conspiracies. Crime and conspiracy take on a humanitarian form via bullet train-paced prose. 

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

What if Mary Poppins was a sociological suspense-thriller that didn’t hold anything back? There’s nothing mystical or magical about Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, but she manages to masterfully subvert expectations via her sublime prose. It’s no secret that the lives of the characters in the story are in danger, including young children.  The mystery is whether or not you’ll be able to make it through the slow simmer of how a wholly trustworthy figure can transition into a rationally irrational monster. Library Journal says, “What initially feels like routine, unremarkable women’s fiction morphs into a darkly propulsive nail-biter overlain with a vivid and piercing study of class tensions”.  Peppered with social realist truths amid subtle but constant mounting dread, The Perfect Nanny submits a poverty-stricken view of Paris that culminates in one of the most satisfyingly horrible endings yet.

Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner

FBI rookie Caitlin Hendrix is assigned to the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Unit to find a serial killer who leaves behind grisly clues. In this  dark, disturbing portrait of murder from the perspective of a career forensic psychologist, Agent Hendrix works with the FBI’s serial crime unit and a legendary FBI profiler to dissect the motivations behind a killer based on the available evidence. Into the Black Nowhere is a gripping novel that doubles as a crash course in sociology, critical thinking, crime research methodology, psychological testing, and criminal theory. Based on the exploits of the infamous Ted Bundy, Gardiner’s novel succeeds at a creating a realistic depiction of how serial killers function that is horrendous and unflinchingly educational at the same time. Don’t worry – you won’t need an actual degree in forensic psychology to enjoy this book. However, you should be prepared to learn a thing or two about the criminal mind – insights that might be too dark or true to be forgotten. Watch your step.

This feature post written for Cheshire Library Blog by Cassie Peters.