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Imagine a world where a spell of forgetfulness sits like a fog over everything, rendering the past incomprehensible; where an ancient knight in rusted armour swears to defeat a dragon; where two people set out on a quest through a country divided by clan loyalties and war.

The surprise is that I am not talking about George R.R. Martin or Tolkien, but Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

Ishiguro sets The Buried Giant in an age of decline. The idealistic reign of King Arthur is a distant memory and chivalry is, if not dead, then mostly gone. An elderly couple makes their way across a ravaged landscape on a quest to reclaim something important but long forgotten. Though Axl and Beatrice are old, they are naive, having subsisted in a hovel in the ground with their fellow villagers for as far back as they can remember, which is not very far. Their journey is one of children in a strange world, wide-eyed at the ways of outsiders. As they travel, bits and pieces of their past lives come back to them. These memories fortify them sometimes, and burden them at others.

Ishiguro has crafted an odd and beautiful combination of adventure and psychological drama. It's also a study of love, forgetfulness and forgiveness, companionship and death. It's Joseph Campbell's the hero's journey redone in a totally unexpected way. This book will very likely find its way to my top picks for 2015.

http://multcolib.bibliocommons.com/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&t=smart&search_category=keyword&q=lives in ruins&commit=Search&author=JThe online Free Dictionary defines ‘serendipity’ as, "the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident." I thought about serendipity when I picked up my books on hold and found out that instead of Light in the Ruins  by Chris Bohjalian (featuring an Italian detective who is investigating a gruesome new case by digging into the past of the murder victims as well as her own buried past), I had mistakenly reserved  a similar title: Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson, subtitled Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. Now that involves digging of a whole different kind!

Marilyn Johnson was curious about what drives archaeologists since the work is often hazardous to their health and there is little profit or fame in it. After reading her introduction I was curious too.

In her effort to unearth an archaeologist's passion, Ms. Johnson decides to go on digs with them, interview them, listen to, and live with them.  She writes about uncovering hidden battle sites, exhuming secret cemeteries, and excavating on a deserted island.

Here are a couple  of the subjects:

Patrick McGovern, an expert on the archaeology of  ‘extreme beverages’,  his term for beer, wines, ale and mead.

Volunteer archaeologist Erin Coward, who helped sort through the remains, human and otherwise, of the World Trade Center site after 911

Intrigued I sat down with my cup of hot coffee in hand and  began to read. An hour later, I was  still sitting there, my mind buried in in the remants of shipwrecks, Revolutionary War graves and the unoffcial saint of archaeologists, Indiana Jones.  My coffee had gone long since gone cold and my husband was asking,  "Don't you have to go to work today?"

Putting the wrong book on hold  was a ‘fortunate accident’ indeed!  

 

 

 

 

Trail photoThe last time I went backpacking, in Southwest Washington’s Indian Heaven, my family and I spent a terrifying night hunkered down in our tent during a midnight-till-dawn thunderstorm. Then in the morning, we made a forced march of about five miles back to our car through a steady drizzle, thankful to be heading back to civilization.

Needless to say, this experience did not turn me into much of a hiker or backpacker!

That being said, I love the idea of long-distance walking and I enjoy reading about other people’s adventures! Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s wildly successful account of her 1,100-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, is coming to the big screen this week. If either the book or the film inspire you to take off on an adventure of your own, we can help you plan and enjoy your armchair backpacking and your actual backpacking.
 

The Shadow Hero book jacketThanks to the award-winning Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese), we now have a look at the first Asian-American superhero. Yang's graphic novel The Shadow Hero starts with the spirits of China itself - Dragon, Tortoise, Phoenix and Tiger - lamenting what is happening to their people with the fall of the Ch'ing Dynasty and Imperial rule. How this gets to a mother in San Francisco's Chinatown dragging her dutiful son through 'superhero training' is all part of the fun. Yang's work always shines a light on racism but never preaches; now he and artist Sonny Liew rescue from obscurity a superheroic character by a Chinese-American artist of the 1940s. Don't miss the epilogue for fascinating background info!
 
If you are in the mood for more Golden-Age superheroics that you will never see in a big-budget movie, have a look at Green Lama. A hero of 1940's pulps and comics, he was a practicing Buddhist who gained his powers through his knowledge of 'radioactive salts'. He gained his martial expertise and mystical training in Asia, back when this was the only way to explain martial skills (other than boxing) to an American audience. Enjoy!
Some stories are intended for young audiences but are perfectly wonderful for adults. Here are two excellent juvenile graphic novels or jgns you might have missed (if you're past your teens). Sequels exist if you enjoy these.
 
Hereville book jacketHereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch.  Mirka dreams of being adventurous, but like everyone else in Hereville, she's an Orthodox Jew and is expected to learn knitting and other household skills. There's a witch, a wise stepmother, standing up to bullies, conflict between tradition and free will and, of course, a troll to defeat. Mirka is an imperfect but feisty and likable heroine.Amulet book jacket
 
Amulet Book 1: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi. Their mother is lured through a strange door into a world of robots and elves, demons and talking animals, and Emily and Navin follow. Brave kids, yes, but I love it when the parents are actually competent. Gorgeous art that looks like a Miyazaki movie.

Today I made a discovery. I still enjoy reading old fashioned stories about the Old West.

Some people call it pulp fiction, but for me it brings with it memories of spending hot summer afternoons lying on the old metal bunk in my grandfather’s office in Eastern Washington, reading Zane Grey’s Western magazine  and paperback westerns by Louis Lamour.  

Cover for The Tonto Woman by Elmore Leonard

Well I’m more sophisticated now. I read Swedish mysteries by Henning Mankell and Pulitzer Prize winners like The Goldfinch and Olive Kitterige.  But something inside me still loves those stories about strong silent cowboys and rugged, bold spirited  American Indians who feel much but say little; times when everything seemed black and white simple.  So when I saw The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, my hand was already picking it up before I knew what I was doing. From the first story  "Trail of the Apache"  which takes place in Arizona in the 1880s, I was hooked again.  The tough realism of his later suspense and crime novels is there as well as a dispassionate awareness that makes the characters- native or white  stand out from their stereotypes.

If you are looking for a good read for a long afternoon, give it a try.

How I love a good Western -- no, make that a small-w western -- one that rides right down the middle of the road. I'm not into books that stumble too far into Louis L'Amour territory or ones that lean towards romance. All I need is an underdog with a cause and no-good varmint who needs to be brought to justice, or have justice brought to him (yeah, it's usually a him.) Though a lot of Westerns are historical, I also like those that are more contemporary too - after all, people didn't stop writing westerns at the turn of the 20th century.

As I've mentioned before, True Grit is one of my all time favorites, featuring a girl who is not to be messed with. Most recently I enjoyed an twist on that story. Robert Lautner's main character in Road to Reckoning is Thomas, an introspective kid who loves books and has no business being on the road with his father, a salesman preaching the wonders of a new-fangled gun, the Colt revolver. When things go badly wrong, Thomas is reluctantly rescued by Henry Stands, a mercurial bounty hunter who has no desire to be saddled with a kid. Yep, there sure are a lot of parallels with True Grit, and that makes this book all the more enjoyable.

The theme of green-horn intellectual thrown into a wild and dangerous wilderness shows up in another favorite, Leif Enger's So Brave, Young, and Handsome. The story centers on a writer who has made a name for himself in the penny Western craze - think a fictional Louis L'Amour. But now he has writer's block and just when it seems he'll never write again, an elderly stranger comes to town, one whose criminal past is catching up with him. Together they go on an adventure that promises to save them both.

One reviewer calls the West portrayed in these books "regrettably familiar".  And it's true that these stories sometimes rely on stereotypes - a kind of short form that links directly to our imaginations. It's that reliance on the archetype that makes them good. After all, what else is a western than the age-old story of a fall from grace, and an effort to reach a more perfect world? For a few more small-w westerns that range from heart-warming to terrifying, take a look at my list. Happy trails.

Tama describes the story of a woman who wants to reconcile with her dad, a mountain man who's not that interested in maintaining a relationship. Sound compelling? Find Gone Feral: Tracking my dad through the wild and the author's first book, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer at a library near you.

 

 

Big Tiny bookjacketI am fascinated by people who go against societal convention to do something 'crazy' - swim across an ocean, bike across a country or live on food grown within 100 miles of their house. In The Big Tiny, Dee Williams tells the story of her decision to sell her house and pare down her possession to the bare minimum in order to move into a tiny house of her own making. The impetus was an alarming diagnosis for a relatively young woman - congestive heart failure.

Determined to make her precious time count she decides to do this bold thing and discovers that letting go of stuff is hard -- after all, the things we surround ourselves with define us somehow, don't they? I enjoyed Dee Williams voice, her humor, humility and her quirky way of looking at the world.  (As I read, I was picturing her as the comedian Tig Notaro, and as it turns out they kind of look alike, as evidenced in this Ted Talk!) I felt privileged to go on this journey with her. She seems like just the sort of person you'd want to have living in a tiny house in your back yard.

 

Well, it has happened again - I have fallen in love with a fictional character who lives in a time and a place created out of real history.

Sister Pelagia bookjacketLet me explain.

Sister Pelagia is  the main character in a mystery series written by Boris Akunin.  She is an inquisitive, bespectacled, red-haired nun living in Imperial Russia, trying to observe her faith in peace and harmony with her fellow sisters and the students at the school for girls where she is a headmistress.  But her insatiable curiosity, her stubborn persistence and her penchant for seeing all the details make her a detective without equal. Somehow she always seems to find herself in the middle of a mysterious circumstance: the poisoning of a rare white bulldog, an inexplicable ghost haunting the Hermitage Abbey or a Christ-like prophet who appears to be able to come back from the dead.

Her adventures always begin in Russia but her sleuthing takes her all over the world, from the dark, thick forests of Siberia to the sun drenched land of the Middle East.

With the Sister Pelagia series you get the best of both worlds: the great philosophical questions that Russian authors have always debated: Love, Death, God, Good, Evil;  you also plunge into the depths of a world peopled with extraordinary characters, unorthodox situations and exotic places. Not the least of these is the mystery itself that is interwoven into the story as a living breathing creature.

Writing  in the style and with the plot complexity of Charles Dickens, Russian author Boris Akunin  deals unflinchingly with the attitudes of the time, especially the question of how we treat those who are different, whether by race or class or sexual preference. He doesn't try to softsoap the truth, but tempers it with humor and unusual historical details.

If you like mesmerizing mysteries set in a different time and place with a heroine who won’t give up until she finds the truth, you will love the Sister Pelegia series by Boris Akunin. Start with Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog.

 

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