Blogs: Literary

Katie Grindeland is the author of The Gifts We Keep, a selection from The Library Writers Project, which highlights local self-published authors. In an innovative partnership, Ooligan Press worked with the library to publish this novel about an Oregon family struggling with past tragedy, while caring for a Native Alaskan girl with sorrows of her own.

Reading with friends? Start the conversation with this book summary and discussion guide.

Why did you want to tell this particular story?

I have always been a very character-driven writer, so I was excited at the prospect of diving into first-person emotional exploration with a somewhat diverse group of people. It was really important to me to try and give voice to their internal experience since we don’t always have a platform for that in our put-together grown-up lives. Big feelings, authenticity, connection, these were pillars for me. Not just as words on a page, but as an open-handed gesture to the reader’s experience as well. If someone reads this story and feels emotionally seen or included, I would consider that my biggest success.

Who or what inspires you, writing wise? Who inspires you in your life?

I am always inspired by those really good writers who make you stop in your tracks, by virtue of how purely they can weave a phrase or present an idea. The kind where I have to put the book down to stare at nothing and just think for a few minutes. Yann Martel and Marilynne Robinson and Jonathan Safran Foer and Barbara Kingsolver. But I also really love the writer who just wants to borrow your ear for a minute to tell a cool story they know. Lynda Barry and Stephen King and Cheryl Strayed and Diane Ackerman. These and so many more. Outside of writing, hard workers inspire me. Nose-to-the-grindstoners inspire me. Bad-at-something-but-trying-it-anyway inspires me. I find a lot of bravery in authenticity. And kindness. Kind-hearted people are secret super heroes and they don’t even know it. That inspires me.

Can you recommend a book you've recently enjoyed?

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It undid me, in all the best ways. Beautiful, meaningful, incandescent. I read much of this by headlamp on a solo camping trip near The Dalles, listening to trains run by in the dark, simply because I couldn’t put it down. I also love “S”, by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams. It's a novel within a novel, filled with miscellanies that fall out of the book into your lap if you aren’t careful, postcards, notes, photos -- all of which may or may not be clues to unraveling the story. Plus, if you’re anything like me, it will have you spouting about the Ship of Theseus parable to friends and family, whose reception may be lukewarm in comparison to your enthusiasm for the idea!

For those of us who love classic literature, Multnomah County Library is a great resource. There are ongoing Classics Pageturners book discussion groups at Hillsdale Library and Hollywood Library, plus a Quarterly Classics group at Capitol Hill Library.  Copies of the books will be available two months in advance of the discussions.  Please call the branch to confirm.  Following that are lists of Western and non-Western literature from every era.

Here are the Classics book group schedules:

Hillsdale Library Classics Pageturners,

Second Saturdays, 3-5 pm

 

March 9, 2019, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo. (Different edition than we will be reading)

 

April 13, 2019, The Social Contract, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (Different edition than we will be reading)

 

May 11, 2019, Adam Bede, George Eliot. (Different edition than we will be reading)

 

June 8, 2019, Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud

 

 

Hollywood Library Classics Pageturners,

Third Sundays, 2-4 pm

 

February 17, 2019Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel García Márquez

 

March 17, 2019,  Lelia, by George Sand

 

April 21, 2019, The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

 

May 19, 2019,  Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin

 

June 16, 2019The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing

 

Capitol Hill Library Quarterly Classics

Second Wednesdays, 1:30 pm, October 2018, January, April & July 2019

 

April 10, 2019, The Warden, by Anthony Trollope

 

July 10, 2019, My Ántonia, by Willa Cather

This guide is a tool to enhance your group’s conversation about Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Acichie’s insightful story of a young love, migration, exile, and homecoming.

Questions:

1. Adichie is herself somewhat of an outsider in America, as is her character, Ifemelu. Is there an advantage to telling this story from an outsider’s perspective?

2. In an interview with the New York Times, Adichie said she thinks there is “a tendency in American fiction to celebrate work that fundamentally keeps people comfortable.” How does Adichie reject or embrace keeping the reader comfortable in Americanah?

3. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, Adichie commented on likable characters in fiction, saying, "women writers are expected to make their female characters likeable, as though the full humanity of a female person must in the end meet the careful limitations of likability.” Did you find the characters in Americanah likeable? Why or why not? Are there some characters you liked more than others? If we demand likeable characters, what does this need say about us as readers?

4. The first part of Ifemelu’s story is told in flashback as she's having her hair braided at a salon before returning to Nigeria. Ifemelu interacts with the women in the salon, and makes judgments about them. How does her identity and her long stay in America affect her perception of the women around her?

5. In Americanah, hair is often a focal point for discussing race and culture. Re-read Ifemelu’s blog post “A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as Race Metaphor (p. 299.)”  How does the attention and judgment paid to a woman's hair reflect American society’s greater issues with race and feminism?

6. Ifemelu says, “I discovered race in America, and it fascinated me (p. 406).” She wonders, “How many other people had become black in America?” (p. 209) What does she mean by these statements?

7. Obinze’s has a complicated relationship with Ojiugo, his now-wealthy friend who has married an EU citizen. How does Obinze balance the need for support from his friend with the sense that Ojiugo represents someone who has given up his cultural identity?  Are all of the characters who leave Nigeria (such as Emenike, Aunty Uju, Bartholomew, and Ginika) similarly compromised?

8. When Ifemelu is hired to speak on race relations in America, she gets a hostile reaction at first. She changes her presentation to say, “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud”, and gets a better reaction; however in her blog, she writes “racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it’.” (p. 378). How do these two approaches reflect how Americans navigate questions of race and bias? Within your own circles, are you able to have frank conversations about race?

9. Kimberly, the white woman who employs Ifemelu as a nanny, seems to exemplify the white liberal guilt many Americans feel in relation to Africa and Africans. How did you respond to this character and her relationship with Ifemelu?

10. Ifemelu’s experience with the tennis coach is a low point in her life. Why does she avoid being in touch with Obinze afterward (157–58)? Why doesn’t she read his letters? How do you interpret her behavior?

11. How would you describe the qualities that Ifemelu and Obinze admire in each other? How does Adichie sustain the suspense about whether Ifemelu and Obinze will be together until the very last page? What, other than narrative suspense, might be the reason for Adichie’s choice in doing so? Would you consider their union the true homecoming, for both of them?

*Some questions suggested by or adapted from the Penguin Random House Reader’s Guide for Americanah

Themes and topics:

Nigeria, Lagos, young women, coming-of-age, feminism, racism, race and class, identity, romantic love, belonging, separation vs. connection, cultural critique, microaggression, power, Black American/African cultures, cross-cultural relationships, bloggers, corruption, immigration, fear of immigrants, the concept of assimilation.

Learn more about Nigeria, from Portland State University's International Cultures site.

The comedian Steven Wright said, "everywhere is walking distance if you have the time."  

Walking memoirs abound, with a resurrgence tied to Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. But don't miss the earlier A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot details the author's effort to become more intimately acquainted with his country by starting at his home in Cambridge, England and following the old roads and ancient tracks that crisscross his country. For a take on women and walking, try Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London.

If you're hankering for a long walk but have no time, walk vicariously with this list. Happy reading, and happy trails.

 

David Naimon is a writer and host of the radio broadcast and podcast, Between the Covers, honored by The Guardian as one of the best book podcasts today. He has interviewed such authors as Anthony Doerr, Colson

 Whitehead, Ursula K. Le Guin, George Saunders, Claudia Rankine, and Maggie Nelson. His own writing can be found in AGNI, Tin House and Boulevard among others and has been cited in The Best American Essays, The Best American Travel Writing, The Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize anthology.

There’s a lot of talk these days about building walls, but little discussion about one already built, a long-standing high-security literary wall. As the host of a book podcast, I’m often thinking about how to curate a roster of writers who reflect the multiplicity that is the literary world, guests writing from a wide array of backgrounds as well as writers writing in different or harder to classify literary forms. As a nation that historically has regarded itself as a welcoming place to immigrants, we love narratives — from Saul Bellow to Viet Thanh Nguyen, from Maxine Hong Kingston to Junot Diaz — written by or about immigrants becoming American. But, oddly, at the same time, we seem incurious when it comes to literature not originally written in English.

There is an oft-cited statistic that translated works make up a paltry 3-5 percent of the books published in the U.S. in any given year. But Eliot Weinberger, translator of Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges and Bei Dao among others, says this statistic is entirely false. Only 300 to 400 literary translations are published each year — an incredible .3 to .5 percent of the annual books published, Weinberger argues. Fortunately, one of the unexpected silver linings of the collapse of the big six publishing houses is not only the rise of small presses, presses that take more risks (and which have been coming away with some of the biggest literary awards as a result), but also the rise of small presses devoted to translation. We seem to be in the beginnings of a translation renaissance. The origin of the phrase “to translate” comes from the Latin translatus, which means “to carry across.” My list of recommended titles is written in the spirit of this new interest in carrying works of literature across the literary wall, this new desire to be inspired and renewed by the writing of other cultures. And if you find yourself taken by one or more of these books, you can follow up your reading of it with a listen to my conversation with the author.
 
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
 
Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli has an unusual relationship with her translator. Before Christina McSweeney translates one of Luiselli’s books, McSweeney asks to know the songs Luiselli was listening to, the images she was looking at, and how the room looked where she wrote the book. Luiselli herself explicitly plays with the role of translation in her work and with the role of the translator in a book’s creation, even going so far as to include a chapter in one of her novels written by her translator. It is hard to pick which of Valeria Luiselli’s three utterly enchanting books to recommend here but the one closest to my heart is Faces in the Crowd. It follows a a Mexican translator in New York charged with finding “the next Bolaño.” She discovers the work of an obscure poet, falls in love with it, finds herself possibly haunted by his ghost, their identities becoming more and more porous as the novel (and her translation of him) progresses.
 
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
 
Ways to Disappear is the first novel by poet and translator Idra Novey. Perhaps best known for her translation of Clarice Lispector’s classic The Passion According to G.H., Novey plays with the ways translators really aren’t “best known” for anything, the ways in which they are delegated to the shadows and their work never considered a truly creative act in its own right. Novey flips the narrative in this novel, making the translator, Emma, super visible as the hero-protagonist at the center of an international thriller/mystery. When Emma’s author, Beatriz Yagoda, the one she has been translating for years, goes missing, Emma abandons her boyfriend and her life in Pittsburgh to go to Brazil to find her. ‘Who could know an author better, her mind and intentions more thoroughly, than the author’s own translator?’ Emma thinks. But Beatriz’s Brazilian family, the ones that see her daily unwritten moments, beg to differ. Ways to Disappear is a page-turning philosophical book, one that functions both as a witty suspense novel and a meditation on the mysteries of language.
 
 
Paris Review editor Lorin Stein calls Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei “the best primer on translation I’ve ever read, also the funniest and most impatient,” and that is the marvel of this little book. If you are already interested in poetry and come to this book with a curiosity about the mysteries of translation, you will surely love Weinberger’s classic. But if you are intimidated by poetry and don’t think you have any particular interest in translation, this book may yet provide an unexpected entryway into both. The project is deceptively simple, with Weinberger examining 19 different translations of a classic four-line poem by the eighth-century poet Wang Wei, but the result is a newfound wonder about language and cross-cultural communication. You will finish this book marveling at the creative feat of any act of translation, running to your favorite dog-eared copy of Anna Karenina or Remembrances of Things Past to see which translator gifted you access to these works written now once again in your own tongue.
 
Seeing Red by Lina Meruane
 
It’s rare that a writer tours for their book in its translated form, and even rarer that such a writer comes through Portland. So I felt fortunate to get the chance to interview Chilean writer Lina Meruane, an author already well-known in the Spanish-speaking world. She has just now had one of her books translated into English for the first time, thanks to Deep Vellum, one of the newer presses dedicated solely to works in translation. Deep Vellum joins the likes of publishers old and new (for example, And Other Stories, Coffeehouse Press, New Directions, Tilted Axis, Wakefield Press) that are making this a particularly exciting time for American readers (and book podcast hosts). Seeing Red opens with the narrator losing her vision and somehow creates a text that is more visual, not less, as a result. Intertwining fiction and autobiography, the novel explores and interrogates the tropes of illness narratives in relation to gender and gender stereotypes. As a result, Seeing Red defies your expectations at every turn.
 
Part of the reason it felt like literary luminaries W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño exploded on the American literary scene in one big boom is because it took us so long to take notice and begin translating their work. Once one book caught on, the rest came in one big rush. Hopefully, with this renewed interest in translation, we won’t have to wait quite as long for an onrush of translation of Lina Meruane’s work. I’ll be first in line to read the next one.
 
Listen to audio of my conversations with Luiselli, Novey, Weinberger and Meruane.

Kleeman book cover
"A woman’s body never really belongs to herself. As an infant, my body was my mother’s, a detachable extension of her own, a digestive passage clamped and unclamped from her body. My parents would watch over it, watch over what went into and out of it, and as I grew up I would be expected to carry on their watching by myself. Then there was sex, and a succession of years in which I trawled my body along behind me like a drift net, hoping that I wouldn’t catch anything in it by accident, like a baby or a disease. I had kept myself free of these things only through clumsy accident and luck. At rare and specific moments when my body was truly my own, I never knew what to do with it."

What is a body and what is it for?  Something to be improved?  Something to be managed?  Something to be disciplined?  Something to be saved?  Something to be remodeled?  Something to set free?  Something to be destroyed?  Alexandra Kleeman's debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine does a remarkable job of tracking one young (presumably white) woman's body's movement in and through late capitalism.  As much as A - the novel's narrator - tries to escape or resolve her body's contradictions, all she can eventually do is document the various ways her body is seen and reflected.  At every turn, up against every potential escape route - roommate B who spends the first half of the book attemping to become A, boyfriend C who watches porn while they have sex so he might layer "fantasy upon reality upon fantasy," the mirrors she regularly consults for changes in her facial structure, the cult she later joins that prescribes a steady diet of nothing but Kandy Kakes - the possibly edible treats made of nothing ever alive hence nothing actually dead, and finally as a prop in a competitive dating show where real-life lovers test their knowledge of one another or face imposed and permanent separation - A inevitably finds herself simultaneously inside and outside her body, blurred lines never coalescing except in moments of extreme duress.
 
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a surveillance report mapped and composed by the object of surveillance.  Utilizing anorexia as a kind of totalizing metaphor, the novel turns the commodification of bodies inside out but we end up precisely where we began.  Weird, paranoiac, and desperate, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine mines territories familiar to fans of DeLillo, Pynchon, and Philip K. Dick - an oddly recognizable and spooky map of our current historical moment  where bodies are necessarily quantifiable but ultimately weightless, until the threat of brutal hunger arrives with a sudden flash.

Our guest blogger is Memo. Memo works at the Central Library. Besides reading history and literature about Latinos, workers, and immigrants, he enjoys re-reading the great literary works of nineteenth and twentieth-century realist writers.

The Collected Works of Langston Hughes book jacket
I had never read the literary works of Langston Hughes before coming across The Collected Works of Langston Hughes at the North Portland Library.  I knew of him as a great poet and poetry was not my favorite genre.  Nonetheless, I leafed through the seventeen volume set on the shelf and I immediately was hooked on the works of one of the literary lions of the Harlem Renaissance.

Not sure where to begin, I skimmed through the volumes on poetry.  I read quickly a few poems, tried to digest others, but it was his prose that truly beckoned me.  I paused skimming midway through his oeuvre and read the first two short tales in depth.  I knew then, as I do now, that I had found a literary gold mine because weeks later, I’m still digging through the Simple stories in volumes 7 and 8.

Originally published in the Chicago Defender from 1943 to 1965, the Simple stories read more like weekly columns on race relations in the U.S. The tales are narrated in a conversational form to engage readers on multiple levels.  On one level, the stories are comical and reader-friendly, designed to show the human soul of Jesse B. Semple, or Simple as he is known, and draw the reader in.  Readers get to see and feel Simple’s failures and successes as well as his frustrations and dreams.  On another level, the stories portray the complex world that evolved in the Jim Crow era in a non-antagonizing way.  Simple’s conversations with his bar buddy not only lured readers into the national dialogue over race, but they also engaged readers in a constructive conversation over racism—the ideological foundation that defined the racial boundaries of Simple’s life and, by extension, African Americans.

Though it has been sixty-five years since Langston Hughes published the first Simple stories in book form, the ideas in these tales still resonate.  Racial progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go.  Both fictional characters would probably nod their heads.  Yes, over a cold beer.  Still, such ideas, now more than ever, need to be part of a national discourse.

 

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