Blogs: Adults

Technically Street Literature began with classics like David Copperfield and Maggie: a Girl of the Streets and the genre continued through other canonical Maggie, a Girl of the Streets book jacketwriters like Jack London, Henry Miller, Ralph Ellison, and William Burroughs. However, the Renaissance of Street Literature is the most obscured part of its history.

During the Mid-20th century, the Pulp Fiction racks were a place to by-pass the censors and tell stories outside of regressive cultural mores.  Here, Street Literature thrived along with Queer fiction and other genres that were deemed obscene and low-brow.  Among the languishing writers of Pulp, was a man named Robert Beck; better known as Iceberg Slim.

Mama Black Widow book jacketIceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp recounts his life in detail (so I will not here). Instead, I want to highlight Slim’s most surprising and underrated work Mama Black Widow, which recounts a poor sharecropping family’s move to Chicago and descent into the madness of the streets.

Addiction, violence, prostitutes, pimps, pool hustlers, dope peddlers, crooked preachers and cops, numbers, extortion, and manipulation spin around the black widow.  Drag Queen Otis (aka Sally/Tilly) relays her story with vivid detail and haunting emotion as she tries to break free from her mama’s sinister web and survive the violence waiting beyond. Tragic, graphic, and years ahead of its time, Mama Black Widow is not for the faint of heart.

You see them on the corners of trendy streets, or casting forlorn glances at the Paul Bunyan statue over in North Portland… bearded young men in checked wool shirts and heavy leather boots, doing their best to project a studied air of vintage outdoorsiness. But lay aside that retro axe you bought on Mississippi avenue, urban lumberjack - have I got the book for you! Axes aren’t very useful at soccer games anyway, despite what local ad agencies might like you to think.

Golden Spruce book jacketIn the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, there once stood an impossible tree, a genetic mutant that survived against the odds, a seven foot diameter spruce that glowed with golden needles and that was known to the Haida people as K’iid K’iyaas (Elder Spruce). But one wintry night, Grant Hadwin, a logger turned radical environmentalist swam naked across a frigid river, towing a chainsaw behind him, and singlehandedly cut down this freakish and beautiful tree. In The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant examines the life of this enigmatic man, who could wander into the wilderness with nothing but light clothing and an open-sighted rifle, and emerge days later with a mountain goat slung over his shoulders, whose early years as a logger coupled with emotional strain sparked a terrible awakening to the devastation his profession had wreaked on the land he loved. Intertwined with the story of Hadwin are chapters about Northwest forest ecology, as well as history of the Haida people and the logging industry. Check this out if you want to know more about the forests that surround us here in the northwest, or if you’re looking for well-written true stories of wilderness adventure and calamity.

More books about forests, including fact, fiction, and photography, can be found here.

He might be controversial, but when it comes to me, sex-advice columnist Dan Savage is preaching to the choir. I’ve been enjoying his columns for close to twenty years, I’ve read several of his books, I loved him on This American Life, and I’m convinced that his entertaining, sex-positive podcast will improve all of your sex-lives if you’ll just start listening regularly. He’s funny, a highly engaging story-teller, and he calls the religious right on their nonsense in a way I find very refreshing.

I read most of his newest book, American Savage, on an airplane recently, and I pretty much lived through the whole gamut of human emotion during my eight-hour flight. I cheered as he talked about the the ridiculous inadequacy of abstinence-only sex education  in the United States. I laughed out loud while reading his stories about being a parent to his very conventionally straight son. I was pleased to find out about a website for teens I later told my daughter about-- it offers great information about the human body and sexuality.

I was moved as I read about the It Gets Better video project on YouTube he and his husband started to help LGBT teens who are being bullied. I was very moved by his story of the death of his mother, especially as I was on my way back to Portland after having spent time on the east coast caring for my mom, who was getting over a serious health issue.  At one point, when I was reading an especially naughty passage from the chapter on Dan’s marriage, which is “monogamish” rather than monogamous, I glanced over to see what the person in the next seat was reading. (I do this incessantly. I’m the person on the bus trying to crane my neck inconspicuously so I can see what you’re reading.) On the airplane, the person in the next seat was reading… a  magazine-sized church newsletter! I am absolutely not making this up. She was very nice, and possibly not incredibly nosy like me about other people’s reading material, so all was well. While an airplane might not be the best place to enjoy Dan Savage’s writing, I still think you should check him out. And definitely listen to the podcast!

Driftwood fortAs a teenager growing up in Newport, Oregon, I couldn’t wait to hightail it out of town, but in more recent years, my nostalgia for the coast and all its beautiful quirks has led me back to books that feel like home.

I first recognized home in literature with my all time favorite novel Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, but I owe much of my renewed appreciation for my Oregon Coast upbringing to local author Matt Love.

I’m a big fan of Love’s unfiltered writing style and his keen observations on Oregon Coast life.  I appreciate the way he celebrates rain, astutely describes people as OTA (Oregon Tavern Age, meaning anywhere from forty to seventy years old), and that he’s not afraid to quote both Rod Stewart and Walt Whitman in a single paragraph.

Super Sundays in Newport, Love's collection of essays about his first year teaching English at Newport High School and his exploration of the local taverns, perfectly captures my home town with its mix of natural beauty, offbeat charm, uneven characters and plentiful watering holes.

Matt Love is a vocal champion of public beaches as a great birthright of Oregonians, so it comes as no surprise that he writes the introduction to Driftwood Forts of the Oregon Coast by James Herman. Part guidebook to an age-old Oregon beach tradition, part exuberant call to participate in the gratifying work of driftwood fort building, Herman’s book is a rare gem that you ought to check out before your next trip to the beach. Whether you end up building a classic a-frame, a rotunda or repurpose an existing structure, how you use your fort is up to you. As the book points out “One man’s tuna sandwich-eatin’ shack is another’s love shack.”

You can find more Oregon Coast related reads on my list here.

One hundred years ago, on August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany – the culmination of six weeks of European sabre-rattling that followed the assassination of an Austrian Archduke and his wife by a Bosnian revolutionary. Did I know this in January 1976 when the fourth season of Upstairs, Downstairs began running on Masterpiece Theatre? Likely not, but I was gripped from the outset with this beloved series’ depiction of the Great War and its Lord Peter Wimsey dvd coverimpact on the residents of 165 Eaton Place. I became hooked on World War I. A few years earlier, I’d watched Lord Peter Wimsey suffer from an episode of shellshock, but I didn’t really know what that meant until Eaton Place footman Edward Barnes returned from France and collapsed from the strain.

Right after Upstairs, Downstairs piqued my interest, The Duchess of Duke Street explored the War and a few years after that, To Serve Them All My Days told the story of a young shellshocked Welshman attempting to come to grips with his war service. Around this time, I also watched another British television series – still on PBS, but not on Masterpiece Theatre – Flambards, which obliquely touched on the War. At this point, I felt I knew enough about England’s and the English people’s sufferings to fill in the blanks.

My Boy Jack dvd coverAfter this, Masterpiece Theatre took a long break from the War to End All Wars, showing a bunch of equally interesting programs about World War II. (Since this year also brings a “significant” anniversary of this war – Britain declared war on Germany 75 years ago on September 3, 1939 – I could go on in this post, but instead, I added some suggestions to this list of DVDs.) Returning to World War I, Masterpiece Theatre presented three more programs in this century: My Boy Jack, Rudyard Kipling’s poignant memoir of the loss of his son (played by Daniel Radcliffe), and Birdsong, based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks. And don’t forget Season 2 of Parade's End dvd coverMasterpiece’s current uber- popular drama, Downton Abbey, where Matthew survives, Daisy marries a dying man, and Thomas Barrow takes the coward’s way out! Most recently, the BBC (via HBO) presented an adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s World War I doorstopper, Parade’s End (starring Benedict Cumberbatch). If you enjoy history and costume drama, all of these are worth watching.

All Quiet on the Western Front dvd coverQuite obviously missing here is the German side of the Great War, which has not been depicted via Masterpiece, but you can still watch and be moved by the 1930 film made from Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front.

Finally, many of Masterpiece Theatre’s programs are based on books, on “masterpieces” of literature, so if watching isn’t for you, MCL owns all of the source works mentioned here (with the exception of the venerable Upstairs, Downstairs and its close cousin, Downton Abbey, which were never books).

Check out this haiku-limerick mash-up from our friend Eric!

Beautiful Darkness book jacket

Beautiful Darkness

Now homeless and up to no good,
can the Wee Folk survive in the wood?
It's all rather ghastly.
You'll read it quite fastly. 
And they feast on such terrible food! 
 
In drawings, the Wee Folk are gorgeous, 
their schemes as deadly as Borgias', 
There are creepies and cuties, 
and eye-gouging beauties! 
Fair warning: Beware of torches! 
 
The woods in Autumn - 
sprites sport as their home decays, 
all fun 'til eyes poked.

On the Beach book jacketAs a librarian I’m often asked for the name of my favorite author. Although at its heart this is not an easy question, time and time again I keep coming back to Nevil Shute. Discussions of Mr. Shute generally revolve around his 1957 novel On the Beach, which leads the way in Armageddon literature. In a nutshell the novel tells the story of the end of the world. As a radioactive cloud moves from the northern to the southern hemisphere all life is slowly extinguished. The citizens of Australia are the last to go and Shute’s novel slowly reveals the story of the end of their lives. It is gripping tale, not just because of the subject matter but because of the way Shute tells it; calmly and gently, as if this imagined yet horrific moment in history was an everyday occurrence.  

Born in 1899, Shute started his working life as an aeronautical engineer before chucking it all to write full time. Although he never thought of himself as an author, he became a skilled storyteller. Many of his novels involve long, arduous journeys, both physical and spiritual. Flashbacks, and back story add shape and depth to the characters and their worlds. Shute’s other novels are equally as satisfying. Many are a reflection of his background, with aviation taking center stage. All of his novels benefit from his innate ability to harvest story ideas from the world around him. 

Reading a Nevil Shute novel is the ultimate escape – to be taken somewhere so unexpected and to such depths that the stories become a part of the reader’s memory:  lived, experienced and treasured. For anyone looking for just such a read, try any of these novels by Nevil Shute:

A Town Like Alice
The Breaking Wave (also known as Requiem for a Wren)
Pied Piper
Trustee from the Toolroom
Round the Bend
 

I recently finished a three-month temporary assignment as a delivery driver here at the library. I have to say, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would when first asked. Upon reflection, however, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’ve always liked to drive; I’ve had a fascination with cars since I was a little kid; and I find the history of the automobile, both from a social and technological perspective, of great interest. Okay, I don’t know how much any of that has to do with driving a box truck full of books around Multnomah County but, hey, it’s an excuse to introduce some of my favorite books about driving.

Trucking Country book jacketMost directly related to my experience is Trucking Country, an academic study of the commercial trucking industry in the U.S. and the rise of free-market capitalism in the 20th century. I thought it was fascinating but recognize it may not be for everyone. Much more accessible is The Big Roads. This is a popular history of the interstate highway system. The author, Earl Swift, focuses on the personalities involved in designing and administering what has been one the largest public works projects in the world. Its success can be measured in how ordinary it all seems today, yet 100 years ago nothing like it existed. I-84 certainly made commuting out to East County easy for me!

What is it about abandoned cars that is so fascinating? Here’s an early 1950s Dodge truck in southern Utah I photographed during a photo of an abandoned truck2013 road trip. The 1949 Buick in the background can also be seen in the book Roadside  Relics. Naturally, I have to include the travelogue, particularly its most American of subsets, the long-distance road trip. There is a whole romance to the open road in American culture. For example, consider how often in movies and especially car commercials the automobile is depicted as a source of freedom and adventure. This sense of romance has been captured in some truly beautiful books such as William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, and perhaps best known of all, Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical On the Road. One of my favorites, however, is Driving to Detroit byDriving to Detroit book jacket Lesley Hazelton. Hazelton is a journalist best known for her reporting from the Middle East and her books on Islam, but often overlooked is her love of the car. Born in Britain but a naturalized American citizen, this six-month road trip from Seattle to Detroit and back is many things: her love letter to the automobile; an effort to understand the American affection for the highway; and an admission that cars can horribly damage the environment. Yes, it’s a mixed message, but she pulls it off so well. Her meandering drive brings her in contact with a host of colorful characters that truly reflect the many facets of the automobile in American culture.

If you’re interested in the car, or car culture, try one of the books above or something similar. If you have a favorite book to share, leave me a comment below.

The era of flipping channels may be coming to an end, and with it goes a certain variety of serendipitous discovery — the late night movie that haunts your imagination, the La Lupe performance that blows your mind.

Picture of Elaine MayMy first encounter with Elaine May was a stumbled-upon PBS special about her years performing comedy with Mike Nichols. Surprising, smart, subversive stuff (some skits available on YouTube). It gave me a hankering to seek out her work as a director. 

Of those May-directed works the library’s collection, my favorite is A New Leaf. May both directs and plays the, er, love interest of Walter Matthau. Matthau is a once rich schmo who has lived beyond his means and is broke. In his mind, the only solution is to find a wealthy woman to marry him. Enter May's character, Henrietta Lowell, an heiress and a shy guileless klutz of an amatuer botanist. Since this is May, you seriously wonder if their relationship is a romcom or a build up to a horrible crime. Rumor has it that in the original cut multiple bodies pile up.
 
There was a wonderful interview called "Who’s Afraid Of Nichols & May?" posted by Vanity Fair in January 2013. It is a very fun read, with May still delivering her utterly original comedy. 
 
And should you be interested in stumbling upon more movies made by the 50%, check out my list Flickering females.
 
 
 

Photo of curated clutter: plastic dinosaur, drawing, vintage cameraI admire minimalists. I really do. I totally get the peace of mind that comes with clean surfaces and simple outlines. I love natural linen, wood and neutral shades with bare hints of color. It’s just that I can’t maintain it for long.

I gravitate towards clashing patchwork patterns and ric rac. I see an amateur oil painting being discarded, and I have to rescue it. At the beach, I fill my pockets with interesting bits of wood and rock and when my father passed away, I claimed his collection of antlers to remember him by.Photo of corner clutter: oil painting, pillows, anters, books

Rather than see all of this stuff as clutter, I’ve been finding inspiration in my collections. A messy stack of books becomes an art installation when towered high on a vintage toddler chair. Tiny plastic goats balanced on the ledges of picture frames, add whimsy to a room, and in my opinion, antlers look good stacked or hung just about anywhere.

Maybe you’re a collector of objects yourself. Maybe like me, you’ve been trying to suppress your love of found, thrifted and handmade objects for the sake of living simply. Maybe you don’t have to. Check out my list for books that will inspire you to clear out your attic and display the things that bring you joy.  After all, it’s not clutter if it’s curated.

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