Blogs: Adults

Plover bookjacket"I think everything that ever happened to us is resident inside your head and heart and often you just need the right key to get it out -- a snatch of song, and angle of light, a taste, a smell, a tone of laughter..."

This quote by Brian Doyle aptly describes what happens in his latest book The Plover. Though one reviewer accused the book of being 'plotless', really the main character's thoughts, the accumulation of all that he learns and sees as he floats around on his sailboat, seemingly aimlessly, is the plot.

The Plover is the story of Declan, who flees society to sail around the world with only his thoughts and his beloved author, Edmund Burke, for company. Starting with a persistent gull (yes, another sentient bird!) he is obliged to take on passenger after passenger and has to adjust both his physical and mental space to make room for each one. From a father and his injured daughter to a larger-than-life woman and a singing shiphand, each subsequent passenger challenges Declan to emerge from his introspective life.

The storyline is often meandering, evoking the meditative state of being on water, of being on long journey and having time to ponder whatever comes to mind. There were many times when a plot point was introduced, and I thought with a certain dread, 'this isn't going to end well'; but Doyle resists cliche. Even though the people on board are tormented, Doyle treats both them and the reader with compassion.

If you enjoy meditative reads that make you think, stories rich in language and a sense of place and all things sea and sailing, this might be the book for you.

The Illusion of Separateness book jacketOn a muddy World War II battlefield a young soldier happens upon the enemy, shoving a gun in the terrified man’s mouth. In 2010 Los Angeles a newly arrived nursing home resident drops dead at his welcome party. In 1960’s rural France a young boy excitedly shows his classmate the ruins of a burned-out German plane. A pair of young lovers has their picture taken at Coney Island in 1942. A blind woman in the Hamptons in 2005 yearns for someone to love.

What do these people have in common? Nothing at first glance but then again that is the illusion of separateness. In a world that is vast and often alienating it is comforting to think we are somehow all connected – that like the idea of six degrees of separation we don’t have to go too far to find our footing or to appreciate the intricate twists and turns that got us here. More than a series of linked short stories, Simon Van Booy’s delicate novel is a world slowly revealed, where discoveries are made, connections are forged and the reader is part detective, part voyeur and part conspirator.

Beautifully written, with fascinating characters readers will grow increasingly attached to, The Illusion of Separateness depicts a world that will stay in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

Kitty cats. We love them. They power the internet (proof). The little dears surely deserve their crystal goblets of Fancy Feast, don’t they?  Or is that a more malign glint I see in that crescent-pupiled eye?

House dvd coverThe most unhinged, bats-in-the-belfry-surreal cat movie of all time has to be House (Hausu), a must-see for all crazy cat ladies (and men) in training. In this cult film from Japan, high school girl Gorgeous is upset when her father introduces her to his new fiancee - perhaps understandably so, since the fiancee enters in a white dress that conveniently streams in the wind every time the camera settles on her. Outraged at this soft-focus replacement for her dearly departed mother, Gorgeous plans a summer vacation to her aunt’s country house instead of with her father. She takes comfort in the companionship of a white cat named Blanche who has mysteriously appeared in her room at the same time as her aunt agrees to host her.  All her friends, who have unlikely names like Fantasy, Prof, Mac, Kung-Fu, Melody, and Sweet, are invited, and they think nothing of it when Blanche appears on the train. But when they arrive at the aunt’s house, she is a little too eager to see them, and they begin to be killed off one by one.  The cat starts shooting green lasers from its eyes, pianos eat people, mattresses swallow others, and then things really get weird.

Part of the joy of the film is in its unabashed use of the most cheesy, improbable special effects - it really must be seen to be believed, and even then you still won’t believe it. What’s that, Puff? You need me to bike home from Fred Meyer with a can of tuna and 20 lbs of litter on my back? At your service, my feline overlord, at your service.

You know how it feels when you are in love with new music or a book, and you feel all exultant that this is yours, yours, yours? That’s how I am loving the new tUnE-yArDs CD, Nikki Nack, like a dragon loves his treasure, like cookie monster loves his cookies. The only reason I’m  telling you about it is that I actually bought it, because otherwise I wouldn’t want you to put it on hold and take it away from me.

The tUnE-yArDs is largely the work of one person, Merrill Garbus. She plays most of the instruments and does all the singing, including back-up vocals. You can hear the single here.

The music is amazingly interesting, a wild and free mix of R & B, Haitian rhythms, children’s music (with a dark side), pop, punk, and a lot of sampling and repetitive sounds. It sometimes veers close to Captain Beefheart’s and Ornette Coleman’s disjointedness-- which I actually don’t like-- but it doesn’t quite cross that line. It’s unusual, but catchy, even in its strangeness, and you know what?-- you can dance to it, too. Garbus’s  voice is the most powerful instrument she has. It sounds to me like my own voice in my head, sometimes sweet and melodic, sometimes ragged and atonal, and sometimes a roar. She’s playful, brave, and astonishing. There’s even an interlude in the middle, a sweet little story about eating children which comes to a much quicker and more hedonistic rationale for cannibalism than Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal.

Have a listen!

"Donald Harington is not an unkown author.  He is an undiscovered continent."- Fred Chappell

Just as with the early settlers who arrived on saddle bagged mules, only to say with a shrug, ‘Pears lak this here road don't go no further' and start falling trees, the mythical Ozark hamlet of Stay More was not my planned travel destination. I love books that take me places, but the Arkansas Ozarks just wasn’t on my itinerary. All it took however, was one chance encounter with a book titled With to quickly realize that this was a travel destination beyond compare.

The town of Stay More is strongly rooted in the real history and folklore of the Ozarks and just as solidly established in the vast imagination of little-known author, Donald Harington. Harington has written thirteen novels set in this town where animals talk, ghosts provide companionship to the living and the local doctor, who despite his lack of formal medical training, is able to cure patients in their dreams.

I recently traveled back to Stay More with The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks. Using architecture as a marker, the novel lays out the history of Stay More from the founding of the town by the Ingledew brothers in the 1830s, through six generations of Stay Morons up to the 1970s. Along the way, Harington's voice, like Waylon Jennings narrating the Dukes of Hazzard, injects countless lessons in folklore, history and linguistics; some of them true, some appropriated, some entirely made up and all of them fantastically entertaining.

Donald Harington's Stay More might not be everyone's ideal travel destination, but if you enjoy masterful storytelling, bawdy humor and philosophical conversation written in a dialogue that you really must read aloud, (preferably with a swig of Arkansas sour mash whiskey), then you will most certainly find yourself stayin' more.

Closing the ‘Skills Gap’

A report released by the Oregon branch of America's Edge describes the cost of the state's skills gap

There have been many articles about the relation of unemployment and the so-called ‘skills gap’ recently and there have been lots of discussion about whether that’s real or just hype (check out these articles from the Harvard Business Review, the Economic Policy Institute, and Wharton Digital Press).  But regardless of where the real fault lies for jobs going unfilled in a time of high unemployment, that's the reality of hiring in the computer age, with the advent of applicant tracking systems, scanners and parsing software. Fortunately, there are measures you can take to adjust to the realities of computerized hiring and cut through the avalanche of job seekers applying online (and the software employers use to weed them out), to get to the actual people who still do the hiring.

First, you need the skills to actually do the job before you can convince someone you can.  We can help you brush up your computer skills with our library computer classes and labs, as well as books and other self-instruction materials. The library also offers online tutorials and practise tests on a wide range of in-demand skills, including preparing for many occupational skills and licenses and even connects you with career experts online. Let us help you navigate these options in person, by phone, email or chat.

The next step involves telling your story to potential employers...

Resumes and cover letters

Everybody talks about how choosing the right words to use in computerized job searches, resumes, cover letters, and interviews is the key to success, but how do you find them? shares several articles about using keywords to enhance your resumse’s effectiveness, how to find those keywords and even offers a worksheet to help you get at just the right keywords. This article from Wharton Digital Press is a practical guide for what can you do about parsing software.  You can find more advice and examples on websites like Susan Ireland’s Resume Site, and the many resume and cover letter books we have at the library. Before submitting your resume to potential employers, it’s always good to have someone else review it - you can do this for free by posting your resume to the library’s service or MSN’s CareerBuilder site.


Because 'It's not what you know...' - well, actually it is, but it's also who you know who knows someone who needs what you know.  So you need to make those connections and here are some ways to do that:

  • LinkedIn: use that “six degrees of separation” thing to your advantage and put your best foot forward in a place where people who can help will see it.

  • pdxMindShare:  techies and creatives, this is your place.

  • CNRG:  networking and more for the local nonprofit world.

  • Network After Work - Portland: old-fashioned, face time networking events.

  • Meetups: because you have other interests, and so do the people who can help you get hired; and they have job seekers groups too.


Now that you’ve gotten the interview, it’s important to prepare before you tell your story in person. has lots of examples of real questions applicants were asked in real interviews with various companies, as well as other insider tips.  They may not ask you exactly the same thing but it will probably be a similar kind of question - according to Forbes, all job interview questions boil down to three basic things:  ability, motivation & fit. The library also offers many books to help you prep for your interview.

Keeping all your ducks in a row  - organizing your job search

There’s a lot to keep track of in a full scale job search - industries and companies researched; networking contacts made; applications due and applications sent; jobs boards searched, results of different job titles, skills and attributes sought; followup, resume revisions; etc.  How do you keep track of it all?

Fortunately, there are a number of places that can help you:

  • Learning Express - this library database does more than provide a way for you to learn new skills, it also has a Job & Career Accelerator section which can help you with your job search in many ways, including keeping track of it all.

  • - a web-based way to keep track of it all.

  • this spreadsheet from the makers of Excel is designed to track various aspects of the job search and can, of course, be modified to suit your needs.

  • Do it yourself, e.g., a very simple Word doc with expandable rows & columns for keeping track of where you’ve looked, what you’ve found, and, most importantly, what new searches that leads to. Any calendaring system can be good for keeping track of deadlines, interviews, callbacks, etc.  You just have to pick one and use it consistently.

I was born in 1954. 

Here is Elvis bookjacketa snapshot of that year:

Elvis Presley paid to have his first two songs recorded in Memphis.                                                                                                                                    

The average cost of gas was twenty two cents and Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were keeping us safe from the bad guys.                                                                              

There was a new trend called DIY that encouraged citizens to decorate their own homes and fix own their cars through magazines like Popular Mechanics and Better Homes and Gardens .

It was also an exceptional  publishing year with modern classics likeHorton Hears a Who by Dr.Seuss and Live and Let Die by ex-British Spy Ian Fleming.

When I read the list of books that were published the year I was born it was like seeing a snapshot of my own personal history. For example, my dad carried a copy of Ian Fleming's books in his black metal lunch box to read at work. Among the piles of book we brought home from the library every week there were always at least one or two by Dr. Seuss. The families we knew traded stories and ideas for fixing up their hoHorton bookjacketuses and gardens and cooking with new and interesting ingredients, among them Jello.

Wondering what books were published the year you were born and what they might tell about your personal history snapshot? I would love to make you a list.

Portland author Nicole Mones’ novels are so interesting. You get well-developed characters, a bit of romance, and good writing, but you also get to share in her wealth of knowledge including, but not limited to, all things Chinese. Ms. Mones owned a textile business for many years that required her to spend a lot of time in China. Between that and the research she's done for her books, she is such an expert on China that she’s now a member of  the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Her novel, A Cup of Light is full of information about Chinese porcelain, and The Last Chinese Chef offers an introduction to the fascinating philosophy that guides Chinese cuisine.

Her new book, Night in Shanghai, introduced me to an astonishingly interesting and vivid city. Shanghai in the 1930s was an open port, with a thriving International District. It was full of money, jazz clubs, dangerous women and political intrigue. Communists jockeyed for position against Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist party, powerful crime gangs fought each other, and the Japanese army had long been an increasingly menacing presence in the city. Black American jazz musicians came in multitudes because in China, they could escape from the racism and segregation they left behind in the United States and could earn a fair living. Shanghai also came to be a haven for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, mostly because of one man, Ho Feng-Shan, a Chinese diplomat in Vienna. Jews were desperate to flee Austria, but no one was issuing visas for Jews anymore, and they were not allowed to leave without a visa. Shanghai, as an open port, did not require visas, but in order to help thousands of Jews escape, Ho set his staff to creating fake ones, as fast as they could, in spite of the fact that his superiors were ordering him to stop. His heroic actions didn’t do much for his career, but he is still honored in Israel for them.

In this exciting city, a  romance blossoms between Thomas Greene, a classically trained pianist turned jazz musician, and Song, an indentured servant and secret communist.  It’s ever more obvious that World War II is coming, and as Japan allies with Germany against the United States, we wonder if Greene will get out in time, and will Song go with him, or if she’ll stay in China to fight with the communists. And what will happen to all those Jews who have found refuge in Shanghai now that Germany is demanding that the "Jewish Problem" is addressed there?

Mones writes beautifully in this book about music, how it feels to improvise, and how music can change the world. More Portlanders should know about this local author. Give her books a try!

Remember Mary Stewart?  She may be best known for her Merlin Trilogy, which I devoured in school.  Recently however, her other novels have been re-released as rediscovered classics. These rediscovered classics involve a female heroine, an exotic locale, a little bit of mystery, and a gentle romance. They are just the thing for reading whilst on holiday, commuting on mass transit, are something fun and light for those summer days, and cozy enough for a winter evening.  In short, they are just about perfect anytime, anywhere. cover image of Wildfire at Midnight

Several of these novels are now available with new cover designs, but my current favorite is Wildfire at Midnight. A young divorcée from London escapes to a remote hotel in Scotland for a much needed break and discovers that not only has there been a strange murder on the nearby mountain Blaven, but one of the hotel’s guests is none other than her estranged husband. Some holiday!

Samuel Delaney’s 1966 novel Babel-17 centers on a language where the meaning is so perfectly expressed in so few words that it accelerates thought. This perfection makes it possible to solve previously insurmountable problems in a nanosecond. It is not just a language — it is a weapon.

Babel 17

In Jo Walton’s blog post about Babel-17 she relates that the plot grew out of a linguistic theory that was in vogue at the time. Called the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it posited that language shapes perception so deeply that thinking in a different language gives you a different perception. This has apparently been disproven.

Disproven or not, I find this theory deeply intriguing. If you have lived in another language, you know that translating is, well, a little lie. When you live in a language you live in a culture, and quickly need to transition from converting words using an equation to understanding the words as they are.

So, how do the words we use shape what we are capable of imagining? How deeply are we divided by culture and language? And, if the only tool we have to communicate are words, can we ever understand someone from another planet?

I’ve made a booklist of novels where the plots are driven by some of these questions, or by wonderfully playful insights into words and the nature of narrative: The words are the plot

And, incidentally, Jo Walton's blog posts on classic science fiction and fantasy, like the one linked above, have been collected into a new book called What Makes This Book So Great. She is insightful, informative, and has a contagious love of the genres. If you are looking for fodder for your summer reading, look no further.


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