Blogs: Adults

I am the product of a English teacher/homemaker mom and a history professor dad.  Dig deeper into the family dirt and you’ll find coal miners, farmers and engineers.  My paternal grandmother even served as a Chief Yeoman in World War I. I have relatives on both sides of the family who have done the genealogy, so I know my familial history back a number of generations.  My roots are in England, the Netherlands and the Midwest. It’s no wonder I’m an Anglophile and a Green Bay Packers fan!

The People in the Photo book jacketThe women in The People in the Photo and The Sea House are not so fortunate.  They can’t even get a grip on who their mothers were, let alone their grandmothers. In The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern, Parisian archivist Helene Hivert doesn’t know much about her mother except that she died when she was four.  For years she didn’t even know how her mother died because nobody would talk about it, and her father would get very upset when Helene asked.  Years later as an adult, Helene finds a newspaper clipping with a photo of her mother and two men on a tennis court and decides to find out who those men were. What follows is a series of letters between Helene and Stephane, the son of one of those men.  Peeling the layers of family mysteries was fascinating and if I hadn’t had to go to work, I would have finished this novel in a day.The Sea House book jacket

In The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford, Ruth similarly knows little about her mother.  Her mother also died when she was young, but not before she had told Ruth stories about her grandmother’s grandmother: She “was a seal woman.  She cast off her seal skin, fell in love with a fisherman, had his child and then she left them.  Sooner or later, seal people always go back to the sea.”  Well Ruth goes back, not to the sea, but to an island in the Outer Hebrides where her mother said she had grown up and buys a house, and soon she is deep in investigating secrets involving a dead child who just might have some Selkie (seal people) blood in her.  I loved the way the book shuttled back and forth between the 1860s occupant’s story and that of Ruth, the present day owner. I definitely want to get to the Hebrides one day, even though, as far as I know, I have no Selkies in my ancestral pool.

If you love books about family secrets, you’ll enjoy these two titles.

Ancillary Justice Book JacketIt’s been a great year for questing, battles with the stakes starting at the survival of humanity, and the wonders of imagined cultures and technologies.

Watching Guardians of the Galaxy was huge fun, and Ann Leckie’s debut Ancillary Justice fell into my hands shortly after it won the Hugo. And barely left my hands for a moment until it was done.

It’s wonderfully original and highly compelling. I generally read only the first book in a series (as my mission is to help you all find great reads, I choose reading widely over reading deeply) — however, I’m so attached to the main character that I will be dropping everything when Ancillary Sword is published next month.

Breq was once a spaceship, and a soldier, and a thousand other parts of a vast artificial intelligence that existed for hundreds of years. Now Breq is just one heartbroken cyborg, bent on vengeance against the ruler of the culture that created him. If you are familiar with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-inspired song "Marvin, I Love You" (You Tube), then you have an inkling of how I feel about Breq. 

Looking for more good space opera? Check out my list.

What is home? Where is it? Who gets to decide? Would I feel at home without the constant chatter, sticky surfaces and bruises from over-enthusiastic light saber battles? Would you feel at home without your bare feet harvesting stray Cheerios and tiny plastic jewels? Can home be home without your consent? Is home a place? A thing? A feeling? A person? A mysterious amalgamation of all these and more? Under what conditions does home become something other than home--a holy land or a prison cell? Two books I have read recently ask compelling questions about the places we call home.
 
Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant book jacketCan't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is Roz Chast's memoir of her end-of-life experiences with her elderly parents. Devastating, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny, she must navigate senility, hospitalizations, assisted living and all the responsibilities an only child of elderly parents must shoulder. What is it like to move parents from a home of 50+ years to a place you--and they--know they will never leave? What does a childhood home mean once you've left it behind? What does it mean when you return? And what happens when you must sort through that home, object by object? Is it possible to concentrate the idea of home into other containers when it finally ceases to exist? This is a must-read book for anyone facing parental transition and a graphic novel for those who do not feel at home with graphic novels--you know who you are. (Think of it as a book-length New Yorker cartoon, and you'll be okay.)
 
California by Edan Lepucki is an apocalyptic fantasy posing interesting questions of home within a mesmerizing dystopian setting. California book jacketCal and Frida have left the world they've known in a crumbling Los Angeles to make a new life together in the wilderness. They disrupt their tenuous homesteading to seek out a nearby community when Frida discovers she is pregnant. Their marriage is tested by what they find. Is trust directly proportional to home? Or is trust a constant in the equation? While I found myself desiring more complex characterization, the setting continues to haunt. 
 
Is home the beginning? Or the end?

Adult Nonfiction

The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs

by Greil Marcus

An entertaining and rewarding look at music history by one of the major musicologists of today.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

by Karen Abbott

A remarkable story about bold and cunning women told with passion.  Has book club potential.

Adult Fiction

10:04: A novel

by Ben Lerner

Beautifully written novel which weaves contemporary life, art and writing in a New York City setting.

The Miniaturist

by Jessie Burton

A debut novel which takes place in a rich historical setting about love, betrayal and retribution. Book club potential.

The Marco Effect: a Department Q novel

by Jussi Adler-Olsen

From Denmark's top crime writer, another sinister and engrossing tale taking place in the underbelly of Copenhagen.

Teen Fiction

Clariel: the Lost Abhorsen

by Garth Nix

Another tale in the Abhorsen series with compelling characters and strong magic. Sure to be a hit with fantasy readers.

Kid's Fiction

Telephone

by Mac Barnett

A witty and engaging picture book about birds on a telephone wire attempting to relay a single message with the usual mixed-up results.

 

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.

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