I have lived in Portland for 56 years now, raising kids, writing books, and reading books. I never would have got through those 56 years without the Multnomah County Library.
“Favorites” -- A favorite book? Impossible! Seven favorite books? Impossible! I have too many favorite books. A lot of them are a lot of other people’s favorites too, so they don’t need to be mentioned. But I’ve just been rereading one that has pretty much slipped outof sight, and I want to remind people of it, because it’s a terrific novel: Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. It came out in 1964, won the Western Heritage Award, and got a nice movie based on it. But it’s way, way better than the movie. Little Big Man is a highly improbable story told so well that you believe it.
For one thing, you want to believe it. And also you can trust it, because the true parts of it are true. The history (and ethnology) is real. There’s no whitewashing the racism and greed that have always threatened the American dream of freedom. You get the story of what really happened at the battle of the Little Big Horn, not all that Custer hype. You get an entirely new view of Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and several other celebrities, too.
Like Mark Twain, Berger has a pitch-perfect ear for how Americans talk – and think. And like Mark Twain he can ruthlessly indict human stupidity and bigotry while never losing his temper, and being really, really funny. Old Lodge Skins is my hero. I love this book. I wish every high-school kid in America could read it. And then (like me) read it again twenty or forty or sixty years later...
As for nonfiction, I have to mention Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which brings together scientific and medical research (and hypocrisy), the biography of an almost invisibly elusive black woman, the exposure of an act of exploitation, racism and social injustice, and the writer’s own deeply respectful involvement with the people from whom she won this absorbing, troubling, wonderfully told story.
How about a favorite piece of music? Can I have two, please? OK! One is the short opera Galileo Galilei by Philip Glass, performed here in Portland two years ago (a recording of that performance is available now from Orange Mountain). The stage set was all magical circles and spirals and pendulums, lights moving through shadows, illuminating the story that spirals back in time from the dark end of Galileo’s life to a radiant, joyful beginning. Set, words, and music, it was and is completely beautiful.
And for a change of pace. . . how about Hoyt Axton singing “Five Hundred Miles.” (Find it on the CD Greenback Dollar: Live at the Troubadour). There are several versions of it on YouTube. I like the one where the visual is just a b/w video of a train that comes and goes by and is gone.