Some years ago I read Ross Poldark by Winston Graham. I fell headlong into the story and quickly recommended the novel to my dad who shared it with a friend. The three of us have varied reading tastes, but share a love of fine historical fiction and each of us read the entire series (12 books!). I’ve been rereading it, and it's just as wonderful as I remembered. Why?
Let’s start with the fabulously good dialogue and concise description. Graham reveals character and relationships in deft strokes. Add a strong sense of place and accurate historical details which bring to life the social upheaval in Cornwall and England from 1783 - 1820's: the corn riots, smuggling, the vagaries of mining, the effects of industrialization and the Napoleonic wars.
In the first novel Ross Poldark returns home after fighting in the American colonies to a world where nobody is much interested in or affected by the war he fought in. He’s been gone so long that everyone close to him thinks he died. What does he find? His father dead and buried, the house he inherited in a squalid state. I’m not even going to tell you what his sweetheart has done!
In 1975 the BBC adapted some of the early Poldark novels into a tv series which was wildly popular. In June 2015 PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre will air a new BBC production starring Aidan Turner as Poldark. I plan to watch it with my dad, so we can compare the screen versions to the novels we love.
I’ve never written a novel or a short story (unless you count the required writing course I took about a million years ago as a freshman in college) but in some ways, I think that it might be harder to write a short story than a full-fledged book. A short story has to suck you in immediately, tell a full plot in a small number of pages, and shoot you out at the end with a quick climactic pay-off. A great short story will stay with you forever. Raymond Carver’s "A Small Good Thing" with a young boy’s unpicked up bakery cake has been part of my very soul since I first read it years ago.
The past few months, I’ve read several collections of really amazing short stories. When I did a search in our catalog, I found that there have been a ton of short story books published in the last couple of years; I checked a bunch out and found a bounty of vivid stories that I find myself still thinking about weeks after reading them. Kelly Link’s stories in Get in Trouble are a feast of surreal images that are also weirdly believable. Katherine Heiny writes about infidelity in her collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, but she does it in a refreshingly nonjudgmental way. And then there are always my old favorites, Flannery O'Connor and Peter S. Beagle.
If you're in the mood for a short story or two or three, try one of these collections.
Have you ever wondered if you have what it takes to be a good terrorist? Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing wondered that too. In December 1983, a bomb was set off in Harrod’s Department store in London. The media said it looked like an amateur job. When she read this, Lessing was curious: what is the difference between an amateur terrorist and a professional one? And if you WERE an amateur, how did you get better?
The terrorists in this book are strictly small time, a group of 4-6 people thrown together by need and the desire to fit into something ‘big’ like the IRA or the Soviet Communist Party.
Except for the main character, Alice, who is telling the story. Oh, Alice believes in the necessary destruction of society but until that happens she is busy cleaning up, making their squat livable, smoothing out relations with the ‘real’ communists living next door and cooking kettle after of kettle of her nourishing vegetable soup.
But when bomb-making Jocelyn moves in, the focus shifts from theory to the practice. As in practice makes perfect. As in people injured, killed, even their own members. Each member of the group is now forced to evaluate just how ‘good’ they really want to be.
This book is a fascinating read because of the dead-pan realistic writing told through Alice- what she thinks , what she feels, what she denies. Will she be able to live up to her ideals? Does she have what it takes to be 'good'?
Happy National Poetry Month! Probably because "April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain" we celebrate poetry in April. There are many ways to do this, but one of my favorite ways to have a poetry experience recently is to listen to readings and discussions on PennSound, a project of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at University of Pennsylvania. This online resource is an archive of both new and historical recordings, an excellent podcast, and many other things as well. It's pretty amazing to be able to listen to a recent reading by one of my favorite poets, or listen to scholars and poets discussing a close reading of a poem, all while I'm doing the dishes or sweeping the floor at the end of the day. Just take a look at PennSound's authors page, and scan this enormous list for a poet you'd like to hear.
The library also has quite a few collections of poetry that you can listen to, either in audiobook CD form or downloadable or streaming audio! I recently discovered the Voice of the Poet series of audiobooks on CD, featuring poets reading their work; it includes a number of great American 20th century poets.
When reading The Man Who Could Fly and other stories by Rudolfo Anaya, a famous Chicano writer, I came across the name B. Traven. He was a German/American writer who inspired one of Anaya's stories entitled “B. Traven is Alive and Well in Cuernavaca.” I couldn’t wait to know more about this intriguing character.
B. Traven (1890-1969) is considered one of the most international literary mysteries of the twentieth century, because he refused personal data to publishers. Author of 12 fiction novels and several short stories, most of his books were originally written in German and were first published in Germany. His real name, date place of birth and nationality are still begin questioned, which makes me think that he might be hiding his identity on purpose to gain more public attention or as a kind of strategic marketing maybe?
I became a bit obsessed with trying to know more about Traven. My quest began with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a book that was adapted to a film of the same name. The film won an Academy Award in 1948; another of his remarkable works is The Death Ship”: The story of an American Sailor written in German and then translated into 12 languages including English. Both books led to him to international popularity.
It’s estimated that he used at least twenty seven aliases and many researchers are convinced that he is more than one person.
It’s amazing how books connect us with other important events and characters. I started by reading a Chicano writer and followed my curiousity to learn about B. Traven. Something else I found out going through this journey is that Macario, one of my favorite movies ever, was adapted from a short story by B. Traven -- or whoever the real person was.
Though I don't read a lot of typical Westerns, I love authors who experiment with the form. I enjoy Mary Doria Russell's approach to iconic stories of the Wild West (Doc and Epitaph) and I've always appreciated how Kent Haruf could take the stoic and hard-bitten cowboy out of history and place him in the modern world - in his stories set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.
Sadly, Kent Haruf died in the fall. But according to Ron Charles of Washington Post's Book World, with Black River, S.E. Hulse is poised to take up Haruf's torch. As a Haruf fan mourning the loss of an author who could capture a depth of character in just a few lines of dialogue, I immediately placed Black River on hold. I tried not to see the very young looking author photo on the back - how could she possibly write with the gravitas of Haruf?
I'm glad I didn't let my biases stop me. Black River is a beautifully taut and painful story of an embattled man who has lost everything. After the death of his wife, Wes Carver returns to the small Montana town where they met. At a time when he should be mending his troubled relationship with his stepson, he is instead intent on one thing - preventing the parole of a man Wes guarded years before while working at the local prison - a man who took something essential from Wes.
There are authors who can keep you emotionallly attached to a character even as you're mentally exhorting him to take another course of action. S.E. Hulse seems to have that knack. I hope you enjoy Black River as much as I did.
I found a single remaining copy Of Walking in Rain by Matt Love on the shelf of a coffee shop in Manzanita. It was high summer, but I couldn’t resist its pull, the feel of the paper, the promise of reading it on a rainy day in autumn. There was no price tag and the cashier seemed baffled as to what to charge. I had a $20 bill in my pocket and offered that. A signed copy for $20? Done.
It sat on my bookshelf the rest of the summer. And it was an unusually hot, long, and dry summer too. By the time the rains came and leaves began to change colors and fall, it was November. At last. Historically I have been a sun worshipper, but have long had a love affair with rain. Especially stormy downpours. The sun brings out the super efficient doer in me, while the rain gives me a reason to take a breath, pause, reflect.
This is Matt Love’s contemplative musings on rain. Will it make you a lover of rain?
Notes to Mr. Love:
p.s. Counting Crows have some of the best rain songs around and none were mentioned.
p.p.s. Also, I carry an umbrella and refuse to feel guilty about it.
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.
For more great recommendations, customized just for you, try My Librarian.