Blogs: Books & literature

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Winnie book jacketI attribute the beginnings of my Anglophilia to two bears:  Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington.  When I was a child, I loved Milne's stories and poems about Pooh and his Hundred Acre Wood friends, my mother's nickname for me was Roo, and we called snacks "smackerels". I knew that Winnie was based on a teddy bear owned by A.A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, but until recently, I didn’t know that the stuffed bear got his name from a real live one!  The “real” bear, Winnie (short for Winnipeg), was purchased at a Canadian train station by a veterinary surgeon serving in WWI.  The seller had shot the cub’s mother (not realizing she had a baby) and now didn’t know what to do with the young bear.  Fortunately, Harry Colebourn came to the cub’s rescue and thus began Winnie’s adventure.  You can read all about Winnie in a lovely new children’s book entitled Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.  The watercolor illustrations are charming and evoke the era, and the endpapers have photos of Winnie, Harry, Milne and Christopher Robin (with his teddy bear). 

For other true stories about children’s literature, check out this list.

Sometimes I get tired of the boys’ club that is our pop culture. I think “Give me some women’s voices.” You certainly won’t find women’s voices on Portland radio, so I have to start spinning my own musical choices. And find the books for women's voices. And I’ve been lucky lately.  

I found the Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys. I was transported to 1970s London where punk rock was just taking hold and young Viv was just learning to hold a guitar, and her own on the stage. I was floored by the two prominent men in her life: her father and her husband, who sneered and put down her music career. Viv triumphs though! This is a memoir about creativity, aging and empowerment. I found her determination inspiring.

Then I heard that Kim Gordon had a memoir coming out. I got goosebumps. I was more of a pop music lover or local music lover most of my life. My favorite bands in the 80s and 90s were local bands but that’s another story. But I knew of Kim Gordon at that time. She was a beacon of hope for women in rock. Yes, there were others. But hearing that she sang about Karen Carpenter in the song “Tunic” sealed the deal for me. Reading her memoir really fleshes out the story how she began with visual arts and dance in California. Her musical career with Sonic Youth starts in New York City with her relationship with Thurston Moore. This is a wonderful memoir about reinventing oneself, and finding truth and creativity.  

Both women portray the healing power and strength of music and creativity.Their storytelling skills really drew me in as a reader. The musical settings and characters were very interesting for a music fan. Perhaps you will find their memoirs as inspiring as I did.

 

The last few weeks here in Portland have been heavenly! Nights so cold and clear that  the star-scattered sky seems close enough to touch.  Days washed with sunshine and the goodwill of people who can’t wait until summer. But I know this is an illusion.  Summer  isn’t here yet and soon we  will be back to the rain and overcast skies that Oregonians know and love.

 So what will  do I then?  Maybe  a book, movie or music  will bring some of  that warmth and goodwill back to my soul.  First on my list is a good mystery.  Nothing cheers me up like a puzzle well solved.  Or  a detective who, despite personal problems, can’t stop until justice is done.  Dr. Siuri is one such detective.  His story takes place in Laos during the time of the Vietnam War. Although 70 years old and hoping to retire into obscurity, Dr. Siri is appointed by the Laotian Government as their head (and only) forensic doctor.  In Coroners Lunch, first book in the series by Colin Cotterill, Dr. Siri knows nothing about forensics, but luckily with his two talented and resourceful assistants, Mr. Geung, (a mentally challenged man the government wanted to fire for incompetency) and a young nurse Dtiu  ( who is considered too plain and overweight to nurse in the hospital), he is able to solve political crimes without causing an international disaster.  

Along with a good mystery and a steaming  cup of golden hot tea, I am sure to be listening to the Moody Blues- the mellow spirit of their music belies the introspective  lyrics of songs that can  still make me ponder the meaning of  life. 

From Days of Future Past :"Cold-hearted orb, that rules the night, removes the colors from our sight, red is grey and yellow white, but WE decide which is right and which IS an illusion".

From A Question of Balance: "Why do we never get an answer, when we're knocking at the door with a thousand million questions about  hate and death and war?"     

If  black clouds and pouring rain put me in the  the mood for for a movie, I might pick the Secret Garden -I love  the version that features  Maggie Smith as the bitter Mrs. Medlock, Linda Ronstadt's airy song Winter Light  and a beautiful sleeping garden just waiting for the innocence and stubborness  of Mary, Dickon and Colin to wake it up. The beauty of the ending that shows them dancing on the sunlit meadow always restores my faith in life again.

It's almost enough to make me hope I will wake up tomorrow  to clouds and the sound of rain falling.

Well, almost.

Our guest reader is Steve Sheinkin, an award-winning nonfiction author and this year's speaker at our Teen Author Lecture.

I started out writing screenplays and comics, and then, because I wasn’t actually making any money, I got a job writing history textbooks. Now I’m trying to make amends for that particular crime by writing nonfiction books for teens that are actually fun to read. When I visit schools and describe my job, there’s usually one kid who raises his hand and says something like, “Oh, so you do homework for a living?” It’s not true, though I guess I do spend a lot of days just sitting at my desk, reading and taking notes. I happen to love it. I think of the research process as a sort of nerdy detective work.

In my free time, or while traveling, I love to read crime and detective novels. Everything from the original stuff, like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and the short stories of Dashiell Hammett, to Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley books and Richard Stark’s Parker novels. Right now my absolute favorite is the incredible Martin Beck mystery series, a set of Swedish police procedurals written by a wife-and-husband team in the late 1960s and early 70s. I’m also tearing through Shigeru Mizuki’s History of Japan, a series of four 500-plus page graphic novels (last volume due in July) combining the artist’s own lifestory with that of the last 80 years of Japanese history. Not too ambitious, in other words.

In terms of movies, these days I mostly go with my kids, 8 and 5. When I get a chance to watch a movie that doesn’t have Spongebob (don’t get me wrong, he’s cool) I go for 1940s noirs, like Out of the Past.

Though I like comedies too, and actually just the other night my wife and I decided to show our kids one of my all-time favorites, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. My five year old declared the opening scene “boring,” and marched off to bed. Then he came back ten minutes later, just to see how things were going, and he watched Harpo rolling up his pant legs and jumping into the obnoxious vender’s vat of lemonade, and he laughed so hard he literally fell off the couch. So I consider that a success.

I won’t try to list styles or music or bands, it’s too hard, but I’ll tell you a story about one of my favorites, Elliott Smith. I know he had Portland connections, but he also used to live in Brooklyn, where I was born, and lived for years as an adult. Once, after a move to a new place, I started getting mail addressed to Elliott Smith. Couldn’t be that Elliott Smith, I figured; this was the late 1990s, so he was fairly well known. But it turned out it was him. He’d just moved out, the women on the top floor told me, and the crazy landlady downstairs, this fake-orange-haired troll who’d come out of her room to shout “You’re nothing but a couple of waiters!” to the aspiring filmmakers on the second floor, used to berate Elliott too, and eventually drove him out of the building. I’ve always wondered if she shows up in any of his songs. Wish I’d gotten the chance to ask.

For more great recommendations, customized just for you, try My Librarian.

The winners of the Oregon Book Awards were recently announced! From a number of excellent finalists, Portland’s own Emily Kendal Frey was awarded the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. I’ve been reading the award winning book, Sorrow Arrow, and it’s a real treat - a wild emotional ride between poignant sadness and some rather hilarious moments, and memorable lines such as “You sit in your body, quietly making blood.” The book transpires in brief lyric lines, sometimes disjunctive and sometimes tenacious, in a series of untitled poems that build upon one another in a wonderful wall of feeling.

Are you interested in reading books by Emily Kendal Frey and other Oregon poets? Here’s a booklist for you.

National Poetry Month is not yet over! April 30th is Poem in Your Pocket Day, when you are encouraged to carry a poem around. In your pocket. At Central Library we will have a selection of poems for you to choose from, including some new work by local poets! Look for our display in the 1st floor lobby. 

 

I’ve played the game “Would you rather?” a few times before where you have to choose which of two things you would rather do/be/have etc.  Some decisions were hard because both choices are equally yucky:  “Would you rather eat a worm or a spider?”  I’d rather eat neither.  Some decisions were hard because both choices seemed to have potential:  “Would you rather be a troll or a Viking for Halloween?”  One choice that frequently comes up in this game is “Would you rather be deaf or blind?”  That one was easy for me.  I need my eyes to do most of the things I enjoy:  reading, crafting, watching TV, observing flora and fauna as I hike, etc.  If I were deaf, although I would have to live without music, I also wouldn’t have to hear the garbage men at 6:00 a.m. or my upstairs neighbors walking around (fortunately, the current ones are really considerate!).  To me, it seems all around easier to be deaf than blind.

El Deafo book jacketBeing deaf is no piece of cake, though, as Cece Bell shows us in El Deafo, her memoir in graphic form. When she was four years old, she contracted meningitis and was left with a severe hearing impairment.  She was able to hear with the help of several devices, but her deafness still set her apart and, at times, left her feeling lonely and isolated.  In addition to dealing with the usual childhood concerns like making friends and keeping up in school, Cece had to cope with people who couldn’t understand her condition.  Although she really, really wanted to help them figure it out, it was hard to communicate what she needed.  El Deafo was her superhero alter ego who could stand up for herself and right the wrongs inflicted on her by mostly well-meaning, but frankly clueless kids and adults.  Her superpower was the ability to hear people – like teachers - from very far away (with the help of her Phonic Ear device). The illustrations, in which people are portrayed as rabbits, are colorful, charming and full of expression. We experience Cece’s big anxieties, but also her joys like her first crush and the fun of discovering a new best friend.  By the time you read the last panel, you’ll want to be pals with Cece!

For other memoirs for kids that are illustrated or in a graphic format, check out this list.

If my husband were to send me flowers at work (please don’t), I’d likely hide them away in a closet.  Not one for overt romantic gestures, it’s unlikely that I’d ever pick up a romance book for the romance.  Yet occasionally I do find myself enjoying a love story, especially if it has an international setting and an unusual narrative.  Here are three surprising, globe-trotting love stories that I’ve enjoyed recently.  But should you read them?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

Book jacket: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno GarciaSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Three misfit teens in Mexico City explore the magical power of music and unintentionally alter the course of their lives.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: Your own life carries a mixtape soundtrack. You enjoy stories where reality is suspended only momentarily to make room for a bit of magic. You love YA books, remember being a surly misfit teenager yourself or maybe still are a surly misfit teenager.

Maybe not: You have little patience for adolescent struggles and need your fiction believable. What you’re really looking for is a book that evokes a sense of place.

 

Book jacket: A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: An ill-suited lover opens up the world and enlivens the city of Delhi for a restless young woman none too keen on having an arranged marriage.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: You like your characters a little dark, reckless and unpredictable.  You take delight in beautiful writing and vivid descriptions of foreign cities. You enjoy psychological stories and pondering women’s roles around the world. You just want to hold this gorgeous, compact and gold-flecked book in your hands.

Maybe not: Unhealthy relationships that play with power balance leave you cold. You need a more cohesive plot and less psychological (and ahem sexual) exploring.

 

Book jacket: I Am China by Xiaolu GuoI Am China by Xiaolu Guo: A London translator takes an unusual assignment translating the journal and letters of a punk rock musician and soon finds herself immersed in the story of two Chinese lovers.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: Chinese punk rockers alone is intrigue enough. You love a slow-to-unravel mystery and a novel in letters. Language and the complexities of translation intrigue you. You like a little revolution with your romance.

Maybe not:  You can’t forgive an underdeveloped character and need a faster pace to keep you interested.

For a long time, I read nonfiction almost exclusively. Much of it was academic so occasionally I needed to find something light and fun to mentally recharge myself. The problem was if I read fiction, then I’d feel guilty about “wasting time” with books that didn’t further my professional development. My work-around was the humorous travelogue. Certain authors have a great talent for both telling a great story about themselves and their adventures while including colorful tales about the history of their destination.

Confederates in the Attic book jacketWhat often makes these so appealing is the emphasis on the colorful, whether it be the place or the people our intrepid travelers encounter. A great example is Robert Lee Hodge, a Civil War reenactor who specializes in imitating a bloated corpse in Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. Another is Bill Bryson’s friend, Stephen Katz, as the two attempt to traverse the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods. Katz had spent the previous two decades as Des Moines, Iowa’s “drug culture” selling pot, partying, and getting drunk.  You can imagine how well he took to life on the trail. . .
Lost on Planet China book jacket
What kept my guilt at bay, however, was the fact all of them incorporate some history into the story. For example, Sarah Vowell is not only very funny, but tells us a lot about the 19th century as she travels to the locations associated with Presidential assassinations in Assassination Vacation, and  J. Maarten Troost provides us with a great primer on post-Mao China in Lost on Planet China.

If this kind of story sounds appealing, please take a look at the accompanying reading list. These are all great fun, and you’ll probably learn a thing or two. If you know of another author with a similar emphasis I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

I loved the 2013 novel Life After Life, which told the story-- stories-- of Ursula Todd and all the lives she might have had, many of which involved surviving the London Blitz. I was delighted this year to find that author Kate Atkinson has written A God in Ruins, a companion piece to Life After Life, which expands on the story of Teddy, Ursula's brother. I love this character, a man who survives real horror, and who, as the pilot of an RAF bomber plane, drops horror on countless others. After surviving when so many pilots have not, he decides that after the war, he must be kind. And he mostly succeeds in being kind to the people around him for the rest of his long life.

Author Kate Atkinson writes so beautifully that she makes me want to stop the endless stream of books flying at me and have myself a little Kate Atkinson festival. It's always so delicious to discover an author you love who's already written tons of books. Maybe I’ll do it. A God in Ruins is glorious, a book about flight, about the terrible cost of war in terms of lost lives, about the value of one single life, about time itself. The narrative skips backward and forward in time and tells stories from Teddy's life and from the lives of the people he loves. But then, within each story, you find yourself shooting backward in time and sometimes forward into the future, so all of that past and future informs the present. I kept thinking about time, how it changes us-- and sometimes can't change us one bit-- about how every moment can be affected by all the moments before-- and how, in our memory, those moments can be colored by everything that comes after, too.

I've read and watched a number of things lately in which time has been used to allow you to get to know the characters in deep and interesting ways. I loved Richard Linklater’s wonderful movie Boyhood, shot in twelve consecutive summers. And then I happened to come across Here, a fascinating new graphic novel set entirely in a corner of a single living room over years and years. It became apparent that I needed to make a list of books and movies in which time plays its very important part, and you can find that list right here

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