Blogs: Books & literature

virago publishers

 

 

No, this isn’t about the tiny house movement, though that is also an interest of mine. Small houses refers to small publishing houses. Sure, you think about the types of books you read, and possibly even the bookstore you prefer to shop in, but how often does the publishing house come to mind? I know that I didn’t think of it until a friend began giving me the same sorts of books as birthday presents every year. These books had something in common—they were all published by Virago. Virago is a British press, founded in 1973, and publishes books by women writers, both new titles and neglected classics. The press celebrates women writers and aims to bring awareness to the existence of a female tradition in literature. It now exists as an imprint of Little Brown, but is still releasing titles (over 500). Growing up with the typical male dominant canon, I never realized that a press could exist which focused solely on the female experience. 

Virago offers myriad choices when it comes to reading. Classics, memoirs, feminist, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and quaint domestic novels about  life and relationships are all one under the Virago banner. The iconic paperback editions of the press have green covers with the image of an apple with a bite taken on the spine, an homage to Eve. In 2008, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Virago Modern Classic launching, eight hardback editions with covers designed by leading female textile designers were issued. The cover art and green spine might lure you in, but the wealth of women’s literature available will keep you coming back.

Annihilation book jacketA ghastly moaning echoes over the swamps. Night herons shriek and caw in the dwindling light, and owls stare from the pines with knowing eyes. A tunnel - or is it a tower? - descends into the earth, and strange words are written in a filigree of tiny fungi upon its wall. This is the world of Annihilation, the recent book by Jeff VanderMeer that is so odd, and so compelling, that I’m scouring the internet for interviews with the author. (Click at your own risk... you too could end up with a strange craving for Finnish insectoid epistolary fiction. And perhaps spoilers as well.)

So, about 30 years ago, part of the southern coast disappeared behind a barrier of unknown origin. A series of expeditions has been mounted to try to understand Area X, as it’s called, but they’ve been less than successful - one ended in mass killing, while the members of another returned as blank shells of their former selves who soon died of cancer. The area seems to be purifying itself of any human influence - all chemical and environmental pollution is gone and the natural world has begun to flourish, along with some unusual new, um…  additions.

This is the story of the twelfth expedition, composed of four women known only by their functions:  the psychologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor and the biologist (a steely introvert who’s our main character). This perplexing and beautiful novel takes a science fiction premise, a dose of spy fiction, a bit of creepy horror, and infuses it all with a naturalist’s sensibility. It’s SF glimpsed through the field glasses of Muir or Darwin, full of evocative descriptions of birds and trees, water and wind - far removed from the cold vacuum of space opera or the brutalist cityscapes beloved of the cyberpunks and dystopians. If you like genre-bending, unusual fiction that’s very well-written, give this a try. And for more so-called “New Weird” authors and influences, try this list.

Trail photoThe last time I went backpacking, in Southwest Washington’s Indian Heaven, my family and I spent a terrifying night hunkered down in our tent during a midnight-till-dawn thunderstorm. Then in the morning, we made a forced march of about five miles back to our car through a steady drizzle, thankful to be heading back to civilization.

Needless to say, this experience did not turn me into much of a hiker or backpacker!

That being said, I love the idea of long-distance walking and I enjoy reading about other people’s adventures! Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s wildly successful account of her 1,100-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, is coming to the big screen this week. If either the book or the film inspire you to take off on an adventure of your own, we can help you plan and enjoy your armchair backpacking and your actual backpacking.
 

Curtain bookjacketLike some parents, authors sometimes feel as if they have bitten off more than they can chew. Their creations take on a life of their own, becoming wildly popular among their readers who argue enthusiastically about their pros and cons. Unlike parents however, authors can killAngelica's Smile bookjacket off their creations with snickering glee and the only consequence is the wrath of their readers.

*Spoiler Alert*

Take Sherlock Holmes, for instance. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle felt the detective kept him from doing better things. 'What better things can there be?' his readers cried.  

Henning Mankell gave his long suffering  detective Kurt Wallander a fairy tale ending, with a dog, a house by the beach and his grandson to play with.  And then --  Alzheimers.  Nice... However, pressure from his readers prompted him to write An Event in Autumn which takes us into new territory. It is based on Mankell's short story, Händelse om hösten.  It contains a very sad sentence:  ‘There are no more stories about Kurt Wallander’

Agatha Christie finished her detective Her Poirot by having him kill a physcho killer, then himself. No resurrection there. Poirot passes away from complications of a heart condition at the end of Curtain: Poirot's Last Case.                                                                                                                                                   

As for Andrea Camilleri, creator of the popular Italian detective Montalbano a series of 17 books, several collections of short stories and a multi -episode TV series, he  says this about his brawny, intuitive hero, "I finished him off five years ago. That's to say, the final novel in the series of Montalbano is already written and deposited at the publishing house...in that last book he’s really finished.”

As an enthusiastic reader of all these detectives, I hate to think that they are really 'finished'. Maybe they are just hiding on a shelf somewhere waiting to be ressurected in a new writer's imagination.

 

 

The Shadow Hero book jacketThanks to the award-winning Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese), we now have a look at the first Asian-American superhero. Yang's graphic novel The Shadow Hero starts with the spirits of China itself - Dragon, Tortoise, Phoenix and Tiger - lamenting what is happening to their people with the fall of the Ch'ing Dynasty and Imperial rule. How this gets to a mother in San Francisco's Chinatown dragging her dutiful son through 'superhero training' is all part of the fun. Yang's work always shines a light on racism but never preaches; now he and artist Sonny Liew rescue from obscurity a superheroic character by a Chinese-American artist of the 1940s. Don't miss the epilogue for fascinating background info!
 
If you are in the mood for more Golden-Age superheroics that you will never see in a big-budget movie, have a look at Green Lama. A hero of 1940's pulps and comics, he was a practicing Buddhist who gained his powers through his knowledge of 'radioactive salts'. He gained his martial expertise and mystical training in Asia, back when this was the only way to explain martial skills (other than boxing) to an American audience. Enjoy!

I like towers, roofs and cliffs - anywhere where I can get a birds-eye view. One of the most memorable views I have had is from the top of the dome on Florence’s Duomo, or more properly, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. This dome is there because of one man, Filippo Brunelleschi.

Brunelleschi's Dome book jacketHaving an impressive cathedral was one way that Florence wanted to show its importance and power. In 1296 they started on a new cathedral that was going to have the largest dome in the world. In 1418 the cathedral was finished except for the dome. The problem was no one knew how to build it. With a diameter of 143 feet it was too large for conventional building techniques. A competition was announced to find a design that would work. Fillippo Brunelleschi was one finalist and Lorenzo Ghiberti was the other. Ghiberti had beaten Brunelleschi years before in the competition to design the Cathedral’s Baptistery doors. Since then they were fierce rivals. The difference was that Ghiberti now had a solid reputation and Brunelleschi didn’t. Brunelleschi’s design was for a dome that would be self supporting while it was being built, but he would not divulge the details since he did not trust others not to steal his ideas. In the end Brunelleschi’s design was chosen, but since this was his first big project, the more experienced Ghiberti was assigned as his partner on the project. This greatly frustrated Brunelleschi who saw this as a lack of faith in his abilities and because it was his design, he was doing most of the work directing the construction of the dome. He finally got rid of Ghiberti by falling ill at a criticalPippo the Fool book jacket step in the building and while Brunelleschi was home sick everyone realized that Ghiberti had no idea how to build the dome.

The Duomo’s dome is still the largest in the world and you can read the whole fascinating story of the dome’s design and construction in Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King.

There is also an excellent children’s picture book Pippo the Fool by Tracey Fern that tells the story of Pippo Brunelleschi and his dome.

When you get to Florence, don’t forget to climb the dome.

 

Book Jacket: Family Life by Akhil SharmaI had just checked out Family Life by Akhil Sharma and thought I’d read a few pages over coffee before moving on to baking my pumpkin pie. A few pages in, I knew I had to see it through to the end.

Family Life is the story of the Mishras, who arrive from Delhi to settle in Queens in pursuit of a better life for their sons Ajay and Birju. Birju has just been accepted into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science when tragedy strikes, leaving Birju brain damaged. The focus of Family Life quickly shifts from achieving success in a foreign culture, to simply caring for Birju.  Sharma’s novel is a story of being an outsider, but it’s also an extraordinarily perceptive story of being a family.    

Family life is an excruciatingly honest book.  It’s insightful, funny and messy.  It’s tragic and hard to pull away from. It’s a lot like family.

 

I just finished Lila,  Marilynne Robinson's third book set in the fictional midwestern town of Gilead. Gilead is the first, and is told from the point of view of John Ames, a Congregationalist pastor who is at the end of his life. To John, Lila is his much younger wife, a blessing, remarkable for her energy and her steadfast love.

The new book is told from Lila's point of view and takes place about eight years earlier. It was startling to see her show up in Gilead for the first time with nothing but a knife and emotional baggage from her dark and lonesome past. John Ames is one of my favorite characters ever. He's not perfect, but he's kind, patient and extraordinarily open to the universe. I was worried as I read this new book that Lila wouldn’t be able to love Ames the way I wanted her to. I read on,  watching these two solitary people start to connect in spite of all the things that should keep them apart, differences in age, social standing and faith.

Robinson uses simple, specific language that is also quite sensual. Early in this book, there's a beautiful description of Lila washing her clothes in the river. Reading, I could smell the river and the soap, and I watched the clothes lose their shape in the water-- and in her words, it’s so vivid. Like Terrence Malick’s movies, like great music, like much of the best art, I find that reading Robinson’s writing makes me feel more awake in my own life. I have a feeling there’s going to be at least one more book by Robinson set in Gilead, and I will go back there with her gratefully.

 

Epitaph bookjacketAfter years of consuming cartoon images of the Wild West inhabitated by larger-than-life characters like Wyatt Earp, Ike Clanton and Doc Holladay, it's quite a feat to reverse the trend and present them as real people. That's exactly what Mary Doria Russell does in Doc, and her latest, Epitaph: A novel of the OK Corral. Russell is always meticulous in her research, and she tells much of the story from the perspective of women, and in particular Josephine Sarah Marcus, the common-law wife of Wyatt Earp.

What I love about a well-researched historical novel is how it piques my curiosity. With Epitaph, I was intrigued to learn more about Jospehine and how she carefully controlled the public perception of Wyatt Earp and what occurred during those 30 seconds, yes! ... 30 seconds! ... that would fuel the public imagination and affect perceptions about the 'wild west' that are still curled up like a sleeping rattlesnake in the shade of the American psyche.

And yes, it's true that I've just told you about a book that won't be out until March, 2015. But that gives you time to read Doc, Mary Doria Russell's intricate and beautifully crafted portrait of Doc Holladay.  Then follow your curiosity where ever it leads in anticipation of Epitaph.

 

Artist, author, educator & performer, Turiya Autry has been bringing a bold strong voice to encourage social change across the nation for years. Whether directing youth programs, teaching, rocking the mic or working behind the scenes, Turiya encourages people to look more critically and lovingly upon the world around them. Her recently released cTuriya Autry. Photo: Elijah Hasanollection of poetry, Roots, Reality & Rhyme, is a poetic journey that bridges the personal and political, the mythic and the real. Since childhood, reading remains one of Turiya’s favorite pastimes. “Books are the one thing I never get enough of in life!  I’m glad that as an adult, I can stay up as late as I want reading without having to sneak a flashlight in my room, like I did when I was little.” Curious about poetry slam and the process of creating poetry? Join Turiya for an upcoming series of programs at the library.

Reading offered me a consistent escape hatch from the world. You mean to tell me, I can walk through a closet and end up in another place, where weeks only equal minutes passed and animals talk?! There’s such a thing as a tesseract?  Literature helped me imagine endless wonders: other lands, realities and possibilities. Books also provided me with new perspectives, analysis and awareness on issues that mattered most to me. Narrowing it down to just a few wasn’t easy, but the ones I’ve selected are books that I’ve read multiple times and never seemed to grow tired of, whether in my youth, or present day. 

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, was one of the first fantasy/ sci-fi novels that I read. After racing through that story, I got my hands on everything else she wrote. The other novel I fell in love with early was Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell. I remember crying at one part every single time! The story is based on a true tale of a young girl being left behind on an island, when the rest of her people leave on ships with foreigners. Resilience and independence are fierce in this tale.

Hands down, the most influential book of poetry for me was Ntozake Shange’s, For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. The choreo-poem follows the varied tales of multiple women, represented by colors of the rainbow: from devastating tales of interpersonal violence to glorious declarations of love, accomplishment and fierceness in the face of it all. Her freedom from punctuation and capitalization had a strong impact on me as well. My choice to include very minimal punctuation and to use all lower case, in my book of poetry Roots, Reality & Rhyme, was definitely a homage to her influence.

Novels are my favorite way to spend time reading. Two of my all-time favorites are: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty. Both feature characters struggling to understand and grapple with their roots. Both stories also dig deep into a wide array of social dynamics: greed and capitalism, the power in a name and knowing one’s ancestors, relationships and the wide reaching effects of oppression on individuals and communities. The ensemble cast of vivid characters in both are powerfully written and fascinating to follow. Paul Beatty writes with a brilliant sarcasm and insight that holds no punches. Morrison’s style as an author is haunting and mesmerizing.

On the non-fiction front, I think everyone should read Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. These two gems speak to the intersectionality of identity regarding gender, race, sexuality and class in very distinct ways. Regardless of how readers identify themselves, the writing of Assata Shakur and Audre Lourde challenges misconceptions of Black women and history by giving voice to our multi-dimensional reality. Through story, essays and poetry, they both share critical insights, history, struggles, joys and pains. Their writing asks the reader to carve out a space in their minds and hearts to value and empathize with the experiences and intellect of Black women.

 

My Librarian and our featured guest readers are made possible by a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to The Library Foundation, a local non-profit dedicated to our library's leadership, innovation, and reach through private support.

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