Blogs: Books & literature

I’m struggling to find a term for this. I don’t think it’s metafiction (according to the online definitions I’ve found), but if it’s not that, then what do you call a novel where the author has taken as her/his fictional universe a fictional universe created by an earlier author?

Mr. Timothy book jacketLouis Bayard, in Mr. Timothy, and Lynn Shepherd, in The Solitary House, both clearly know (and love) their Charles Dickens, a master of 19th century plot, setting, and people. A Dickens universe is filled with vivid atmosphere and memorable characters, so why not borrow them for your novel? Bayard sets his novel 17 years after the events in A Christmas Carol, and features a Timothy Cratchit all grown up and the inheritor of E. Scrooge’s substantial estate.  No longer needing that crutch, Tim finds himself weighed down by the love and trust of his late benefactor.

Shepherd, on the other hand, opts for a mystery set slightly before the tumultuous events of Bleak House, where that novel’s villain, The Solitary House book jacketSir Edward Tulkinghorn, requests the assistance of private investigator/“thief-taker” Charles Maddox to determine who is threatening one of his clients.

In both novels, half the fun (for this reader) is anticipating and recognizing how the sort-of remembered details of the originals are incorporated into the homages. It doesn’t hurt that both authors happen to tell a rattling good story on their own.

In Bayard’s subsequent historical fiction, he has switched his settings to actual events and characters (Edgar Allan Poe at West Point, Theodore Roosevelt in the Amazon), while Shepherd has stayed with fiction (killing off a Jane Austen heroine, placing mysterious bite marks on the neck of her hero).

And, if you like your Downton Abbey served with a slice of cheerful snark, don’t miss Bayard’s recaps of each episode in the New York Times.

Come on, admit the title at least piqued your interest.

cover image of the dud avocadoElaine Dundy’s first novel was The Dud Avocado. It is very loosely, a memoir of her time in Paris as a young woman in the 1950s. Her follow up was The Old Man and Me, cover image of the old man and mewith a slightly older narrator, this time based in 1960s London. These have been quietly forgotten while other similar novels of the same period have gone on to fame—Breakfast at Tiffany’s anyone? They are witty and for their time, possibly a little shocking. A very young, very American woman alone in a foreign city, taking strange men indiscriminately to bed with her, drinking, get the picture.

Sally Jay and Betsy Lou are our two characters. The first suffers from vague nymphomania and costume dilemmas—Tyrolean peasant or dreaded librarian? And the second sets out to seduce and possibly kill for her rightful inheritance. Poor little rich girls. Thankfully New York Review Books has reprinted these two classics for another generation to discover.

Her bookjacketThe 2015 books are starting to arrive and I zipped through my first psychological thriller of the new year. Harriet Lane’s Her sucked me right in with a deceptively ordinary story of two mothers (though if you prefer to read about parents who dote on their children, you'd best skip this book). What a fabulously entertaining, suspenseful, well-written book. The story centers on the build-up of revenge plotted by one of the characters towards the completely oblivious other.

Told in alternating chapters by the two main characters, the interplay of reality and perception is pretty chilling. It’s sort of The Bad Seed with middle aged women. Her is a story that builds from the misunderstandings and disappointments in our lives and the twist lies in the overlooking of those matters.

I’m ready to be pulled into more psychological suspense novels in the coming year; here are a few that I'm eagerly anticipating. I hope they turn out to be as unpredictable and surprising as Her.

I know it’s February 2015 already, but I have one last “best of” list to share.  These titles might not have made the more famous year-end lists, but they are some of my favorite books published in 2014 from across the pond.

Elizabeth is Missing book jacketElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey was billed as a psychological suspense novel, but it definitely wasn’t an edge of the seat thriller. It was an interesting exploration of aging and how disconcerting and frightening memory loss can be.  I was completely engrossed in Maud’s story and felt like I had a better sense of what the elderly go through when their minds begin to fail them.

Why didn’t anyone tell me about Jonathan Coe??? Apparently, he’s been writing novels for years, but it wasn’t until recently that I read Expo 58 book jacketone.  Expo 58 is a funny, yet serious book about a minor civil servant’s experience overseeing Britain’s pub, The Britannia, at the 1958 World’s Fair in Belgium.  Brussels is full of beautiful Expo hostesses, visiting dignitaries and Russians who may or may not be who they say they are.  Thomas Foley has no idea what he’s getting himself into when he leaves his wife and baby behind in England for six months in Belgium.

And speaking of Belgians, there’s a new Poirot! Agatha Christie died years ago and her detective supposedly had his last case in Curtain, but suddenly Hercule Poirot is back to solve another mystery in The Monogram Murders.  Sophie Hannah has done a bang-up job recreating one of the world’s most famous literary detectives.  And the plot is pretty good too.

These are just three of my favorite British books of 2014.  See my list for six more.

Depiction of Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1836-1923)Maybe there is a story you learned from your parents, or your teachers, that explains the world to you. Maybe they learned it from their parents, from their teachers. We don’t always think about these stories as stories, but we don’t always think about them as facts, either - they’re bigger than that. They just are.

We certainly don’t think of these stories/facts/truths as myths, but the ancient cultures whose mythologies we study and amuse ourselves with - the Greeks, the Norse, and all the many other cultures who may have been less dominant but who were no less creative and human - probably didn’t think of their foundational stories as myths, either. Mythology is a name we give to something of the past, but maybe right now we are creating, and recreating, new stories that will be the mythologies of the future.

I thought it would be interesting to see what books, music and movies came to mind for the Multnomah County My Librarians when they heard the word “mythology.” The results, gathered in a reading list called Multcolib My Librarian: Myth picks, are wildly varied. There are traditional Southwest and Northwest folktales (La Llorona and Paul Bunyan, respectively), reimaginings of ancient stories (The Song of Achilles), ballet scores and a comic book with golems in World War II (Breath of Bones). There are mythologies of the distant past (Homer’s Iliad) and nascent American mythologies of the 20th century (Chandler’s Continental Op).

What does mythology mean to you? What books (or movies, music, poetry) would you add to our list?

Photo: James RexroadIn all they do, the members of the heavy metal band Red Fang exhibit passion, musicality and a sense of humor to boot. Their music video for Wires has a sort of Myth Busters vibe to it, minus the hard science; and their performance on David Letterman in 2014 was electrifying, pardon the pun. When they aren't making glasses of PBR vibrate off a table, here's what they're reading.

John Sherman, drums:

Red Fang tours about 6 months out of the year, so there is a TON of time spent riding on planes, trains, and automobiles with not much to do other than read.  Even with smart phones and laptops, I’m happy to say we are a band that still enjoys the written word. We all have varying tastes, but I’ve really been getting into Sci-Fi and Fantasy books over the past few years. Here are two of my favorites from the last tour.

Robert A. Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land.  This book really blew me away.  It’s very different from the typical “Man from Mars” story.  Heinlein writes this Sci-Fi novel kind of like a hardboiled detective novel, reminding me of Raymond Chandler but funnier. Even though this book is about a man from Mars, it’s also about abuse of power, corrupt government, sexy ladies and pretty much everything else that’s awesome to read about. Super good, quick, fun, intelligent read. 

Ben Johnson – A Shadow Cast in Dust.  This one really grabbed me because it’s a fantasy in a modern day setting, and I can totally relate to the main character – a bartender in a band.  This dude is having a rough go of it and things quickly get worse.  And WEIRD!  All of the sudden he is thrust into a world he didn’t know existed, but was right in front of him – of ALL of us – the whole time.  The webs of the universe can be controlled, and not all who know how to control them are rad dudes, ya know?  This story has many characters and their stories all weave together and keep building and building – it’s pretty epic.  The action is intense, the plot gets thick as molasses, and the emotion is real.  And it’s only the first in a series!  I can’t wait for the second installment.  Get this book!

Bryan Giles, guitar and vocals:

One of my favorite books in recent memory was Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, a Swedish author.  I saw the original film adaptation many times and really enjoyed it so I thought I'd read the book.  The film is compelling, but the book is so much more so. Red Fang

The story focuses on Oskar, a 12 year old who is bullied mercilessly at school, and his new friend Eli that just moved in next door to him.  It is revealed that Eli is a vampire early on as the pedophile care giver goes on an evening excursion to collect human blood. 

Incredibly gruesome and violent, I found that the themes of alienation, anxiety, and isolation were what really kept me engaged.  I felt deeply connected with the characters and tied to their fates.  At one point later in the book I literally put it down and ran through my house screaming... So good!

Aaron Beam, bass and vocals:

Being on tour, you have a lot of down time, and lots of time to spend trapped in your own head. That is not necessarily the best place for me to be, so its important to have a good escape. My favorite books tend to be ones that are still about the subject of the mind or personal identity, but about someone else's.

Cormac McCarthy - The Road. This is the book that got me back into reading novels after a very long period of reading only nonfiction and short stories. This is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. I actually jumped a couple times from surprise. To do that with the printed word is, um...beyond words. Apart from the horror story, this book is gorgeous in its simple yet deeply expressive, nearly poetic prose. I saw the book as a positive expression of the sacrifice all fathers make for their sons. And it led me to read Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses, which are both incredible, yet much denser novels.

David Foster Wallace - Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.  This is a collection of short stories by one of the most innovative yet accessible writers of our generation. "The Depressed Person" captures the nature of depression more directly and accurately than anything else I have read. There is another story whose name escapes me that is simply a roman numeral outline of a story, but by the time you have reached the end of the outline, you have been moved like you would be with a traditional narrative.

Lawrence Wright - Going Clear.  Alright, this one is a bit of a departure, but a great tour book. It's about the Church of Scientology's foundations and about its current status. But it is also about religion in general, and the parallels he draws to the early stages of most major religions is disturbing and eye-opening.

Motley Crue - The Dirt. This is possibly the best/worst book to read on tour ever. Sure, it has its moments of shock and crazy debauchery. But the worst part of this book is that it makes you realize that Motley Crue are four actual human beings who experience pain and heartbreak and medical issues.

For more reading recommendations customized for you, try the My Librarian service.  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.

Obsessive Consumption by Kate Bingaman-BurtWhat’s a zine? Generally, we think of zines as little, inexpensively produced, most often handmade print items. Is a zine a book? Well, it’s a kind of book - a self-published book that’s usually not distributed very widely, and tends toward  the ephemeral. Zines have often been made by people whose viewpoints or experiences may not have been well represented by traditional publishing. Many of them are personal. They can be mostly text, or mostly image, or anywhere in between. Anyone can make a zine! And the author of a zine is in charge of the whole process - the content, production, and distribution of the publication.

And sometimes, a person makes not just one zine, but many - zine after zine! And sometimes, the work that they’ve self-published in zine form takes new form as a book published by a publisher, whether small or large. Ok, now it’s still a zine, and also a book. 

Big Plans by Aron Nels Steinke

Here's an example: Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States, once a zine and now a book-length memoir by Pete Jordan that has been described as “part adventure, part parody, and part miraculous journey of self-discovery.” Or Obsessive Consumption: What Did You Buy Today? by Portland artist Kate Bingaman-Burt, whose zine What Did You Buy Today? Daily Drawings of Purchases documents, well, everything she purchased. Plenty of graphic novels have their origins in zines, such as Henry & Glen Forever & Ever (the fictitious cartoon adventures of Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig, available in a series of zines), and Big Plans by another local cartoonist, Aron Nels Steinke.

At the library, we have zines, and we also have books that began as zines:

Zines Become Books, Part 1

Zines Become Books, Part 2

We also have an event coming up at Central Library on February 7th at 2pm, featuring local authors who make zines, people who’ve made zines and also books, and folks who have worn all sorts of other hats in the process: small publishers, educators, community connectors. Please join us at Zinesters Talking: From Zines to Publishing!


Ninety Percent of Everything book jacketWe’ve just finished a season filled with consumer spending. Did you know that 90% of everything you bought or were given was transported on a ship? I didn’t until I read Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate by Rose George. It tells the story of how stuff gets from where it was found, grown or made to a store near you. It is a story about the ships and sailors of the merchant marine who not only make this possible, but are essentially invisible to us.  Rose George sails from Rotterdam through the Suez Canal to Singapore on a Maersk container ship. You’ll find out about this particular voyage as well as the modern merchant marine in general. She covers ship ownership and flags of convenience, pirates and the conditions that sailors have to deal with while on board a ship. This is a world where ownership of a vessel is masked through shell companies and sailors are at the mercy of the laws of the country where their ship is registered. This book will change how you see the products you use.

Other books about ships and sailors that you may also like are: 

The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea by John Moynihan. John, the son of Senator Patrick Moynihan, dropped out of school and got a job as an Ordinary Seaman on the supertanker Rose City. The story and illustrations are from his journal of the trip.

Looking For a Ship by  John McPhee follows a sailor through the process of finding a job on an American flagged ship and then it’s voyage to South America. You will find out about the challenges of getting work in the shrinking American merchant marine.

Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea by Richard Henry Dana. Written in the 1830’s, this classic book tells of Dana’s experience as a sailor on a sailing ship. He sailed from Massachusetts to California by way of Cape Horn and back. Much has changed since then, but the life of a sailor has always been a difficult one.

Book Jacket: The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan DaumWhen a loved one receives bad news at the doctor’s office, you should squeeze their hand and give them a steely glance that says, “I’m here with you.  We’ll beat this thing.”

Throughout this life, you’re supposed to push yourself outside of your comfort zone to achieve real growth and we all want to grow, right?

If you survive a life-threatening event, you’re expected to live each day thereafter with gratitude and heightened perspective.  

It’s these preassigned responses to human experiences that Meghan Daum challenges in her latest collection of personal essays, The Unspeakable: and Other Subjects of Discussion.  

Covering topics that range from cream of mushroom soup casserole to waking up from a medically induced coma,  Daum’s writing is funny, but not frivolous. I loved her keen recognition of the absurd and her unapologetic honesty. As a fellow Gen Xer, I also relished her many 1970s-80s pop culture references. What I loved most about these essays however, is how moving they were. How they started off so specific and individual and ended with broader truths that left me considering the emotional expectations we have of ourselves.

It’s true that the topics covered in The Unspeakable, aren't the type of thing that people readily talk about.  But they are precisely the type of subjects that lead to the best conversations you have with your closest friend. The kind where you can confess to dreading what you're supposed to be looking forward to; Where you can laugh inappropriately and be completely yourself. Maybe not your most becoming self, but your most human self.


What's your favorite book? When you only get to pick one, which one do you say? I work among and with library people, and most of them look anguished when asked this question. "Unfair!" they cry. "There are so many good stories!"

Great Expectations book jacketWell, I agree with them, but I have had a favorite for many years now, and considering my love of science fiction, comics, teen dystopias and such, even I can't explain why it is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. 
Have you read it? It's the story of Pip, orphaned at a young age and "raised by hand" thanks to his shrewish sister. One day, when he is in the cemetery sadly looking at his parents' graves, out of the fog comes an escaped convict who grabs him and demands that he bring him some 'wittles' to eat. Frightened, Pip honors this request, and this act of kindness (and fear) starts a plot that wanders up and down the social scale of early 1800s London and environs. 
Why do I love it so much? Perhaps the first-person perspective helps; my second favorite of his works is David Copperfield which is also told that way. It might be Dickens' wonderful language, always a thing I need to hear in my head... sometimes I read bits aloud, just for full enjoyment (not usually in public). But I think it is mostly about the characters - each has their own voice, so clearly distinguishable that I'm pretty sure I could tell you who is speaking just by hearing the quote. And I love Mr. Wemmick. He's a minor character, but watching him relax the further he gets from "the office", his whimsy and good cheer returning with proximity to home is delightful and reminds me of one of my pre-library jobs.  
There's so much more! A well-drawn picture of the era, commentary on pride and loneliness and love, incarceration and revenge, a look at the social scale and what it takes to climb it (or descend it)... I could go on for longer than I am allowed. Have a look, and then let us know.... what's your favorite book?



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