Blogs: Books & literature

Lately I’ve been obsessed with Coco Chanel.  This is thanks in part to my own couturier aspirations (Is there life beyond pajamas?) and to a new novel I recently read by C.W. Gortner, a writer of historical fiction who has conceptualized the lives of many historical figures including Catherine de Medici, Elizabeth the First and Isabella of Castille.  In Mademoiselle Chanel,  Gortner sets his sights on Gabrielle Chanel, the self-taught seamstress from a small town in France who became a cultural icon.  

Mademoiselle Chanel book jacketBorn into poverty and abandoned by her father, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel spent her childhood in an orphanage.  Blessed with exceptional sewing skills and unstoppable ambition Gabrielle left the convent at eighteen to become an assistant seamstress by day and a cabaret singer by night.  She discovered a passion for millinery work and when she met the powerful playboy Etienne Balsan, his money and connections provided her with the freedom to pursue her minimalist designs.  Through Balsan, Coco met Arthur “Boy” Capel, another wealthy and well-connected benefactor who turned her designs into a profitable business and became  the love of her life.  Coco ultimately branched out into clothing, jewelry and her signature Number Five scent.  

Coco’s life was not without controversy.  During World War II and the Nazi occupation of Paris, Chanel closed her shops.  She moved into the Ritz Hotel, began a romantic liaison with a German officer and became involved in military intelligence.  After the war she spent nine years in Switzerland, hoping to escape the memory of her wartime activities.  She returned to France in 1953, re-entered the fashion world, and continued to work on her collections until her death in 1971.  

As a designer Coco Chanel left behind a lasting legacy.  She had the courage to challenge the fashion rules of the day and create clothes for women to live in.  Her fluid jersey garments and famed tweed suits combine style with practicality and freedom of movement.  Her little black dress was simple yet fashionable and her signature scent Number Five was designed to embody the liberated woman.  

Chanel the company still maintains a boutique in Paris at 31 rue Cambon,  the same building acquired by Coco in 1918.  Despite her checkered wartime history Coco Chanel’s accomplishments and ambitions are unparalleled.  She went from poor orphan to global icon and along the way changed the way women saw themselves and lived.  She is considered by many to be the most important fashion designer of the twentieth century.  And by the way, Chanel is also known for her pajama designs.  They are elegant, sophisticated, and very chic.  Much like Coco herself.

The Miniaturist book jacketBefore learning that I had a Dutch great-grandfather, I wasn't particularly interested in the Netherlands.  Since then, though, I have taken a trip to Holland, found a new appreciation for Edam cheese, and read a number of books about the place.

Two excellent novels published in 2014 are set in 17th century Amsterdam. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton follows the first months of Nella Oortman's marriage to Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant who is rarely around.  He pays scant attention to her when she arrives at his home in Amsterdam after a very brief marriage ceremony months earlier in her own town.  Weeks after her arrival, Nella is still waiting for Johannes to come to the marriage bed.  Roaming around a big house with two servants and her dour sister-in-law and only rarely seeing her husband is not how she thought marriage would be.  In order to make up for his inattention, Johannes purchases a wildly expensive dollhouse, or cabinet, for Nella to furnish that is an exact miniature replica of their home. When the furniture and dolls begin arriving from the miniaturist, Nella becomes intrigued (and slightly concerned).  The miniaturist sends objects that Nella has not requested and seems to know things that only someone living in the merchant's house would know!

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal is told by several people who were involved in the story of Rembrandt's painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Tulp. The Anatomy Lesson book jacketThis exquisitely told tale throws us right into the day Adriaen Adriaenszoon (aka Aris the Kid and - spoiler alert - the corpse in the painting) is hanged for being a thief. As the events of the day unfold, we see Rembrandt working in his studio, Aris contemplating his life, and Aris's lover making her way to Amsterdam in order to try and save him or at least bring his body home if he cannot be rescued.  French philosopher Rene Descarte and Jan Fetchet, the man charged with preparing the body for the anatomy lesson, also make appearances.  I was so absorbed in the novel that when I looked up from my e-reader, I was surprised to find that I wasn't walking out in the cold, flat Dutch countryside or on a canal in the middle of Amsterdam.  I was, however, happy to be secure in my home knowing that I didn't have to face the hangman or figure out how to paint a hand on a corpse that was missing one!

For more books - both fiction and non-fiction - about the Netherlands, check out this list.

 

Each year at Multnomah County Library, staff members volunteer to participate in a “best books of the year” forum where they inform staff and patrons about their favorite works within a particular genre. For 2014, I was privileged to be one of the reviewers for science fiction. Many years ago I read a great deal of SF, but graduate school and professional obligations kept me from reading as much as I wanted until very recently, so for me, it was a real treat to reacquaint myself with what was new in the genre.

The Joys
The Martian book jacketWhat I discovered was that modern science fiction is more vibrant and of higher quality than I expected. The breadth of works is astonishing and run a gamut of styles and varying degrees of scientific accuracy—yes, as someone who leans toward “hard SF,” that accuracy is important to me. I found this epitomized by Andy Weir’s The Martian, a work where the science matters but doesn’t stop us from enjoying a great story with a strong protagonist. I also enjoyed Daniel Suarez’s Influx, which is something new for me: a science fiction techno-thriller—think Robert Heinlein meets Tom Clancy. I don’t recall anything quite like it fifteen or so years ago when I was reading a lot more SF.

The Frustrations
I also discovered that finding a science fiction book not part of a series is nearly impossible. I can understand the reasons for this. First,Proxima book jacket authors often go to a lot of effort to create a rich and realistic universe for their story. It must be difficult to work so hard for a single tale when so many other stories could be told within that new setting. Also, the reality of the publishing world means that a series will potentially sell more books as readers come back to see what happens next to their favorite characters. For me, however, it’s frustrating to either see a title that looks interesting but discover that it’s #4 in a series or to read a book and reach the end only to find that none of the central mysteries of the story are resolved. An example of this is Stephen Baxter’s Proxima, a novel which drew me in and I really enjoyed until it was over and there was very little resolution. It felt like the author had reached a certain page count, decided “That’s enough,” and simply stopped with a brief, unsatisfying wrap-up. There are plenty of series that provide some closure at the end, such as Ann Leckie’s fantastic novel Ancillary Justice, which is part of why I find Baxter’s book so aggravating. Some might say he has written an effective cliff-hanger, but I find it irritating and a bit manipulative.

So, overall, I’ve been very happy to reacquaint myself with a genre that meant a lot to me for a long time. I’ve already volunteered to read for the 2015 “best books” forum, so my exploration shall continue. I’m sure I will continue to be surprised.

When I was a little girl, I loved to sit with my great grandpa and put together jigsaw puzzles. He told me:” first you turn over the pieces, and separate out those that belong in the frame. Once the frame is put together, then sort the pieces into colors and  put the picture together.”

Reading a mystery by Kate Atkinson is like following that advice in reverse. First, she dumps the pieces of her stories in a big, dramatic heap: murders, kidnappings, mistaken identity, loyalty, country music, lost dogs, little sisters, misunderstood characters. Then, slowly, she turns over the pieces one by one and fits them together until the whole picture begins to emerge. Private detective Jackson Brody is a major piece in that picture. However, until the frame is in place and the picture is clear and bright, the reader isn’t quite sure. Brody  seems to be the hero, but….sometimes he seems to be the problem too.

Then she gives the reader side pieces that  begin to put together the frame.  Here is a train wreck that brings several characters of the story together; here is a dog that Brody rescues and then finds his owner was a mafia thug; here is a retired police detective who spontaneously steals a child and doesn’t know what to do with her.  Closer and closer we get, piece by piece the picture becomes sharper, the colors fit together- and out pops the picture-  in a way that could never be seen at the beginning.

One more thing about putting a puzzle together with my great grandpa is this:  My great grandma always snuck a few pieces out and hid them in her apron pocket. Kate Atkinson does that too. The pieces that are  missing belong to Jackson Brody’s own personal puzzle. When will she put them in place? I can’t wait for her next book- maybe it will be the one that finally puts the whole puzzle of his past together.

Don’t you love it when you find a new series to read? I found myself just reading Regency Romance and decided to branch out. I am now reading a romance series set in the broader Georgian era (1714-1830) called Maiden Lane by Elizabeth Hoyt. If you like historical fiction that comments on the social conditions of the times, that has a family of characters with secrets, mystery, great writing, and romance then I think you might love the Maiden Lane series.  

The setting is the worst neighborhood in London: St. Giles and the orphanage that Temperance Dews runs with her brother. Lord Caire needs a guide to help him solve a mystery in the neighborhood. Temperance needs money and a sponsor for the orphanage. A deal between the two is struck. Inquiring minds want to know can Lord Caire and Temperance forgo the attraction that is brewing? You’ll have to read it and find out!

I made a list called Good Reads in Historical romance with Wicked Intentions the first in the Maiden Lane series and historical romance titles that cover 1714-1901. Hope you find the list swoon worthy.

Sharon Harmon is the director of the Oregon Humane Society. An integral part of her work is to advance animal welfare through leadership, education, advocacy and project development. While not working or enjoying the company of her pets, she reads. Here are some of her favorites:

I work and play with equal passion and drive. I'm lucky to have a job that brings great satisfaction in that it is intellectually challenging and emotionally fulfilling. Change is not only constant, it is embraced. Days are fast-paced, start early and end late and I'm often wondering where the time went when my dogs Sunny and Mac nudge my elbow telling me it's time to go home. It hardly feels like a job most days. I work with an incredibly dedicated team and meet the most interesting people who also want to see a better world for companion animals. Did I mention I get to play with kittens?  

As the seasons change, so do the books that occupy a portion of my coffee table. Although most of its surface is covered by a large and eternally bored cat who delights in shoving things over the edge to get my attention, these volumes survive his commentary on my literary choices.

I was fascinated with Dan Pallotta's TEDtalk on the restraints put on nonprofits so I picked up his book Uncharitable. Nonprofits are often judged by the balance of expense spent on administration and fundraising whereas similar expenses in for-profit businesses are viewed as smart investments. Thought-provoking -- I momentarily envisioned changing my title to Chief Executive Overhead but decided to stay employed...

Adam Braun’s book, The Promise of a Pencil tells the tale of his entrepreneurial approach to founding an organization dedicated to building schools, and along the way, the human potential of communities in some of the most impoverished places in the world. He suggests eliminating the term 'nonprofit' and substituting 'for-purpose', because any charity worth supporting always has a purpose and can't bleed red ink endlessly to achieve it.   

Rounding out the business books is Steven M.R. Covey's The Speed of Trust. In these days of multipage contracts attached to almost every deal, this is a refreshing reminder that exhaustion at the end of a negotiation likely stems from starting from a position of distrust. I think if this book could required reading there would be a lot less need for legal counsel. Not that I have anything against attorneys; I would just rather spay a bunch of cats than pay for an 18 page contract review.

When not at my desk, you are likely to find me in my four season garden, watching birds, hiking, fishing and this time of year, mushroom hunting.

Looking for mushrooms is both meditative and an endurance exercise.  The steep, remote portions of the Cascades are full of edible funghi. That means that at the end of the day you have some outstanding ingredients for dinner and you've gotten a workout while focusing on a small plot of ground at your feet. Chances are you will see something new every time you go, perhaps a new flower or a millipede or a cast-off feather. David Aurora’s Mushrooms Demystified is a constant companion on these foraging forays into the wild lands. Better safe than waiting for a liver transplant.

While Tyler the cat rules the coffee table, my German Shepherds Sunny and Mac are my constant companions, whether attending endless meetings at work, running amok while mushroom hunting or guarding the house from unknown things that go bump, or not, in the night.  Did I fall in love with the breed watching Rin Tin Tin reruns on TV? Maybe it happened after reading local writer Susan Orlean's Rin Tin Tin: The life and the legend.  It's a great story about a great dog(s) and the bond between people and the canine heroes in our world.

This last book is one where I have the first copy I read but have given away many others. Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail speaks to me on so many levels. She is one tough woman and I loved following her personal journey while visiting many of the places I've been or would like to visit. Oregonians writing about place while showing reverence for the wild lands will always have a place in my heart, and my coffee table, if the cat agrees.  

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.

I’m a flighty and unfaithful reader. I can’t resist the call of a buzzy debut novel or the allure of reading a book set in a country I’m unfamiliar with.  This means that all too often, it takes me years to get around to reading award winning books that I know I’ll probably like. When it comes to reading,  I nearly always prefer to roll the dice than spend my time on a sure thing.  

There are two exceptions to this pattern and their names are Gail Tsukiyama and J. Maarten Troost. Two very different writers, but I never hesitate to read anything by either one.  

 

Book jacket: The Samurai's Garden by Gail TsukiyamaTsukiyama’s writes quiet books set in turbulent times in Japanese and Chinese history. Her stories are reflective and leisurely unravel the struggles of people living in bleak times of war and oppression. Her books could easily be real downers. Instead they’re absolutely beautiful. Tsukiyama is who I turn to for absorbing historical fiction with characters I gradually grow to really care about.

 

Book jacket: The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost

In contrast, J. Maarten Troost writes books that are anything but quiet. He’s fiercely smart and just as fiercely funny. In describing his adventures overseas, Troost offers a perfect balance of earnest curiosity, historical context, and sardonic wit.  Whether living as a slacker on an atoll in the South Pacific or traipsing through China, I’ll follow him anywhere. I’ll even tag along through his new found sobriety because, while I did have my doubts, it turns out he’s still funny off the kava

 

If you’re looking for quiet reflection and history, try Gail Tsukiyama. Start with The Samurai’s Garden, or jump in anywhere. Feeling more boisterous? Check out The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost. Or maybe you feel like rolling the dice on something unknown?  In that case, just ask me.

 

Read All the Books imageI love lists! My favorite part of the end of the year is to peruse the tons of lists that everyone and their uncle puts out. I want to know the best and the worst movies of the year, or at least what the critics are saying. I might not be up on all of the latest music but I’ll still glance through the best albums of the year lists. And of course, the best books of the year. There are a million of them and I want to see ‘em all.

If you want to find all of the great online book lists in one place, check out Largehearted Boy. It’s a music blog and so much more. Every year, this blogger posts absolutely all of the online best of book lists on it. You could spend the entire year going through all of the lists that are posted there. But then it wouldn’t leave you any time to read ALL the books.

If you need a break from looking at the best of lists of 2014, take a gander at some of my favorite list-type books.

Photo of Ross in front of some cranes.

Terminal City! Vansterdam!  Saltwater City! No Fun City! Hollywood North!

Aka... Vancouver, British Columbia! I had the privilege to visit this fair metropolis a couple months ago, and it was a ball. It’s similar to Portland in a lot of ways (there’s a Vancouver bar called Portland Craft, “inspired by the Portland food scene”) and different in a lot of ways, too (Vancouver has roughly the same population as Portland, but it’s about three times as dense). I discovered, among many other things, that Vancouverites like to light off fireworks on Halloween, and that combining a video arcade with a retro-XXX peep show is apparently something that can happen and then exist for 40+ years.

Before I went on my trip, I did what I always do whenever starting something new: I check out every single library item that exists on the subject. Here’s my list of some of the best books to learn about that city and its citizens. Did I miss anything? Let me know!

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.

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