Blogs: Books & literature

I read a lot of great books last year, so I had a hard time choosing, but (fanfare, please!) the best book I read in 2014 was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. It came out in 2010, but I didn't read it for years because the title misled me into thinking it was a different kind of book altogether. The goon in the title is time, and the main theme of this book is how time changes us, turns us into someone we wouldn't have recognized when we were young. This could be a real bummer of a theme, too, but the book is so smart and engaging that the theme just kind of washed over me because I was completely involved with its characters and delighted by its fine writing.

Goon Squad seems like more of a collection of short stories than a novel, at first, but the characters are connected to each other, sometimes very loosely. The narrative bounces around in time from about the 1970s into the 2020s and is mostly about people involved with the music and entertainment industry. There's a very moving PowerPoint presentation, a punk rock show at a club in LA in 1979, a celebrity journalist who tries to rape the starlet subject of his interview, a lion attack in Africa,  and an erotic kiss delivered to the unwilling lips of a Mother Superior. Which is to say that this book is wildly entertaining on top of being incredibly, dazzlingly good.

http://multcolib.bibliocommons.com/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&t=smart&search_category=keyword&q=lives in ruins&commit=Search&author=JThe online Free Dictionary defines ‘serendipity’ as, "the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident." I thought about serendipity when I picked up my books on hold and found out that instead of Light in the Ruins  by Chris Bohjalian (featuring an Italian detective who is investigating a gruesome new case by digging into the past of the murder victims as well as her own buried past), I had mistakenly reserved  a similar title: Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson, subtitled Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. Now that involves digging of a whole different kind!

Marilyn Johnson was curious about what drives archaeologists since the work is often hazardous to their health and there is little profit or fame in it. After reading her introduction I was curious too.

In her effort to unearth an archaeologist's passion, Ms. Johnson decides to go on digs with them, interview them, listen to, and live with them.  She writes about uncovering hidden battle sites, exhuming secret cemeteries, and excavating on a deserted island.

Here are a couple  of the subjects:

Patrick McGovern, an expert on the archaeology of  ‘extreme beverages’,  his term for beer, wines, ale and mead.

Volunteer archaeologist Erin Coward, who helped sort through the remains, human and otherwise, of the World Trade Center site after 911

Intrigued I sat down with my cup of hot coffee in hand and  began to read. An hour later, I was  still sitting there, my mind buried in in the remants of shipwrecks, Revolutionary War graves and the unoffcial saint of archaeologists, Indiana Jones.  My coffee had gone long since gone cold and my husband was asking,  "Don't you have to go to work today?"

Putting the wrong book on hold  was a ‘fortunate accident’ indeed!  

 

 

 

 

Cover image of Ship of MagicPeople have been telling me over and over again that I should read the Patrick O’Brian series of nautical-historical fiction, and they’re probably right. But ... I don’t know. Months and months at sea, with nary a bit of land in sight? Ship’s biscuit? Ship’s medicine? Sounds pretty wet and unpleasant to me. Now, add a sea serpent in, and maybe some swordfights, and perhaps a curse of one sort or another... that's another story.

Case in point: Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb. This is another author that I’ve been told I should read, and I’m glad that I finally did.

The setting for the book is the lands and oceans around Bingtown, populated by pirates and sea-traders, monks and slavers. And sea serpents. The most successful trading families are the ones who own liveships, sentient ships made of wizardwood that are bonded with their owners. Althea Vestrit is the headstrong daughter of a liveship trader, but she has been denied the ship that should be hers. Captain Kennit bitterly wants to capture a liveship and rise above the petty thuggery of pirate life. They and many more characters (including sea serpents and the ships themselves) are swirled into a maelstrom of greed, romance, deception, and brutality. It’s Game of Thrones on the high seas, and the writing, pacing, and character-development are all top-notch.

And, also like Game of Thrones, it is, of course, only the first book in a series. The good news is that the remaining books in this trilogy (Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny) have already been written! Check them all out, and get ready for many nights of staying up past your bedtime to find out what happens next.

Andrew Proctor, Literary ArtsAndrew Proctor is the Executive Director of Literary Arts, a nonprofit literary center that serves thousands of readers and writers each year. Ann Patchett says of the organization, "there are no readers more passionate than Portland’s, and no organization better at bringing readers and writers together than Literary Arts." 

Reading is essential to my well being.  It lifts me out of myself and gives me perspective. Aside from the facts that might appear in a book, it is the opportunity to be in someone else's narrative that ultimately teaches me who I am and how I can be a more empathetic and stronger person.  And a confession: I might be the world's worst speller.

Here are ten books that inspire me:

  1. Underworld by Don DeLillo

“Longing on a large scale, that’s what makes history.”  This might be my favorite book written in the 20th century.  I love DeLillo intense prose style and use of voice.  He is unafraid of big ideas, and capable of rendering them in beautiful prose.

  1. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

The first truly subversive book I ever read, given to me by a high school English teacher.

  1. Voss by Patrick White

A magisterial novel by the Australian Nobel Prize winner.  This novel is an unusual and exciting mix of Victorian prose and modernist sensibility.

  1. The World and Other Places: Stories, by Jeanette Winterson

I read “The Green Man” in Harpers when I was in college and was completely blown away by Winterson's use of language. These are some of my favorite short stories.

  1. Tremolo: Poems by Spencer Short

I keep this on my desk and dip into it all the time to shake myself out of my “thinking ruts.”  His associative powers are unlike any I have ever seen.

  1. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Possibly the greatest modernist novel of all time because Woolf has all the force of intellect of Joyce but is a better storyteller.

  1. The Residue Years by Mitchell Jackson

This year’s Everybody Reads pick.  This really is a novel every Portlander needs to read.  It’s a modern day Grapes of Wrath in its unflinching look at society.  Jackson’s mix of street and literary language is electrifying. 

  1. Consider the Lobster: Essays by David Foster Wallace

Wallace is the only essayist that has made me cry, I was laughing so hard.  Why do such tragic lives often produce humor?  This question comes up again and again in these essays in moments from the sublime to the ridiculous.

  1. Herzog By Saul Bellow

      I just love his book for its voice and humor, and its painful honesty.  I so admire Bellow for his work.  He was constantly experimenting and taking risks.

  1. Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back by Andrew Zoli

I read a fair number of business books. This often comes as a surprise given what I do. But running an independent nonprofit is the same as running another business, only with a social mission.  I loved this book and I think about its lessons a least once a week as we build Literay Arts into a world class literary center that is at the leading edge of innovation.  Zoli’s central premise: All resilient organisations have three defining characteristics: they are dense, diverse, and distributed.  I will leave you to read the book to learn what he means.

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.

 

 

Book jacket: Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera2014 is almost over and I’m calling it.  My favorite book of the year was Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. Shortly after I finished it, I sent a Facebook message to the author gushing that her book was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever read. I never do that. Here are 5 reasons why this one stands out to me among the other fantastic books I enjoyed this year:

1.    It’s transportive: While the book’s characters are complex and still linger in my mind, Island of a Thousand Mirrors is the story of a country first and foremost. This book transported me completely to the island of Sri Lanka with a winter craving for coconut milk and curry that traces directly back to the author's delicious descriptions of food.

2.    It’s short:  OK brief doesn't immediately translate to beauty. Munaweera however, does write in a beautifully minimal style, but still manages to tell a sweeping multi-generational story that's lush with detail and emotion without ever feeling rushed.  

3.    It has both a map and a family tree: These are seemingly small details, but ones which I love. It’s hard to keep track of geography and relationships in any family saga and more so when the names are unfamiliar. Wait, where is Jaffna located again? Who was Yasodhara’s grandfather? A quick flip to the front pages and you’re back on track.

4.    It taught me something new: We don’t hear much about Sri Lanka in our news and I certainly knew very little about the country when I picked up this book. Munaweera’s novel really brings to life the complexities of the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war with an intricate story that follows two girls caught on either side of the conflict.

5.    It strikes that perfect balance between devastating heartbreak and beauty:  I was often caught startled by Munaweera’s forthright descriptions of the horrors that accompany war, but was left equally stunned by the beauty of her writing.  In fact, I can't seem to resist a story that breaks my heart and then shows me great beauty. If this formula appeals to you too, here's a list for you!

I’m living more of a Little House on the (Urban) Prairie life these days, but when I was a kid, I didn’t want prairies, chores, or family togetherness. I was looking for the entrance into a magical world, like the Pevensie kids found to get into Narnia, or perhaps a cyclone to take me into Oz.

Quentin, the main character of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, was, like me, obsessed with finding his way into magical worlds-- but unlike me, he manages to do it. After that, the books are chock-full of unpredictable pleasures. Quentin flies to Antarctica as a goose, makes deals with a dragon, takes a voyage in a magical boat to the end of the world, and lives through what I believe is the best post-breakup smackdown in literary history. Finally, In The Magician’s Land, the third and last book of the series, which came out this year, he stops being kind of a jerk and turns into a man.

Excuse me for a moment while I push past the coats into this big old wardrobe. Feel free to check out my list of genre-bending fantasy novels while I’m gone. 
 

I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like bookjacketI like my music to tell a story and that's exactly what Todd Snider’s songs do. His memoirish book, I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like: Mostly True Tall Tales is full of stories. I can listen to Todd's (he's such a down-to-earth kind of guy that I feel he'd want me to call him by his first name) music all day. And then his live shows are great not only because he plays his fabulous songs but also because he has hilarious stories to tell. In his book, he sets down some of those entertaining stories plus a whole bunch more. It's great to hear the (mostly true) stories behind his songs and how he ended up in the singer/songwriting world. You get to hear about some of the inner workings of the music business and the inner life of a fallible, creative guy.

“I thought about what I wanted, knowing that I’d probably fail to get it. And I decided that I wanted most to fail at being a singer in a band .  .  . That’s what I wanted to fail at in this life. And, oh brother, have I. Over and over again. Spectacularly.”

As a bonus, Todd's a local boy; he grew up in Beaverton and he has several songs that feature Portland prominently. He's got a great voice, and I'm not just talking about how he sings; you get a real sense of who he is as a person in his songs and his stories. Now instead of having to wait for his next show, I can read a chapter of this book, pop in one of his cds, and pretend I'm sitting in a club right next to the stage while Todd Snider performs.

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.

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