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Kleeman book cover"A woman’s body never really belongs to herself. As an infant, my body was my mother’s, a detachable extension of her own, a digestive passage clamped and unclamped from her body. My parents would watch over it, watch over what went into and out of it, and as I grew up I would be expected to carry on their watching by myself. Then there was sex, and a succession of years in which I trawled my body along behind me like a drift net, hoping that I wouldn’t catch anything in it by accident, like a baby or a disease. I had kept myself free of these things only through clumsy accident and luck. At rare and specific moments when my body was truly my own, I never knew what to do with it."

What is a body and what is it for?  Something to be improved?  Something to be managed?  Something to be disciplined?  Something to be saved?  Something to be remodeled?  Something to set free?  Something to be destroyed?  Alexandra Kleeman's debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine does a remarkable job of tracking one young (presumably white) woman's body's movement in and through late capitalism.  As much as A - the novel's narrator - tries to escape or resolve her body's contradictions, all she can eventually do is document the various ways her body is seen and reflected.  At every turn, up against every potential escape route - roommate B who spends the first half of the book attemping to become A, boyfriend C who watches porn while they have sex so he might layer "fantasy upon reality upon fantasy," the mirrors she regularly consults for changes in her facial structure, the cult she later joins that prescribes a steady diet of nothing but Kandy Kakes - the possibly edible treats made of nothing ever alive hence nothing actually dead, and finally as a prop in a competitive dating show where real-life lovers test their knowledge of one another or face imposed and permanent separation - A inevitably finds herself simultaneously inside and outside her body, blurred lines never coalescing except in moments of extreme duress.
 
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a surveillance report mapped and composed by the object of surveillance.  Utilizing anorexia as a kind of totalizing metaphor, the novel turns the commodification of bodies inside out but we end up precisely where we began.  Weird, paranoiac, and desperate, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine mines territories familiar to fans of DeLillo, Pynchon, and Philip K. Dick - an oddly recognizable and spooky map of our current historical moment  where bodies are necessarily quantifiable but ultimately weightless, until the threat of brutal hunger arrives with a sudden flash.

Guild Theater - Portland photoWhen you’re driving through the country, do you wonder what’s inside that neglected barn leaning in the distance? When you see a derelict car do you slow down and try to figure out the year, make and model? When passing through the “bad part of town” do you long to go into a boarded up movie theater that still advertises “This year’s Best Picture winner, D ncing wi h Wo ves” on the marquee?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then urban exploration—the act of visiting abandoned man-made places to document the experience—might be something you’d enjoy. Even though they may be called “urban explorers,” as you can see from this example, many of the places they visit may not be in a city. Man-made structures and artifacts are everywhere and have been abandoned everywhere.Ruined Buick photo

There are some theories out there about why people are drawn to abandoned places, but I don’t know if I’m self-aware enough to pick any one reason that explains my own fascination. In the United States, Detroit has become the poster child for urban decay, but it certainly isn’t alone. Urban explorers have an entire globe to discover and there is an active web presence for those who are interested. It isn’t for everyone, however. These are dangerous places, for many reasons.

Maybe running a gauntlet of armed guards or crawling through a dank ruined building full of bugs and asbestos isn’t appealing. Fortunately, there are those who are not only interested in that sort of adventure but also want to share, so you can vicariously enjoy man-made ruins by visiting the library and checking out one of the great books on this list.

The Portable Veblen bookjacketLooking for a bit of quirkiness in your books? Here’s a delightful story I zipped through recently.

The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie, tells a story that includes the economist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”; a big, bad pharmaceutical company; the department of defense; hippie parents; the upcoming marriage of a neurologist who has invented a tool to cut a perfect circle in skulls of soldiers with brain injuries and a translator for the Norwegian Diaspora; and a squirrel. It’s funny and sweet and endearing, just a tad on the experimental side with unique little illustrations sprinkled throughout. The book and its main character, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, are wonderfully quirky and ultimately quite wise. I laughed, learned new words, and thoroughly enjoyed The Portable Veblen.

If you’d like a bit more unconventionality and eccentricity in your reading, try one of the books on my list here.

Theodore Roosevelt wasn't just a president, he was also an explorer. Read about his harrowing journey down a tributary of the Amazon in Candice Millard's The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey.

Maile Meloy's The Apothecary combines the tension of cold war politics with science, and magic. It's a great read for teens and adults. What's not to love?

The Book of Jhereg book jacketWhile I have absolutely no interest in meeting in real life a professional assassin that runs a protection racket, drug dealers, prostitutes and fences as a mid-level crime boss, I don’t mind coming across one in books.  There’s an old favorite series of mine by Steven Brust that has just such a character. Vlad Taltos is an unrepentant criminal. What the character has going for him is a witty observation of the world around him that reminds me a lot of my favorite series and character Harry Dresden in the Dresden Files

Vlad Taltos is a human, or as the local inhabitants of his home city prefer, an "Easterner".  He lives in a vast fantasy city peopled by Dragaerans who are all taller, stronger, much longer lived and more magically inclined than humans. The Dragaerans divide themselves into 17 houses, each with their own set of talents and traits. Mixing bloodlines between the clannish houses is nearly taboo.  The only house that will take mixed house members in is the Jhereg.  The Jhereg will sell anything to anyone without scruple including a minor title to a social-climbing Easterner. Vlad finds he has a talent for beating up Dragaerans and decides it suits him much better than working in his father's little restaurant paying protection to the nearest Jhereg thug.  Better to claw his way up to neighborhood boss himself!   The first three books by Steven Brust about Vlad can be found in The Book of Jhereg. As all the titles are based on made up animal names and the series is very long, I recommend checking Novelist Plus for series order.

If swords suit you better than a scoundrel, I also have loved the Tiger and Del books by Jennifer Roberson for years.  This series being from the 1980s it The Novels of Tiger and Del book jacketincludes a common trope in fantasy at the time of having the heroine be the one and only woman warrior in a men's world.  In these books, a lot of these characters felt not very female, but Roberson’s novels are an exception.  The characters also age and change as the series matures with time. I like my novels character driven and Tiger and Del are interesting, well-developed characters throughout. The first two books can be found in The Novels of Tiger and Del Volume 1. Again, check Novelist Plus to get the books in the right order.

Some final words in favor of these books: I have room on my personal shelves for no more than 2000 books and I usually have hundreds less than that.  I've held onto these complete series since 1983 and 1986 because they're good enough to rate keeping for decades.  Even though you can see the decades on the first book in their stylistic choices (and I've gone from seeing them with a child's eyes to an adult's perspective), the interesting characters and the authors growing and changing their writing style as the decades pass by make these both fantasy classics in my books.

Hello. My name is Matt and I read mysteries.  

I never thought I’d be a mystery reader. It started off with the occasional Agatha Christie title to mix things up. A few years later,  I found myself reading a too cozy for comfort title involving a doughnut shop and recipes.  Things had gone too far. What kind of mystery reader was I? Was I one book away from entering the soft boiled world of J.B. Fletcher?

Luckily, the answer was right in front of me: gay detective novels.  In a literary world with limited LGBTQ characters, it’s exciting to find a likeable protagonist to identify with. Exploring the cast of gay detectives, I was surprised to find a collection of gentlemen larger than expected.

amuse bouche cover

Russell Quant is an everyman living in Saskatchewan. As a handsome rookie private detective in a small city, business can be slow. However, when it gets busy things quickly get out of hand.  His cases take him to exotic locales and always lead back to his Canadian home for a thrilling finale.  His love life is, uh, complicated and has it’s ups and downs.  A quirky cast of friends and family round out the series to keep things interesting.  Start with Amuse Bouche.

book cover rust on razorWhat do Scott, a famous baseball pitcher and Tom, a dedicated school teacher have in common? For starters, a penchant for getting in over their heads when mystery comes a calling. The heart of these books is dark, gritty, and reflective of the era in which each of them is written. The series spans twenty years of great change within the LGBTQ community and doesn’t hold back.  Are there schmaltzty moments?  Sure, but reluctant detectives need love too.  Start with “A Simple Suburban Murder” via Interlibrary loan or “Rust on the Razor” available at Multnomah County Library.

These are my favorites of the bunch, but check any of them out.  Each of these mystery series have their own feel.  It’s what makes the genre so much fun to read.  Plus you never know if the perfect pie recipe is on the next page...

Nick Bruel is an author, illustrator and cartoonist, and is known for his series of children's books, Bad Kitty. In his spare time, he collects PEZ dispensers and hangs out with his wife and his cat, Esmerelda.

Nick Bruel photo[Scene: In front of the mirror, above the sink of a bathroom somewhere in Briarcliff Manor, NY]

Nick: The time is 5:13 am.  I’m standing here inside the downstairs bathroom of Nick Bruel, the world renowned children’s book author and illustrator, parkour master, Amway representative, and long standing member of the Flat Earth Society.  Good morning, Nick. Thank you for joining me here today.

Nick: You’re welcome.  I think.  Why am I here?

Nick: I’ve been tasked today to interview you to find out some of your favorite things…

Nick: Like what?  Ice cream?

Nick: Well, no, not precisely …

Nick: I like rum raisin. Haagen Dazs Rum Raisin ice cream. That’s my favorite.  Done?

Nick: No, not done. I was thinking more along the lines of … wait. You like rum raisin?  No one likes rum raisin.

Nick: I like rum raisin.

Nick: Since when?

Nick: Since always. It’s delicious, and I don’t have to defend myself. Are we done?

Nick: No! We’ve been tasked by the Multnomah County Library system in Portland to find out how you operate, to learn more about you by learning your favorite media.

Nick: Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon?

Nick: Oregon.

Nick: Which is the one with all the street poetry, kombucha bars, and man buns?

Nick: Oregon.

[What follows is a long, uncomfortable silence.]

Nick: Sigh. Fine.

Nick: So, let’s start with your favorite movie.

Nick: My favorite movie of all time is a little known short film from Estonia called Man With A Broken Rainbow Of Love by the great director … excuse me … auteur Miloslav Krizkovenszvynzvz.  It tells the story of a poor but rich-in-spirit doorknob salesman who’s raising a family of marmosets in his garage while quietly succumbing to the ravages of an earlobe fungus over the course of 3 hours.  It’s an allegory of Stalinist Russia.

Nick: 3 hours?! I thought you said it was a short film?

Nick: The director’s cut takes 4 days to watch.

Nick: Well, actually, the library wants material that can be found in their collection.

Nick: Why?

Nick: Because this way people who read this can get to know you better while also promoting the library’s collection.

Nick: I see. So when people check out the same things I like from the library, they can feel like they’re ME?

Nick: Sort of.

Nick: They can pretend like they’re ME? The people of Oregon can go to the library and pretend to be Nick Bruel! That is beautiful. Just beautiful. Sniff.

Nick: Are … are you crying?

Nick: No. Shut up. I’m not crying. You’re crying!

[Audible scratching at the door]

Esmerelda: Meow?!  Meow?!

Nick: GO AWAY, ESME! I’m conducting an important interview! 

Esmerelda: Meow?!

Nick: No, you can’t use your litterbox now! I told you that I’m conducting an important interview! Go poop in the recycling or something!

Esmerelda: Hiss!

Nick: I HEARD THAT!  Where were we? Oh, right. Uh … so can you name a more conventional movie that you like?

Nick: Does the library have the films of Buster Keaton?

Nick: I’ll check. [Looks intensely at toothpaste tube] Yes!

Nick: Without a doubt, Buster Keaton was the first true master of comedy. I love Chaplin, but Buster Keaton’s work best exemplified how comedy and timing work hand in hand. He might be best known for his stunts, but Keaton’s true genius was in how he set up his jokes visually. To this day, there are film directors who borrow from Keaton and his visual style.

The General is considered his greatest film, but for anyone who needs an introduction to the great man, I would suggest starting with either College or Steamboat Bill, Jr. You can’t go wrong.

Nick: Okay! Great! Let’s move on to favorite music.

Nick: I like anything with cannons in it.

Nick: Cannons?

Nick: Sure. Cannons.

Nick: What music has cannons in it?

Nick: What music … are you kidding me?!  Haven’t you ever heard the 1812 Overture by Peter Tchaikavsky, you peasant?!

Nick: Oh, well, sure …

Nick: I’ll have you know that before degrading myself to this whole children’s book thing I do now, I had a promising career in place as a classical cannon player. I even studied at The Sarasota Online Cannon Conservatory And Clown College, which everyone knows has the most rigorous cannon certification process in the entire country! Even better than Yale’s!

Nick: Well, of course. Everyone knows that …

Nick: And I’d be playing the cannons to this day if not for that terrible day 12 years ago when I burnt my hand lighting the wick during rehearsals. Sniff. Sniff. My doctor says … sob … I’ll never be able to light another cannon wick again.

[Audible scratching at the door.]

Esmerelda: Meow?!

Nick: NOT NOW, ESME! I’M BUSY! JUST CROSS YOUR LEGS AND THINK OF THE DESERT!

Where were we?

Nick: Ummm … favorite book?

Nick: Well, I’m quite fond of the work of a blind, Inuit hermaphrodite named J.D. Salinger who …

Nick: Hang on!  J.D. Salinger was not a blind, Inuit hermaphrodite!

Nick: He wasn’t?

Nick: No. I understand that his eyesight was quite good.

Nick: My bad. Well, in any case, I’ve always liked how Salinger focuses on character development above all else.  I don’t think anyone can turn words on paper into the life story of a friend you grew up with like Salinger, and nothing exemplifies this better than 9 Stories, a collection of short stories he published in The New Yorker. A standout in this collection is “The Laughing Man” which tells the tale of a youth sports club bus driver from the point of view of one of his riders. It’s an amazing, multi-layered tale of friendship, young love, adventure, and the power of a creative spirit.  I read this book about once every 3-4 years to remind myself of what good writing looks like.

Nick: Never heard of it.

Nick: Well you should read it.

Nick: Maybe I will.  What about picture books?  Got a favorite picture book?

Nick: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  To me, it’s one of those rare books that transcends its purpose as a book.  It’s message of unconditional generosity is so important that I’ve held a theory … a belief, really … for a while now that if every single person on the planet Earth read “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein, then there would be no war. It’s a theory that can never be prove, much less tested, but I stick to it anyway.

Nick: A lot of people don’t like this book. They think the tree is acting too much like a martyr and that the boy does nothing more than take advantage of him.

Nick: Yeah, well some people can go suck eggs. If you step back for a moment and just contemplate that this is a story about what it means to be a parent to a child who you love unconditionally, then the message becomes more clear. I can back this up, because I knew Shel Silverstein and once had a conversation with him on this very topic. He told me that of course this book was about parenting and that he loved watching people practically lose their minds over this book of his.

Nick: Did Shel Silverstein think people should go suck eggs over it?

Nick: No. But he was thinking it.

Nick: Well, Nick, I think that about wraps things up. I’d like to thank you for joining me here today.

Nick: It was my pleasure.

Nick: No, no! The pleasure was all mine!

Nick: Oh, well if you insist!

Nick: Ha, ha!

Nick: Ha, ha, ha!

[Audible scratching at door.]

Esmerelda:  MEOW!!  MEOW!!

Nick: OKAY! OKAY!  I’m opening the door! Jeez! Just light a match or something when you’re done this time. Sometimes I think you’re made out of eggs.

Those of us who work at the library handle thousands of books over the course of a year - and we read. We've put together our picks in this handy, sortable app -- our best books for 2015.

Not finding that perfect book ? Our My Librarian team is standing by to help you find your next great read. We love talking books, and we'd love to hear from you.

Falling in Love with Hominids book jacketSome writing just speaks to you. You relate to a situation, you long to experience a setting, you thrill at an exciting plot twist, or maybe you smile at a fanciful phrase and turn it over in your mind a bit before speaking it out loud. I LOVE it when that happens! I had some of this good fortune recently when I heard about the short story collection Falling in Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson. I'm only a few stories into this and I know that this 2015 release may be my favorite item of 2016.

 
What it's like: Imagine Twilight Zone episodes, really good ones. Now add a splash of something that is hopeful and touching (but maybe still a bit weird). For me, that would be It's A Wonderful Life. Pepper it liberally with thoughtful, revealing, sensual dialogue. Her writing is a bit like that. There are themes around gender and culture and the future. It's science fiction, but think Octavia Butler, not Star Wars
 
Each story has its own spice. Each could have been written by a different author, but there is a tone that unites them. It might be the hopefulness, or the 'heart'. One story that doesn't end well for the main character still manages to find triumph in what we might think of as defeat. 
 
The best part, for me, is what lies ahead. She's written books that I now am keenly aware of, well-reviewed and safely ensconced on my For Later list. For right now, I want to read these short tales, written and published over a span of fourteen years, and savor them.
 
Thanks to NPR for the review that led me to this writer!

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