Blogs: Books & literature

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.

The gift-giving season is a dilemma for many of us. We want to give meaningful gifts that result in exclamations of pleasure when they're opened, but that perfect gift can be elusive.

We're here to help: How about a book? As Neil Gaiman says, “Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them. And it's much cheaper to buy somebody a book than it is to buy them the whole world!” Yeah, what he said.

Still not sure what book to buy? We've got you covered with our attached gift guide for adults. You'll find suggestions for music fans, fashion aficionados, literature lovers, science geeks and more. Buying for kids and teens? We've got gift guides for them as well. If nothing here looks quite right, check out the My Librarian service -- just describe your loved one's tastes to get a personalized recommendation.

And remember, above all, books are easy to wrap.

 

Us bookjacketMarriage is a journey; the best of them take a committed couple up to beautiful views and delightful romps at the sea. But sometimes planes are delayed and the food sucks and one person just wants to go back home. David Nicholls in his new book, Us, takes the reader on quite a ride in this marriage travelogue. Douglas Petersen, his wife, Connie, and their 17-year-old son, Albie, are about to embark on a month-long tour of European capitals. What could possibly go wrong? Well there's this, Connie has just woken her husband up to tell him she thinks their marriage “has run its course” and is thinking about leaving but no, let’s still go on this long trip to Europe together.

Nicholls takes us into a marriage - the beginnings, the middle, the roller coaster ride of it all. He makes it way more funny than our own marriages are. And he shows us the truth and the heartbreak and the hope we must hold on to in our families. It's totally worth taking a trip to Europe with the Petersen family on the pages of Us.

I know, right? Around this time of year there's a regular deluge, a barrage, a spate, a torrent even, of lists of best books. Everyone from The New York Times to the neighborhood newsletter will give you their top reading picks. But hey, the more the merrier. And after all, a big part of our business is books. Through the bookdrop, on the shelves, on display, not to mention the tips we get from our colleagues and you, dear patrons: we're positively marinating in book culture. All this is to say - hey, take a look at these superlative lists of the best books of 2014, from people in the know: Multnomah County Library staff. We love readers!

Our guest blogger is Memo. Memo works at the Central Library. Besides reading history and literature about Latinos, workers, and immigrants, he enjoys re-reading the great literary works of nineteenth and twentieth-century realist writers.

It has been years since I last worked as a day worker. I was never a fan of day labor. I hated the idea, in part, because of the work itself. Day work was temporary, backbreaking, low-wage, and dead-end. But what I found most distasteful was the poor treatment I sometimes received.

Before the End, After the Beginning book jacketWeeks after I read Dagoberto Gilb’s short story, “Cheap,” I found myself reflecting about my time as a day worker in California and Texas. Unable to answer questions that kept bringing me back to the time when I labored at the lower end of the service sector job market, I decided that it was time to check out Before the End, After the Beginning again, and re-read “Cheap.” I asked myself, 'What is it that brought me back to Gilb’s fictional world of immigrant day workers?' as I prepared to re-visit the short story, and continued to ask myself that question over and over as a re-read “Cheap.”

In one word: consciousness.

Carlos and Uriel—father and son characters employed by Luke’s Construction, the company the narrator uses to paint inside the house—are aware of who they are as workers hired for the day. They know that they don’t have much say in the hours they toil and in the wages Luke pays them. They don’t even express disaffection when Luke denies them their entitled noontime lunch hour. Instead, Carlos and Uriel stay silent while he tells them what they need to do for the day. They remain quiet, because they know that it is hopeless to protest. But once Luke departs to check another worksite, they consciously take control of the workday to regain their dignity.

I wasn’t happy or sad after I finished re-reading “Cheap,” even though some of the passages reminded me of my time as a day worker. At the same time, I felt sympathy and respect for Carlos and Uriel because of their tenacity. While both characters understood the limitations of day labor, their drive to finish the job in spite of the way Luke treated them said more about them than the job itself.

A book is the perfect gift, but It can be hard to to figure out which one to buy for your 2-year-old nephew, the 16-year-old that mows your lawn, or your third grader's best friend. To make your lives a bit easier, we've created reading gift guides guaranteed to appeal to the readers (and non-readers) in your life. Below, you can download and print lists to take shopping for preschool ages, grade schoolers, tweens and teens.
 
Need gift ideas for adults? We've got those, too.
 

Preschool reader gift guide

Preschool - gift guide

Grade school reader gift guide

Teen reader gift guide

Teen reader gift guide
 
For more gift book suggestions, ask My Librarian or any staff member. Also, be sure to watch the library's social media channels for suggestions in December.

The Oversight book jacketIn the traditional sort of fantasy novel, the reader is shown a world where magic and blades rule the day.  Science and technology are not a major part of the world.  But as in the fairy tales and mythology from which fantasy borrows with heavy hand, as technology is discovered, magic and magical creatures are usually driven to the verge. (Although according to the urban fantasy subgenre, by the time the modern day rolls around magic has adapted just fine!). I just finished The Oversight by Charlie Fletcher which is an excellent example of this type of fantasy with an early modern time setting.

Once upon a time, The Oversight numbered in the hundreds and guarded the world from magic - the sort of magic that leaves the survivors wailing bewildered over their dead. Now there are only five left to guard against the dark things better unseen.  A girl is brought to them by a disreputable sort who wants to sell her.  Prone to screaming fits, she is thought mad but she also might be the start of rebuilding the Oversight. Or perhaps not.  This is a very fast-paced tale and obviously the start of a trilogy at a minimum. The world shown is gritty and grim. You can all but smell the stink of the gutters in the city and see the wild spaces in the countryside shrink as they are fettered by iron rails and canals that also bind the fey things and drive them to madness.  I couldn't put this book down and set aside everything else I had started to finish it. I'm going to snatch up book two the moment it's available.

P.S.  Rachel really called it on Ancillary Justice being a wonderful novel in her earlier blog entry.  I liked book two even better!

Pages

Subscribe to