Blogs: Books & literature

Perpetual calendar NaNoWriMo is a funny abbreviation for National Novel Writing Month, when deadline-driven novelists find community in trying to bust out a 50,000-word novel between November 1 and November 30. The online nonprofit site NaNoWriMo.org coordinates this effort and serves as a kind of social network for writers. In 2013, there were 1574 participating novelists in Portland!

Are you planning to participate in NaNoWriMo this year? What are you doing to prepare? You might take a look at our list of resources containing creative writing prompts, if you’d like a little help getting the creativity bubbling or would like to read some advice about the craft of fiction.

Do any of these NaNoWriMo novels ever get published? Well, yes! Many are self-published (you can do this!), and quite a few are published by publishers large and small. Some NaNoWriMo novels meet with quite a bit of success, such as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night CircusStephanie Perkins’ Anna and the French Kiss, and Anna Gruen’s Water for Elephants!

 

Book jacket: Mannequin Girl by Ellen LitmanIf you’re a female who grew up in this country during the 1980s, odds are good that you lived in fear of scoliosis checks. The impact a back brace could have on a teenager’s social life was made very clear to me by Judy Blume in her book Deenie.  

But what if, instead of growing up in New Jersey under the watchful eye of a controlling mother, Deenie had been born in Soviet Russia to inattentive bohemian parents?

What if Deenie’s spine curvature got her sent to a school-sanitorium where life’s disappointments brought out a bit of an impulsive mean streak?

That alternate universe Deenie might look something like Kat Knopman, the sympathetic but prickly protagonist of Mannequin Girl by Ellen Litman.

Part of what I love about reading 80s coming of age stories, is recognizing my own experience in the lives of characters in fiction.  The other part is reflecting on how much of these experiences of a common era are colored by things like geography, race, politics and maybe just simple circumstance.

Were you an 80s child, or just interested in coming of age stories set in not so far removed historical times? Check out my list for more tubular tales from different points of view.

Chanur Saga bookjacketI grew up 60 miles from Roswell, New Mexico; so my love of SciFi is natural. CJ Cherryh writes a very entertaining SciFi series called The Chanur Saga about a galaxy far, far away that is full of Hani, Mehendo'sat and Kif with sundry other species, and not a human in sight. Family, Trade and inter-species Diplomacy are the bedrocks of society. Then the Outsider stows away aboard the Hani ship 'The Pride of Chanur' and all hell breaks loose.

You don't have to love SciFi to appreciate Cherryh's world building (spoiler alert -- methane breathers!); or the ironic way she depicts the Powers that try to rule over folk perceived as weak or inferior. She handles culture shock with humor and insight enough to make you wonder: suppose it was me who made First Contact. What view of human kind would I give?

The Chanur Saga is fantastic! George Lucas would want to film it if it ever came to his attention.

No visit to memory lane is complete without a few moments of fascination and horror.  Remember your 20’s?  I do -- my first apartment, helpful or harmful roommates, dating, and encounters with people that have since turned into lifelong relationships. I love that I had so much energy and anything felt possible. I still love many of the people I encountered then.

So, it’s not surprising that I love the HBO series Girls created by Lena Dunham, a sometimes comedic and horrific drama. This series is a very entertaining guest that I want to invite into my living room.  Dunham’s girls explore connections with lovers, jobs, friendships and all the possibilities of life while trying to maintain and develop their self esteem in wild New York City. It’s the exciting and uncomfortable 20’s unveiled in all it’s shabby glory, something to witness and marvel at while discussing the thought-provoking topics that each episode brings up. Oh and she just wrote a funny and moving collection of essays called Not that Kind Of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "learned".  I’ve learned that I love what Lena Dunham creates and hope she keeps making books, movies and television for a long long time.

 

cover image of mr. phillips

Mr. Phillips is a modern classic in my estimation. Faintly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, this single day novel focuses on the life of a middle-class British male who has been summarily sacked from his job of accountant last Friday. Monday morning however, he dresses the part and leaves for the office just the same, Mrs. Phillips being none the wiser. The reader is privy to his thoughts (which are borderline sexually obsessive) as he spends the day wandering London, doing some very normal things like riding public transport and the not very mundane like witnessing a bank robbery. It is bawdy, but great. 

Having walked the streets of London myself on those quiet weekday afternoons (not because I had been made redundant, rather a work schedule thing); I have selected a musical pairing for this book. If there was ever an album to enjoy while exploring the city (employed or no) it would be Songs for Distingue Lovers by Billie Holiday.

 

 

When Angela Johnson was in elementary school, her teacher chose Harriet the Spy as the class read aloud.  Harriet carries a notebook and keeps notes on classmates and neighbors, and has a unique voice amongst children’s books characters. Listening to Harriet, Johnson knew she wanted to be a writer.

Johnson’s own writings, inspired both by the outrageous storytelling of her father and grandfather and her love of poetry, have a lyrical voice and a rhythmic cadence. Her tales range from tender to outrageous, from preschool to teens, from fiction to historical fiction. Angela’s characters and families reflect her African American culture, yet her emotional tone rings true for all.  No wonder she’s won numerous literary awards for both diversity and her amazing voice. Check out this booklist with some of my favorites.

Long ago, I spent four summers in a small fishing town in Southeastern Alaska. I slimed fish, lived in a tent, met the love of my life, and discovered a lifelong appreciation for hiking. I drank vast quantities of lousy beer with fishermen, cannery workers, and loggers at the Harbor Bar. I caught my first fish, crossed paths with black bears, watched killer whales breaching, saw so many bald eagles that I almost stopped finding them thrilling, and took a skiff out to the local glacier where seal pups cavorted on blue icebergs.

It was an amazing place.

It gets too dark there in the winter for me, so I live in Portland now (with the aforementioned love of my life). I miss it, but I’m so glad that I discovered the books of John Straley, which bring that world to vivid life. There are colorful bits of folk tales interspersed with perfect descriptions of the landscape and the people. The characters are so important and such a pleasure in Straley's books.

In his Cold Storage Alaska, which I listened to on audiobook this past summer, one character asks, "Is everyone in this town a goddamn comedian?"

The man he’s talking to replies, "No, actually most of the people in this town are drunks or depressives, but we have our funny moments."

And they really do. Straley has mentioned that this novel was influenced by his love of screwball comedy and you can tell, although officially, it's categorized as crime fiction.

Miles, the main character of this book, is a medic who pretty much holds together the fictional small fishing town of Cold Storage, Alaska. He's a good guy, but kind of lonely. His brother, the bad son in the family, is coming back home after spending years in jail, bringing with him a whole bunch of money he thinks he's earned and the ugliest and most ferocious dog anyone has ever seen. The ownership of the dog is not in dispute, but someone will be coming after that money. So that's the plot. But really? All this is just a framework to start with so you can listen to the people in this book have wildly entertaining conversations in bars, in diners and out on boats in the untouched Alaskan wilderness.

From whence comes the phrase "chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs"? Why is Detroit in bankruptcy and NYC always bailed out by American taxpayers? In what way is American culture and fashion a re-play of Regency and Edwardian England?

Warmth of Other Suns book jacketDon't know? Ask Isabel Wilkerson and Jacques Barzun. Respectively, they are the authors of The Warmth of Other Suns and From Dawn to Decadence. This is history that Miz Hackett, your 8th grade teacher, never heard of. Wilkerson, a journalist, and Barzun, an eminent historian, have answered history's questions in a personal way. This is not memorize the dates boredom. No, these are the impolite questions you'd ask your neighbors if you only had the guts about what it's really like where they come from and what they think about it all .
 
The Warmth of Other Suns is the story of our cities in the 20th century as told through the recollections of three individuals who lived "theFrom Dawn to Decadence book jacket great migration." They didn't know that they were part of some historical drama, so the stories are straight shooter talk of folk who weren't afraid to change their destiny in the face of tall odds. Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence is subtitled 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present. He does a remarkable job of connecting how we behave to where that behavior begins. I mean seriously, why is there money for opera and classical music but punk rockers have to work at Fred Meyer to support their art? See page 637 of Barzun for a hint.

I read a new graphic novel that is so compelling I couldn’t put it down. It’s definitely a page turner!  March is an autobiography by congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. It is filled with stunning visuals by award-winning Nate Powell. The story starts with the family chickens. His care of the flock helps him build his moral core. As a reader it  helped me get to know him and care about him. At the same time, this comic book is a biography of our civil rights movement in the United States. Important issue, important man: Fantastic read. Don’t miss it.


If you are interested in more comic books about history they can be found in the History through graphic novels list.

Here's a challenge for you: go to your favorite library. Stand away from the traffic. Take a deep breath, now center yourself. Head for your favorite section, cruise the shelves and pick out a book that you are gonna love. No book lists, reviews or friend recommendations allowed, just your innate good taste and curiosity.

If you have been good, maybe the spirits of literature will reward you with a Captain Alatriste tale:

Behold, a roCaptain Alatriste book jacketllicking tale of heroes with swords, hi-jinks in high places and the demands of honour. Wrap it up in writing as literary as it gets, and Bob's your uncle.  Arturo Perez-Reverte's title character is a native of seventeenth century Spain, the Golden Age. Captain Alatriste is hired to waylay and kill two English heretics as they arrive in Madrid. A career soldier who has been impoverished by an inexplicable outbreak of peace, he agrees. In a dark alley, el capitaine is about to do the deed when his pesky sense of nobility intervenes. He lets them go, pisses off some very big hombres and winds up in the sights of a state that likes to burn non-conformists at the stake. This of course gets him involved with the artists of the day.   The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet book jacket

Lope de Vega. Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Names ring a bell? They would if we were not predisposed to associate literature primarily with Anglo-Saxon names. No matter, join Capitaine Alatriste as he leads us into a new world of art to appreciate and explore; even if it must be done at the point of a fast riposte or parry.

In addition to Captain Alatriste, also try The Cavalier in the Yellow  Doublet  and The Club Dumas, a Perez-Reverte novel that's not part of the series. Enjoy.

 

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