Blogs: Books & literature

Mr. Mac and Me book jacketWhen a long-awaited book finally arrives, it’s hard not to place high expectations on its performance. So when I finally had a copy of Esther Freud’s latest book Mr. Mac and Me in my hot little hands, dreams of a great story, pristine writing and new lands to explore were circling above my head. As a fan of Esther Freud (see Hideous Kinky and The Sea House among others) I was not disappointed on any front.  

Freud’s latest tells the story of thirteen-year-old Thomas Maggs, who lives in the Suffolk coastal town of Walberswick under the watchful eyes of an overprotective mother and an unpredictable father. Thomas’s father runs the local pub and helps himself freely to the goods. Times are not good. Business is far from booming and World War I looms ahead. When not in school, Thomas spends his time helping out at the pub, assisting the local rope maker ply his trade and exploring the countryside. He is also a talented artist who frequently sketches ships and dreams of escaping by sea. His life is changed when  Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret move to town. The renowned architect of the Glasgow School of Art is down on his luck and hoping some restorative time at the seaside will change his fortunes. A quiet, contemplative relationship develops between Mackintosh and Thomas, an association that will be deeply affected when the war finally comes to town.

Freud’s family has its own history of life in Walberswick. Her paternal grandfather Ernest, also an architect, spent years living in the village and transforming local cottages with his Bauhaus-style designs. Her father, the painter Lucien Freud, spent time there as a child.  And Esther Freud herself owns a home there, her second in fact. The first house she purchased in Walberswick was the former pub, known in this book as the Blue Anchor.  

Freud, the author of eight novels, is an extraordinary writer. She particularly excels is her descriptions of the physical world. The village and its surroundings act as characters equally as important as Mr. Mackintosh or young Thomas Maggs. As Thomas and Mr. Mac and the others who populate Walberswick move towards their prescribed destinies, readers have the pleasure of witnessing the development of a relationship both strikingly subtle and completely life changing. Mr. Mac and Me is not the perfect read but it does exactly what I want a book to do for me:  introduces me to new people and new places and provides me with much appreciated and invaluable food for thought.

Postscript:  Sadly, a fire at the Glasgow School of Art in May of 2014 destroyed a portion of the school’s west wing which housed the Mackintosh Library.  The library is expected to reopen by 2018.

Have you ever wondered if you have what it takes to be a good terrorist? Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing wondered that too. In December 1983, a bomb was set off in Harrod’s Department store in London.  The media said it looked like an amateur job.  When she read this, Lessing was curious: what is the difference between an amateur terrorist and a professional one?  And if you WERE an amateur, how did you get better?


The terrorists in this book are strictly small time, a group of 4-6 people thrown together by need and the desire to fit into something ‘big’ like the IRA or the Soviet Communist Party.

Except for the main character, Alice, who is telling the story.  Oh, Alice believes in the necessary destruction of society but until that happens she is busy cleaning up, making their squat livable, smoothing out relations with the ‘real’ communists living next door and cooking kettle after of kettle of her nourishing vegetable soup.  

But when bomb-making Jocelyn moves in, the focus shifts from theory to the practice.  As in  practice makes perfect. As in people injured, killed, even their own members. Each member of the group is now forced to evaluate just how ‘good’ they really want to be.

This book is a fascinating read because of the dead-pan realistic writing told through Alice- what she thinks , what she feels, what she denies.  Will she be able to live up to her ideals?  Does she have what it takes to be 'good'?

Happy National Poetry Month! Probably because "April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain" we celebrate poetry in April. There are many ways to do this, but one of my favorite ways to have a poetry experience recently is to listen to readings and discussions on PennSound, a project of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at University of Pennsylvania. This online resource is an archive of both new and historical recordings, an excellent podcast, and many other things as well. It's pretty amazing to be able to listen to a recent reading by one of my favorite poets, or listen to scholars and poets discussing a close reading of a poem, all while I'm doing the dishes or sweeping the floor at the end of the day. Just take a look at PennSound's authors page, and scan this enormous list for a poet you'd like to hear.

The library also has quite a few collections of poetry that you can listen to, either in audiobook CD form or downloadable or streaming audio! I recently discovered the Voice of the Poet series of audiobooks on CD, featuring poets reading their work; it includes a number of great American 20th century poets.

Happy listening!

Eilean Donan Castle, Lochalsh, Scotland. Photo by Dave Conner.I’ve been in Scotland twice, but the last time didn’t count as I was there for literally five minutes. Fortunately I’ll get to spend more time there this spring and I can’t wait.  Hiking! Pub crawling! Trading insults with my Scottish pal! It doesn’t get any better than that.  My departure date is still a wee while off, though, so I’ve had to settle for immersing myself in books, music and film to satisfy my impatient desire to be in Bonny Scotland.  If you, too, are longing for the land of whisky, thistles and tartan, try out some of the following:

Burns: Poems book jacketWhen I was in my teens and twenties, I used to fairly loathe poetry.  I either had no idea what it meant or thought it was mostly really soppy.  I guess I’ve mellowed some as I’ve aged because now I think that Robert Burns penned some really good verse.  There are many collections of his poems, but the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition claims to have the “most essential of the imHer Majesty, Mrs. Brown dvd covermortal poems and songs.” To hear some of his songs and poetry sung, check out There Was a Lad.  For a selection of bagpipe tunes (yes, there really is more than one piece that can be played on the bagpipes), check out Duncarron:  Scottish Pipes & Drums Untamed.

For some Highland eye candy (not to mention a yummy accent), there’s nothing better than Billy Connolly in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown.  I was envious of Judy Dench for years after I saw that movie.  If you’re more interested in the beauty of Scotland found in nature, clap your peepers on Visions of Scotland.

For two lovely books of travel, read H.V. Morton’s classic In Search of Scotland and Scotland: The Place of Visions by Jan Morris. Morton is one of my favorite travel writers – his humor and storytelling prowess make reading about his adventures in his native Britain and elsewhere a true pleasure.  If you just want to look at gorgeous photos of Scotland, check out Morris’s book, but really, read the text as well!  Morris is a keen observer and a wonderful writer.

So get out your kilt, pour a wee dram and settle in with a book, cd or dvd.  You’ll be away to Scotland in no time at all! 

cover image of anne sexton love poems

Mug shot of B. Traven a.k.a. Ret Marut (Otto Feige) after his arrest in London, 1923When reading The Man Who Could Fly and other stories  by Rudolfo Anaya, a famous Chicano writer, I came across the name B. Traven. He was a German/American writer who inspired one of Anaya's stories entitled “B. Traven is Alive and Well in Cuernavaca.”  I couldn’t wait to know more about this intriguing character.  

B. Traven (1890-1969) is considered one of the most international literary mysteries of the twentieth century, because he refused personal data to publishers. Author of 12 fiction novels and several short stories, most of his books were originally written in German and were first published in Germany.  His real name, date place of birth and nationality are still begin questioned, which makes me think that he might be hiding his identity on purpose to gain more public attention or as a kind of strategic marketing maybe?

I became a bit obsessed with trying to know more about Traven. My quest began with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a book that was adapted to a film of the same name. The film won an Academy Award in 1948; another of his remarkable works is The Death Ship”: The story of an American Sailor  written in German and then translated into 12 languages including English. Both books led to him to international popularity.

It’s estimated that he used at least twenty seven aliases and many researchers are convinced that he is more than one person.

It’s amazing how books connect us with other important events and characters. I started by reading a Chicano writer and followed my curiousity to learn about B. Traven. Something else I found out going through this journey is that Macario, one of my favorite movies ever, was adapted from a short story by B. Traven --  or whoever the real person was. 

Black River bookjacketThough I don't read a lot of typical Westerns, I love authors who experiment with the form. I enjoy Mary Doria Russell's approach to iconic stories of the Wild West (Doc and Epitaph) and I've always appreciated how Kent Haruf could take the stoic and hard-bitten cowboy out of history and place him in the modern world - in his stories set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.

Sadly, Kent Haruf died in the fall. But according to Ron Charles of Washington Post's Book World, with Black River, S.E. Hulse is poised to take up Haruf's torch. As a Haruf fan mourning the loss of an author who could capture a depth of character in just a few lines of dialogue, I immediately placed Black River on hold. I tried not to see the very young looking author photo on the back - how could she possibly write with the gravitas of Haruf?

I'm glad I didn't let my biases stop me. Black River is a beautifully taut and painful story of an embattled man who has lost everything. After the death of his wife, Wes Carver returns to the small Montana town where they met. At a time when he should be mending his troubled relationship with his stepson, he is instead intent on one thing - preventing the parole of a man Wes guarded years before while working at the local prison - a man who took something essential from Wes.

There are authors who can keep you emotionallly attached to a character even as you're mentally exhorting him to take another course of action. S.E. Hulse seems to have that knack. I hope you enjoy Black River as much as I did.

cover of walking in rainI found a single remaining copy Of Walking in Rain by Matt Love on the shelf of a coffee shop in Manzanita. It was high summer, but I couldn’t resist its pull, the feel of the paper, the promise of reading it on a rainy day in autumn. There was no price tag and the cashier seemed baffled as to what to charge. I had a $20 bill in my pocket and offered that. A signed copy for $20? Done.

It sat on my bookshelf the rest of the summer. And it was an unusually hot, long, and dry summer too. By the time the rains came and leaves began to change colors and fall, it was November. At last. Historically I have been a sun worshipper, but have long had a love affair with rain. Especially stormy downpours. The sun brings out the super efficient doer in me, while the rain gives me a reason to take a breath, pause, reflect.

This is Matt Love’s contemplative musings on rain. Will it make you a lover of rain?

Notes to Mr. Love:

p.s. Counting Crows have some of the best rain songs around and none were mentioned.

(Raining in Baltimore and Amy Hit the Atmosphere)

p.p.s. Also, I carry an umbrella and refuse to feel guilty about it.










I have lived in Portland for 56 years now, raising kids, writing books, and reading books. I never would have got through those 56 years without the Multnomah County Library.

“Favorites” -- A favorite book? Impossible! Seven favorite books? Impossible! I have too many favorite books. A lot of them are a lot of other people’s favorites too, so they don’t need to be mentioned. But I’ve just been rereading one that has pretty much slipped outof sight, and I want to remind people of it, because it’s a terrific novel: Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. It came out in 1964, won the Western Heritage Award, and got a nice movie based on it. But it’s way, way better than the movie. Little Big Man is a highly improbable story told so well that you believe it.

For one thing, you want to believe it. And also you can trust it, because the true parts of it are true. The history (and ethnology) is real. There’s no whitewashing the racism and greed that have always threatened the American dream of freedom. You get the story of what really happened at the battle of the Little Big Horn, not all that Custer hype. You get an entirely new view of Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and several other celebrities, too.

Like Mark Twain, Berger has a pitch-perfect ear for how Americans talk – and think. And like Mark Twain he can ruthlessly indict human stupidity and bigotry while never losing his temper, and being really, really funny. Old Lodge Skins is my hero. I love this book. I wish every high-school kid in America could read it. And then (like me) read it again twenty or forty or sixty years later...

As for nonfiction, I have to mention Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which brings together scientific and medical research (and hypocrisy), the biography of an almost invisibly elusive black woman, the exposure of an act of exploitation, racism and social injustice, and the writer’s own deeply respectful involvement with the people from whom she won this absorbing, troubling, wonderfully told story.

How about a favorite piece of music? Can I have two, please? OK! One is the short opera Galileo Galilei by Philip Glass, performed here in Portland two years ago (a recording of that performance is available now from Orange Mountain). The stage set was all magical circles and spirals and pendulums, lights moving through shadows, illuminating the story that spirals back in time from the dark end of Galileo’s life to a radiant, joyful beginning. Set, words, and music, it was and is completely beautiful.

And for a change of pace. . . how about Hoyt Axton singing “Five Hundred Miles.”  (Find it on the CD Greenback Dollar: Live at the Troubadour). There are several versions of it on YouTube. I like the one where the visual is just a b/w video of a train that comes and goes by and is gone.

For more great recommendations, customized just for you, try My Librarian.

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.

y no se lo tragó la tierra book jacketWhat makes a literary work an American classic? Clearly, there is no one answer to this question. It is a matter of opinion. It is no wonder book publishers have debated this issue in the past, and that they will continue to discuss it in the future. The question, also, hangs over my head every time I read Tomás Rivera’s …y no se lo tragó la tierra: Is this fictional tale of Mexican American migrant farm working families an American classic? After all, this novella is an iconic piece of literary art in Chicano/a literature, and is a must read in Chicano/a literature courses in U.S. colleges. It was also the first recipient of the Premio Quinto Sol award.

Is it an American classic? Yes! It is. In spite of being written in Spanish,* …y no se lo tragó la tierra is a story of perseverance in the American tradition of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Like their fictional counterparts in The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath, the characters in …y no se lo tragó la tierra have dreams and grit. The Mexican American migrant families’ determination to make their dreams real no matter the odds given - it is the 1950s and people of color are segregated in the workplace and society—is what makes their tale of perseverance an American classic.

The story takes place in two locations: a small town in rural South Texas, where the migrant families live on a permanent basis and the Midwest, where they toil in the fields of commercial growers. The hardships they confront in their annual migrations to Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other Midwestern states in search of seasonal farm labor say more about their determination to better their lives than about the work itself. That is not to say that the seasonal farm work they do doesn’t influence their willingness to live their American dreams. On the contrary, the very work itself, with its low wages, no rights, no dignity, and no hope, drive migrant families to continue struggling for a better life.

Like two other American classics of the twentieth century, Native Son and Invisible Man, …y no se lo tragó la tierra illuminates an experience once ignored by mainstream Americans. It sheds light on a harsh reality that can no longer be overlooked.

*The library's copy is bilingual.


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