Wednesday, December 3, 2008
A New Time…
I am 45 years old and I feel a particular pride in my country I haven’t felt before. We are not sheep after all, I thought as I wept and laughed with joy on election night, and at odd moments for many days after. Fear has finally taken a back seat to hope, as corny as that sounds. For the last eight years – the bulk of my children’s time here on earth so far – many of us have existed in a perpetual state of angst, anxiety, sorrow, and frankly, embarrassment. As Garrison Keillor simply put it during McCain campaign criticism of Obama’s oratorical abilities, just what is wrong with having a president who is a wonderful speaker? Isn’t that actually part of his or her job? To be eloquent, clear, intelligent; to move gracefully among both world leaders and we ‘people on the street’? To inspire with words and with calm, measured thoughtfulness? As far as I can tell, there’s nothing wrong with that. My job, of course, is to turn the conversation somehow to books, so here goes! Happy, happy holidays and happy beginnings of a new time.
Books of the Year 2008
Over time I’ve grown attached to my Book of the Year tradition. It started, I think, with the need to acknowledge Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains with more than the standard blurb. I’ve chosen these books for a variety of reasons, and this year I’ve picked two: an author and a book of poetry for wildly different reasons, both compelling to me.
Brie and I both had trouble finding books to read after being blown away by Tana French’s novels In the Woods and The Likeness. Both novels are, on the surface, Irish detective novels. I don’t think either of us read them for deep thinking on world issues, as we sometimes do, though in great fiction we sometimes do find deep personal truths. I’m calling Tana French the Author of the Year for sheer readability. When I finished The Likeness I had a let down like I never had before, realizing there was not a third one to follow (at this time anyway). French made me appreciate genres that I never had – her novels could be called mysteries, or psychological thrillers – but what is so fantastic in them are the characters. She digs so deeply into the humanity, flaws, strength, and hearts of her characters in a smart, hip, and sometimes seemingly lighthearted way, that the lack of resolution to life’s problems at the end are the perfect ending.
I’m also giving a reverent nod this year to Brian Turner’s poetry collection Here, Bullet. This one I did sit down with to do some deep thinking on world issues. Turner served for a year in Iraq as well as in Bosnia-Herzegovina and writes poetry from his soldier’s perspective as witness and participant. I haven’t read, listened to, or seen anything that brought the immediate experience of war, especially this war, to bear so brutally, personally, and eloquently as this slim volume. I am waiting, not so patiently, for any new work from this amazing poet.
A Gift to Myself…
I had the immense good fortune of heading to Portland last night to hear Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) give a talk, from the bima of the amazingly beautiful Temple Beth Israel. Throughout the talk I let Chabon’s gigantic, eloquent, perfectly chosen and inflected vocabulary wash over me, my only regret the knowledge that I would not remember every word. A talk is ethereal; when it’s over, it’s gone, but one of his themes rang true, and that was that life is happening now – the only thing is this moment. So… I tried to be really there. He somehow made seemingly disparate topics – the heartbreak he finds himself feeling for Barack Obama’s daughters, the brutality of circumcision, drawing superheroes with his young children, fatherhood, daughters, sons – flow as a singular and powerful affirmation of the imperfect, beautiful moments that are life. I’m giving myself the gift of reading and re-reading his work this year. If you’ve never read a Michael Chabon novel or short story, give yourself this amazing gift.
Reading and Talk
4:00 at Lucy’s
Join us for a lovely afternoon with renowned author Molly Gloss, whose latest novel The Heart of Horses is newly in paperback. Gloss is the author of the novels The Dazzle of Day, The Jump-Off Creek, and Wild Life. She is a fourth-generation Oregonian, living in Portland.
Winter 2008 by Brie
Fall projects and an overwhelming love and longing for more Tana French books have limited my novel reading this season. For this review I’m recommending books that can double as gifts and are great tools for a responsible and sustainable future.
The Better World Shopping Guide by Ellis Jones fits nicely into a pocket and goes a long way in helping every dollar count. Well researched, this tiny guide ranks companies and products by the criteria’s of social justice, animal protection, human rights and ecological sustainability.
Dare to Repair: A Do-It-Herself Guide to Fixing (Almost) Anything in the Home, by Julie Sussman and Stephanie Glakas-Tenet, is fantastic for self-reliant women! From basic home maintenance to planning fire escapes, this guide lists and illustrates all items needed for projects with clear instructions.
For those who are serious about implementing sustainable practices in their home (or apartment), The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutson is a thorough resource. Sections on permaculture, foraging, urban livestock, energy production, transportation, and future resources contain well organized information. Learn how to do many no-nonsense projects that incorporate vintage home economics and sustainable technology ideas into your home.
Annie Berthold Bond’s book Better Basics For The Home boasts a variety of non-toxic, tried and tested recipes for every imaginable household and personal hygiene product. Complete with a glossary, buyer’s guides, wise tips and easily acquired ingredients, these solutions are safe, simple and low cost.
For the more visual book lover, One People: Lonely Planet General Pictorial Series, is a gorgeous collection of international photographs and text that illustrate both similarities and differences among the earth’s residents. Common wisdom or someone famous said we cannot understand the future without knowing our past. A People’s History of the United States: The Wall Charts is the timeline companion to Howard Zinn’s well-loved history book. Two bright wall charts visually enhance important events and people that have shaped our country.
I did manage to read an interesting novel by Sarah Hall (The Electric Michelangelo) titled Daughters of the North. Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this dystopian story revolves around a group of women illegally living on a farm named Carhullen. Global warming has compromised England with mass floods, the government has ‘provided’ work, living quarters, food rations, fertility control, and other scary ‘services’ for all citizens. A woman known only as Sister escapes to Carhullen and learns to be rebel fighter in a future where seeking freedom equals terrorism. This is a disturbing but very thought provoking novel.
Living in a New Time by Laura
Well, you know it’s the dawning of a new era if I am writing about garden books. If you know me, you know I am the anti-gardener, always a nervous bout of intimidation away from actually putting the seed in the ground and seeing what happens, or pulling on a ‘weed’ that I find out later was a rare and lovingly tended experiment of my husband’s. It’s that kind of thing that prevents me from getting my hands dirty. So, the caveat is, unsurprisingly, that I have read none of these. The good news is that they come highly recommended by customers, and gardeners of all types, and along the lines of Brie’s theme, they’ll make great gifts for a sustainable future.
Even I know that the time may come when circumstances may actually force me to become competent at growing myself and my loved ones something to eat. As much as I’d prefer to trade books for veggies from a garden-loving friend, the first book I’ll pick up will be Steve Solomon’s Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times. Beginning with the wise premise that “we are soon going to base our civilization on something other than oil” and drawing on his decades-long experience of growing the majority of his own food in northwest, or northwest-like climates, Solomon humbly guides gardeners of any level of expertise (or not) in the ways of being “vegetableatarians.”
Certified permaculture designer Heather Flores is a Eugene, Oregon performance artist as well as author. Food Not Lawns is her effort to promote her vision that replacing lawns with food gardens leads to stronger, healthier neighborhoods. The tips she offers are wonderful for the layperson (me). At the same time she puts gardening in the larger context of a sustainable community as the book progresses from garden basics to chapters on “Beyond the Garden” and “Into the Community.”
Two books have been repeatedly recommended to me when I’ve revealed that I am completely clueless about how to even contemplate growing a little food at home. Both Square Foot Gardening and Lasagna Gardening offer step-by-step, fail-safe (really? really?) instructions on literally building from below ground up a square or whole yard in which to grow an abundance of food with a minimum of maintenance.
Permaculture is the “verbal marriage” between permanent and agriculture. Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden is the best overview of Bill Mollison’s permaculture ideas, scaling the concept for the home gardener. He advocates for the ecological garden – low maintenance, non-invasive, bio-diverse, with a large edible output. Sounds good to me. I just have to face the fear!
Don’t forget to read Thomas Friedman’s newest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, which details the perilous state of the larger world, and why “green revolutions,” both large and small, are our opportunity as well as our challenge.
New in Hardcover by Laura
Rejoice, Kate Atkinson fans! The third Jackson Brodie novel is here. When Will There Be Good News? hits the mark again. Atkinson shares with Tana French the subtle gift of writing a detective novel on the the surface, hiding layers of powerful portrayals of what Tom Spanbauer simply called “the human being story,” the story of how peoples’ hearts break and heal, and how everyday disappointment coexists with moments of pure grace.
In Wally Lamb’s new novel The Hour I First Believed , he explores his usual themes of the aftermaths of violence, the distressed and displaced, this time under the umbrella of an up close and personal fictionalized account of the Columbine tragedy and its aftermath.
Beloved western icon Ivan Doig has a new novel out. The Eleventh Man bears witness as the starting football lineup (11 men) of a fictional Montana university all enlist during World War II and are scattered around the world in different branches of the military. Doig is sure to please fans with his take on themes of war and service.
I’m excited about Terry Tempest Williams’ new book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, in which she weaves interconnecting essays and thoughts around the indiscriminate killing of endangered species, genocide, the art of mosaic, and the devastating death of her brother. As always, she eloquently shares her love of nature, and makes a passionate plea for respect for life in all forms.
I love reading about bold, passionate educators, and Geoffrey Canada fits the bill. In Whatever It Takes, journalist Paul Tough gifts us with a great profile of Canada, founder and director of the Harlem Children’s Zone. The organization is a profound and audacious attempt to improve the lives of children and their families in Harlem by providing services from birth forward, including unapologetically demanding schools.
Two favorite poets, Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, have published new volumes. Berry’s The Mad Farmer Poems is a lovely gift book, a beautiful collaboration between Berry’s poetry and Abigail Rorer’s engravings. As Berry succinctly puts it in his note, “in a society gone insane with industrial greed and insecurity, a man exuberantly sane will appear to be ‘mad.’” Oliver, in The Truro Bear and Other Adventures, considers “beasts of all kinds” in essay and poetry. One reviewer said it better than I can, that Oliver “teaches us the profound act of paying attention.”
I’m going all over the map here, genre and subject-wise, but I am a quirky hard cover book buyer. I don’t ever know what will sell in hard cover – I buy what piques my own, or my coworkers’, or friends,’ or customers’ interests. In other words, it all comes back to chit-chat I guess. My other unflagging source of new books, I have to say, is NPR’s Fresh Air program. It was there I heard oil industry policy wonk Antonia Juhasz being interviewed by the great Terry Gross. She sounded brilliant and knowledgeable, and her title says it all: The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry – and What We Must Do to Stop It.
If Calvin Trillin only rings a bell to you as that guy who’s always looking for good barbeque, I urge you to explore his side career as a political poet. He is absolutely hilarious and cutting, while managing to keep it sweet and sportsmanlike. Deciding the Next Decider is the stocking stuffer for the political blog addict in your life…
I love Art Spiegelman (Maus)! He opens this retrospective in book form with the heading Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*. Breakdowns includes a graphic timeline of the artist’s evolution, a facsimile of the long sought-after collection of his 1970’s comics, and ends with Spiegelman’s own words on the obsessions that have brought his work into being over a span of close to 40 years. Disclaimer: the content is very adult.
I have no clue how I’ll have time to read all these books, but here’s yet another for the short list: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. I would like to see past his crazy mad scientist hair to the inside his brain. I love his unique way of studying people, getting to the big picture by picking apart the smallest minutiae of how people think and act. By asking a simple question – “what makes high achievers different?” – Gladwell coaxes out the patterns, trends, and habits that simultaneously render us humans as modern innovations of our times and the cosmic twins of the oldest of ancient tribes.
I studied Toni Morrison for my honors thesis in college, and I’ve never read her words without feeling both awed and humbled, in the presence of profound greatness. Her first new novel in five years, A Mercy is a 17th century look at Morrison’s predominant themes: acts of cruelty that are actually mercy, and her constant effort to peel away and expose all the excruciating layers of pain wrought by slavery.
The premise of Wesley the Owl hit a sentimental spot with me. My daughter spent her young elementary years obsessed with barn owls, thanks partly to her birding gene, and partly to Kathryn Lasky’s wonderful Guardians of Ga’hoole series. I will never forget her careful attention to hand painting her homemade wings for Halloween, Sibley guide in front of her. Wildlife biologist Stacey O’Brien’s memoir chronicles her twenty-year relationship with the injured barn owl she rescued at four days old through lenses both personal and scientific.
The Tinkerer by Laura
That would be my son. His reading disability prevents him from reading novels by himself, but he is apt to disappear into his room with project or prank books. Its title seems silly, but the Klutz Encyclopedia of Immaturity is actually a wonderful cornucopia of old style activities, from how to pretend to walk into a wall, to a lesson on using Shakespearean insults. I have caught Tim with our adult friends (right, Tom?), fully engaged in goofing around with this book, which is exactly what it is for. Tim adores these humorous and weird things to do. It’s worthy!
Like many tinkerers, Tim is fascinated with Leonardo da Vinci. There are a gazillion kids’ books about the Great One, but we like Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Inventions You Can Build Yourself. It mixes biographical tidbits with a lot of projects, the beauty in them that they mostly require equipment and supplies that are already lying around the house. You know what I mean: how so many 10-year-old boy projects require so much minutiae purchased at Radio Shack and the hardware store. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but what a relief to just need a paper towel roll and a flattened cereal box! Oh the joy!
46 Science Fair Projects for the Evil Genius is a thorough, straightforward compendium of a lot of different scientific experiments to do for fun or for school (perhaps those two things cross paths, perhaps not!). Either way, a good reference to have on hand.
Since my daughter was about six, she’s matter-of-factly answered the question of what she’ll be when she grows up with the two words every Jewish mother wants to hear (ha ha!): “a doctor.” She has shifted specialties from emergency medicine to orthopedics over time, but her answer has remained consistent and steadfast. Thus, I think David Macaulay’s new book The Way We Work will be the coffee table book for our house this year. Macaulay spent many years studying anatomy and drawing the beautiful pictures comprise this fantastic tome. Every family will love the page headed “Journey’s End,” his awesome explanation of the final act of the digestive process. Illustration is a great medium for looking at the eyeball outside the brain. People of all ages will be able to have all questions anatomical answered in a straightforward, fun, colorful way.
I am hoping that Ani’s late night reading of Chris Van Tilburg’s memoir Mountain Rescue Doctor is not an indication of a new specialty shift to high angle rescue emergency medicine, or whatever you’d call what he does. Not exactly the career path to keep me sleeping at night. I read it too, and while not the most eloquent piece of writing I’ve read of late, Van Tilburg lives in Hood River and works all over the gorge and Mount Hood areas, and he gives a great sense of the endurance and cool head needed to do some of the crazy rescues he and his cohorts do.