The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Knopf, 2005. Hardcover. $23.95. 2005 Winner: National Book Award for Nonfiction. One of the 10 Best Books of 2005, The New York Times.
Joan Didion earned her reputation as an unflinching and deliberately nonobjective chronicler of modern day political and social society in the 1960s and 1970s. In the early 1980s she stared into and wrote about one of the darkest corners of the times, the grisly civil war between the Army and rebel guerrillas in El Salvador.
But her well-trained eye and fearless observations could not prepare her for the one event that would bring her to her knees, the unexpected death of her husband and long-time writing companion, John Gregory Dunne, on December 30, 2003. Dunne died of a massive coronary just hours after the couple had arrived home from visiting their daughter, Quintana Roo, who was in an intensive care unit recovering from septic shock.
A loving and wrenching meditation on memory, loss, grief and marriage, The Year of Magical Thinking revisits the days and months following her husband’s death. What underscores the book’s searingly painful journey is that, when published in early 2005, Didion’s daughter was expected to recover. However, she died this past August (2005).
Didion did not choose to make changes to the book following her daughter’s death. Written to center on the loss of a husband, the book now includes, for readers, the loss of her daughter, doubling the pain and the punch.
Didion recreates the grieving process and in so doing gives its lurching, unpredictable and illogical grasping a massive dose of permission. Yes, certain places and scenes act as a slow fuse, igniting a devastating trail of memories that, when over, only made her loss that much more unbearable. But it was essential for Didion to travel those mazes, no matter how difficult. They were her life. Their life together.
It is the way of any great truth to defy verbal description and become more profound by repetition. Didion knows this, and she recreates rhythms and motifs throughout her book. This is one refrain she returns to, over and over:
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.”
Didion’s book is difficult and heart-wrenching but brave and supremely important. In her measured, literate way, she shows us that she too has feet of clay, that her tears are made of salt and water, that a high-profile literary life did not protect her from experiencing the numbness and nakedness that comes in the wake of a great loss. I don’t know why it is that great writers give us such permission for what we already suspect to be true, but they do.
During an October ’05 interview with “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, Didion received the news that her book had been nominated for a National Book Award. Her reaction was muted. This is what really meant something: When her husband, 25 days before he died, on December 5, 2004, Didion’s birthday, re-read a scene from one of her novels. He closed the book and told her: “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.” — Alice Tallmadge
Burning Fence by Craig Lesley. St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Hardcover, $33.95.
Novelist Craig Lesley’s memoir, Burning Fence, begins with a forest fire and ends with birthday candles. In between these contrasting flames, Lesley describes his many attempts to reconnect with his father. His heart-wrenching quest is a testament to the inescapable influence of family.
Rudell Lesley served with distinction during World War II. Back home, he seemed detached and soon abandoned his wife and infant son. Lesley’s mother put food on the table and supplied “unconditional love.” In spite of their hardscrabble life, she maintained that “better times are just around the corner” each time they moved to escape a situation turned sour.
Lesley recounts emblematic boyhood adventures, but his happy times are always cut short by the chaos that dogs the disenfranchised. When Lesley is mangled by a peppermint chopper, Rudell goes to see his son for the first time in 15 years. The visit puts the boy into shock, but not before Rudell observes that Lesley, who has had the fingertips of his right hand chopped off, is destined to be “a southpaw like your old man. Always stuck at first base.”
Determined not to be “a loser” like his father, Lesley becomes a teacher, marries, and adopts a son, Wade, who is severely damaged from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The demands of raising Wade strain the marriage and weaken Lesley’s conviction to be a better father than the one he had. He drives Wade to his father’s trailer outside Monument, hoping that Rudell’s life in the wilderness, where he builds fences, hunts elk and traps coyotes might suit Wade, and that the father who never helped him might finally lend a hand.
Lesley covers lots of gritty territory but never lapses into sensationalism. His sense of fairness and his dry humor are evident in every chapter. Burning Fence is a fascinating book you’ll want to share with friends — and maybe even family. — Cecelia Hagen
Teacher Man By Frank McCourt. Scribner, 2005. Hardcover, $26.
Fans of Frank McCourt’s miserable Irish childhood should tread cautiously on his third memoir, Teacher Man. It’s not that it wants for Celtic gloom. And his self-flagellating, empathetic voice is as distinct as ever. It’s just that Teacher Man is preempted by what Angela’s Ashes (the book, the movie, the Happy Meal) lets us know: that Frankie left the wee green rock of poverty for New York, where want was still present but came in a much subtler different form.
Teacher Man chronicles McCourt’s 30 years teaching high school in New York’s public schools. From a vocational school in Staten Island through itinerant substituting to Manhattan’s elite Stuyvesant School, McCourt taught writing and grammar to kids who would’ve preferred doing anything else.
When Teacher Man is not about teaching, it’s a midlife crisis story about being caught between a childhood with no choices and an adulthood with many. As a working class immigrant, McCourt’s decision to become a teacher instead of, say, a traditional Irish job like cop or fireman, is a transgression hard to fathom a half-century removed. And yet, it seems McCourt wasn’t transgressive enough. Reconnoitering with literary friends, he longed to scratch an itch he could barely admit he had.
A lot of words are drained on McCourt’s naïve expectations of American life. “I wanted to be doing something adult and significant,” McCourt writes. “Dictating to my secretary, sitting with glamorous people at long mahogany boardroom tables, flying to conventions, unwinding in trendy bears, slipping into bed with luscious women…”
Sadly, there are far too many passages like that. Fortunately for his students (not to mention his readers) McCourt is more original in his classroom. Where other teachers see forged excuse notes as inevitability, he finds a writing exercise in their creative absurdity. Soon his tyros are scribbling excuses for Adam and Eve and Al Capone as well as studying language in cookbooks.
At its worst, Teacher Man is repetitive and gratingly sentimental. At its best, we learn how a teacher’s work is a day at the improv. A thankless job, an important job and an enriching profession that won’t make you rich. It never totally satisfied McCourt, but that’s probably because he was always a writer playing a teacher, playing an Irishman in America. – John Dicker
IN LIVING COLOR
Huerfano: A Memoir of Life in the Counterculture by Roberta Price. University of Massachusetts Press, 2004. Hardcover, $29.95. One of Foreward Magazine’s top ten university press books of the year.
Roberta Price’s first experience of hippie communal life was as a grad student in the summer of 1969, when she and her partner David traveled around Colorado and New Mexico on a SUNY Buffalo grant to study the communes of the Southwest. By the time they returned to Buffalo after a second visit that winter, they knew they were hooked. The following summer, they packed up their 1947 Chrysler coupe and headed to Libre, an intentional community in the Huerfano Valley in the Southern Colorado Rockies.
Price’s memoir is beautifully written, with attention to the ordinary details of life on the land — from milking goats, chopping wood and baking grass donuts to the endless and impossible task of building their house around a boulder on the side of a mountain.
Price includes the less glamorous aspects of communal life, such as applying for food stamps. “Think of it as a kind of NEA grant to fund this important experiment in living,” David rationalizes. She gives realistic accounts of drug use and the trials and rewards of open marriage. Color and black and white photographs help to document the times, the place and the colorful cast of characters living at the valley’s several communes.
Libre was a loosely-knit collection of well-educated couples (you had to be a couple to join), who shared resources and land but lived in separate houses, domes and zomes. In a postlogue, Price tells us what many of these exceptional people are doing today.
The journal covers a seven-year period, from 1970-77, with reference to current events and the music, books and icons of the counterculture. It is an intellectually satisfying history, as well as an entertaining romp. By chronicling her own journey with candor and insight, she helps explain why so many educated, middle-class kids dropped out of mainstream America in the 1960s and ’70s, and why that time of “unbridled possibilities” came to an end. In Price’s delightful and highly readable memoir, we get an authentic look at the era. — Sonja Snyder
TAKING THE LEAP
The Commitment — love, sex, marriage and my family by Dan Savage. Penguin Group, 2005. Hardcover, $24.95.
After reading Dan Savage’s weekly column “Savage Love” in The Stranger and laughing so hard my stomach hurt when I saw him speak in San Diego last fall, I had high expectations for The Commitment. Maybe too high.
I expected to laugh. And while the book has some laugh-out-loud moments, they were too few and too far between. Especially during the first half of the book, which slogs through a family vacation that’s as interesting as wading through knee-deep quicksand.
If you’re familiar with the debate surrounding gay marriage, The Commitment won’t break any new ground, but it should be required reading for all those people who voted against it. Savage’s family is so traditional even right-wing conservatives would approve, as long as they don’t know they’re reading about a gay couple. He supports the family, while his partner is a live-at-home Dad who takes care of their 6-year-old son, DJ.
Actually, the stories in which DJ is the central figure are the funniest. DJ opposes gay marriage, because he thinks boys can’t marry boys and that it’s icky. One particular scene in a motel in South Dakota involving diaper rash and DJ howling “Don’t touch my butt, Daddy, my butthole hurts” is hysterical.
Things pick up significantly once they return home after the family get-together, and the debates about marriage, matching tattoos and finally a 10-year anniversary party begin in earnest. Savage is at his best as he deconstructs commonly held beliefs, such as “our societal belief that a marriage is only a success if it ends with one person dying.” A pre-death parting, no matter how amicable or wise, is seen as a failed marriage.
Ultimately, The Commitment is entertaining. But the subject is too mundane to make it truly gripping. The debate about whether or not to get married is common, and the points of discussion so universal it feels like we’ve all heard it before. — Melissa Bearns
Black Loam by Maxine Scates. Cherry Grove Collections, 2005. Paperback. Finalist: 2005 Oregon Book Award for Poetry.
Maxine Scates’ poems are personal, poignant recollections of lived family histories and hard-won moments when truth speaks clearly. Scates grounds her poems in the immediacy of the body and what it knows. I love the understated feelings in “Yellow Dog”:
“and then in the woods
you closed your eyes,
is she gone? I looked up
the last day of August, leaves drifting
already, your head simply dropped
and we carried you, the ebbing warm weight,
the big paws I touched last.”
My favorite poem, one which I’ve heard Scates read twice, is “The Mothers,” a lengthy, layered work about the complexity of mother-daughter relationships — all that was, all that will never be — and the understanding “how if being born is forgetting, living a life is remembering all you’ve forgotten.”
Cleaning “Mother’s Closet” involves ambivalent feelings about what is left behind and what is taken away as well as the resonance of objects:
“I’ve found nothing I want but the purple mache mask
I made in the fourth grade. I like its yellow eyes.
She looks at each magazine I remove, saving
every word about my brother, the coach. He’s sixty
and a long dead mouse has eaten the laces
of his baby shoes. I want order. I say
I’m old myself, I’ve started throwing things away.
I’m lying. I’ve kept everything she’s ever given me.”
Some poems in this collection are about wounding, healing and forgiving, coming into the light, as in the last verses of “Forgiveness”:
“One spring on that road
I crossed the train tracks,
I saw how the weeds lay down in the heat,
how the wild roses
tangled with the blackberry vines.
I knew I had come to love the stand of oaks
whose shape I could see even late in the evening.
They rise through me some morning when I wake.
Rise through me
like the herons from the fields
With unencumbered grace.”
The poet lives in Eugene among us with her husband Bill Cadbury, and frequently reads poems at Tsunami Books and other venues here ad in Portland. May she long walk with unencumbered grace. — Lois Wadsworth\
Surgeonfish by Ingrid Wendt. Word Tech Editons, 2005. Paperback, $17.
Ingrid Wendt’s new collection of poems includes those inspired by various travels to the American Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, the icy North of Europe, the sunny South of Europe, the Middle East and the banks of many rivers, lakes, gulfs and oceans of the world. Some of my favorites come from the trip with her husband, poet Ralph Salisbury, to Norway. Her themes range from regard for people and places to concern for the planet and questions of peace and war. She is a passionate poet, never more grounded and alive than in her poems of nature.
So here is a verse or two from an ecstatic poem about the Edenic beauty of the land of fijords and the Northern Lights, “Epithalamion From Norway”:
how long have we thought of the Garden
as jungle? As warm?
Friends, I have dived in these waters:
cobalt blue of the fjord and a silent chorus of sei
around me, patient
angels, watchful. Here
the future begins.”
Wendt walks through the lands she visits. She requires the first-person experience of natural beauty. Here, at the Snake River, is her encounter with a “Porcupine at Dusk”:
“Out of the bunch grass
out of the cheat grass
a bunch of grass waddles
Quill–tips bleached by winter four
inches down: crown of glory dark
at the roots: a halo
catching the sun’s
And in romantic Italy, a November day spent walking through a town on Lake Como, where an old woman shopkeeper tells them about St. Martin, “the soldier who split his cape in two, for the beggar.” From
“St. Martin’s Day, Lago di Como“:
“blue light etching the air, each leaf on each olive
silver and shining: grass on the hillside full to
bursting with green, gold, and the lake flat up
mountains: each atom of empty space tangible,
sharp as the bite into apples.”
You can find this lovely book locally. I cannot imagine a lovelier gift for travelers of the world or for those of us who wish to see the world with a poet’s eyes. — Lois Wadsworth
I Saw Us in a Painting by Sandy Jensen. Cover painting, Magical Healing, by Cheryl Long. Walking Bird Press, 2005. Paperback, $7.98.
Teacher, poet and loving sibling, local poet Sandy Jensen, who lives in Eugene with her husband, poet Peter Jensen, collaborated with her sister, artist Cheryl Long, on the structure of this collection of poems. Each element from Long’s cover painting — butterfly, dove, bone necklace, pomegranate, sliced mango and quilted star — contains one set of poems.
In “Song for My Father” (from Butterfly) the poet reaches past “mountains of memory” to the final passage:
“Under the murmur of trouble and thunder,
under wildfires’ crackle and spark,
under the ground of roots and time,
his song of ‘East Side, West Side,’
stills the nearing dark.”
Jensen brings elegance to the quiet, moving picture of “Canoeist” (from Dove) at sunset:
“Canoe in timeless lift and glide parts
the lily-rooted reeds. Last sun
pours vermillion on the waters. Listen.
Out of silence the loon calls lovely,
lovely. Dip and swing of paddles. Arrow-
perfect bow slits the silver satin
of the lake.”
And love for the sensual art of poetry itself inspires the poet to take us into the kitchen at “Berrytime” (from A Plate of Mango Slices):
“Your poems came in a hot season
when all I had to do was stand and pour
blackberry shade and black juice
into my gold glass jar.
When berrytime comes around
My tongue is alive with liquid heat:
Dappled shade of the harvest to words
Leaves my mouth purpled with longing.”
And for her gal pal, Kat Chinn, and the many meals they have shared together, Sandy writes another food poem, “Yellow Curry”
“The world is like this: a bowl of yellow curry,
hot and strange, swimming
with tasty creatures of sea and land.
We eat them up in coconut milk and broth,
Slurping noodles, smearing lips,
Tongues, and tall tales
With tiger turmeric.
Like candlelight the curry gently burns
All the way down to darkness.”
An imaginative, Northwest poet of the tangible and intangible pleasures of life, Sandy Jensen offers readers meaningful glimspes from her keen observations of the natural world and her inner thoughts. — Lois Wadsworth
AS REAL AS IT GETS
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner. Milkweed Editions, 2004. Paperback, $14.95. 2004 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award. Milkweed National Fiction Prize. Kantner: One of 10 awarded 2005 Whiting Prize.
It’s January 1976, and national attention is fixed on the end of the Vietnam War and the last act of the drama surrounding the Watergate cover-up. But this winter day, 10-year-old Cutuk Hawcly has more immediate concerns. His dad, Abe, has taken the sled team back to their sod house to pick up a gee-pole so they can haul back the moose he shot during the day’s hunt. Cutuk’s been left to watch over the still-warm carcass. Night is falling, and beneath a sky laced with pink and green aurora, the Arctic cold is merciless. Outside Cutuk’s lonely circle of firelight, the night is inky black. He hears a shriek, then a burst of soft thumps. The deep black morphs into shapes with glistening eyes. Wolves. He reaches for the rifle his father has left him.
Down-state boys his own age would likely be rigid with fear. Cutuk has one thought: Would this be the time he shoots his first wolf?
Ordinary Wolves, Kantner’s debut novel, is an engrossing tale of a young boy growing up on the Arctic tundra in a family that not only lives off the land but also lives in it, in a sod hut many miles from the closest Eskimo village. Narrated from Cutuk’s point of view, the book follows him on his forays with his dog team out into the tundra, then on his painful trips into town, where his fumbling tongue and white skin shame him into silence.
The people, places and incidents in the book are fictitious, but the descriptions of the land, the family’s way of life and the criss-cross of generosity, racism and harshness in the Eskimo culture are too finely drawn to be imagined. Every page glistens with descriptions so real you can almost hear the crunch of mukluks on packed snow or smell the steaming gut pile from a recent kill.
On a recent book tour stop in Eugene, Kanter, who lives in a small town in northwest Alaska with his wife and daughter, said the book “follows the arc” of his own life, from growing up on the tundra to his mind-bending journey into city life as a young man. Kantner’s father, originally from Ohio, moved to Alaska and befriended an elder Eskimo couple who taught him many of the old ways of living on the land. Kanter’s parents eschewed the popular notion of career success as well as such amenities as electricity, plumbing and social intercourse.
Like Cutuk, Kantner grew up eating caribou and pemmican made with currants, dried cranberries and caribou fat. He spent hours catching and preparing fish to be made into dog food for the family’s sled team. His first friends were dogs.
Also like Cutuk, Kanter spent years feeling deep shame for being white. “I’m 40, and I’m just getting over a lifetime of wanting to be Eskimo,” he said. But his yearning did not keep him from writing about the racism he experienced or the destabilizing effects of modern technology such as snow-mobiles and television on the centuries-old Eskimo culture.
Sprinkled with words from the Iñupiac language, Ordinary Wolves includes a glossary. When Kantner reads words spoken by his Eskimos characters, the cadence says it all. He’s been there, and he’s listened closely.
One of the “old ways” Cutuk picks up early on is that true hunters don’t boast about their skills or kills. Kantner follows suit. He describes himself as “jumble-brained and dyslexic” and perennially restless. He doesn’t like to sit still or write. He doesn’t even like to be indoors. He has a degree in journalism but says he fell into fiction writing almost by accident when a teacher gave him the right encouragement at the right time.
When an audience member at his reading commented on his poetic descriptions, Kantner responded that his craft seems polished only because publishers kept turning down his book, so he had several years to re-write and hone each sentence. Maybe. But Kantner not only writes great description and supremely believable inner reflection, but he also has a way with metaphors.
“A discussion with [Abe] was like rolling a log uphill in sticky snow. Ideas glommed on.” Or “his brown eyes looked rolled back like a village dog held down by its last six inches of iced-in chain.” Some folks could do re-writes for a lifetime and never hit those perfect chords.
Kantner said he’s not sure he’s ready to sit down to another novel. Like his parents, he’s suspect of the standard definition of success and doesn’t feel the need to make a lot of money. He’d like more time for sled-making and photography. Carpal tunnel syndrome gives him an out for spending a lot of time at a keyboard right now. “I was actually thinking about making knives,” he said.
It is a sweet relief to know the author is as real as this marvelous book. — Alice Tallmadge
THE RELIABLE NARRATOR
War Trash by Ha Jin. Pantheon Books, 2004; hardcover, $25. Vintage International, 2005; paperback, $14.95. Pulitzer Prize finalist. Winner Pen/Faulkner Award, 2005.
Yu Yuan, the obsevant narrator of Ha Jin’s incisive novel, is a Chinese clerical officer in Mao’s so-called volunteer army selected to fight alongside North Korean troops against the Americans in the Korean War, 1951. Yuan, with no military training to speak of, is advised by his commanding officer, Commissar Pei, to bring along with him an English-Chinese dictionary to “serve as a unique weapon.” Yuan describes Pei: “He was a tall man of thirty-two, with a bronzed face and a receding hairline. Whenever I was with him, I could feel the inner strength of this man, who had been a dedicated revolutionary since his early teens.”
Yuan is not a revolutionary. Apolitical, he wisely keeps to himself. He’s worried about his old mother, alone now, and he misses his fiancée. The soldiers attend compulsory meetings designed to drum up war fever. Here’s Yuan’s partial description of the 800-man Chinese army gingerly crossing a bridge over the Yalu River into Korea:
“Each man kept ten feet from the one in front of him. The water below was dark, hissing and plunging. Now and then someone would cry out, his foot having fallen through a hole. A tall mule, drawing a cart, got its hind leg stuck in a rift and couldn’t dislodge it no matter how madly the driver thrashed its hindquarters. The moment I passed the tilted cart, it shook, then keeled over and fell into the river together with the helpless animal. There was a great splash, followed by an elongated whirlpool in the shimmering current, and then the entire load of medical supplies vanished.”
I cite this at such length because it is the perfect metaphor for the entire war from Yuan’s educated viewpoint. They are the “war trash” left on their own by the Chinese government without weapons, food, medicine or reinforcements; lost in the dark rivers of a foreign land.
An American offensive in the air and on the ground quickly engages the troops in battle. Pei tries to save his footsore, hungry men, but many are overrun. Yuan, Pei and a few others get away but soon come upon 300 njured, sick and starving men abandoned by their officers. Later with 80 survivors, Yuan and Pei fight like guerillas for three months before they are captured and sent to POW camps.
Now begins Yuan’s true story, told as a memoir. At the mercy of various inscrutable Chinese factions within the camps, Yuan proves useful as a translator in negotiations with their captors. A compelling story of daily life under hardship, Ha Jin’s greatest accomplishment is Yu Yuan, the reliable narrator, a memorable, civilized man I will never forget. Ha Jin teaches English at Boston University and won the National Book Award for his first novel, Waiting. Sublime. — Lois Wadsworth
NO MAN’S LAND
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. Knopf, 2005. Hardcover, $24.95. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year 2005.
Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is set farther into modernity than his previous works, yet the urges driving the men who careen through his new novel are as primal as those possessed by the cowboys, killers and prophets who populate his other novels of the West. The premise is familiar: A man comes upon something that is not his and takes it against his better judgment, then spends the rest of the story running from parties unwilling to brook the loss.
Here, the man is Llewelyn Moss, and what’s not his is $2 million left unattended in the desert as the result of a mutually fatal shootout between parties to a heroin deal. Unattended, but not forgotten. Setting the story in motion, Moss returns to the scene, an obstinate act that fulfills the dictates of a code he follows despite knowing it could destroy him.
McCarthy’s prose is as spare as the Texas landscape through which Moss flees, making No Country for Old Men a departure from the Faulknerian style of previous work. The style matches the story, though, and McCarthy’s gifts are manifest in his ability to co-opt crime novel formulas to his grand purpose: the philosophical exploration of our relationship with violence.
A frenetic dream of men and guns, the book sketches the latter more tenderly than the former. Yet this new novel is neither a continuation of McCarthy’s Plains Trilogy nor a return to the full fury of Blood Meridian. Instead, it is an impeccably crafted genre novel. With McCarthy’s singular gifts, the book’s pure enjoyment illustrates that even the barest of plots flourish in the proper hands. — Chris Ledford
Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire. ReganBooks, HarperCollins, 2005. Hardcover, $26.95.
When the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba Thropp, met her inevitable end in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, few readers thought much, if anything, of the boy who’d tagged along with her to her castle. But lonely, picked-on Liir becomes the subject in this sequel, which meanders through memory and history to answer some pressing questions: Is Liir really the Witch’s son? What does that mean? And how did he come to be lying in the grasslands, nearly every bone in his body broken?
While Liir lies in a coma, the story runs with his unconscious thoughts through his life since Elphaba’s death. With the Witch’s broom and cape in hand, Liir leaves the castle with Dorothy and her troupe, but they melt away in the Emerald City. After trying to find his possible half-sister, Nor, Liir joins the Emerald City’s military, for what else is a penniless orphan to do?
Military life at first suits Liir, who grows to value his unremarkableness. Determined to be talentless and bland and not to claim his possible birthright, he nevertheless can’t ignore the unpleasant responsibility that comes his way. Shaken, Liir deserts the army, only to be swept up in greater events that bring out the passion in the steely young man.
Liir’s is a tale of reluctant self-discovery, as introspective as it is adventurous — even once he’s woken from his coma by the strange gifts of the novice nun, Candle. On first read, it’s clear that the book isn’t quite on par with the delicious ingenuity of Wicked, but it is still a sleepy, enticing tale with striking, memorable characters and an ending that suggests it is not the end of the story. But we readers are not the only ones who miss the sharp-tongued presence of the Witch herself. On the walls and in the very air above the Emerald City, a heartfelt, rebellious slogan lingers: “Elphaba lives!” — Molly Templeton
Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch by Dai Sijie. Knopf, 2005. Hardcover, $22.
This novel is a quixotic search for truth, justice and the Asian way; a theatric of the absurd played out in desperate alleys and ramshackle bus stations across the Land of the Grinning Dragon; and a flash of whimsical realism that would startle and bemuse shamans from Copper Canyon to Kamchatka.
Mr. Muo studied psychoanalysis in Paris and has just returned to 21st century China to introduce his people to the wonders of Western shrinkdom. He also plans to liberate his college sweetheart, a political prisoner jailed for publishing photographs documenting government torture. The judge who sentenced Muo’s daring darling explains that he’ll spring her if provided with a nubile virgin for his own delights. Thus begins Muo’s chivalric if ludicrous quest to fulfill his part of this devil’s bargain.
Dai Sijie, author of the best-selling novel now a movie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, takes Muo into a creepy mortuary operated by a strangely compelling woman who helps him lose his virginity over a wild mountaintop road where fierce, acrobatic bandits leap on passing trucks, through a panda habitat overseen by a mystic healer who collects panda scat for a living, and into the vile depths of the sadistic magistrate’s monster lair. Eventually, our hero achieves a vaguely satisfying epiphany, the possibility of sweet closure and the beginning of the greening of Mr. Muo.
Describing his character’s postponed loss of innocence, Dai Sijie writes, “Muo’s first copulation, which proceeds in textbook fashion, is in danger of turning into a doctoral thesis.”
Imagine sly Vladimer Nabokov, droll Lewis Carroll and indefatigable Miguel Cervantes beaming at the arrival of their new colleague. Born in China, Dai Sijie has lived and worked in France since 1984. — David Johnson
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez. Translated by Edith Grossman. Knopf, 2005. Hardcover, $20. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year 2005.
Since I discovered the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Colombian-born Gabriel García Márquez in the early 1970s, I have longed to express in print my feelings about this remarkable writer, who is credited with creating a style enraptured critics called “magical realism.” Although I have read many of his novels and found them compelling, I have not yet finished his astonishing memoir, Living to Tell the Tale (Knopf, 2003). In the first of three projected volumes, García Márquez makes clear how his life has influenced his work, particularly his fictions.
Memories of My Melancholy Whores seems to me to be a highly sophisticated metaphor for the riches and sorrows of a writer acknowledging the muse(s) who have attended his work. I offer in evidence a quote attributed to Julius Caesar, which appears in a late chapter: “In the end, it is impossible not to become what others believe you are.”
An unnamed journalist and lifelong bachelor in a large city comes to his 90th birthday with one wish: to experience one night of love with an adolescent virgin. Now this proposition even surprises the madam who has long serviced his needs with a variety of women. Nevertheless, she secures a young woman, and the night of love arrives. The night turns into a year, but consummation never arrives. Instead, the old man finds himself for the first time deeply in love, not only with the girl who sleeps through their nights together, but with all those who came before her.
Like the second word in “magical realism,” which is often ignored, the tale is rooted in a reality that includes an old house that’s falling apart and our hero’s interactions with his newspaper. In this brief portrait of his publisher, you will note the razor-sharp wit of the 78-year old writer we so admire:
“He had the notable vice of a smart appearance. He had just turned twenty-nine and knew four languages and had three international master’s degrees, unlike the first president-for-life, his paternal grandfather, who became an empirical journalist after making a fortune as a white slaver.”
This tightly-woven novella (113 small pages) is resplendent and deserving of a careful reading. It is arguably a masterpiece. But if not, it’s simply one more illuminating work by one of the world’s great writers, nothing more. — Lois Wadsworth
O HOLY URINE SAMPLES
An Idiot Girl’s Christmas: True Tales from the Top of the Naughty List by Laurie Notaro. Villard Books, 2005. Hardcover, $14.95.
Every year, as the holidays approach, my stomach slowly twists into garland-like knots as I ponder what predicaments God feels I can handle. I suffer through visions of drunken arguments, judgmental looks from family members, an extreme case of road rage and the intense fear of braving the mall. Luckily this year, before the annual madness set in, an antidotal handbook fell into my needy hands. An Idiot Girl’s Christmas is just what the doctor, or shall I say Ol’ St. Nick, ordered. The New York Times best-selling local author of The Idiot Girl’s Action-Adventure Club, Laurie Notaro, blesses us this season with 12 hilarious tales of holiday woe.
“Have Yourself a Kmart Little Christmas” is Notaro’s Christmas Eve recounting of a lengthy mission of tracking down an open store in search of much-needed personal hygiene supplies. Not only does Notaro have to navigate aisles of blue light specials, “artificially colored ham sandwiches,” baby poop and lesion-ridden drug addicts, but she also manages to plop herself in line in front of a murder of teenage boys, who refer to her as “Peppermint Fatty.”
In “There’s a Gun Somewhere Under the Tree,” Notaro plants the reader in the middle of her first Christmas with her soon-to-be in-laws. Adorned in multi-colored hair, a leather jacket and cowboy boots, the author struggles to fit in, resulting in a man receiving a nursing bra and a 3-year-old tearing open his very own Leathermans tool.
Whether handing out urine samples or gracefully accepting half-used bath gel as a holiday gift, Notaro entertains and comforts any winter-weary soul. Each tale in An Idiot Girl’s Christmas is short and sweet, perfect for quick reads in between making egg nog for 20 or wrapping your family’s guns and knives. — Danica Stiles
SISTERS OF THE HEART
The Secrets of Jin-shei by Alma Alexander. HarperSanFrancisco, 2004. Hardcover, $24.95.
The Secrets of Jin-shei would be terrific even if it didn’t have roots in Chinese history, but, by basing her novel on a real language and a custom of sworn sisterhood associated with it, Alma Alexander has brought something little-known and profound to readers’ attention. Her novel is a great achievement.
In the book’s historical note, the author explains that the language we think of as Chinese is actually a complex web of more than 500 dialects, among which is a secret written language passed from mother to daughter for more than 500 years. Such rich history brings alive the world Alexander has created.
Tai is the founder of the circle around which the novel centers. Nine years old as the story begins and a grandmother as it comes to its conclusion, Tai possesses a capacity for happiness that inspires all those around her, including a warrior, scholar, dancer, sage, philanthropist, healer and empress.
A city with market, temple and palace in a land of mountains, lakes and changing seasons exists beyond the circle of women surrounding Tai. The denizens of this country and their faith, customs and struggles can be found in all these places.
The novel’s greatest strength is in meticulous details such as the “hideous little effigy” of a mysterious lesser deity whose “altar was always overflowing with offerings,” yet no one has ever been observed actually placing anything on the altar.
The book is also relentlessly realistic. Some wonderful characters meet dreadful ends and some mysteriously disappear, while others change for the better. Looking back, Tai remembers the sisters of her heart and marvels, “Oh, how rich my life was with all of you beside me.” Readers’ lives, too, will be enriched. — Josephine Bridges
GRIEF & REDEMPTION
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins, 2005. Hardcover, $25.95. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year 2005.
I reviewed for Eugene Weekly Louise Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine (5/16/85), and her second, Beet Queen (1/15/87). I’ve read many of the subsequent eight novels, which include her best-seller, The Master Butchers Singing Club. It is a real pleasure to review Erdrich’s latest, The Painted Drum.
The book begins with a conflicted romance between a sculptor and a woman, Faye Travers, who works with her part-Ojibwe mother appraising estates in New Hampshire. Travers is asked to look at the estate of a former Indian agent, where she discovers a hidden cache of treasures, including a painted drum she immediately recognizes as a rare ritual instrument. The drum head is three feet across, and she imagines the buffalo or moose skinned for it was a giant.
“[the drum] is intricately decorated, with a beaded belt and skirt, hung with tassels of pulled red yarn and sewn tightly all around with small tin cones, or tinklers. Four broad tabs are spaced equally around the top. Into their beaded tongues of deep indigo four white beaded figures are set. They are abstract but seem to represent a girl, a hand, a cross, a running wolf. On the face of the drum, at the very center, a stripe is painted in yellow. That is all.”
The novel follow Travers’ stormy relationship with Kurt Krahe, his rebellious daughter, Kendra, a neighbor called Davan Eyke, and Faye’s mother, Elsie. Elsie has told Faye that the drum is the universe, a living thing, which must be fed and always covered with a quilt. “No two are alike, but every drum is related to every other drum. They speak to one another and they give their songs to humans,” Elsie says.
Later, Faye and Elsie take the drum to its home on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. There the storyteller becomes Bernard Shaawano, whose grandfather made the drum. The parallels between Traver’s life and that of the drummaker becomes evident as Bernard’s story unfolds. A compassionate, forgiving history. — Lois Wadsworth
Bodies in Motion short stories by Mary Anne Mohanraj. HarperCollins, 2005. Hardcover, $22.95.
Mary Anne Mohanraj’s rich debut collection, Bodies in Motion, shadows two Sri Lankan families over multiple generations, exposing their challenges, changes, triumphs and failures as each character struggles to make their way. Described in 20 stories spanning 63 years and told through a multitude of voices, the book takes the reader on a journey with characters who bravely step outside tradition to paint their family portrait.
The desperate story of Thani in “Oceans Bright and Wide” addresses this man’s loveless marriage, his compensatory relationship with a nun and his frustrations parenting five teenage daughters. I like the author’s use of a vulnerable male character in a largely male-dominate society.
“Seven Cups of Water” explores a young woman’s brief sexual freedom, described in passionate encounters with her sister-in-law, before she settles into an arranged marriage. Though their relationship is brief, these characters possess immense bravery.
“Mint in Your Throat” is a painfully honest tale by a student who persuades her rapist she is a prostitute. Even though she tries to outsmart him, she ends up being humiliated. This story left me with chills.
The ambitious Kandiah and Vallipuram families move across continents in hope of education and success, reach across marriage beds to reluctantly receive arranged spouses, and trade stereotypes between Eastern and Western cultures. The importance of religion, tradition, education and family is explored whether on the dirt floors of a sweltering and politically turbulent Sri Lanka or in the financially secure but culturally pressured comfort of an American home.
Mohanraj challenges traditional Sri Lankan culture, where the vibrant and resilient female characters wrapped in brightly colored saris serve as the fabric of Bodies in Motion, while the men are the gold thread running through it. These stories will leave you with tamarind lingering on your taste buds, the smell of Bougainvillea on your hands and the challenge of breaking free weighing in your heart. — Danica Stiles
How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater by Marc Acito. Broadway Books, 2005. Paperback, $9.95. Winner of the 2005 Oregon Book Award for the Novel.
To be fair, there’s not quite as much musical theater as there is sex, theft and friendship in Marc Acito’s first novel. There is enough, though, to give the book something of a campy feel, especially when combined with the kooky, teen-movie style episodes of theft and sex, complete with parental interruption and incriminating photos of naked jocks.
Seventeen-year old Edward Zanni is a theater geek about to start his senior year of high school. He’s dead set on going to Julliard. Acting is his calling, his reason for being, and, naturally, something his business-minded father — an almost cartoonish Jersey goon — is equally dead set against. He simply refuses to pay for college unless Edward goes to business school.
Thus the scheming begins: blackmail, embezzlement, identity theft and more. Edward’s assisted by his former girlfriend, Kelly, his best friend, Paula, and Kelly’s new boyfriend, Doug, who’s also the subject of Edward’s blooming crush. They’re joined by cosmopolitan Ziba and Natie, the nerdy-smart kid across the street, who comes up with the best plots for the illicit aquisition of cash.
Acito’s voice is clear and cheerily irreverent, and his plotting perfectly screwball, but somehow Edward’s story never lands in laugh-out-loud territory. If over-the-top hijinks are your thing, you’ll likely disagree. The story’s coming-of-age and coming-out threads are deftly handled. But Acito has a distracting tendency to begin chapters by an anecdote about a character, followed by a paragraph that’s simply the character’s name, as if the incident defined the person. Hard to explain, and a little hard to swallow.
Still, Edward’s pitch-perfect teenage attitude and frank approach to sex are likely to appeal not just to adults, for whom the book is intended, but also teens, who may find Edward and company with their “Creative Vandalism” and outlandish garb kindred souls. — Molly Templeton
The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Hardcover, $24.95.
You can judge a book by its cover. I thought about buying The Hummingbird’s Daughter because of a review, but after one look at the cover art I had to have it. The book became my fond companion immediately, and over several weeks a little touch of magical realism colored how I looked at the world.
Luis Alberto Urrea lovingly depicts life on a Sinaloan ranch around the turn of the 20th century, and the birth there of Teresita, a most amazing girl and his actual ancestor. Born of an Indian mother, fathered by the wealthy landlord, Don Tomás Urrea, and midwifed by the resident healer, Huila, Teresita’s home is a hovel on the ranch. Her mother abandons her, yet she grows into an uncommon girl and again attracts the attention of Don Tomás’s privileged servant, Huila, who makes Teresita her protegé. The girl comes to live in the big house where a surprised Don Tomás recognizes her as his daughter.
All around the remote hacienda, the Mexican Revolution is fomenting. Targeted by the corrupt Mexican government, the beloved people of Teresita, Los Indios, are the first besides Huila to discover the girl’s healing abilities. Like wildfire, she becomes an icon of the revolution, which puts her entire household and especially her dear father, Don Tomás, in jeopardy.
This exciting, beautifully drawn adventure story never failed to enchant me. Urrea’s magnificent grasp of the realities of Mexican life in all its tragic complexity is rendered in deliriously passionate language. Teresita, in crisis, rises at dawn and goes outside:
“She avoided Huila’s sacred grove of cottonwoods and found a small holy spot of her own. She prayed, though she was unworthy of God’s ear. She waited until hummingbirds began their rounds, and she told them of her sorrows. They buzzed and rang around her head, hummed and sang their songs, songs too fast for any human ear to hear, songs that came to her like sharp kisses in the wind.”
The author’s note begins: “Teresa Urrea was a real person.” Urrea’s great grandfather was Tomás’s first cousin. Teresa’s sermons are based on notes taken by the journalist Lauro Aguirre and saved on microfilm, available “if you know a helpful librarian.” Urrea writes that the book took more than 20 years “of fieldwork, research, travel and interviews.” He is the author of The Devil’s Highway (2004 Lannan Literary Award winner for nonfiction), a poet, novelist and the winner of numerous awards. If Hummingbird is your introduction to this gifted writer, be glad you’ve found him. — Lois Wadsworth
Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls by Matt Ruff. HarperCollins, 2003. Paperback, $14.95. A New York Times Notable Book, 2003.
Matt Ruff is a self-described obsessive-personality. His novel is an intricately constructed tale of Andy Gage, a man with multiple personalities. Set This House In Order carries the reader through Andy’s medicated fogs, alternating between sudden periods of “lost time,” semi-stability and his valiant attempt to bring order to his multiple selves.
The story is set in a dreary Washington town where Andy has built an odd but controlled life for himself. Andy works for a virtual reality software company, and ultimately he discovers his own life to be in a permanent state of virtual reality.
With a little help, Andy has kept his mind (or house) running relatively smoothly. The personalities who share control of his body may be women or men, an artist or a black belt, a hormone-driven teenager or a young child. Each personality understands that the mental health of the body depends on their collective cooperation. At first this idea made my head spin, but by the end of the novel Ruff has persuaded me of this technique for treating multiple personality disorder is effective.
All is well until Andy’s boss convinces him to help another person with MPD sort through and organize her own house. In the process of understanding Penny’s many souls, Andy’s carefully built construction crumbles, exposing unknown facets of his disorder. I appreciate the novel’s exploration of the unique purposes of the many personalities of Andy and Penny’s bodies.
In this third novel, Ruff entertains and educates by deconstructing painful childhoods and exploring several theories about MPD. The characters’ challenges to be normal left me more compassionate and understanding for people often simply labeled “mentally disturbed.” – Danica Stiles
Hellsing by Kohta Hirano. Dark Horse Manga. Paperback, $13.95
Manga — Japanese comic books, right? Family: Art. Genus: Manga. Species: Sundry.
Some say it’s not Art. Disregard this sphincter-constricted viewpoint. Manga, in its native habitat, is sought by all — young and old, cops, salarymen and housewives. Yes, verified adults read manga. While in America manga’s not embraced at that level, it has nonetheless achieved a place in our culture. Walk into any mainstream corporate book vendor. Behold the wall, the section, and the pack of mangaphiles circling rows of slim volumes dressed endlessly pleasing by its hardworking artists. No genre or subject goes untouched.
To introduce the creature, take Hellsing, Kohta Hirano’s serialized tale of a clandestine English organization that defends Queen and country from the undead freaks of the world.
The Hellsing organization’s chief weapon against the undead came up from the basement in the form of barely tamed, supremely enhanced vampire Alucard. This vampire derives joy of employment in boring .454 Cassul rounds through freak flesh. Dark, bloody and, oh, just a tweege gothy, Hellsing dances along razor edges with witty dialogue, black humor, bold artwork and a supporting cast of characters every bit as quirked as Alucard. — Jenn Bazurto
With No One as Witness by Elizabeth George. HarperCollins, 2005. Hardcover, $26.95.
Prepare for a marathon reading weekend when you start Elizabeth George’s latest crime story. That’s what I did, even though sometimes I am reluctant to take on a thriller because they disturb me too much. Believe me, this one is disturbing.
The great thing about George’s storytelling is the quirkiness of her characters. They are frustrating, irritating and lonely. Rarely does anyone appear entirely happy; just like real life. And like real life, they muddle through their life choices, even though those choices may not be so great.
George leads us through a number of layers, each interacting with the other. Set in London, the novel chronicles New Scotland Yard’s search for a serial killer of 12- and 13-year-old boys. Done in a ritualistic manner, the killings fall under the jurisdiction of both Scotland Yard and the city’s homicide department, and bumbling politics involve all. The NSY team includes Barbara, the titled supervisor; Detective Lynley; and Winston Nkaka, a token black man the big honchos trot out after publicity of the first three murders, which involved black or mixed-race boys, is largely swept under the rug. But when a white boy is killed, racism rears its ugly head and the PR people begin to panic.
The big wigs want a quick solution and decide to allow the press access to the crime team. Terrible consequences arise from that decision. George’s descriptions of the London shops, neighborhoods, parks and vicinity put the reader smack in the middle of the scene. In the end, the characters are very human. — Geneva Miller
Blood of Angels by Reed Arvin. HarperCollins, 2005. Hardcover, $16.95.
As I review this novel that delves into racial tension in Nashville, Tennessee, across the Atlantic, France is on fire. Art and life imitate each other, often with lethal realities.
Blood of Angels, a tale of an assistant district attorney challenged by a different version of the past and edgy about a disquieting future, is a timely example.
Those who avoid legal-beagle fiction by John Grisham and Portland’s Philip Margolin or dodge the second half of TV’s “Law and Order” when it shifts from the gritty streets to an overheated courtroom are now thinking: “I’ll pass.”
But I’d like to plead that this well-crafted, action-packed thriller spends little time in court. Our protagonist, Thomas Dennehy, has a good track record as a prosecutor. He also has a lovely daughter named Jasmine he sees on weekends and a bottle of Zoloft — little blue pills that keep him psychically above water.
And then Dennehy learns that someone claims he sent the wrong man to the death chamber. And there’s his current problem with the prosecution of Moses Bol, a Sudanese refugee accused of murdering a white woman in the Nations, a militant enclave rife with racial hatred.
Dennehy grapples with these developments as Nashville smolders. He meets the Reverend Fiona, a fiery anti-death penalty advocate and intriguing beauty who claims she was with Bol at the time of the homicide, thus providing the accused with a handy alibi.
Page after page, our hero struggles to uncover the truth, confront his feelings for Fiona and stay out of harm’s way. I rest my case.
Arvin grew up on a Kansas cattle ranch and was a music producer in Nashville, where he now lives and writes full-time. — Dave Johnson
BONES NEVER LIE
Remains Silent by Michael Baden and Linda Kenney. Knopf, 2005. Hardcover, $23.95.
I almost didn’t read this after scanning the dust cover, which describes the two main characters. Philomena “Manny” Manfreda is a New York City civil rights attorney and “unabashed shopaholic” who wouldn’t be caught dead in anything but Chanel or Prada. A fashion victim who carries her poodle everywhere, Manny’s character seemed laughable. However, 10 minutes into the book, I was hooked.
Manny bristles at any semblance of injustice and has aquired a reputation as a fierce defender of the disenfranchised. She is prosecuting a high-profile case when she calls Dr. Jake Rosen, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, to the stands. He crucifies the prosecution’s testimony. Manny can’t stand the thought of him.
But soon after, bones are uncovered at the construction site of a shopping mall. When one set of bones is identified, Jake recommends Manny to represent the family of the deceased. Manny and Jake quickly become entangled in a decades-old cover up involving a former mental hospital. The body count rises. Jake and Manny develop a relationship, enhanced by a first “date” at an autopsy. Drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of crime scenes, Jake explains the difference between coughed-up blood and blood splatters from a cut. And that there’s always a disturbance in the soil when a body is buried, no matter how many years have passed.
But the unearthed bones share a tragic abnormality that even Jake’s trained eye can’t see. Retired medical examiner Dr. Pete Harrigan knows something but uncharacteristically won’t talk about it. The local sheriff wants construction to continue at the site and sweeps aside Jake’s assertions of foul play. But Manny and Jake will stop at nothing to uncover the bones’ deadly secret. — Vanessa Salvia
The Stranger House by Reginald Hill. HarperCollins, 2005. Hardcover, $24.95.
Reginald Hill, known primarily for his Dalziel and Pascoe police procedurals, ventures into different territory with his new novel, The Stranger House, a mystery that is part detective story and part secret history of the seemingly quiet English town of Illthwaite. The story involves Australian mathematics student, Samantha (Sam) Flood, and Spanish seminarian Miguel (Mig) Madero. Sam and Mig join forces after finding their individual searches into Illthwaite’s history intersect. Each seeks to answer a family mystery, but the rocks they overturn reveal unsuspected secrets.
Hill’s writing often does not seem up to the task of conveying the atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy he seeks to conjure, especially mysteries that span four centuries. Still, there is undoubtedly a large demand for detective fiction where deep historical secrets are revealed, notably when an element of religion is mixed in, as in the freight train that is The Da Vinci Code.
While not an entirely satisfying historical mystery, The Stranger House has enough twists and turns to please lovers of the genre and also make for a quick and pleasant read.
— Chris Ledford
How To Rent a Negro by damali ayo. Lawrence Hill Books, 2005. Paperback, $14.95.
Lunching with friends, you look around and realize that something about the gathering seems particularly pale. You examine your companions: white, white, white, and … white! Could it be true? Is everybody you know white?
Or is this you: you get constant invitations from friends trying to liven up their social events by adding some local color. You answer so many questions about being black that you’re exhausted at the end of the day.
damali ayo, author of How to Rent a Negro, offers a solution designed for everyone. Since slavery is illegal, renting can get you the services you need or the compensation you deserve. If you’re white, you can get your questions answered, show your friends and colleagues how you’re “down with diversity” and always have a well-mannered, articulate black person available for your social occasions.
If you’re black, you can finally get paid for the years of service you’ve been providing for free. ayo even provides tips for retroactive billing.
A Portland-based conceptual and performance artist, ayo frequently incorporates social critique into her work. She invites her audience to step out of their comfort zone and engage in dialogue about why race is still such a wrenching issue in our country. Past exhibits include panhandling for reparations and creation of the rent-a-negro.com website that preceded the book.
In ayo’s words: “Due to … exhausting out-put of education to white people, and taking large amounts of racism and racial ignorance into my system on a daily basis, I called ‘who else,’ my mom. She and I talked for a long while about the exhaustion and how I wasn’t getting payback from the interactions I was having, yet I felt obligated to attend certain events… I wasn’t getting networking (or even entertainment) out of these experiences. Mom’s response: ‘Well, sure, you can’t just be everyone’s rent-a-negro.’
“This made me relax. I decided I could stick it out with the several white people in my life and continue to assist them on their paths of learning … but that everyone else would be put on a fee-for-services basis … for me this was a mindset. But as the concept sat in my mind for a while, it naturally evolved into art … it’s sparked some great discussions, which is the whole point of my work in general: dialogue.”
Ayo challenges white people to read the book and not see themselves in at least a small part. She described favorite moments during her book tour that involved white people interacting, cutting her off, declaring, “This (racism) is for us to work on.”
I asked ayo what she hoped people would take away with them after reading her book.
“Mostly questions about themselves,” she replied. “The sense of where they see themselves in the book and what they want to do about that. It does posit the idea that an individual can make a difference. It’s up to us how long this continues … any market depends on the consumer, so if people want to keep doing it, it’s going to keep happening.”
During ayo’s book tour, according to a reviewer on Amazon.com, “people inter-acted, talked, hugged, laughed, cried, squirmed and searched out the issue of race together in the same small bookstores and city streets … people actually got upset in public about it. That is moving this society forward.” — Mary Meredith Drew
SCIENCE AND ART
The Pine Island Paradox by Kathleen Dean Moore. Milkweed Editions, 2004. Hardcover. $20. Paperback, $14.95. Winner of the 2005 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.
As demonstrated by her three books of nature essays, OSU philosophy professor Kathleen Dean Moore is more than willing to wade about in the muck and wonder of the earth in order to attach her lofty ideas to roots, waves and even decaying mice, if that’s what has turned up. In her third book, she takes us to many of her favorite haunts, including the Alaskan wilderness island where she, her husband and their family have vacationed for years. She introduces us to its nights and silences, animal sounds, thrumming rain and to the reveries they engender.
One of the joys of reading Moore is the science and art she brings to her writing. In one essay she traces a quote from the Book of Job through several editions of the Bible to find the true sense of the phrase “songs in the night.” In “The Augmented Fourth,” she takes us deeply into the howl of a wolf, explaining how, in music, the first two mournful notes of a wolf howl are known as an augmented fourth, a sound that for centuries has been used by composers to express bottomless longing. In medieval Europe, she writes, the sound was considered the “diabolus in musica,” the devil’s chord, “so powerful it could grab a parishioner, drag him to his knees and pull him, scraping on the paving stones, straight to hell.”
And there are the more biology-based factoids, sometimes provided by her husband, Frank, such as how bats’ wings work, or why the ears of some owls are uneven, or how tiny tree frogs create their resonant songs.
Moore arranged her book in three sections, each challenging a misconception of the Western worldview: that human beings are separate from (and superior to) nature; that individual well-being can be disconnected from the ecological systems that sustain us; and that there is a distinction between the sacred and the mundane.
The essays I enjoyed the most are those in which she takes us on a journey, whether into the web of family and social connections that enrich her or the minute lives of creatures living just below the surface of the water or a leaf. She makes discoveries, such as the antics of a thieving scrub jay that has brought her much joy.
Occasionally she climbs onto the philosopher’s soapbox, and although I agree with much of what she says, the lecture is not why I have come to this book. I have come to be transported and enchanted, both by her writing and what she writes about. At her best Moore does exactly that. — Alice Tallmadge
The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha by Stephen T. Asma. HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. Hardcover, $24.95.
When Stephen Asma, professor of Budd-hism at Chicago’s Columbia College, was invited to teach a graduate seminar on Buddhist philosophy at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, he decided to write about this surreal experience. In his preface, he asks readers to approach the story “with an interest in challenging your views rather than just mirroring and confirming them.”
In Southeast Asia, “The idea of human rights is not really a foundational building block,” Asma writes. “This is the creepy underbelly of cultures that are oriented more toward the collective than the individual.” In a movement for human rights in the flesh trade, he writes, many women’s groups favor “disentangling the amoral sex work of consenting older prostitutes, which they want to decriminalize, from the morally disgusting phenomenon of child exploitation, which they want prosecuted to a greater extent.”
Asma is alarmed by what he calls “supernatural Buddhism,” a blending of Khmer folk religion with the faith he practices and teaches, which he sees as “largely consistent with contemporary science.” When an epidemic in northeastern Cambodian is brought under control, village leaders believe that their sacrifices and ceremonies, not antibiotics administered by the World Health Organization, are responsible. “In this health-related example, supernatural spirituality seems … dark, witless, and infantile,” he writes.
Living in Phnom Penh means reflecting on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, at whose hands almost a third of the people of Cambodia lost their lives. Asma presents monk Tep Vong’s controversial perspective that “the Cambodian people may have deserved Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge atrocities as karmic payback for previous sins.” But he also takes readers on a harrowing tour of S-21, the infamous prison from which 17,000 people never returned.
Expect to be challenged. Expect to be grateful. — Josephine Bridges
THE GOOD PART
Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook by Patrick Galloway. Stone Bridge Press, 2005. Hardcover, $19.95.
Most people associate the figure of the samurai with extreme devotion to his art, singleness of purpose and strict adherence to a particular code. It’s a difficult standard for most of us to realize in our lives, one that is perhaps achieved only — albeit in slightly different form — by lovers of samurai films. Patrick Galloway, Eugene resident and author of Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves, is one such lover of the genre. Galloway provides readers with an extensive and passionate account of samurai films and those who have made them.
Galloway is quick to assert the artistic and aesthetic value of samurai films, which, he writes, have too often been ignored by “cinema snobs.” But his book is not merely a defense of the genre. Galloway writes with the unrestrained excitement of a true fan rather than with the detachment of a critic, “funneling all of [his] monomaniacal obsessiveness into the book.”
Stray Dogs begins with a brief description of the historical period during which many samurai films are set, and provides biographical sketches of the most significant figures in the development of the genre as well as extensive reviews of 51 films. Ranging from the earliest masterpiece (Rashomon) to a twenty-first century effort (Twilight Samurai), Galloway’s reviews focus primarily on “chambara” — sword films. He compensates for the occasional lack of depth in his writing by extensive knowledge of samurai films and his contextual placement of them within the conversation between Japanese and Western filmmakers.
Ultimately, Galloway intends the book not as a comprehensive account of samurai films, but as an introduction to the genre and an impetus to those who have yet to experience (or are wary of) this wonderful slice of Japanese culture and filmmaking. At that, he succeeds admirably. — Chris Ledford
FINDING LIKE MINDS
A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World by Susanne Antonetta. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005. Hardcover, $24.95.
A Mind Apart is a series of connected essays that purports to explore the concept of neurodiversity, a term referring to individuals whose brains work differently enough from what is termed the “norm” that they often have trouble finding like minds with whom to relate.
Among those whom Antonetta considers neuro-diverse are those who have a form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome and people with multiple personalities. Diagnosed as bi-polar, Antonetta also considers herself neuro-diverse.
In this literary collage of musings and memories, Antonetta builds on a variety of real-life experiences, such as the grey whale that detoured into Bellingham Bay one spring and starved to death, or the trial of a neighbor boy who murdered a young child. She also describes interactions with those in her close-knit, neuro-diverse “tribe.” These are people who understand what it means to react physically to the sound of certain words, or to see colors when reading a number, or how it feels to live with a chorus of voices inside one’s head.
Antonetta writes that with science on the edge of making great strides in genetic engineering, the rest of the world needs to understand more about how neurodiverse brains work and how they contribute to the gene pool. Why? To forestall the possibility of artificially eliminating the very genes that give rise to neurodiversity.
Antonetta is also a poet, and her writing style is rich and textured. Of her husband she writes, “though he only gambles two or three times a year, playing craps, he does it with a bug-eyed, shiny-skinned thrill that shows dopamine high-beaming.” Of herself, “so clear, my weaknesses, like the blemishes on the moon: curiosity and curiosity.”
But even while appreciating her deft ability with words I was frustrated with her lengthy, self-referential musings. I wanted something more solid from this book. In the end, her group of neurodiverse friends was too small to be representational, and I wondered about so many others who haven’t found peace with their mental “otherness.”
In the prologue, Antonetta suggests using the term “hummingbird mind” to describe attention deficit disorder “because the mind hovers and darts among many, many things, never entirely planting itself.” I would use the same comparison to sum up this book, not disregarding that the hummingbird, in its darting flight, can be quite lovely.
— Alice Tallmadge