If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: The Graduation speeches and Other Words to Live By by Kurt Vonnegut. Seven Stories Press, $23.95.
Reading the words of Kurt Vonnegut changed my life, and they continue to do so, even though the man himself shuffled off to the sweet beyond in 2007. I’ll bet I’m not the only person who misses the hell out of Vonnegut these days, what with a clown like Trump heading into office and the apocalypse inching ever closer. Throughout his long career, in novel after novel, Vonnegut sounded the alarm on human stupidity in a voice that was by turns righteously grumpy and painfully funny — the angry, hangdog uncle whose witty barbs hid the heartbreak of a humanist at the absolute end of his rope. The speeches and essays collected here are pure, distilled Vonnegut: chiding, tart and, in the end, disarmingly sweet. They argue for decency and common sense in a manner and tone that is now, sadly, almost entirely absent from public discourse. “Still, the issue remains the same,” Vonnegut writes in a 1984 article for Playboy. “Can the Constitution of the United States be made a scrap of paper by appeals to what sincere persons believe the laws of God and nature to be? If we let that happen, I see no reason why we can’t get back to the good old American practices of lynching and even slavery again. What better way to fight crime?” The book is full of such gallows humor, which provides an oddly comforting antidote to the madness that now surrounds us. — Rick Levin
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. Penguin Random House, $18.
If, like me, you have only the most passing acquaintance with the theories and discoveries of contemporary physics, prepare to have your mind blown: Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli’s almost impossibly slim volume sets out, in clear and often poetic language, the rudiments of that most beguiling and baffling of scientific fields, and the results are breathtaking. From Einstein’s theory of relativity to the complexities of quantum mechanics, from quarks to infinity, Rovelli — head of the Quantum Gravity group at Aix-Marseille University — lays out the basic tenets of contemporary physics, and in doing so he utterly demolishes the false philosophical barriers raised by the Enlightenment. Who knew that without heat (combustion) there is no time (reality as we know it)? And could the universe really be a chain-mail construction of intersecting loops of time curling into infinity? Forget about The Matrix, forget about Westworld and all that speculative mumbo-jumbo about alternate realities: This is the good stuff! Deeply existential and at times downright metaphysical, Rovelli’s cutting-edge investigations cut right to the heart of those eternal questions: Who are we, why are we here and what the hell is going on? — Rick Levin
Color the Pacific Northwest by Zoe Keller. Timber Press, $12.95. (Oregon Author)
Portland-based artist Zoe Keller has a magic touch. Her illustrations mine the heart of this region so well that they may as well have sprung from the spongy earth itself, and that was long before she paired up with Timber Press to create a coloring book that is essentially a love letter to the Pacific Northwest. Enjoy 50-plus pages filled with all the critters, flora, fungi and historical and cultural landmarks that make this corner of the earth so special. What really sets this coloring book apart, however, is the educational aspect: Each species is identified, including those nearing extinction, and manmade wonders are put in context. Look for appearances by spotted owls, golden chanterelles, giant green anemones, Oregon ranching country, Pike Place Market, British Columbia totem poles and Bigfoot himself. To see more of Zeller’s mesmerizing work, visit zoekeller.com. — Alex V. Cipolle.
Artful Paper Clay: Techniques for Adding Dimension to Your Art by Rogene Mañas. North Light Books, $24.99. (Oregon Author)
Art is not a practical matter, but thanks to Eugene artist and author Rogene Mañas, its creation can be divided into practical nuggets. With Artful Paper Clay, Mañas offers both seasoned and novice artists alike solid footing to start adding complexity to 2-D art projects. The focus is on paper clay (also know as fiberclay), or clay with cellulose fibers added, a material available at most art supply stores. The book is divided into four parts — Working with Clay, Clay Work Projects, Finishing Techniques and Creative Projects — and filled with gorgeous images of Mañas’ work, some of which has been on view in Eugene for past Mayor’s Art Shows. — Alex V. Cipolle.
Wish Meal: Poems by Tim Whitsel. Arlie Press, $16. (Oregon Author)
David James Duncan writes of Wish Meal, “These poems ride out moments of bare survival, of hopefulness and beauty, and of complete brokenness with equally keen attention and articulation, often creating solace through an acuity of perception to events that would otherwise be without solace. I couldn’t put Wish Meal down.” If you, like me, are a fan of The Brothers K and The River Why, then you know this is high praise indeed. Tim Whitsel, who lives on a 100-year floodplain outside Springfield, writes his poetry with musical introspection, at times almost lyrical. No doubt my river-loving bias leads me to feel he is as his best when musing on Oregon’s rivers and nature, from the allure of a mudflat to a metaphor of poet as driftboat, “I have faltered, I admit, against my anchor/certain nights in worship of stars.” — Camilla Mortensen
Misfit. A Q&A with Lidia Yuknavitch
Read Electronically with the Eugene Public Library