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Winter Reading 2017 - Fiction, Poetry & Young Adult

 

Fiction

 

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Grove Press, $25.

Since 2016, Viet Thanh Nguyen has published three incredible books that offer a vibrant glimpse into the world of Vietnamese-American life and history, as well as invaluable insights into the effects of the war itself. The first, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, is nonfiction and an extension of Nguyen’s academic career. The others, The Sympathizer and this collection of short stories, The Refugees, are his first published works of fiction. I highly recommend all three, but The Refugees is a perfect starting point, given its brevity and accessibility. These stories take place in the U.S. and Vietnam, and though varied in character and tone, all serve to communicate a vital and lucid vision of Vietnamese-American identities and realities. For me, these stories felt like befriending a community I knew existed yet had only caught vague glimpses of from the outside before suddenly being given access to it, in very colorful and complex detail. Nguyen does a terrific job of lacing background information into narrative, offering a stunning opportunity to consider life in a tight-knit minority community trying to retain, but also refashion, its identity in a new country after a dirty war whose legacy lives on in overwhelming, complicated ways.  — Paul Quillen

 

Kurt Vonnegut: Complete Stories   Seven Stories Press, $45.

When Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007 at the age of 84, American literature lost not only one of its most distinct and inventive voices but also the finest and most durable representative of a generation of writers whose output and impact is not likely to be repeated. Vonnegut, who came of age during the Great Depression before witnessing the firebombing of Dresden as a private in the Second World War, cut his teeth writing short stories for slick popular magazines in the 1950s. It’s here that he developed a voice that was clear and plainspoken, almost avuncular, and yet beneath his homey style burbled a visionary impulse that was equal parts prophesy, moral outrage and Twain-like satire aimed at the apocalyptic idiocy of the damned human race. 

“The moral story is gone,” Dave Eggers laments in the foreword to Kurt Vonnegut: Complete Stories, an absolute brick of a book (more than 900 pages!) that compiles everything from previously published stories to those dug posthumously out of the archives. Early stories reveal a young writer tip-toeing gently but diligently into his craft, penning fables that read like the chiding pastorals of Sherwood Anderson and James Joyce. It’s the later, mid-career work — and there’s a ton of it here — that captures this great American author in full stride. Classic corkers like “Harrison Bergeron” and “Welcome to the Monkey House” hold up upon rereading as the flat-out dystopian masterpieces they are (and frighteningly timely these days), while others, such as “Who Am I This Time?” reveal Vonnegut, with equal parts generosity and dark humor, sounding out the melancholy mysteries of the human heart. For many of us, myself certainly included, Vonnegut was an initiation into the profound, life-altering magic of “serious” reading, and this exhaustive anthology of his short stories can now take its bittersweet roost on the top shelf — the one dedicated to our most important and beloved writers. So it goes. 

Rick Levin

 

The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard. Melville House, $25.99.

Full disclosure: I went to grad school with Ladee Hubbard at UCLA and sometimes we carpooled. On those mornings, I would stop by her apartment down the hall, and Hubbard would greet me, slightly weary after getting up early to write, but ready for the day. Those early mornings paid off. Toni Morrison calls Hubbard’s work “wildly inventive” and “in a class by itself.” The Talented Ribkins is both a romp through Florida and a meditation on race, class and politics. It’s a little bit Marvel comics meets W.E.B. Dubois’ talented tenth. Johnny Ribkins at age 72 has a week to come up with the money, stashed around the state, that he stole from his mobster boss. Luckily, Johnny has a superpower. He uses his mapmaking skills, and with his niece Eloise in tow, begins a journey that tells the girl, who has a power of her own, the story of her family and their involvement with the civil rights era Justice Committee, wherein the Ribkins tried to use their powers against racism. Later, when the committee falls apart, Johnny and his brother, who could scale flat walls, use their powers for burglary. As the pair journeys forward, Eloise learns of her past and Johnny learns perhaps he has a different future. 

Camilla Mortensen

 

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami. Knopf, $25.95.

Nothing noteworthy sets this short story collection apart from the earlier writings of Haruki Murakami, but nonetheless there is a refinement of form and well-established voice that I deeply enjoy. As a longtime Murakami fan, I found myself worrying, while reading 1Q84 in 2013, that he was losing the spark I had found compelling in his previous writing. This sense deepened in 2014, when he published a novella from 2005, The Strange Library, which was ultimately forgettable. Then Knopf published his first two novellas as Wind/Pinball in 2015, which I was excited to read, but felt was damning, like he was growing weary and perhaps taking an extended break. This collection feels like a return to his older style, but with a more polished, concise form. I was excited to think Men Without Women may contain seeds for future novels, as his earlier collections often had. His usual mix of oddball, marginal characters graces these pages, and this is a handsome, hardback volume that would make a great gift for a loved one who likes Murakami. But I would not recommend this as starting point for a first-time Murakami curioso. — Paul Quillen

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Eagan.
Charles Scribner’s Sons, $25.

Jennifer Egan’s previous novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, was a postmodern pop opera that cast a Faulkner-like web of fate and circumstances over a group of interconnected people moving through New York’s music scene. It won the Pulitzer in 2010, and it should have; it’s a fantastic work of fiction. Seven years and, reportedly, many rewrites later, and here we are with Egan’s latest, Manhattan Beach, a sprawling drama about a daughter’s tortuous search for her missing father during the Second World War. At the heart of the story are three characters brought together through the fickle movements of fate: Anna Kerrigan, a young single woman in wartime New York; her father, Eddie, a union man; and Dexter Styles, a mid-level mob boss who takes on Eddie as a sort of overseer of his far-flung operations. One day, Eddie simply disappears, leaving Anna, her invalid sister and her mother to fend for themselves. In subtle and mysterious ways, this absence becomes the driving force in Anna’s life, eventually leading her into service as a diver repairing battleships in New York Harbor.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from a failure to launch. Unlike Egan’s previous work, this one is addled by a certain narrative slackness; the plot would suggest there is much at stake, but it remains something of a slog to read, a bit waterlogged around the edges, strangely devoid of emotional oomph. Egan is one of our best novelists, and one of my favorites, but in Manhattan Beach she seems uncertain of herself, and it isn’t until the final passages of the book that her immense narrative skills kick in, evoking a heady excitement that the rest of the book sadly lacks. — Rick Levin 

 

kLucky Supreme by Jeff Johnson.
Arcade Publishing, $24.99.
Jeff Johnson’s Lucky Supreme is a pulp elegy that offers escape from the monotony of workaday life. It’s meant to be read in low light, preferably at night, so that the protagonist’s saw-toothed warble might be heard in the proper context. Darby Holland is a tattoo shop owner who’s carved out a hardscrabble niche from a destitute background. The plot arises from the tattoo artist’s ethos: Do not let others take a bite out of you, lest you want to be eaten whole. Necessary revenge and bloody affairs follow Holland from the seedy underbelly of Old Town Portland to the zombieland of Southern Oregon to San Francisco’s decrepit industrial warehouses and then back home again. Indigent paupers under the Burnside Bridge stand defiant against two encroaching worlds: the insatiable appetites of kingpins and the ineffable seep of gentrifying urbanites. 

In the tumbledown setting, Johnson draws a sentimental context — a neon fever dream, a decrepit labyrinth that only the down-and-out know profoundly. In Holland, Johnson carves a compassionate character — damaged yet caring, gentle yet vicious about protecting the kin that populate his world. He wields the lurid pen of 20th-century crime novelists like Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, and stands with contemporaries like Michael Connelly and Walter Mosley to grace the grit of dark streets. Whether readers can relate or not, they won’t be able to resist rooting for the charismatic Holland and empathizing with a man fighting to save his own hide and the singular denizens of a grimy world. — Matthew Denis

 

The Others  by Matthew Rohrer. Wave Books, $18.

What appears to be a rather mundane prose poem quickly reveals itself a matryoshka doll masterpiece: wacky, crafty, riveting and, at times, dark. Matthew Rohrer is a confident enough writer to be funny without humor displacing style or minimizing complexity. There is also an extended list of references to hunt down — if you like such things —though, as one who does not, I still enjoyed myself thoroughly. The narrator is a publishing lackey who fooled me into believing this would be an extended meditation on the existential struggles of living in New York, but quickly announces a bizarre whirlwind through a splintering narrative psychedelia, which continuously fragmented around me and made me feel I was taking a visual tour through a brilliant mind. 

It is weirdly beautiful while being hilarious, with some disgusting moments. It almost seems like a catalog of literary time and narrative, relishing in the fun and profundity of language and storytelling. This is not a poem, but it is also not quite a novel. It is readable and enjoyably original and is easily my favorite work of creative writing for 2017. — Paul Quillen

 

 

Poetry

 

Testify by Douglas Manuel. Red Hen Press, $17.95.

With his first poem, “Loud Looks,” Douglas Manuel announces the theme of this poetry collection: blackness as experienced by one who innately does not want to live hemmed in and marshaled by the dictates of a cultural environment. An environment that demands rigorous conformity to a strict, self-regulated identity that it employs in response to being embedded within a larger culture that rejects and isolates it. By so strictly maintaining that identity it hampers and tangles itself in the web of that larger, abusive culture, directly contradicting its intended goal. 

The first poem lists some requisite criteria for acceptance — “wanted to be a rapper? Check. / Father went to prison? Check. / Brother too? Check. /……. Hung pictures of Luke Perry on my bedroom wall? / What?” — with a comical, confessional twist.

The poem samples the humor and heartache that make this a memorable read and is a perfect introduction to the dilemmas, loyalty, guilt and sense of liberation Manuel catalogues in Testify. It is not that he doesn’t identify with black culture, but he perceives a wider scope of possibility, while watching his family struggle and destroy themselves. He is a champion of the humanism and mutuality that has the greatest potential to melt the unfortunate, very real and complex (though sometimes generic and commercial) boundaries between people, which they use to feel visible and vital in a society that attempts to tell them they have no value.  — Paul Quillen

 

Hairdo by Rachel B. Glaser. The Song Cave, $17.95.

Be warned: Rachel Glaser’s second book of poems may cause readers to drop everything just to lie in the tender arms of her world. Glaser’s voice sings of orchids and wooden, one-dimensional villains. She describes epics of lonely boys, hums with the dull contemplation of bored porn actors and laments cartoon characters lost in the miasma of this world. Her singular femininity dances to the tune of desperate infatuation, spoon-feeds the blinding and capricious taste of adolescent love, observes the dickless sight of conspicuous wealth and discerns the stolid and sweet atmosphere of committed romantic partners. Glaser inhabits the body of her narrators and, in so doing, chants the weirdness and intimacy of being human in this strange place. It’s difficult to do justice to the effect of good poetry. When a poet like Glaser offers a true harmony, my advice is to simply give in and float in the uncomplicated ardor of her saltwater lyrics. — Matthew Denis

 

 

Young Adult

 

kSparked by Marlena Watrous and Helena Echlin. Inkshares, $11.99.

Teen fiction set in Oregon with teens that have superpowers living in an Airstream trailer? I’m sold. Malena Watrous, a South Eugene High grad, and co-author Helena Echlin, bring us into the world of 15-year-old Laurel Goodwin, who wakes up to find her sister has gone missing and soon discovers that in order to save her sister, she has to save the world from a devastating prophecy. The authors take the hackneyed tropes of teens with special powers (Twilight anyone?), teen romance, mean girls and even time travel and blend them into a fun and at times gripping teen tale. My one complaint, as someone who lives in an Airstream trailer, is the one that Laurel, her sister and single mom live in with mom’s creeper boyfriend, seems awfully large for some of the action that occurs there. But I’m willing to let that slide for a tale well told. — Camilla Mortensen

 

kJourney: The Amazing Story of OR-7, the Oregon Wolf that Made History by Beckie Elgin. Inkwater Press, $16.95. 

Journey tells the remarkable tale of the first wolf, OR-7, to roam the Pacific Northwest in nearly a century. The book is filled with breathtaking photos of Pacific Northwest scenery, intricate pictures and illustrations of wolves, and detailed maps to guide you through the wolf’s journey visually as you read about his 4,000-mile trek. Author Beckie Elgin writes with a passion that is sure to bring enjoyment for any reader, despite it being targeted for middle-school kids, and her unique background gives her a deep understanding of the wolf’s journey that is evident in the book. The daughter of a zookeeper, Elgin’s childhood years were spent intertwined with wolves and wildlife, giving her writing a true sense of life and creating an inevitable connection between OR-7 and the reader. 

Journey is educational and informative, fun and courageous. Finishing the book without a new appreciation for these complex creatures and nature is impossible. A portion of the proceeds from sales goes to support Oregon Wild and their efforts to protect wolves, and at the end of the book you may find that you learned not only about the detailed, daring journey of one wolf, but also something about yourself. — Morgan Theophil

 

kToo Shattered for Mending by Peter Brown Hoffmeister. Alfred A. Knopff, $17.99.

Peter Brown Hoffmeister is one of those rare adults who can somehow provide a realistic teen’s perspective while at the same time tingeing his books with the wisdom that comes from having actually survived his own troubled teen years — something he chronicles in his memoir, The End of Boys. In his latest work, Too Shattered for Mending, Hoffmeister gets inside the head of “Little” McCardell after the disappearance of his meth-dealing grandpa, “Big,” as Little tries to survive and basically raise himself and his cousin in a rural Idaho town. Little is wonderfully adult while at the same time a wide-eyed youth. Hoffmeister brings together teen novel staples — young love and a hint of a mystery — with a Winter’s Bone-esque sensibility and his own gritty and, at times, bleak perspective. It’s teen fiction for a more mature audience. Hoffmeister is a South Eugene High School teacher and founder of its Integrated Outdoor Program. — Camilla Mortensen

 

 

 

Winter Reading 2017 - Nonfiction & Essay Reviews

Tell Me The Old Story - The Odyssey rendered by a woman

Failsafe - Eugene author Howard Libes debuts sci-fi novel When All Else Fails

Doing It Yourself - The year in local self-published literature

A Thousand Words - A roundup of the best photography books of the year

By Design - A selection of books on graphic art