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Stuck in the bardo
Is there ever a season when reading isn’t pleasurable? I think not. We all know winter is the classic time to cuddle up by the fire with a good book, but what about the joys of a kick-back summer in the hammock? Tuck under the apple tree for some good reads, or set up your beach-station — wind-break, cooler, blanket — and dig your toes into the sand while roaming through a thriller. I have a few modest suggestions.
First a reprise from earlier in the year. I can’t say enough about George Saunder’s “Lincoln in the Bardo.” Somehow he created a spellbinding novel from snippets of historical documents and period writing about Lincoln, alternating with whimsical chapters stage-set in the bardo (that Buddhist hiatus for souls between death and rebirth). Lincoln’s beloved son Willie finds himself stalled there with an assortment of colorful (and “sick”) characters. Creative chaos and heart-rending empathetic hysteria ensues.
Saunder’s book won the 2017 Man Booker Award for fiction (he’s only the second American to win this British honor). The book is playful, surprising, clever, and gives an alternative view of the Civil War times and our stately and emotionally-complex prez, Lincoln.
Closer to home
Even further back in time is James G. Swan’s “The Northwest Coast,” a book I encourage any and every Peninsula citizen to crack. Swan was one of the first white men to frequent our shores and his journal is packed with adventure, insight, political incorrectness, historical anecdotes, and old timey observations about where we live. His description of how our area looked before white trappers and traders began settling here is worth the read. His glimpses into Chinookan life are eye-opening. (I only wish we had documentation from the Chinooks themselves from this same period. Maybe these exist in song or chant?)
Another oldie-but-goody authored by our very own Robert “Bob” Pyle — “Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravages Land,” is about the flora and fauna of our beloved Willapa Hills. And don’t forget his classic, “Mariposa Road: My First Butterfly Big Year, “about his year of tracking butterflies all over the nation. Bob also has a couple poetry books that I’ve enjoyed: “Evolution of the Genus Iris,” and “Chinook and Chanterelle.” Don’t be afraid, folks, Bob has made poetry accessible to everyone in these funny and touching collections.
And while we’re on the topic, for you readers willing to dive into the heart of literature, why not try Terrence Hayes’ “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins”? These are whip-smart and contemporary 14-line poems — nothing longer, I promise — that you can read little bits at a time. They pack a punch. Tightly constructed, they jauntily take on the racial divide in our country and present it in a head-turning way that may give you a new perspective on the Black Experience.
And for future reads (note “by the fire” above), Sydney Stevens — another of our amazing local authors — has a new book, this time on cranberries, coming out later this year. As Steven’s says, “I think it will be available in October (harvest time). I can’t remember the exact date. But I’m sure people can pre-order it through the Cranberry Museum in Long Beach.”
She continues, “By the way, I just read and reviewed ‘Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest’ by David Berger who was an Espy Resident back in the day (see it here: tinyurl.com/y9lyh6tx). It’s a great and informative read, a must for all those with a passion for razor clams. I’ve also been re-reading Robin Cody’s books (he’s only done three and he says there won’t be more) and I have to say that his ‘Ricochet River’ (1992) is right up there on my Best-Ever List. It’s way better than ‘Catcher in the Rye’ as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps I feel that way because it’s about here, about the Columbia River and salmon and our Native Americans who lost so much when Celilo Falls was taken from them. It’s a coming-of-age book but for all ages, especially if you love the NW and the way of life we ‘should’ have here.”
Fact or fiction
I also have it on good authority that Rachel Kushner’s recent fiction and New York Times bestseller, “The Mars Room,” is a psychological page-turner of exquisite dimensions. And if you want a real-life tale that reads like a murder mystery, grab David Grahnn’s “Killers of the Flower Moon, The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” about the oil-rich Osage Nation dying untimely and suspicious deaths. Or further back but just as gripping is S.C Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.”
Zooming ahead to a current bestseller, consider Mac-genius Richard Powers’ “Overstory” which explores the secret life of trees and the humans who learn to love them. This labor of love took Powers seven years to write. It’s an elegant and sometimes overwhelming epic with a varied cast of characters that he introduces singly in early chapters; then brings together in the second half of the book as the war between foresters and old growth activists gets ugly. It’s set in the 1970s when tree-sitting was taken up as a way of saving our last giants. (I remember years ago when “Julia Butterfly” called in to several of us at a the Bioneers Conference from the top of her tree to tell us about her experience living 300-plus feet in the air for an extended period of time.)
Given the recent, shocking death of Anthony Bourdain, it might be time to revisit the books that brought him to the attention of the world. “Kitchen Confidential” is a tell-it-like-it-is look at what happens behind the scenes in commercial kitchens. It’s the book that launched his career. But he’s got many other great titles on cuisine from around the world: “Medium Raw;” and “The Nasty Bits,” as well as something for the home cook “Appetites: A Cookbook.”
Now let me rave about some of the real classics. I picked up “Moby Dick” a couple months ago and have found Melville to be as modern, funny, and insightful a writer as any contemporary scribe. I read his book about 340 years ago in college and it just seemed like a reboot might be fun. It was. Ditto for Alexander Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” or “Three Musketeers.”
Fortunately we have the fabulous Timberland Library right in our own backyard. Their summer reading guru Frances Makowski is here to help. (Plus two bikes will be given to a couple lucky kids; and, for us adults, read books and enter their drawing to win $100.) So go get one of those wonderfully musty smelling books off the shelves; or note: Katherine O’Toole’s is having a 50 percent off sale.
You have no excuse for not grabbing an old-fashioned paper thingy with pages, or, if you must, download some digital bits and bytes on your Kindle. Read on!