|Book Buzz: Wintering||
Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May
Life is full of times when events may cause us to drop out of the flow for a time. These fallow periods, often unexpected, can contribute to feeling isolated, frozen and cut off from others. Sounds a lot like 2020, doesn’t it?
Katherine May writes about these times, and the inherent power in them, in her incredibly timely recent book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. Published in early November in the United States, Wintering is both a guidebook and a consolation for those who find themselves living through a personal winter.
May’s interest in “wintering” began around the time of her her 40th birthday, when a series of domino effect events turned her life upside down. Her husband suddenly fell gravely ill, May suffered personal health issues that grew impossible to ignore, she left her job, and her son had to be pulled out of school for anxiety issues.
In an interview, May says her “sense of mortality and fragility really hit” during this time, and that she was further discomfited by the way these events made her feel like a social pariah. Her immediate reaction was to try to deny or delay the winter that was happening in her life. But she came to see that this stance put her in a perpetual state of flight, and that it was better to learn how to accept and embrace this season as a normal part of life, living through it deliberately and knowingly.
A friend from Northern Finland had much to teach May about wintering from Finnish culture, where winters are long and must be prepared for very intentionally. In July, Finns begin gathering and drying mushrooms, canning, pickling and baking so that they will have foodstuffs to provide comfort and nourishment and also to offer hospitality to others during the long dark and cold season.
Other research took May to Stonehenge for ceremonies on the day of the Winter Solstice, to Iceland to swim in the Blue Lagoon, and to the Arctic Circle in Norway in search of the Northern Lights. In these places, she came to realize that cold has a healing power (besides putting ice on injuries); the danger of cold forces us into the moment, where we must pay attention to our bodies and attend to immediate needs in order to keep safe.
Are you someone who often wakes in the middle of the night only to spend time catastrophizing? Waking in the middle of the night is usually associated with anxiety, but May discovered that sleep was very different for pre-industrial revolution people, where “two sleeps” was completely common. Pre-electricity, people went to bed earlier, then woke after several hours. This waking time was expected, and was a calm time often filled with contemplation, prayer, meditation, quiet conversation or even enjoying a smoke.
May began simply getting up when she woke in the middle of the night and found that the anxiety formerly associated with her sleeplessness drained away when she did so.
Like the actual season of winter, May advises that we emerge slowly from our personal winters, giving ourselves time to adjust to how we need to do things now, incorporating all the ways that winter has changed us. This feels like an especially important reminder as we go into a new year—one that we hope will restore “normal” activities.
May warns that there may be anxiety in places that used to feel comfortable and that some of the emotions and feelings from 2020 might only release when the danger has passed. We should be prepared to give and take time, listen deeply to each other, and extend compassion. Thankfully, the cycle of the seasons reassures us that spring does follow winter and Wintering teaches what we can do to prepare for the winters that will inevitably befall us in the future.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System. Visit https://www.wcls.org to place holds on library materials and learn about curbside holds pick up and other library services.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 13, 2021.)
|Book Buzz: Finding Dorothy||
Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts
Before the ubiquity of DVDs and Netflix, families wishing to share a little movie magic by watching the annual rebroadcast of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz had to keep a keen eye on the TV listings. It often ran in winter, and was a must-see before the holidays. Millions tuned in to see Dorothy and her dog Toto follow the yellow brick road to Oz.
Way before it was a yearly television mega-event, The Wizard of Oz was an Academy Award-nominated feature film based on a series of children’s books by L. Frank Baum. The film was released in 1939, 20 years after Frank’s death. Elizabeth Letts’ novel Finding Dorothy begins in 1938, in Hollywood, where Frank’s beloved widow Maud is determined to insert herself into the filmmaking process to make sure the film stays true to her husband’s vision.
The daughter of suffragette leader Matilda Joslyn Gage, Maud attended Cornell University in 1880, where she was subject to much bullying from her male classmates. When introduced to her roommate’s cousin Frank, Maud was immediately captivated by his energy and creativity. She accepted his marriage proposal and dropped out of college.
Though Maud and Frank’s marriage was passionate and nontraditional, it was not without its difficulties. Frank was a dreamer and did not have a head for business. His unsuccessful stints as an actor, a salesman and a reporter often took him away from home. With four young sons, the family finances became dire and they lived frugally in a home with no running water. Frank finally had a breakthrough in 1897, publishing Mother Goose in Prose. In 1900, he penned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to much critical and financial success. Maud, his staunchest supporter, received the literary rights, and was considered the “Mother of Oz.”
Letts chose historical fiction to explore Maud and Frank’s relationship and the inspiration for Oz as it gave her some leeway to read between the lines of the documented record. According to Letts, most of the story is based on known fact, but the inspiration for the character of Dorothy is not well-established. Letts postulates that Dorothy is based on the daughter for which Maud and Frank pined.
Letts alternates between episodes in Maud’s life and 1938, when Maud meets Judy Garland, the vulnerable ingenue set to play Dorothy. Maud instantly appreciates Judy’s innate talent and star quality, and senses a sadness and longing that matches that of the fictional Dorothy. Maud is compelled to protect Judy, in the same way she wants to protect the image of Dorothy, and Frank’s legacy.
Letts successfully weaves in a wealth of detail about the time period, women’s roles in society, and early Hollywood, and ultimately shows us a portrait of a remarkable marriage. While this pandemic may have you wishing for anyplace but home, Finding Dorothy reminds us that somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System. WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at https://www.wcls.org/info. Hours and services may have changed due to the pandemic, so go to https://www.wcls.org or call 360-305-3600 before you visit for the most up-to-date information.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, December 16, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: Holiday Gift Picks||
It’s been a long and challenging year, and many of us are having trouble concentrating enough to read or just want feel-good reading.
To that end, this year’s suggestions for holiday gift books have in common the theme of kindness, compassion and shared humanity. They are the type of books that are lovely to have on your coffee table to dip into and savor the stories as time permits. While asking little in terms of reader commitment, they give back generously in heart.
Brandon Stanton made a name for himself when he started the photoblog Humans of New York in November 2010 and quickly developed a large social media following. During the ensuing decade, Stanton has interviewed people from more than 40 countries. Humans is a fascinating compendium of photos and candid quotes from the people who shared their hopes, dreams and life stories with him.
Images juxtaposed on the same page add to their poignancy and power, as in the woman and her young child from the Tongping Internally Displaced Persons camp in South Sudan whose quote, “I’ve seen a lot of death” is directly above that of a young child from New York, sitting next to a bike dressed in a lion costume and cape, who shares “there is nothing hard about being four.”
More often than not, the stories and images reinforce ways we are the same, despite the fact that cultures and countries may feel worlds apart. I loved the images of obvious delight grandfathers in Chile, the United States, Pakistan, and France had at the simple pleasure of spending time with their grandchildren, “eating cookies before lunch because Grandpa doesn’t have any rules.”
Humans is eye candy for the visually inclined, as well as a love letter to humanity, and its testament to the universality of the human condition is a balm to the spirit during a time of great divisiveness.
Lady Gaga introduces Channel Kindness: Stories of Kindness and Community by talking about the pain and struggle childhood bullying and growing up around alcoholism caused in her own life, and the realization that during all the most difficult times, “in every instance, there was an absence of kindness.”
The stories of goodness and bravery from young people all over the world that are shared in Channel Kindness endeavor to make sure that no young person need experience that absence again. This project arose from Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, a nonprofit that collects stories about the resilience of young people in the face of adversity. More than 50 topics are represented in these stories, with a customized message from Lady Gaga at the end of each story. It’s intended for young people, but this would make an inspiring gift for all ages.
When New York Times photo editor Darcy Eveleigh discovered dozens of stunning unpublished photographs of Black Americans—famous people as well as ordinary citizens going about their lives—she enlisted the help of three colleagues to investigate why such fabulous images had never seen the light of day through publication.
They embarked on a quest to investigate if the Times had contributed to the erasure of stories from Black America. Not surprisingly, they discovered that systemic racism and editorial biases played a part in relegating these images to archival bins. Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives publishes the best of these images for the first time.
Of Unseen, historian and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. says, “The book simulates what it would have been like to read the Times each day for the last half-century, if the full picture of the African American experience had made the cut. If any book proves that it is never too late to publish ‘all the news’—and images—‘fit to print,’ this is it.”
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System (https://www.wcls.org). If you decide to purchase any of the suggested titles as gifts, please consider supporting local businesses.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, December 9, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: The Most Dangerous Man in America||
For those who think the past four years of the Trump era have been over-the-top outrageous, take a magic carpet ride back to the early 1970s via Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis’ new book, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon, and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD.
Dodging increasingly violent Vietnam War protests and frequent attacks from his Democratic opponents, Nixon—who was running for reelection—seizes on a war on drugs as a way to deflect attention from his shortcomings and generate support. Before long, he identifies his scapegoat: Dr. Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor known as the High Priest of LSD.
In May 1970, Leary, the counterculture rock star whose mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out,” encouraged legions of young people to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs, is busted for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and sentenced to 10 years at the California Men’s Colony. His former opponent for the California gubernatorial race, Ronald Reagan, is relieved: “I’m terribly frightened by LSD. I think there’s been a great deal of misinformation by those who seem to see no harm in it.” But Reagan’s reprieve is short-lived: Aided by members of the Weather Underground, Leary shimmies up a tree and over the prison fence to freedom.
Here’s where Leary’s story starts to get really weird. After a mad dash up I-5 and a few days at a safe house in Skykomish, his new radical friends convince him to leave the country. Algeria is suggested. U.S. diplomatic relations with Algeria have been strained and the Algerian government has recently granted Eldridge Cleaver asylum—even providing the Black Panthers leader an official embassy.
Urged by Weatherman Bernardine Dohrn, Leary pens a radical manifesto, pledging to “stay high and wage the revolutionary war.” Nixon’s worst nightmares are coming true—Leary’s escape is bringing more attention to the counterculture revolution. Nixon sics the FBI on Leary but, transformed with a square haircut and drab brown suit and armed with a phony passport, Leary jumps a jet to Algiers.
It just gets wilder from there, and authors Minutaglio and Davis do an excellent job chronicling the ins and outs of Leary’s tumultuous relationship with the fiery leader of the Black Panthers, Leary’s astounding consumption of all manner of illegal substances, and his earnest conviction that if everyone (Nixon, Cleaver, the whole lot) would just drop acid together, the world would be a better place.
When Algeria becomes untenable, Leary is once again on the lam, dashing from country to country in attempts to avoid extradition. Penniless and without a plan, Leary nevertheless manages to live the high life wherever he goes. As Nixon gets more desperate to nab the man he dubs “the Most Dangerous Man in America” he also loses grip on his sanity on the home front.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System. Whatcom County libraries are now open to the public with modified services, limited hours and entry requirements for in-person visits in accordance with Washington state’s Safe Start plan. Library staff encourage community members to plan their visit by calling their local library or visiting https://www.wcls.org/info for branch-specific service details.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, November 11, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: Uncharted||
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the prospect of chucking it all and sailing off into the sunset has a certain appeal. A change of scenery, some fresh sea air, a chance to slow down time and escape, far from the madding crowds—all sound like the antidote to our restricted lives these days.
More than a decade ago, Kim Brown Seely and her husband Jeff felt a similar pull. With a recession looming, jobs tenuous and their youngest son heading off to college, the Seelys took the plunge and purchased a used Moody 54 (bank-owned and in need of work—but likely still in the low-to-mid-six digits for those wanting to plan their own adventure). Then they took off from Seattle on a journey to Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest.
Kim had been a travel writer and editor for many years, whose work appeared in Travel & Leisure, National Geographic Adventure, and Virtuoso Life. What she had not been was a sailor—that was her husband’s department. Having learned to sail as a kid, Jeff had done some racing as a young adult, crewing weekends on a 51-foot sailboat. Once the idea to buy a boat took hold, Jeff went big, the lure of a screaming deal too good to pass up. Instead of starting with a more modest 30-footer, Jeff and Kim bought a “big girl,” a 54-foot beauty they renamed Heron.
Kim was the one who determined their destination. Inspired by a National Geographic cover story on spirit bears, she dreamed of sailing to the Great Bear Rainforest in northern British Columbia to catch a glimpse of the rare and legendary creatures.
With a self-proclaimed “weakness for remote,” Kim landed on a place that met the definition in every way—500 nautical miles north of Seattle, a one-month journey up the Inside Passage and beyond.
The timing of their trip—coinciding with their son James’ departure for St. Lawrence University—was deliberate. The Seelys wanted a distraction from their empty nest, a chance to reconnect as a couple, and an adventure while they were still fit and able.
While they had a few close calls, their journey and Kim’s subsequent memoir, Uncharted: A Couple’s Epic Empty-Nest Adventure Sailing from One Life to Another, is less about action and more about introspection. Kim writes frankly about the challenges of living in close quarters under stressful conditions. (In my opinion, Jeff does not come across as a sympathetic character, but Kim attests that she understands his gruff nature and loves him nonetheless, so who’s to judge?)
Perhaps of greater interest is the insight into what goes into planning a months-long sailing venture—the gear, the provisions, the charts and tide tables. Kim tours us through the Heron’s spacious cabin and catalogs the books they bring for reference and the ports of call along the way.
Kim revels in the natural beauty around her as they head north. She is awed and reverent by humpback whale sightings and by ancient forests. She writes eloquently of a hidden Kitasoo longhouse tucked between a stand of Sitka spruces.
The armchair travel aspect of Uncharted is especially welcome while cooped up inside due to wildfire smoke, cool autumn temperatures and COVID restrictions. While it may not be realistic for most to make this journey in real life, we all can enjoy this glimpse of the Pacific Northwest, safe at home.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS).
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, October 7, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: The Pull of the Stars||
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
In an overcrowded hospital in the heart of Dublin during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, Nurse Julia Power works long hours in the “fever/maternity” ward, where women who have succumbed to the flu and are also pregnant are sent.
There aren’t enough doctors and nurses to go around, and Julia is assigned a volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, to help out. Bridie is a ward of the nearby Catholic orphanage; a bright young woman who Julia takes an instant liking to and trusts to help with the care of the women in her charge even though Bridie has no medical experience.
The doctor on duty is Dr. Kathleen Lynn, intelligent and outspoken, and also rumored to be wanted by the authorities for her role in Sinn Fein’s 1916 uprising. Over the course of three days, the three women deal with multiple medical crises, fighting to save lives and bring newborn lives into the world.
Reading Emma Donoghue’s latest fiction, The Pull of the Stars, during a pandemic occurring more than 100 years later was an encouraging experience, as our medical technology and scientific understanding of how viruses spread are so vastly improved.
Many events in the novel were also eerily familiar, lending to the feeling that history is repeating itself. On her way to work, nurse Julia passes public announcements that discourage shaking hands and chatting closely together, urge people to stay out of public places, and pronounce that “if one must kiss, do so through a handkerchief.”
Handwritten “Have Run Out of Carbolic” signs are posted in the druggist’s window, similar to current-day shortages of hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol, and the shackled gates of a school post the notice “CLOSED FOR FORESEEABLE FUTURE BY ORDER OF BOARD OF HEALTH.”
Meanwhile, the government touts false cures (“sprinkle sulphur in the shoes”) and proclaims on signs posted right outside the overrun hospital that all is well and the epidemic is in decline. Dr. Lynn has no patience for the government’s response, and tells Julia, “As for the authorities, I believe the pandemic will have run its course before they’ve agreed on any but the most feeble action. Recommending onions and eucalyptus oil! Like sending beetles to stop a steamroller.”
Although the plot is focused on the close quarters and frenetic activity of the maternity ward, giving the book a page-turner thriller feel, Donoghue isn’t averse to pondering more existential questions about why pandemics occur in the first place.
Mourning the death of a patient due to influenza complications after childbirth, Dr. Lynn suggests to Julia that “we could always blame the stars,” pointing out that influenza delle stelle means “the influence of the stars” as Medieval Italians thought that the sickness showed the heavens were governing our fates.
Julia, who became a nurse and supports herself and her war-crippled brother despite odds against such success, tells Bridie, “I’d never believe the future was inscribed for each of us the day we were born. If anything was written in the stars, it was we who joined those dots, and our lives were the writing.”
The Pull of the Stars will appeal to readers of historical fiction and Call the Midwife enthusiasts, and those in the health profession or interested in medicine will find the details about 1918 medical procedures of interest. It is also a heartwarming story of three women supporting each other, caring for other women, and making the best of a bad situation—ultimately a feel-good story for a similar dark time in history.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System. Visit https://www.wcls.org to place holds on library materials and learn about curbside and in-library holds pickup. Whatcom County libraries are now open to the public with modified services, limited hours and entry requirements for in-person visits in accordance with Washington state’s Safe Start plan. Library staff encourage community members to plan their visit by calling their local library or visiting https://www.wcls.org/info for branch-specific service details.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, November 18, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: Transcendent Kingdom||
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
While Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, was epic in scope, weaving together generations of voices covering 300 years of life in both Ghana and America, her recently released second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, turns to the intimate quarters of family, faith and the mother-daughter relationship.
Gifty is a sixth-year doctoral student working on a neuroscience degree at Stanford. She is most comfortable in the lab researching neural pathways by addicting her lab mice to Ensure and studying why some of them continue to seek rewards even when there is high risk involved. On the rare occasion that she dates, when asked what she does for a living, Gifty jokes that her job is getting mice addicted to cocaine.
After being contacted by the pastor of her childhood church who informs Gifty that her mother is once again bedridden with depression, Gifty brings her mother from Alabama to California to care for her. Suddenly, Gifty has to divide her time between the lab and brainstorming what might bring her mother out of her stupor, playing favorite hymns and preparing special Ghanaian food—to no avail.
In the quiet of the apartment, her mother endlessly sleeping in the bedroom, Gifty reflects back on her childhood. Gifty’s mother and father (who they call the Chin Chin Man) immigrated from Ghana to Alabama when her brother Nana was a baby. When the American Dream proved to be a lie for the Chin Chin Man, he went back to Ghana, ostensibly to visit his brother, but never returned. Gifty’s strong-willed and proud mother keeps the family going, but is scarred by this betrayal and becomes even more emotionally distant from her children.
The next fate befalls the family when Gifty is 11 years old and her brother, Nana, a gregarious, charismatic person and gifted athlete, becomes addicted to OxyContin after an ankle injury on the high school basketball team where he was the star scorer. After Nana’s death from a heroin overdose, her strong and domineering mother succumbs to a deep and pervasive depression, rarely leaving her bed and abandoning Gifty to grieve alone and fend for herself.
Gifty’s mother brought deep religious beliefs with her from Ghana and Pentecostal church services are a focus of their family life. Starting at a young age, Gifty keeps a journal, addressing all entries to God, and it is through this journal that she struggles with her aloneness and the loss of both Nana and her mother. Eventually, Gifty becomes defiant and stops attending church altogether, unable to reconcile her faith with the losses the family has suffered.
Although the adult Gifty no longer keeps a journal or prays and remains disillusioned with the religion of her youth, she turns instead to science to explain the world, seeking logical answers to the illogical questions of faith. She still believes in mystery, but now she touches the mystery through her explorations of the wondrous workings of the brain.
Transcendent Kingdom will resonate with readers interested in the intersection of science and religion, the devastating effects of addiction and depression, and in how the experience of immigration impacts families. With Transcendent Kingdom , Gyasi (pictured) has solidified her position as a gifted master of creating time, place, and character, and as one of America’s most brilliant young writers.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System. Visit https://www.wcls.org to place holds and find out about curbside hold pickup services; or give us a call at (360) 305-3600 and we’ll happily place holds for you.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, October 21, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: Migrations||
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
Although author Charlotte McConaghy has published eight young adult books in Australia, she makes her U.S. debut with her first adult title Migrations, a haunting meditation about nature on the verge of collapse that combines McConaghy’s love of nature and her interest in stories about fierce women.
Franny Stone has never been good at staying put, an affliction that was either inherited from her mother who left when Franny was young, or is a “creaturely” tendency towards wildness derived from her affinity for animals and the natural world.
The book begins with Franny looking to catch a ride on a seafaring fishing boat, hoping to convince the captain to chart his course to follow what is expected to be the last migration of the only Arctic Terns that remain on Earth. Franny longs to follow the terns on their epic trip from Greenland to Antarctica as witness to the last battle of these brave and intrepid birds, but possibly for other reasons only known to herself.
Franny convinces Ennis Malone, captain of the last remaining fishing vessel in Greenland the Saghani, to allow her passage on his ship. They will follow the radio signal of three banded terns with the promise that the birds will lead the Saghani to fish, whose numbers are terribly depleted by overfishing and warmer seas brought on by human-induced climate change.
While Franny may have won over Ennis Malone, his longtime crew members are skeptical of the newcomer and her strange mission. With a landlubber’s naiveté, when Franny mutters “good luck” as a response to a comment, they take it upon themselves to school her in the superstitions of the sea—“good luck” is bad luck, don’t leave port on a Friday, or open a tin upside down, eat bananas or whistle.
Franny loses herself in the hard work of the ship; she is assigned all of the worst jobs and throws herself into them 100 percent, eventually winning over the crew’s grudging admiration and finally their acceptance, which provides Franny with a sense of community that she has never before experienced.
She still has her secrets, though, and her past is haunted by events that are revealed in short flashback chapters. A childhood being raised by a cold and unsentimental grandmother, prison time served for an unknown crime, a pile of letters written but never sent to a husband left behind. Even the escape of sleep is haunted by bouts of sleepwalking that put Franny herself and others in danger.
As the ship’s close quarters begin to reveal the terrible truths of Franny’s past, the Saghani loses contact with the terns during a harrowing storm. While in a Newfoundland port after the storm, the captain and crew learn that all commercial fishing vessels have been recalled and it is now illegal to fish commercially. Running from trouble onshore, the Saghani defies the order and heads out to sea, resuming its southerly direction in hopes of intercepting the terns, if any are still alive.
McConaghy communicates a real sense of desperation and urgency through Franny. She intentionally set Migrations in the near-future in the hopes that the story would make readers aware of the destruction we have caused to species on the planet; it is estimated that in the last 50 years alone, humans have caused the deaths of over 60 percent of all wild animals on earth.
While much of the experience of reading Migrations feels like a tragedy unfolding, Franny’s journey towards self-understanding and redemption is ultimately hopeful.
When asked about how she was changed by the writing of the book, McConaghy responded that Franny and the terns taught her to be braver, to cherish the natural world, to not take for granted the gift of having those we love in our lives, and that we are fortunate to be here. In the end, this was the message that I carried with me after reading this book and I hope you will, too.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System. Visit https://www.wcls.org to place holds and find out about curbside hold pickup services; or give them a call at (360) 305-3600 and they’ll happily place holds for you.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, September 9, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: Warlight||
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
The minute you scan the first line of Michael Ondaatje’s graceful novel Warlight you are aware that you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.
His prose is spare but specific: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” “Us” is our narrator, 14-year-old Nathaniel, and his 16-year-old sister Rachel, who take the abrupt news of their parents’ move from London to Singapore with little question and rapidly adapt to life with the mysterious lodger they nickname “the Moth.”
The Moth seems benign, if aloof, but surrounds himself with a host of shady characters who take to spending time at their home in Ruvigny Gardens. The precocious teens are intrigued rather than alarmed—until Rachel discovers her mother’s steamer trunk, elaborately packed but abandoned, hidden, in the depths of the basement.
What follows are Nathaniel’s attempts to decipher the enigma of his mother as he comes to terms with his abandonment and comes of age. In the Moth’s colorful associates, Nathaniel gains a variety of mentors and teachers, among them a former boxer nicknamed the Pimlico Darter, ethnographer Olive Lawrence, a veterinarian who knows how to pick locks, and super-serious, bespectacled Arthur McCash.
The Darter introduces Nathaniel to the shadowy world of greyhound racing and Nathaniel proves he has a high tolerance for moral ambiguity. As Nathaniel gets older, he’s recruited by British intelligence, where he begins to put together the pieces of his mother’s past. As Rose herself admits, “My sins are various,” but that’s as much clarity as she’ll ever give.
Ondaatje seems to be shining a light on the legions of unknown, unrecognized heroes who played a role during wartime, and the prolonged, lasting effects of their sacrifices. It’s also about the difficult relationships between mothers and their children, and the deep human need to understand our own personal histories.
Ondaatje’s ability to set a vivid scene is in fine force—such as when Nathaniel and his uninhibited lover Agnes joyously cavort naked in a darkened, empty house with a pack of mongrel racing dogs destined to be returned to the animal shelter. He packs in crisp, cogent details while retaining an air of mystery.
If World War II/Cold War espionage is up your alley, you may also enjoy Alice Network by Kate Quinn, Transcription by Kate Atkinson, or the nonfiction title A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS (yes, that Julia Child, although the book is more about Jane Foster).
Readers seeking nonstop action and adventure may be disappointed—Warlight is deliberately murky, quiet and cerebral. But those who savor exquisitely crafted prose and complex characters will find both here. If for some reason you’ve never read The English Patient it’s worth a look—as is the stellar film directed by Anthony Minghella. Anil’s Ghost, about a Sri Lankan forensic pathologist identifying victims of a vicious civil war, is another fine example of Ondaatje’s power and skill as a writer.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS).
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, September 2, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: The Vanishing Half||
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
When writing her new novel, The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett never dreamed its subject matter would be so timely at publication.
The book opens in 1968 against the backdrop of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the civil unrest that followed, and is a brilliant exploration of race, gender and identity.
Twins Desiree and Stella Vignes grow up in Mallard, Louisiana, a fictional town in the Jim Crow South established by their great-great-great-grandfather as a place that celebrates light-skinned Blacks.
Alphonse Decuir envisioned marriages that would encourage ever-lighter-skinned progeny, like “a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before.” Desiree and Stella, with their “creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair,” would have made their ancestor, the town founder, proud.
Lighter skin isn’t enough, however, to protect the twin’s daddy from being accused of writing a nasty note to a white woman (though he couldn’t write) and lynched by a gang of white men. Nor does it protect their mother from having to work cleaning wealthy white people’s homes while trying to make ends meet after the death of her husband.
Desiree and Stella eventually make a secret plan to leave Mallard and start new lives in New Orleans, two hours away. But both are haunted by their father’s murder and respond to it in different life-changing ways. Desiree marries the blackest man she can find while Stella experiments with passing as white, eventually getting hired as a white secretary, marrying and leaving Desiree and her Mallard roots behind to live as a white person.
Both women have daughters who take after their fathers. Desiree’s daughter, Jude, as described by the owner of Lou’s Egg House to his barely awake morning customers, is “blueblack, like she flown direct from Africa.” Kennedy, Stella’s daughter, is blond, fair-skinned and spoiled. Kennedy knows nothing about her mother’s past or the fact that neither she nor her mother are as white as they appear. Things get very interesting when a chance meeting brings these two cousins together.
A supporting cast of memorable male characters includes Early Jones, an old flame that reignites in a nuanced and gentle relationship when Desiree returns to Mallard. Jude has a loving, tender relationship with Reese, a transsexual who provides another interesting perspective on passing. Jude and Reese find a stalwart friend in Barry, a high school chemistry teacher by day who several nights a month performs in a club as Bianca.
Stella barters her past for the safety, stability and privilege of whiteness. But this act of self-creation is also an act of self-destruction, and the costs of living this lie compile to the point where, even for the reader, they feel unbearable.
Bennett deftly uses Stella’s experiment in passing as white to explore ways that passing both exposes and strengthens the idea of race. “If you can move between these categories because you decide that you will, what does it actually mean that we have systems that are built on reinforcing those categories?”
The Vanishing Half is both an immensely readable story about family and belonging, and a provocative and timely exposure of issues of racial identity and privilege in America, past and present.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System. Visit wcls.org to place holds and find out about curbside hold pickup services; or give us a call at 360-305-3600 and we’ll happily place holds for you.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, August 26, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle||
The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
Escapism seems to be in order these days, and sometimes a twisty mystery is just the ticket for engrossing distraction. Stuart Turton’s inventive 2018 whodunnit, The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is more like a who-what-when-where-how-dunnit.
It’s been billed as “Groundhog Day meets Agatha Christie,” an unexpected but appropriate pairing. There’s intricate plotting for Kate Atkinson fans, and elements of Anthony Horowitz’s modern take on Dame Agatha. Best of all, it keeps you guessing until the end, which is always an important characteristic of a successful mystery.
The scene opens in a forest in the British countryside. Aiden Bishop is lost and bleeding, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Then he witnesses what he believes is a murder. When he finally emerges from the woods, he makes his way toward Blackheath House, a down-at-the-heels estate where he desperately tries to convince people to search for the victim’s body.
The other guests are strangely not very alarmed—they recognize him as Sebastian Bell, one of the many people invited to a gala ball hosted by the Hardcastle family to commemorate the death of their son Thomas, who was murdered there years before.
Aiden struggles to piece together what has happened, but when morning comes he discovers he’s now in a different guest’s body—and he’s living the entire day again from that person’s perspective. He meets Evelyn Hardcastle, newly arrived from Paris, and learns from a masked man that Evelyn is destined to die the night of the ball at precisely 11pm. Aiden needs to solve the mystery of Evelyn’s death—and he has only eight chances to do it, as each time he falls asleep he wakes up in another person’s body, then witnesses her murder again, in a vicious loop.
If that sounds confusing, it is, but stick with it. There’s a time travel element, with one character placing clues for the next character, and changing their behavior one time in a way that impacts the next. There are other characters similarly caught in a time trap, racing to be the first to solve the puzzle and escape. There are clues aplenty and some interesting explorations of the various characters (among them, a butler, a police officer and a socialite).
Ultimately it’s a story about Aiden’s struggle to be the sort of man he aspires to be but knows deep down he hasn’t been.
This book is clever, convincing, and cohesive. It’s hard to believe it’s Turton’s first novel. Fortunately, his newest book, The Devil and the Dark Water, is set to come out later this year. Thinking ahead, your libraries already have it on order.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS).
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, August 5, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: The Dutch House||
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Bel Canto, the exquisite novel about an opera singer and a dozen guests held hostage at a South American embassy, came out in 2001 and left such a positive impression in my memory that every time I see a new Ann Patchett title I check it out from the library without question.
After a few weeks at home compulsively updating the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Map and watching the total confirmed case counts rise, I was ready for some of Patchett’s lyrical, insightful character development to distract me, and luckily, I had her latest release The Dutch House at hand.
Patchett’s new book is contemplative and quiet, spanning many decades, from 1945, when Cyril Conroy impulsively purchases a stately mansion in Elkins Park near Philadelphia. Intended as a gift for his wife as well as a symbol of their rising fortunes, the Dutch House is not well-received by Mrs. Conroy. She loathes every inch, from the Delft tile fireplace mantel to the large oil paintings of the somber original owners on the walls.
To her, the house, and her marriage, become oppressive to the point that she deserts her husband and young children with no explanation nor further contact.
Narrated by the son, Danny, The Dutch House explores the tight bond that forms between Danny and his older sister Maeve. Although materially wealthy, the siblings are largely ignored by their emotionally distant father, who focuses on his business ventures and assigns two housekeepers to raise them.
Danny and Maeve’s lives take another turn for the worse when Cyril brings home a second wife. Andrea takes an instant dislike to her stepchildren, making it her prime focus to dislodge them from their beloved home. As their fortunes fall, Danny and Maeve’s relationship evolves, as does their relationship to the Dutch House, which looms large, almost as a character in its own right.
While the ending is not wholly satisfying, the book as a whole has been compared to a modern fairy tale, best for readers who prefer character development over plot. The audiobook version is narrated by Tom Hanks, and by all accounts he does a riveting job.
Patchett is not only a novelist, she’s also co-owner of an independent bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee. When COVID-19 first closed Parnassus Books to the public in April, Patchett wrote a blog post, “Running a Bookstore in a Pandemic.”
Her post ends with this realization: “It turns out the community of readers and books is the community we needed in the good old days, and it’s the community we need in hard times, and it’s the community we’ll want to be there when this whole thing is over.”
Whatcom County Library System couldn’t agree more! We know our community of readers loves our local bookstores and loves our public libraries, and WCLS is proud to connect information, ideas and community.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System. Visit https://www.wcls.org to place holds on physical library materials and designate a library location for curbside holds pickup. People who do not have internet access can call (360) 305-3600 to speak to a WCLS staff member who can place holds for them. You can also find access to eBook and eAudiobook versions of Patchett’s books at the website. Photo of Ann Patchett by Heidi Ross.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, July 15, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: What It’s Like to Be a Bird||
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about being home so much during Washington’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy directive is setting up bird feeders and spending time birdwatching.
Resulting questions about bird behavior, nesting practices and communication led me to David Allen Sibley’s new book, What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing: What Birds are Doing, and Why.
When Sibley’s first bird guide was published in 2000, the birding world snapped to attention. For many birders, Sibley was the next generation to advance artist/birder Roger Tory Peterson’s body of work. Son of a Yale ornithologist, Sibley began drawing and researching birds at age 7 and just never stopped doing what he loves.
Sibley’s new work is not a typical guidebook, but rather the culmination of 15 years spent thinking about the most interesting and amazing things birds do and writing a series of richly illustrated short essays on these topics. There are multiple ways to read the essays, but Sibley recommends exploring them in a meandering path from one interest point to another. He makes this sort of dabbling curiosity easy by interlinking the essays through page number referrals.
Here are some of the things I learned in only the first few minutes with this amazing book: It is unknown why some birds hop and others walk. A robin can eat 14 feet of earthworms in a day. Sadly, most songbirds don’t survive their first year, and, once adult, have about a 50 percent chance of survival each year. Some birds have salt glands on their foreheads that function as extra kidneys and allow them to drink saltwater. Birds are able to sleep with one eye open, resting half of their brain at a time.
This is a large-format book so illustrations in the Portfolio of Birds can be as close to life-size as possible. For larger birds like pelicans, cormorants, or eagles, Sibley’s illustration is a life-size likeness of the bird’s head and neck or shoulders. This seems like a small detail, but it is just one of the factors that make these birds truly come alive on the page, and contributes to the reader having an experiential sense of the title’s promise: what it is like to be a bird.
Working on these essays confirmed for Sibley that birds’ instincts are not blind obedience to a DNA set of instructions, but are actually something much subtler and inviting of choices.
“A bird’s experience is far richer, complex, and ‘thoughtful’ than I’d imagined,” Sibley notes in the preface. This book truly gave me a sense of wonder about the myriad decisions birds make daily to survive, drawing on instinctual knowledge but also factoring in current conditions.
As the world’s bird population shrinks—the North American bird population has dropped 25 percent in the past 50 years—Sibley urges us to learn about the environmental challenges birds face in order to do all that we can to preserve the habitat of these amazing feathered creatures with whom we share the planet.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System. Visit https://www.wcls.org to place holds and find out about curbside hold pickup services; or give us a call at 360-305-3600 and we’ll happily place holds for you.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, July 8, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: Seveneves||
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
For a brief moment on Sat., May 30, the world’s attention soared beyond the earth, following the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon on its first manned mission.
There were high-fives and cheers, and a feeling of excitement and possibility. Then came breaking news from Minneapolis, New York, Seattle, and elsewhere, of peaceful protests turned violent. It wasn’t long before someone posted this gem on Twitter: “Congratulations to the Astronauts that left Earth today. Good choice.”
In Neal Stephenson’s epic Seveneves, the situation on Earth is even more dire. The novel’s first line explains the setup: “The moon blew up with no warning and for no apparent reason.”
Shattered into seven pieces, the fragments are now smashing together, creating a meteor storm of devastating proportions, one that will soon block off the sun’s light and end all life on Earth. The world’s leaders amazingly come together with a Hail Mary plan to save the human race. Each country will send up two people, one man and one woman, to populate a colony built around the International Space Station, affectionately known as Izzy.
This massive tome (867 pages in the version I read) is split into three parts. The first is the exodus—the frantic rush to build the Cloud Ark, outfit it, and launch pioneers into orbit. Stephenson packs in the scientific details, giving plausible explanations for how everything will work, while keeping the plot zooming along at a rapid pace.
Part Two starts at Day 700 since the destruction of the moon. “Arkies”—those selected by the Casting of Lots—live in a network of arklets trailing Izzy. Members of GPop (short for General Population) live in Izzy itself, and represent the mission’s experts and leadership. The groups are only kilometers apart physically but the separation between them runs deeper.
Stephenson (pictured) builds the tension as the seconds count down to the White Sky and the Earth goes dark. He then adds in political intrigue and power struggles to examine how a new society develops in extreme circumstances. Challenge after challenge faces the remaining humans and human foibles still get in the way of basic survival.
In Part Three, Stephenson leaves the world of hard science fiction and veers more towards speculative fiction. For readers who enjoy world-building, learning how humankind evolves over 5,000 years is fascinating and insightful. However, even steadfast Stephenson fans may find themselves weary of yet another drawn-out description of orbital forces, asteroid mining, or any number of highly technical topics. My advice: Skim the lengthy expository sections and stick around for the philosophy and social commentary.
Reading Seveneves is a major time commitment. But time seems to be something many of us have more of these days, and having a thought-provoking book to sink into is the ultimate distraction. Besides, with the way things are playing out here on Earth, we may need to start thinking about what we can do better if we were to start all over again somewhere else.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). One of her top 10 books she’d bring with her into space is The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, with Space by James Michener as a runner-up. She’s excited that WCLS is now offering curbside holds pickup in Phase 2 and encourages everyone to search the library catalog online at https://www.wcls.org to place holds. People who do not have internet access can call (360) 305-3600 to speak to a WCLS staff member who can place holds for them.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 17, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: Understanding Structural Racism||
As the shock wave created by the video of George Floyd’s murder continues to reverberate, people—especially white people—are asking “What can I do? How can I be an ally?” and one part of the answer is always “educate yourself about structural racism.”
To that end, these title suggestions will help get you started thinking about what it means to be antiracist and understand what structural racism is, how it came to be, and how it is experienced by people of color.
If you only have time to commit to one book, start with White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, where antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo identifies patterns of reaction by white people to the topic of racism. Often characterized by anger, fear and guilt, these learned reactions contribute to perpetuating racism. Disrupting the pattern through becoming able to recognize it invites authentic dialogue about race to begin, as well as furthering understanding about how to be part of the solution.
For a more personal perspective of the effects of racism on the lives of individuals, Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness describes her experience growing up Black, Christian, and female in a majority-white community. Her powerful, haunting voice tells how she had to “learn what it means to love blackness” in her school, workplace and place of worship, where racism was deeply embedded.
Called “required reading” by Toni Morrison and others, and awarded the National Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, another very personal and provocative perspective on structural racism is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (pictured). Penned as a series of letters to his teenage son, Coates moves between personal and historical events like the murders of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin to reveal how American society contains an intrinsic system that is built to oppress black people—from slavery to mass incarceration to police brutality. A slim volume, but not necessarily a quick read; I found it required many thought-provoking timeouts to absorb his message.
A fitting conclusion to your reading would be How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi; Kendi takes readers beyond simple awareness of racism to help you develop an action plan. Personal stories from his life add potency to his descriptions of different types of racism and give this book a memoir-feel.
An essential thesis communicated is that it is not enough to merely be “not a racist;” rather, it is necessary to recognize the magnitude of structural racism by consciously fighting against it as an “antiracist.” Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, another National Book Award winner, is also an excellent resource.
Kendi also has a youth version of Stamped from the Beginning (called Stamped: Racism, AntiRacism, and You), written with Jason Reynolds, that would be a great introduction for middle grades and older.
For teens, try Dear Martin by Nic Stone (a high school student explores how race relations have shaped his life in a series of letters written to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (a teen witnesses a close friend’s death at the hands of police and the resulting impact on her life and community).
These titles and more can be found at your local library or bookstore. Whatcom County Library System (https://www.wcls.org has purchased many copies of each (some are always available) to keep the wait times down for WCLS cardholders. If you, like me, are looking for ways to better understand racism and your role in perpetuating it, these authors can guide us on this journey.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 3, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: The Truffle Underground||
Authors and publishers have learned that if you add a lengthy, intriguing subtitle to your book, you increase the chances of someone picking it up. Investigative journalist Ryan Jacobs put this into practice with his first full-length work, The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulations in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus.
With a title that dramatic, it’s important to deliver, and Jacobs does, crafting a fast-paced, fascinating micro-history that will take you out of your quarantine tedium.
Jacobs was covering international crime for The Atlantic when he took note of a headline in Der Spiegel, “Mushroom Thieves at Large in German Forests,” and started asking around. While his contact seemed to think the attack of a forestry worker by four shady porcini foragers was a one-off, he did tip Jacobs off to a bigger story—the dark underworld of the truffle industry.
Even if you’ve never had so much of a whiff of a truffle, much less a nibble, Jacobs will make you want to experience them. He conveys their intoxicating allure, their rarity, their ephemeral nature. He takes time to explain how they grow, how humans first discovered them and ultimately learned to cultivate them, and how the truffle business evolved into a multimillion-dollar industry.
Like other food-focused micro-histories—think Salt and Cod by Mark Kurlansky, Banana by Dan Koeppel, and Milk by Anne Mendelson—Jacobs piles on vivid details using evocative language.
Where The Truffle Underground goes a step further is by introducing the crime angle—bandits sneaking into oak forests and poisoning prized truffle hounds, truffle hunters passing off inferior product, arson, theft, tax fraud and even murder.
By the end, Jacobs unearths a vast conspiracy to defraud unwitting consumers by selling more “genuine” Italian white truffles than the country can possibly produce each year.
The world of truffles is filled with colorful characters and Jacobs interviews many of them. There’s gendarme Andre Gaugier, who patrols a region of 2500 French truffle growers, and Laurent Rambaud, a farmer who was charged with murder after he shot and killed an intruder to his truffle grove.
Jacobs also checks in with Sandrino Romanelli, a white truffle trader who counts Robert De Niro as a client. He introduces us to Gian Piero Vivalda, a Michelin-star restaurateur whose hard work and good luck was sorely tested in 2014 when four robbers attacked him in his home and made off with eight kilograms of fresh Piedmont truffles and, for good measure, several bottles of Barolo.
Jacobs ends with an interview with Olga Urbani, the over-the-top heiress to the Urbani Tartufi fortune. He describes her customary fur coat, her regal bearing, her questionable ethics and her unwavering passion for truffles. As she shaves sliver after sliver of fragrant white truffle over a perfect plate of fresh tagliatelle, Jacobs experiences “the kind of culinary pleasure that rips you away from concerns and anxieties. It made me forget where I was.”
We could all use some truffles right about now.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at https://www.wcls.org/info. For those who don’t have access to the internet or would like to speak to library staff one-on-one, WCLS is open for phone calls from 1pm-5pm daily at (360-305-3600) or by calling a WCLS branch directly.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, May 20, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: Greenwood||
Greenwood by Michael Christie
Like the rings of a mighty tree, Michael Christie’s recent novel Greenwood spans generations, telling the story of a family whose lives are inextricably connected with trees and who are often at odds with each other—among them a lumber tycoon father, his eco-activist daughter, and her carpenter son.
It’s 2038, and Jacinda “Jake” Greenwood, is an underpaid, overqualified tour guide at the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral located on an island northwest of Vancouver. Wealthy eco-tourists flock here to marvel in the shadows of stately old growth trees in this last remaining old growth forest. The Great Withering, caused by fungal blights and insect infestations, has killed off most trees on the planet, and the resulting dust storms have caused widespread sickness in the form of a new strain of tuberculosis (known as “rib retch”).
Christie’s idea for the Great Withering came from the reality of Western Red Cedar trees near his home on Galiano Island browning or dying, presumably due to climate-change-induced drought stress.
Mirroring the rings of a tree, Greenwood works backward through the generations to 1908, where the mysteries of this family begin, and then outward again, returning to 2038.
The story’s structure came from an epiphany Christie had after chopping down a small tree on his property, tracing the narrative of the tree’s life across the stump from outer to inner and back again.
Christie professes a love for “family tree” stories, but was troubled by the idea that family trees leave out so many people who are critical pieces of the family story but not part of the direct lineage. He set out to write a multigenerational novel whose focus is on “found” families rather than those based on bloodlines; a story that questions and interrogates what a family really means. How the members of the Greenwood family come to be related offers a sense of mystery and surprise throughout the novel, portraying connections that are complex, beautiful, and full of dark secrets.
Toward the end of the book, Jake ruminates: “What if a family isn’t a tree at all? What it it’s more like a forest? A collection of individuals pooling their resources through intertwined roots, sheltering one another from wind and weather are drought.”
Christie embraces this interdependence in his storytelling, finding hope in the connections that bind has characters to each other—and to the planet. We are all just human, no heroes or villains; flawed, but doing our best, with a little help from those who care for us.
Greenwood is a page-turner that incorporates history and mystery, family secrets and forbidden love, a cross-country chase and elements of eco-apocalyptic fiction.
If you enjoyed The Overstory by Richard Powers, Barkskins by Annie Proulx, or Deep River by Karl Marlantes, you owe it to yourself to read this. Available from your library in eBook or eAudiobook format, or in hardcover from your local bookseller.
Christie’s planned March appearance on the Chuckanut Radio Hour had to be cancelled, but I hope to see him visit Whatcom County to talk about Greenwood someday soon.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System, https://www.wcls.org
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, May 6, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: Pandemic Fiction||
Playing the board game Pandemic recently, it was oddly comforting to have a role in eradicating the virus and fighting the good fight with our team of scientists, researchers and first responders.
Thinking about the experience, I realized I’ve been feeling the impulse to read some pandemic fiction, even though that subject matter isn’t my usual go-to for a pleasurable experience. And hasn’t my newsfeed given me enough to read about pandemics, viruses and exponential spread?
Apparently not, and I am not alone in this desire to spend time immersed in a fictional pandemic. Since the rise of the novel coronavirus, the movie Contagion—worldwide virus, scramble to develop a vaccine—has spent weeks on the top 10 iTunes rental chart.
There is a plethora of fiction to choose from covering the gamut of pandemics, plagues and other flavors of apocalypse. Probably the earliest example of apocalyptic fiction is Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, published in 1826.
Set in the late 21st century, The Last Man introduces us to Lionel Vernay, the lawless son of an impoverished nobleman, on his journey to becoming the last man alive after a plague wipes out the human population.
If this sounds a little grim, my personal favorite in this genre is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which follows a band of traveling musicians and actors in the aftermath of a flu that wipes out a good percentage of the population virtually overnight. This is ultimately an uplifting story, as Mandel has an abiding faith that art, culture and our shared humanity will prevail in the face of large-scale disaster.
If you fancy a little zombie with your pandemic story, Zone One by Pulitzer-nominated novelist Colson Whitehead (pictured above) delivers. Set in New York City after a virus turns the infected into mortally contagious and flesh-hungry zombies, Whitehead explores post-apocalypse survival as a team of “sweepers” patrols the city to make it inhabitable again.
What better time than now to delve into an epic alternate history novel that spans centuries? Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt proposes that something as simple as fewer cats and more rats in Europe during the Black Plague would have meant the loss of 99 percent of the European population instead of “only” one-third. How would that have changed history?
Find these stories at the Washington Anytime Library; look for the featured booklist and use your library card (or apply for a card online if you don’t already have one) to check out and read from home. Alternately, visit your library’s online catalog to place holds on physical materials that will be fulfilled once libraries reopen. Or support your local independent bookseller, Village Books; they offer a mail service—99 cents no matter the weight of the order.
Faced with sudden-onset change and the feelings of vulnerability that accompany it, tales such as these can actually be helpful for exploring ways we might behave in the face of such change, and provide a comfort that the story actually does end—with a cure, vaccine or containment—and the assurance that life does go on.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System. If you are running out of reading material, visit your library online at https://www.wcls.org
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, April 8, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: The Ghost Map||
With reports of COVID-19 dominating the news cycle and the worldwide run on face masks and antibacterial hand sanitizer, reading a book about a deadly cholera epidemic in London might not be the kind of escapist antidote readers may be craving, but it is informative and enlightening nonetheless.
In The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, historian Steven Johnson researched the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak, looking at the emerging field of modern epidemiology, when scientists wrote letters and met face-to-face rather than share their research over the internet and via 24-hour news cycles.
Johnson focuses on the efforts of physician John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead to map the spread of the disease and find its source. Both men had to battle the prevailing viewpoint that cholera was transmitted through particles in the air, or “miasmata.”
Two prior outbreaks, in 1832 and 1849, were responsible for the deaths of 14,137 Londoners, so when 127 people near Broad Street died in a three-day period at the beginning of September 1854, people panicked. In one week, 75 percent of the residents of the area had fled and 10 days in 500 people had died. The mortality rate was 12.8 percent. Florence Nightingale herself was called in to Middlesex Hospital to administer aid, primarily to “fallen women” who seemed to be particularly vulnerable.
Johnson portrays the frantic initial days of the outbreak and Dr. Snow’s efforts to pinpoint the source. Although the role of the contaminated Broad Street pump is well-documented today, Johnson builds suspense as Snow and Whitehead interview families, piecing together the fact that 61 of the newly deceased regularly drank water from the Broad Street pump. Some families deliberately fetched water from that pump, despite living in closer proximity to other pumps.
After meeting with the Board of Guardians for St. James Parish, Snow convinced them to remove the pump handle, effectively ending the outbreak. Sadly, once the epidemic was safely past, the pump handle was replaced, showing that the government officials did not truly accept Snow’s hypothesis linking fecal contamination to the drinking water.
While Johnson effectively chronicles the events of the outbreak and Snow and Whitehead’s roles in investigating it, he loses steam when trying to draw more conclusions about the long-term effects on city planning, sanitation and water treatment.
He unsuccessfully tries to link the Broad Street epidemic to future urbanization patterns. He also gets bogged down analyzing the battle between established scientific paradigms (miasmatism) versus the emergence of germ theory. He does however spend significant time explaining a major dilemma of people living in close quarters in modern cities—how to accommodate all the human waste that accumulates daily?
Johnson provides fascinating (if somewhat disgusting) details about living conditions in the London slums during this time period—filled with cesspools and populated by night-soil men, mudlarks and bone-pickers. Readers will be grateful for modern plumbing.
The Ghost Map is available from your local public libraries as a book, eBook, and eAudiobook. There is also a book club kit for group discussions. Be sure to visit the John Snow Archive and Research Companion at johnsnow.matrix.msu.edu/cws.php to supplement your reading with links to Snow’s maps and other research.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). If you’re not feeling well, she recommends staying home and downloading some library eBooks at https://www.wcls.org
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, March 11, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: Highway of Tears||
Ramona Wilson, a bright, bubbly teenager from Smithers, B.C., was last seen alive the evening of June 11, 1994.
As teenagers are wont to do, Ramona told her mother she’d be spending the weekend at her best friend’s house, a common occurrence. When she didn’t show up, the friend assumed Ramona had gone to another friend’s house in a nearby town.
This was pre-cellphone days, and it wasn’t unusual for plans to change. Plus, Ramona was confident, independent, the responsible one. No alarms went off until Ramona didn’t show up at school or her job on Monday, and friends and family pieced together that no one had seen Ramona all weekend.
When Ramona’s mother reported her missing daughter to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), she was advised to give Ramona some time to return home. It was summer, after all, and well, teenagers. The first story in the local paper appeared 11 days after Ramona was last seen. Police were not treating the case as foul play, although they didn’t rule anything out. A month later, the Missing Children Society of Canada came to Smithers to help with the search.
Nearly a year later, Ramona’s body was found in a wooded area west of the Smithers Airport. Her death remains unsolved.
Ramona is one of at least 1,200 reported missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, and the first of many stories shared by Canadian journalist Jessica McDiarmid in her recent book Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
A disproportionate number of these disappearances occurred in British Columbia, many of them along a 450-mile corridor of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert that has earned the moniker “Highway of Tears” by the families of the missing women.
This stretch of highway is extremely remote, with long distances between towns. With the absence of public transportation along the highway, community members who cannot afford transportation frequently rely on hitchhiking to get to neighboring communities for jobs and social events.
Each year, families who have lost loved ones walk this section of the highway to remind the world that the mystery of what happened to their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers remains.
Rather than recounting case details, McDiarmid takes time to get to know these women and girls through interviews with those closest to the victims. In many cases, McDiarmid and families of the victims felt that the RCMP did not make investigation into these disappearances a priority because of the ethnicity of the victims.
This claim was reinforced when, in 2002, a young Caucasian woman named Nicole Hoar went missing and the RCMP and media began to focus more closely on women who had gone missing or were murdered along Highway 16.
In 2005, the RCMP did create a special task force that was dedicated to solving cases of missing and murdered persons along the Highway of Tears. More than a decade later, the Canadian government announced an official National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Despite these efforts, and the ongoing efforts of the families to find out what happened to their loved ones, Indigenous women continue to disappear in both Canada and the United States.
Addressing this issue with technology, local author and software engineer Clyde Ford recently developed a software app whose goal is to reduce the number of missing and murdered Native women. Called Tribal Watch MMIW, when activated, the app silently sends out an emergency alert to friends, family or even the tribal law enforcement.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System—where you can experience the “power of sharing” by visiting in person or online at https://www.wcls.org.
(Originally published by Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, March 4, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: The Woman’s Hour||
The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine F. Weiss
This year is a big one for democracy: Not only is it a presidential election year, it’s the year of the decennial census, which helps apportion congressional voting districts.
It’s also a milestone anniversary for two voting-related Constitutional amendments. The 15th Amendment granting African-American men the right to vote is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and the 19th Amendment, women’s suffrage, is celebrating 100.
Mired as we are in impeachment drama and the political machinations thereof, Elaine Weiss’ extensively researched book The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote reminds us that democracy is messy and tedious and also essential.
She focuses on the battle to secure the passage of the 19th amendment in a 36th state, a requirement necessary for the amendment to be adopted into law. This effort was no cake walk; it called upon suffragists of every stripe, from Carrie Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (the organization founded by Susan B. Anthony) to the more radical Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the National Women’s Party.
It also drew opponents—not only men, but also women like Josephine Pearson, leader of the “Antis,” fearful that allowing women to vote and partake in politics would lead to moral collapse. These women and hundreds more converged in Tennessee in 1920, determined to resolve the issue for once and for all.
Weiss marshals the many facts and details into a rich and compelling narrative. Though we know the eventual outcome, each twist and turn along the way is fascinating and illustrative. From suffragette Sue White’s hard-earned “prison pin” to President-elect Harding’s blackmail case, we get a real sense of the sights, sounds and scandals of the time period.
Weiss’ description of Catt shaking down local pols, asking “Are there any known bribable legislators from your district?” is particularly instructive. Catt used this intel to help determine which votes she could count on for ratification, and which could not be trusted. Anyone who questions whether American women are tough enough to campaign for president need only read this book to be assured they are, and have been for more than a century.
Weiss combed libraries and archives from Boston to Memphis, sorting through handwritten letters and news clippings to give an inside glimpse into the complex struggle to ratify the 19th Amendment. She provides more than 40 pages of fine-print notes and bibliographic references to support her work.
It’s interesting to consider that the personal correspondence of the major players in the women’s suffrage movement is what gives us such insight into their personalities and their perspectives. These letters have been preserved for future generations to study in university and public library special collections, the Library of Congress, and in state and federal archives.
Two points: What have we lost, now that people no longer write letters? The deluge of emails and texts and tweets is burying us in ones and zeroes, with no cogent, consistent way to save and organize them for posterity. Second: The decision to shutter the National Archives and Records Administration building in Seattle is a great impediment to historians and other researchers, particularly those with an interest in the people and politics of the Northwest. Not having the tools to study democracy is a threat to democracy itself.
Weiss’ work is an important documentation of the women’s suffrage movement, and gripping reading, too. In the end, the passage of the 19th Amendment was assured, making the United States the 27th nation in the world to give women the right to vote.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). She encourages everyone to register to vote – and vote in every election. Visit https://www.wcls.org/vote for convenient links to voter registration and election information.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 12, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: The Word is Murder||
The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
Chances are, you’ve read one of British author Anthony Horowitz’s novels or seen one of his television shows. With more than 40 books under his belt (the Alex Rider series about a teenage spy has sold over 19 million copies) and BAFTA Awards for the television series Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders, Horowitz has also written 11 episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
Horowitz received a commission from the Conan Doyle estate to write two original Sherlock Holmes novels and another from the Ian Fleming estate to write new James Bond adventures. But The Word Is Murder is the first time that Horowitz is actually a character in his own novel—a device readers will either find clever and entertaining (I did) or egotistical and off-putting. If you can tolerate a first-person narrator and some self-referential commentary, you’re in for a lively whodunit.
Here’s the setup: A stylish 60-year-old Londoner visits a funeral parlor to arrange her own funeral. Six hours later, she’s murdered. Hawthorne, a former Detective Inspector for the Metropolitan Police Service who left under a black cloud, is nevertheless engaged as a police consultant to help solve this case.
Hawthorne, prickly and taciturn, has managed to rope in Horowitz to shadow him, with the plan that Horowitz will pen a book about Hawthorne and they’ll share the profits, 50/50. Having written about many murders before but never participated in any real-life murder investigations, Horowitz is intrigued by the opportunity to get an inside view into the proceedings.
Hawthorne, though gruff, is clearly intelligent and observant. His methods of deduction hearken back to Sherlock Holmes, one of Horowitz’s beloved fictional characters. While Hawthorne insists that Horowitz keep his mouth shut when they’re interviewing witnesses and suspects, the author can hardly contain himself and easily gets caught up in the action.
Breaking the fourth wall, Horowitz freely admits it has been his long-held desire to write a book about writing, such as Stephen King’s highly regarded On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Yet Horowitz concedes that it’s been done before and he’s not the one to do it better. Instead, he peppers The Word is Murder with colorful anecdotes of his time on movie and television sets shooting the Alex Rider feature film and Foyle’s War.
He drops names liberally and is particularly thrilled (in a self-deprecating way) to recount a meeting he had with Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson to discuss his script for the Tintin 2 movie sequel. This could become tedious or self-indulgent, if he didn’t keep you guessing about which items are real and which are fantasy.
If you read the book as a lark, you’ll have fun sorting through clues, red herrings and pop culture references to solve a mystery that is well in keeping with an Agatha Christie caper, with a satisfying resolution. And, if you’re ready for more, the follow-up novel The Sentence Is Death is also available to borrow from your public libraries in multiple formats. Visit https://www.wcls.org to place a hold.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 22, 2020.)
|Book Buzz: To the Bright Edge of the World||
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
If you’re looking for an engrossing novel to carry you beyond any holiday chaos and onward through the dark days of winter, be sure to pick up a copy of the 2020 Whatcom READS selection To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey.
Like Ivey’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated debut The Snow Child, it’s set in remote Alaska, only a generation earlier, in 1885. Colonel Allen Forrester is charged with leading an expedition up the icy Wolverine River across Alaska Territory, to the edge of the known world.
As the hardships and perils mount, Allen carefully chronicles his experiences in his journal, fearful that the diary may be all that remains for his beloved wife Sophie should he succumb. Guided by natives who have intimate knowledge of the land but a healthy suspicion of white explorers and a heady dose of superstition, Allen attempts to map the Alaska interior even as hunger, sickness and sleeplessness start to erode his grip on reality.
Back at the Vancouver Barracks in Washington Territory, a spirited Sophie adjusts to her blossoming pregnancy while eagerly anticipating word from her husband. Not content to bide her time while Allen is out adventuring, Sophie explores the emerging art of photography. As the months drag on, Sophie begins to sense a strong, mystical force at play. A raven appears, ominous and foreboding. A silver hair comb goes missing. Sophie dreams of burning wood and darkness. Her loneliness becomes palpable.
Ivey deftly moves from past to present and back again, supplementing the narrative with letters, official reports, photographs, journal entries and the like. She frames the historical tale, roughly based on Lieutenant Henry T. Allen’s exploration of the Copper River, with correspondence between Walt, a descendant of Colonel Forester, and Josh, an Alaskan museum curator. She weaves in Native American folklore and vivid descriptions of the natural world.
Readers who can tolerate a nonlinear approach and a dash of magical realism will be richly rewarded. The scenes of Allen’s trek are terrifying and suspenseful, the portrayal of the forward-thinking Sophie is inspiring, and the descriptions of Alaska’s wild and breathtaking scenery will have you yearning to spend time there yourself.
Ivey grew up in Alaska, studied journalism and creative writing at Western Washington University, and lives in Alaska today with her husband and two daughters. She’ll visit Whatcom County in March 2020.
The Whatcom READS committee has lined up a robust schedule of events to supplement the author’s presentations, based on themes from the book. There will be talks about outdoor adventures and Native American lore, early photographic technology, birds, cartography, and feminism. Go to http://www.whatcomreads.org/events for details.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) and treasurer for Whatcom READS, the countywide reading program now in its 12th year.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, December 18, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Gift Picks||
A basic philosophy shared by librarians and booksellers alike is that there is a book for every reader. Books make great gifts for this reason, and the book experts at your local library or bookstore can help you match the people in your life with books they will enjoy.
On a recent “best holiday gift books” scouting trip, Village Books co-owner, Paul Hanson, suggested The Adventurous Eaters Club: Mastering the Art of Family Mealtime by local celebrities Misha and Vicki Collins. Misha is a television actor and star of Supernatural; Vicki is a historian and journalist who has written for the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and the Los Angeles Times.
When faced with finicky eating behavior in their two children, they drew on child psychology research and food cultures around the world to develop strategies to make family mealtimes a fun adventure.
Key to engaging their young eaters was giving them the autonomy to experiment in the kitchen. I loved the Breakfast Popsicle (pineapple, kale, bacon, eggs, orange juice, and maple syrup; blend and freeze) which was a functional flop but provided lots of laughs.
The Adventurous Eaters Club would make a great gift for families with young children, and even adults who have not outgrown a childhood picky palate would find it inspiring. As a bonus, all author proceeds will be donated to nonprofit programs that help underserved children gain access to healthy food, including Edible Schoolyard, the Garden School Foundation, and the Whatcom Farm to School Fund.
After discussing the Collins’ book, Hanson pointed me to another title his wife and co-owner, Kelly Evert, has been enjoying sharing this season. Fans of David Bowie may know that he was an avid reader who traveled to the movie set of The Man Who Fell to Earth with a portable library in a trunk that held 1,500 titles. A few years before his death, Bowie released a list of 100 life-altering books.
In Bowie’s Bookshelf, author John O’Connell studies these 100 selections and how they influenced Bowie’s art, image and outlook. The result is equal parts epic reading list and insight into the inner life of this cultural icon. Bowie fans, pop culture enthusiasts and regular bibliophiles will enjoy finding this one in their stocking this year.
Every year, there seems to be one book that I’m excited about sharing with multiple people on my holiday shopping list. Last year, it was Dear Fahrenheit 451, Annie Spence’s collection of love letters (and some break-up letters) to the stand-out books in her life. This year, I’m gift-wrapping multiple copies of the graphic novel Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob.
Recalling pivotal conversations in her life, Good Talk explores the stress of being an interracial family in today’s political climate. The book begins with Jacob struggling to find a fitting response when a quirky, fun conversation with her biracial son (“Mom, who is better, Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan?”) turns into “Mom, is it bad to be brown?”
Jacob skillfully walks the line between humor and heartbreak as she describes the how the color of her skin has impacted friendships, relationships, parenting, sexuality and love.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, December 11, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond||
Standing between six and 10 feet tall, long-armed, stooped posture, giving off a strong bad odor, primarily nocturnal and shy, possibly displaying aggressive, territorial behavior. These are descriptions that Sasquatch experts and enthusiasts mostly agree on.
But are they animal? Supernatural? Extraterrestrial? All three theories have their adherents; differences of opinion abound and bona fide data is sorely absent.
With these questions in mind, journalist John Zada left his home in Toronto for British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, and a place where centuries of Sasquatch stories thrive. Initially intended to be a magazine article, as Zada followed lead after lead, he realized there was a book worth of stories waiting to be uncovered. In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch is the result of that journey.
Although tracks, unusual sounds and glimpses of shadowy forms that resist conventional assignations are at the core of most Bigfoot reports, Zada recognizes that it is the Bigfoot “classics” that really capture our imaginations. The creatures in these stories are self-aware, preternaturally intelligent and fearsomely strong.
Zada recounts the story of Albert Ostman, a logger who claimed he was kidnapped in his sleeping bag while prospecting just south of the Great Bear Rainforest in 1924. After being dragged through the night, Ostman found himself in a clearing surrounded by a nuclear family of Sasquatch who kept him prisoner for a week.
In the same year, a cabin of five miners prospecting on the slopes of Mount St. Helens was attacked in a fearful, all-night barrage by “ape-like” creatures. The attack stopped and the miners fled at daylight; the forest ranger who met the fleeing men said in an interview that “he’d never seen grown men more frightened.”
In addition to recounting these Bigfoot classics, Zada interviews British Columbia locals such as John Bindernagel, a wildlife biologist who spent half a century trying to get the Sasquatch included in the lexicon of North American mammals, as well as Heiltsuk, Kitasoo, and other First Nations people who have lived on Great Bear Rainforest land for centuries.
Skeptics question how it is that there haven’t been more sightings of the Sasquatch. Where are their bones? Their homes? As Zada experiences the vastness of Great Bear, he wonders if our urban-centric biases may be underestimating the remote habitats that still exist in parts of the world where an intelligent, adaptive, nocturnal and elusive creature could live outside human experience.
He also considers that the Sasquatch may reside “in the place most difficult for us to find and navigate;” the gray middle ground between “it exists” and “it doesn’t exist.” Believing they are a combination of physical being, spirit, symbol and teacher, the relationship of some First Nations people to the Sasquatch resides in this territory.
Is it possible that our interest in the Sasquatch really has more to say about us and what we yearn for? Zada feels he has been fruitlessly circling around an actual Sasquatch, and begins to find more relevance in what his fascination with the creature says about him. Ultimately, perhaps the greatest significance of the Sasquatch is the lure of the blank spot on the map, the possibility of the supernatural, the existence of nature untouched by humans.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System. To find out more about Sasquatch in our region, book a trip with Bigfoot Adventures at www.thebigfootadventures.com
|Book Buzz: Prairie Fires||
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
Anyone who remembers reading the “Little House” books as a kid or watching Melissa Gilbert play Laura and Michael Landon play Pa on the television series based on the books will want to read Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Caroline Fraser, who edited the Library of America edition of the book series, conducted significant research to pull together this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. Fraser makes the case that while Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life as she portrayed it in her books seemed simple and mostly rosy, it was in fact full of hardship, extreme poverty and complex relationships.
This biography is not simply about Wilder, it’s also about her relationships with her mother Caroline and her daughter Rose, placed in the historical context of 19th century American territorial expansion.
For readers who faithfully devoured Wilder’s books and followed her family from the big woods of Wisconsin to Kansas and Minnesota, then on to Dakota Territory and finally to Missouri, the pioneer experience was full of adventure, natural beauty and the love of God and family.
It’s not a stretch to believe that for many students, Wilder’s nostalgic portrayal of her childhood shaped their understanding of Manifest Destiny and American history. The mythical Ingalls family was brave, resilient and just, so therefore all pioneers who spread across the American landscape were admirable as well. Every farmer was clever and hardworking like Pa, every farmer’s wife was gentle and kind like Ma, and every freckle-faced tomboy grew up to be a friendly but formidable schoolteacher.
We grew up loving the charming, hand-spun stories and did not choose to dig deeper into more troubling issues such as the cruel treatment of indigenous peoples, the destruction of the land, the loneliness and struggle to survive through harsh winters, draught and plagues of locusts. Fraser delivers this historical background in a style reminiscent of Tim Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
According to Fraser, Wilder began writing her memoirs in her 50s, as a strategic effort to improve her family’s financial prospects after near ruin from the stock market crash of 1929. She gathered stories of her childhood into a work originally entitled Pioneer Girl.
Thanks to connections her daughter Rose had to the publishing industry, Wilder was signed by Harper & Brothers and Little House in the Big Woods came out in 1932. In Fraser’s account, Wilder deliberately chose to highlight happier memories that children could appreciate, selectively telling those with teachable moments about the virtue of hard work and frugality.
Fraser is not out to destroy Wilder’s reputation nor disparage her legacy. Instead, she carefully examines the historical context for Wilder’s life and her writing and explores claims that Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane actually authored the “Little House” books.
By analyzing letters, edited manuscripts and other works written by both women, Fraser concludes that Lane may have been responsible for some revisions to the novels, but her mother was their primary creator. While Fraser is admiring of Wilder, she is less appreciative of Lane, chronicling Lane’s struggles with truth and sanity and her prickly relationship with her mother.
Readers who loved Wilder’s books will enjoy learning the backstory behind them. Prairie Fires also serves as an excellent primer on the real-life pioneer experience. Finally, it offers a peek into the life and mind of a talented writer whose books inspired generations of readers.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS is celebrating its 75th year of sharing stories with the rural parts of Whatcom County.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, November 27, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: After the Flood||
After the Flood by Kassandra Montag
Climate fiction, also known as “cli-fi” (referential to sci-fi), explores what life on earth will be like if climate change and global warming continue unchecked. Stories in this genre are important in that they can connect us emotionally with planetary changes occurring in our own backyards.
Kassandra Montag’s debut novel, After the Flood, is a recently published climate fiction title; set about a century in the future, rising waters from the One Hundred Year Flood have consumed much of the North American continent. Disease and calamity have vastly reduced life on earth, and the remaining people are banded together in mountaintop colonies or as small ship-borne communities.
As the devastating flood makes its way inland to Nebraska, Myra’s grandfather races to finish building the boat that will save them. Frustrated with Myra that she won’t leave without her grandfather, Myra’s husband, Jacob, flees with a departing neighbor, taking their daughter, Row, and leaving a pregnant Myra behind.
Pearl is born at sea and shortly after, grandfather dies, leaving Myra to fend for herself. Myra and Pearl survive by fishing and trading their catch for other necessities in far-between ports; trusting no one, Myra lives by her wits and intuition and goes to any length to keep Pearl safe.
Seven years pass and Myra has given up hope of finding Row, when a raider recognizes Row’s picture and reports that he saw her in a colony in Greenland. Myra resolves to find a way to make the dangerous Atlantic crossing and rescue Row, who would now be 13 years old, before she is sent by the colony to a breeding ship.
Myra’s boat is too small to make such a risky journey, but she is taken aboard a friendly ship whose inhabitants intend to find land in South America where they can start a community. What lengths will Myra go to to convince them to change course and sail north and east to Greenland before it is too late to save Row?
Although the plot and several of the characters occasionally lapse into being not quite believable, overall I found this to be quite a page-turner. The endless expanses of water covering vast abandoned cities capture the imagination, and fierce and resourceful Myra makes a compelling heroine. After the Flood is a great intro to climate fiction, and Kassandra Montag an emerging writer to watch.
To find more cli-fi titles, use the library catalog to search by List for “Climate Change.” You might try American War by Omar El Akkad; set in 2074, oil is outlawed, Louisiana is half underwater, and America is involved in a second Civil War. Another good option is The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline, in which the world is ravaged by global warming and humans have lost the ability to dream, causing widespread madness; only North America’s indigenous people have retained their dreams and they are being captured and colonized to harvest them.
isa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System. WCLS is celebrating its 75th year of sharing stories with the rural parts of Whatcom County. If you live outside the city limits of Bellingham, you can apply for a WCLS library card at http://www.wcls.org/get-a-library-card
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, November 20, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Climber’s Corner||
You may have heard that it’s Whatcom County Library System’s 75th anniversary year, and to celebrate we’ve created the Read & Share program featuring Leif Whittaker’s excellent memoir My Old Man and the Mountain.
Whittaker is the son of “Big Jim” Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest in 1963. Leif has recreated his father’s historic climb and made it to the peak (twice). Thanks to a grant from the Whatcom County Library Foundation, he’ll be speaking at library events through mid-November.
Since I already reviewed the book for Cascadia Weekly in the winter of 2017, I thought I’d share some supplemental reading to prime you with good questions to ask Leif when you meet him. A good starting place is, of course, James Whittaker’s seminal memoir A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond. The 50th anniversary edition comes with more than 100 photos and an inside peek into the life of one of the men credited with launching the outdoor recreation industry. “Big Jim” is candid about his highs and lows. He also compares what it was like to return to Everest in his 80s, joining his son for the trek to base camp, versus his original journey in the 1960s.
Climbing Everest is not without its perils. In fact, there’s a whole Library of Congress subject heading for books with this theme: Mountaineering Accidents—Everest, Mount (China and Nepal).
Perhaps the most well-known is Jon Krakauer’s exposé, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster in which Krakauer details Everest’s deadliest season, in 1996. Nine people from four different expeditions perished in a single day. Krakauer was the first to call attention to the “pay to play” aspect of big mountain climbing, meaning those with big checkbooks pay professional guides to help them summit, often despite a lack of experience and ability that puts them and others at risk.
The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest is Anatoli Boukreev’s rebuttal to Krakauer’s critique. Boukreev was the lead climber for Scott Fisher’s ill-fated Mountain Madness expedition. For another perspective, read David Breashears’ High Exposure. Breashears was on Everest in 1996 filming an IMAX movie and fortunately escaped tragedy. Breashears delves into his personal motivations for climbing such treacherous peaks and his passion for documenting his experiences through film.
For folks interested in climbing stories closer to home, The Ledge: An Adventure Story of Friendship and Survival on Mount Rainier by Jim Davidson chronicles his 1992 ascent of Washington State’s tallest volcano, which turned tragic when his best friend plummeted into a crevasse.
It’s not only men who are drawn to the adrenaline and challenge of mountaineering. A Women’s Place is at the Top, by Hannah Kimberly, is a biography of Annie Smith Peck, the first woman to ascend Mt. Shasta in 1888. When she climbed the Matterhorn in 1895 she caused a scandal by wearing pants when she did it. At the age of 60, she was the first person to summit Peru’s Mt. Huascarán. Activist, feminist, scholar and mountain climber, Peck exemplifies the remarkable spirit needed to face the world’s tallest peaks.
The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story tells Deirdre Wolownick’s story. At 66, she became the oldest woman to summit Yosemite’s El Capitan, accompanied by her rock-climbing rock-star son, Alex Honnold. Her journey from middle-aged single mom to marathon runner and accomplished climber is inspirational for all armchair adventurers and wannabe daredevils.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). For more details about Read & Share events, go to https://www.wcls.org/readandshare
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, October 16, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Deep River||
Deep River by Karl Marlantes
In his debut novel, Matterhorn, based on his experiences as a Marine in Vietnam, Pacific Northwest author Karl Marlantes established himself as a master of evocative settings and characters developed over time. Deep River, his second novel, is a sprawling family epic set along the mouth of the Columbia River against Washington state’s early logging industry.
Befallen by tragedy and suffering at the hands of Russian imperialism in Finland, Ilmari Koski leaves his homeland to settle in a small community of Finnish immigrants along Deep River (based on the Naselle River) that feeds into Willapa Bay. As he looks for a wife, Ilmari clears forest to farm and establishes a blacksmithing operation.
When brother Matti and strong-willed sister Aino arrive from Finland, Matti finds work felling old-growth timber and Aino follows him to the logging camp to live in the “henhouse” with the other women putting in long hours to keep the loggers fed. Marlantes describes the appalling living conditions and unremitting danger facing the loggers with historical accuracy.
Aino is spurred to action by the injuries and deaths she witnesses, joining the IWW (derogatorily called “Wobblies”) and organizing loggers for better pay and living conditions, safer working conditions and eight-hour workdays. Throughout the novel, Aino is fiercely dedicated to the struggle for One Big Union; repeatedly risking imprisonment, her reputation and relationships with even those who are closest to her.
Although Aino is the central character, dozens of other well-drawn characters populate Deep River’s pages as the story unfolds in lumber camps, dance halls, brothels, farms and union organizing meetings during the years between 1893 and 1932.
Because Marlantes is fascinated with myth and believes symbols are meaningful in our personal and cultural development, Deep River pays homage to several mythical stories. Aino’s journey pays respect to the “Amor and Psyche” myth describing a young woman’s journey into womanhood. And many of Deep River’s main characters mirror those in The Kalevala, a Finnish text based on ancient shamanic songs that could be said to form the bedrock of the Finnish culture.
Thought not autobiographical, Marlantes’ characters are also developed from direct experience. Growing up just south of the mouth of the Columbia in the logging town of Seaside, Oregon, he fished with his grandfather, a commercial fisherman. Finnish was his mother’s first language, and the Daily Worker communist newspaper was a fixture on his grandmother’s kitchen table. He knows sisu firsthand, as well as the Finnish stoicism cultivated in the face of unrelenting winters.
Deep River preserves the story of a generation of immigrants who came to the Pacific Northwest at a time when there were no roads and built their lives amid towering old-growth forests that are almost beyond imagining. Marlantes superbly captures this complex time in American history, including the fear of foreigners taking jobs and resources, making the book especially relevant today.
Reader comments on Amazon are calling for this story to be a mini-series—a Lonesome Dove for the Pacific Northwest, if you will. At 700-plus pages, Deep River is a commitment, but once caught in its current, be prepared to be swept along to its conclusion and arrive with a deeper knowledge of this beautiful corner of the country’s history.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System. WCLS is celebrating its 75th year of sharing stories with the rural parts of Whatcom County. If you live outside the city limits of Bellingham, you can apply for a WCLS library card at https://www.wcls.org/get-a-library-card
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, September 18, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Before the Wind||
Before the Wind by Jim Lynch
Several years ago, Whatcom READS featured Jim Lynch’s excellent novel Border Songs, about a dutiful, extremely tall, bird-loving rookie Border Patrol officer and his observations of life along the 49th parallel between the United States and Canada.
Since then, he has written several fine books. Before the Wind continues Lynch’s tradition of finding the humanity in a lovable cast of eccentric characters and setting them in the glorious scenery of coastal Washington state.
As its title implies, Before the Wind is about sailing—and the mixed bag of racers, dreamers, salts and scalawags who are obsessed with sailboats and the sea.
The members of the Johannssen family tick all those boxes. There’s Bobo Johannssen Senior, aka Grumps, designer of fast, beautiful sailboats known as Johos. His son, Bobo Junior, is relentlessly competitive, a teller of tales who doesn’t hesitate to cheat if it will give him an edge. Junior’s eldest son Bernard is an excellent sailor with questionable morality, who may or may not be mixed up in some shady dealings. Junior’s youngest child, Ruby, has an almost mystical connection to the wind and no desire to use it to win sailing races. And Josh is the middle child, the only one to make boatbuilding his vocation.
The narrative is told from 31-year-old Josh’s point of view, as he ekes out his living in a rundown marina, hoping to find love and missing the closeness of his estranged siblings.
Josh’s description of the Sunrise Marina will resonate with anyone who’s spent time near the water, and will elicit a chuckle even with resolute landlubbers: “These docks were a magnet for every bad idea and flawed design on water…yet somebody somewhere, amazingly, kept paying moorage out of guilt, ignorance, or senility.”
His take on his live-aboard neighbors is equally humorous and realistic—the clueless couple with zero sailing experience plotting a circumnavigation; the broke romantic, crazy as a loon, who wants to install a grand piano in his moldy, dilapidated yacht; the beer-guzzling ne’er-do-well who can’t hold down a job but will help a buddy in a pinch.
But Josh’s real love is his family, with whom he spent every Sunday of his childhood, in boats rather than in church. Specifically, he misses Ruby, his gifted sister, for whom sailing comes as naturally as breathing. It all stems back to a fateful race, when, despite a huge lead, Ruby threw her chances of going to the Olympics by deliberately veering off the course.
Shortly thereafter, Ruby departed for the Peace Corps in Africa, Bernard took off for the South Pacific, and Josh’s family splintered. When Ruby calls and suggests they reunite for one last attempt at the Swiftsure Race, Josh jumps at the chance, with unforgettable results.
This is Lynch’s love story to sailing and the zany brotherhood of sailors. As with his first novel The Highest Tide, there’s an element of the supernatural afloat to keep things interesting and unexpected.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS is celebrating its 75th year of sharing stories with the rural parts of Whatcom County. If you live outside the city limits of Bellingham, you can apply for a WCLS library card at https://www.wcls.org/get-a-library-card
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, August 14, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: The History of Living Forever||
The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff
Precocious, brilliant Conrad Aybinder just spent summer vacation working with his favorite teacher to develop a winning science fair competition entry for the coming school year. In classic summer-love-story fashion, the teacher is also Conrad’s first love.
And then, contrary to the title of Jake Wolff’s debut novel, The History of Living Forever, the teacher is found dead the day before Conrad’s senior year of high school begins.
Conrad is, of course, devastated. The death is being investigated as a suicide, and although prone to occasional melancholy, anger and migraines, his teacher, Sammy Tampari, made no indication he was deeply troubled. Conrad wonders, “Was it me?” He is alone in his suffering, as the affair was (for obvious reasons) something he hid from his few friends and family.
When a mysterious package arrives, Conrad finds that Sammy bequeathed him a lifetime worth of journals, containing not only stories from Sammy’s life, but arcane recipes and access to a storage locker filled with a bewildering array of scientific equipment.
Through the journals, Sammy’s secret life is revealed, and Conrad learns that the existential question, “What’s wrong with me?” plagued Sammy throughout his life and led to an obsession with the mythic elixir of life, the key to immortality.
About Sammy’s fascination with immortality, Wolff writes, “Death was like an obligation, a dentist appointment—it was a thing you sometimes wanted to put off and sometimes wanted to just get over with.” The elixir of life represented “hope of a cure for the incurable condition of his mind.”
Conrad realizes his teacher was not only a brilliant chemist, but an alchemist. The journals are peppered with recipes that appear to be updated and amended based on actual testing. But the final recipe ends inconclusively with the question, “What’s missing?”
Did Sammy die testing this final recipe? And, if so, what is missing? If Conrad can figure this out, he may be able to administer Sammy’s elixir to his father, who is dying of liver failure. The necessary ingredients are obscure, however, taking readers from Conrad’s home in Maine to Romania and Easter Island and requiring the help of an unforgettable cast of characters, including unreliable drug kingpins, Sammy’s former wife, Catherine, and his former lover, Sadiq.
To better understand the mindset of his characters, Wolff confesses in an interview that he did sample various products claiming to be elixirs of life, ingesting a potion from an Australian alchemist, as well as elixirs made of snail mucous, gold nanoparticles, deer velvet, and a pill made from caterpillar fungus. You have to admire his commitment to authenticity.
If you enjoyed last year’s bestseller, The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin, The History of Living Forever is similar in its inquiry about immortality, the bonds of love and family, and as a story told through multiple points of view.
Given the option, would you want to live forever? To what lengths would you go to keep a loved one alive? This ambitious debut novel will keep you lingering over these questions long after the final page.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System. WCLS is celebrating its 75th year of sharing stories with the rural parts of Whatcom County. If you live outside the city limits of Bellingham, you can apply for a WCLS library card at https://www.wcls.org/get-a-library-card
Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, August 7, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: The Way Home||
The Way Home: Tales from a Life without Technology by Mark Boyle
Mark Boyle is no stranger to remaking himself. In the fall of 2008, he embarked on an experiment in living without money, documenting the experience with the publication of The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living (2010) and a follow-up guide, The Moneyless Manifesto: Live Well, Live Rich, Live Free.
He has been a vegan and a hunter; a business school graduate and an organic food company manager. In 2007, he set out to walk from southwest England to the birthplace of Gandhi in India.
The Way Home: Tales from a Life without Technology is the product of Boyle’s newest experiment in simple living, which began on the winter solstice in 2016 when he turned off his phone for the last time, vowing to live without “industrial-scale, complex technology” for at least a full year. No hot showers, recorded music, news, or social media. No internet, car, running water, matches or light bulbs.
In preparation, Boyle and his partner built a rustic cabin on a three-acre smallholding in County Galway, Ireland, complete with garden space to grow food, a composting toilet, and nearby neighbors for bartering and the support of community. Surrounding wild areas provided opportunities for foraging.
Uncertain of how he would respond to the lack of technology, Boyle wondered if he would get bored. Would he feel isolated or peaceful? Was it even possible to live a more elemental lifestyle in the modern world?
Initially, most pressing was the question of whether he would be able to continue his livelihood as a writer in a world where publishers expect authors to communicate electronically and be available for book tours. He wanted to write a book about the experience, but the manuscript would be written in longhand on paper and any communication with editors would be by snail mail.
Some readers may be frustrated by the fact that Boyle is not completely clear where he draws the line on technology. He rejects owning a car or motorbike, but does occasionally hitchhike when needing to travel longer distances. Matches are verboten, but steel implements are acceptable. He communicates by letters, which are transported via fossil-fuel-powered vehicles.
Nevertheless, Boyle’s ingenuity and dedication are impressive. He constructs a DIY hot tub from cob (a mixture of clay, straw, sand and water) and found materials. His garden includes soapwort, a perennial rich in saponins, which is chopped up and heated slowly in a pot of water to use for washing clothes, body and hair.
Undeniably, one result of unplugging is a deeper connection to the land, nature’s cycles, nearby neighbors and community. Whether or not you believe, as is stated in the frontispiece, that the “boundaries between man and machine are blurring,” this elegy for a simpler life with deep connections to nature and fellow human beings is inspiring.
isa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System. WCLS is celebrating its 75th year of sharing stories with the rural parts of Whatcom County. If you live outside the city limits of Bellingham, you can apply for a WCLS library card at https://www.wcls.org/get-a-card
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, July 17, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Paddling With Spirits||
Paddling With Spirits: A Solo Kayak Journey by Irene Skyriver
Some people throw themselves a dance party for their 40th birthday. Irene Skyriver chose to celebrate hers with a solo kayaking trip from Ketchikan to her home on Lopez Island.
Years later, she recounted her momentous journey in Paddling With Spirits: A Solo Kayak Journey. The memoir is interspersed with family lore and mythology from her Makah and Tlingit ancestors. Skyriver’s account is infused with nature and introspection, as well as some practical tips for readers who may be inspired to launch a similar adventure.
She starts strong: “I am one in the continuum of family born on these shores of the Pacific Northwest. My soul is connected to their spirits by the very sea waters we have each stepped into, through the generations.”
Skyriver spends the first few pages painting quick brush strokes of her life before her journey. Childhood on the Olympic Peninsula. Teen pregnancy. Raising children on Lopez Island. Yearning for a solo adventure; encouraged by her partner, Gregg, a local legend known for leading the first winter expedition of Mt. Denali. Then, with her 40th birthday, a plan—paddle 750 miles in a kayak from Alaska back home again. She’d leave in June and return in 40 days.
Skyriver comes across as spiritual, a little naïve, and blissfully unaware of how unprepared she was for the rigorous journey. In lieu of actual conditioning, she was counting on her hours of physical toil in her garden to have sufficiently strengthened her arms and shoulders. She didn’t know how to right her kayak if it capsized. She brought a PFD along but never wore it. She had an assortment of maps and charts but acknowledged she’d be navigating on the fly. In short, she lucked out, with fairly good weather and calm seas throughout most of her travels.
Kayaking solo can be monotonous, tiresome work, but it gave Skyriver ample time to consider the stories of her forefathers. She vividly evokes the Trickster Raven and imagines her Tlingit great-grandmother’s marriage to George Barrett, an Irishman many years her senior who ran the trading post near her village in Katalla Bay, Alaska.
Later, she tells the sad story of her maternal great grandmother, Emma Bell, a Makah from Neah Bay, Washington, then winds her way to her parents’ generation. In between the family lore, Skyriver tracks her voyage, her brushes with wolves and bears, her fatigue and her bliss. Despite some minor setbacks, her journey is mostly liberating and joyous.
Paddling With Spirits is a great read for anyone who enjoys adventure stories, or Northwest stories, or women’s empowerment stories. Skyriver shares some hard truths about her family’s experiences as Native Americans, and also some deep appreciation for her culture and the natural beauty of the coastal waters.
Whether your 40th birthday is still ahead of you or long past, you can find inspiration in her desire to challenge herself and may even be compelled to head to Bellingham’s Community Boating Center so you can get out on the water yourself.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS is celebrating its 75th year of sharing stories with the rural parts of Whatcom County. If you live outside the city limits of Bellingham, you can apply for a WCLS library card at https://www.wcls.org/get-a-card
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, July 10, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: The Great Pretenders||
The Great Pretenders by Laura Kalpakian
Just in time for hammock season comes local author Laura Kalpakian’s latest novel (her 16th), The Great Pretenders.
Set in Hollywood in the 1950s, it’s got the right blend of glitz and pop culture so you can while away a sun-filled Saturday, allowing yourself to recuperate after your recreational endeavors or take a break from your gardening toil.
Better still, it addresses social and political issues of that era—the blacklisting of communist sympathizers in the film industry, and discrimination against African-Americans and mixed-race couples—which elevates this book from breezy fluff to interesting, character-driven historical fiction.
When Roxanne Granville’s beloved grandmother Julia Greene dies, bequeathing her with a sizable inheritance, Roxanne defies convention and refuses to return to college. Her grandfather Leon Greene, who, with Julia, raised Roxanne from childhood, is gravely concerned. As the deeply conservative scion of Empire Pictures, he wants the best for his granddaughter.
But Leon’s part of the problem, as his scandalous affair with starlet Denise Dell, 40 years younger than himself, broke Julia’s heart. Roxanne is not in a forgiving frame of mind. She refuses to move back in with Leon while Denise is living under the same roof. Roxanne charges off to make a name for herself as an agent, only to discover she’s been given a job primarily so her boss can sponge off her Empire Pictures connections.
It’s no surprise that Roxanne’s workdays are mostly drudgery and serving coffee—and fending off the unwanted advances of her lecherous supervisor. Outraged, Roxanne vows to start her own agency, commuting between a beachside cottage in Malibu and a small office in the Los Angeles suburbs.
It’s a hard slog, with Roxanne nearly throwing in the towel, until she gets a desperate plea for help from a blacklisted screenwriter. He asks Roxanne to find another writer willing to pass off his work as his own and sell it to a movie studio. The script is good—it sells—and suddenly Roxanne’s business is taking off. Her success remains tenuous however, as the constant fear of getting caught in a web of lies takes its toll.
Roxanne’s world is not all work; she lets loose from time to time with her childhood friend Jonathan, a bon vivant actor. One night, Jonathan and some pals take Roxanne to the Comet Club, an African-American jazz joint. Roxanne meets Terrence Dexter, a handsome, earnest black journalist who writes for an NAACP newspaper. Their connection is quick to build and their passion insatiable, though they take care to hide it. Before long, Roxanne’s work life and personal life become so fraught it’s evident there will be a dramatic reckoning.
While the plot of The Great Pretenders veers toward melodrama, readers who enjoy Roxanne’s spunk and tenacity will be forgiving. With cameos from the likes of Rock Hudson and Hedda Hopper, and historical details about the House Un-American Activities Committee and the impact of television on the film industry, there’s much to keep the pages turning.
As Julia reminds Roxanne, “glamour is nothing more than knowing how to talk fast…and leave a shimmering wake,” and The Great Pretenders does just that.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS is celebrating its 75th year of sharing stories with the rural parts of Whatcom County. If you live outside the city limits of Bellingham, you can apply for a WCLS library card at https://www.wcls.org/get-a-card.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 19, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Beauty is a Wound||
Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
There are times when you happen upon a book and are completely blown away by its scope, craft and story. Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound is just such a novel—sweeping, epic, with a vast but unforgettable cast of characters.
It’s reminiscent of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, earthy and ripe with magic, folklore and ghosts, only it’s set in Indonesia at the second half of the 20th century.
The novel begins when Dewi Ayu explodes from her grave, two decades after she died. Still beautiful but now wrinkled, the former “comfort woman” to Japanese soldiers is as stubborn and blunt as ever. She’s amazed to know the daughter she tried to kill in her womb, named Beauty, is not only alive, but is also 21 years old and three months pregnant.
“There is no curse more terrible than to give birth to a pretty female in a world of men as nasty as dogs in heat,” Dewi Ayu says, and what follows is a recounting of the many misfortunes and complicated histories of her four legendary daughters, told within the context of modern Indonesian history.
The story follows Dewi Ayu’s childhood at the outbreak of World War II. After the bombing of Surabaya by the Japanese, Oma Stammler, the grandmother who raised her, evacuates to Holland. Forever headstrong, Dewi Ayu refuses to leave. Rounded up with other prisoners of war, she finds herself forced into prostitution at Mama Kalong’s brothel.
While the other girls quake and quiver, Dewi Ayu resolves to have the upper hand. She becomes the most sought-after whore in the city of Halimunda, and in short order gives birth to three beautiful but cursed daughters: Alamanda, Adinda, and Maya Dewi. Each experiences her share of violence, hardship and heartbreak, just like the fledgling country of Indonesia as it struggles for independence.
For those whose knowledge of this exotic place and time period is limited, Beauty is a Wound is a remarkable introduction. Kurniawan vividly evokes the smell of frangipani blossoms, the dampness of a mushroom farm, and a wedding celebration enlivened by seven groups of master puppeteers and kuda lumping trance dancing.
He takes us through Japanese occupation of Indonesia, the return of the Dutch and their subsequent overthrow, the roundup and massacre of thousands of Communists in 1965, and the 1975 invasion of East Timor. Halimunda is riddled with the ghosts of Dutch cacao plantation owners, Japanese soldiers, guerrilla fighters, con men, Communists, and thugs—and all the women they fell deeply in love with, obsessed over, exalted, raped and exploited.
Some readers may wish to map out the complex relationships between daughters, lovers, children—and even a dog—while others may be content to let the story unfold. The drama is both large and fantastical, but the author (supported by a deft translation by Annie Tucker) expertly brings the various threads together at the end.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System. Her grandmother, who died recently at the age of 100, was born on the Indonesian island of Belitung.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, May 8, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: A Fire Story||
A Fire Story by Brian Fies
A recent report by the U.S. Climate Prediction Center and the National Interagency Fire Center calling for this year’s wildfire potential to be “above normal” in the Pacific Northwest may have Whatcom County residents already thinking about the threat of local fires and another summer of smoke-filled air. But what would it be like to lose everything you own to fire?
Writer and cartoonist Brian Fies explores exactly that in his new graphic memoir, A Fire Story. In October 2017, his home was completely destroyed by wildfires that raged through Northern California when unusually strong winds and hot, dry conditions ignited 11 major fires in an eight-county area, burning 8,900 structures and killing 44 people.
Brian and his wife, Karen, had little time to consider what to take with them when awakened at 1:30am and instructed to evacuate now, but the idea that there would be nothing left to return to was unthinkable. In an early illustration, Fies sketches “clothes I packed” and “stuff we grabbed,” the drawings a heartbreaking reminder their possessions could be reduced to this paltry list.
A few pages later is the drawing “things I will never see again,” a list that includes his grandmother’s Depression-era glass candy jar, Christmas ornaments made by their daughters, family photos, a lifetime of drawings and paintings—and simply ends “everything else.”
Several days pass before homeowners are officially allowed to return to sift through the charred remains. They are issued safety kits with Hazmat gear to protect them from the ashes, a chemical stew of potential poisons from the variety of burned materials. Their first find was some charred and broken holiday decorations, found near the surface because they had been stored in the garage rafters.
A neighbor, Larry, matter-of-factly reflected that everything from their homes was still there, “it just changed shape;” a sentiment that provided little comfort.
In a disengaged way, Fies finds the science behind the temperature at which things will burn oddly fascinating: concrete pops, flakes and crumbles at about 500 degrees Fahrenheit, glass light fixtures liquefy at about 1,400 degrees, and appliances and steel I-beams sag at about 2,600.
In the aftermath of the fire, Fies finds himself chasing down smoke smells in the surrounding countryside, usually just leading to a legal burn barrel or brush pile. He is aware he paid no attention to smoke smells prior to the fire, but calls it a “socially responsible form of PTSD.”
Advice about what he learned? At the risk of sounding cliché, “appreciate every day to its fullest” and “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Also, if ever asked to evacuate, assume you won’t ever see your house and belongings again and know what is in your insurance policy. And that even when everything is lost, home can still be the hope and promise of once again having a place that is shared with people you love and things that are hosts to your memories.
Beautifully written and illustrated, A Fire Story explores heartbreaking loss, stages of grief and, most importantly, the resilience that is invoked in families and communities hit by devastating tragedies such as wildfire.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager for Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, May 22, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead||
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
There’s something really fun and escapist about hard-boiled detective novels, and Sara Gran’s first Claire DeWitt mystery, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, delivers in spades.
There’s a self-destructive protagonist who may or may not be a reliable narrator. It’s set in a gritty urban environment, this time New Orleans post-Katrina. It’s got lots of slangy dialogue, rampant drug use, and a smattering of sex and violence to keep things edgy.
It also has some quirks: Claire DeWitt’s adherence to the methods of an obscure French detective, for example. Claire herself is a sympathetic antihero, and little by little you get her backstory to understand what makes her believe she’s the world’s greatest (if unconventional) PI.
The story opens with a phone call. Claire’s been summoned back to the Big Easy to investigate a missing persons case. She meets Leon Salvatore, a scruffy 40-year-old whose uncle, Vic Willing, an assistant district attorney in the city prosecutor’s office, hasn’t been seen since the hurricane hit. Vic’s luxurious apartment in the French Quarter didn’t flood; there’s no sign of a break-in. He’s simply vanished. Claire takes the case.
From the first page we see the inner workings of Claire’s troubled mind. She has vivid dreams that serve as warnings. She quotes her mentor, Jacques Silette, and his legendary, only book, Détection, often. His teachings are cryptic and somewhat mystical: “You are alone in your search; no friend, no lover, no God from above will come to your aid. Your mysteries are yours alone.” Claire lies. Often. She trusts no one. She is alone.
Claire recognizes clues in unlikely places—on a business card stuck to a restaurant tab, with graffiti on a billboard, in a book about Mardi Gras Indians. She leaves no medicine cabinet un-searched, always pocketing the spare Vicodin for herself. She faces down gang members with a show of badassery and blatant disregard for her personal safety. Slowly, she begins to piece together a suspect, motive and a recounting of Vic’s last hours.
As Claire chips away at her latest case, flashbacks fill us in on her younger years in Brooklyn. Neglected by her eccentric parents, she roamed the city with her best friends Kelly and Tracy, poring over each issue of Cynthia Silverton Girl Detective and sleuthing out neighborhood mysteries. Then, one night when the girls were in their teens, reckless and unmoored, Tracy disappeared.
After searching fruitlessly for signs of her lost BFF, Claire took off, unable to come to terms with the situation. Years later, she’s relying on cocaine and booze to dull the pain and solving the odd case to compensate for the one for which she has no answers. As Claire’s beloved Silette intones, “The client already knows the solution to his mystery. But he doesn’t want to know.”
As she works her way to the truth, we find ourselves rooting for Claire—and hoping we’ll see more of her in future books. Fortunately, there are three in the series so far; go to our website to reserve them all.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Monday, April 15, 2019.
|Book Buzz: Golden Child||
Golden Child by Claire Adam
You might expect a celebrity like Sarah Jessica Parker to have her own fragrances (she does) or line of shoes (she has that too). But it might be surprising to learn that the award-winning actress is a prolific reader whose passion for books led to a collaboration with Crown Publishing as editorial director of SJP for Hogarth.
Parker’s goal of producing literary fiction with a distinctly multicultural bent has already led to one New York Times bestseller, 2018’s A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. This novel follows an Indian family dispersed by choice and circumstance but brought together for a wedding, and possible reconciliation.
The imprint’s success continues with SJP for Hogarth’s second selection: author Claire Adam’s Golden Child. This emotional powerhouse of a novel is compelling and evocative, the kind of reading experience that reaches in and won’t let go.
In Golden Child, the debut novelist explores her homeland of Trinidad, a lush country that is nevertheless laced with unexpected dangers and threats. Hardworking father Clyde Deyalsingh and his wife Joy are raising their twin sons Paul and Peter in the bush. The family lives simply but quietly, avoiding trouble, proud of their modest home and property.
Of the two boys, Peter is the bright star. He is gifted, a scholar whose devotion to learning is a source of fierce delight to his parents. A beloved uncle heaps special attention on Peter, imploring Clyde and Joy to make sure Peter receives every opportunity to seek a life beyond Trinidad’s shores.
Paul, on the other hand, is the burden. He has strange fits; he is awkward, unhealthy, doesn’t settle well. Family lore casts him as having mental delays, a well-worn chorus that both boys come to internalize. When a priest suggests that Paul might have more potential than his parents realize, Clyde is incredulous—Peter is the one, he insists. Surely anyone can see that?
When the book opens, 13-year-old Paul has walked into the bush after a fight with his father. Initially Clyde is more annoyed than concerned. Paul is, after all, somewhat wild and prone to strangeness. It is only Joy’s urging that prompts Clyde to embark on a search for his son.
But as night falls and Paul does not return, a frightening possibility begins to descend: that the break-in the Deyalsinghs recently suffered might have led to something else. The family’s life, we learn, is more complicated than it seems, and their survival depends on an impossible choice.
Adam’s prose is evocative and suspenseful, becoming ever more so as the book progresses and more of the family’s history is revealed. This heightened emotional tension compels the reader, even as a sense of foreboding builds like a storm brewing in the tropics.
Though the backdrop may be new to readers, the themes of Golden Child are universal: the love of family, the need for sacrifice, and the lengths to which we will go to see a dream made real.
Mary Kinser is a Collection Development Librarian for Whatcom County Library System, where she selects fiction, DVDs, music and audiobooks for adults. She can almost always be found with a book in her hand.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, April 10, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Fox 8||
Fox 8 by George Saunders
Back in 1995, there was a fabulous movie about a little pig who learns to herd sheep; maybe you remember it?
My husband and I referred to Babe as the “best talking pig movie of the year” because there were actually two talking pig movies released that year—Gordy was the other—and really, there is no comparison. (Both are available at your local libraries; if you want to see for yourself, head to https://www.wcls.org.)
So when I say Fox 8 is the best talking fox book for adults of the year, you will know a few things about me: 1. I have a high tolerance for talking animal stories; 2. I am a little behind the times as Fox 8 was first published in 2013 but was re-released in its illustrated edition in 2018; 3. There are tons of talking fox books for children but not as many for adults; and 4. I think Fox 8 by George Saunders, illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal, is pretty special.
You may know Saunders for his wildly inventive novel Lincoln on the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for an author who imagined the ghost of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, trapped “in the bardo” between death and reincarnation, to have also written a book told from the point of view of a wild fox. Fox 8 learns to speak “Yuman” by observing a mother reading bedtime stories to her children.
We first get a sense of Fox 8, a curious, dreamy fellow whose ability to understand Yuman does not extend to the conventions of English spelling, grammar or punctuation. He “luvs heering the Storys” told by “the lady to her pups.”
“It made me feel gud, like Yumans cud feel luv and show luv. In other werds, hope full for the future of Erth!” He isn’t as thrilled with the story he hears about a fox who “trikked a Chiken” as he feels that foxes and chickens have a “Super Fare Deel, which is: they make the egs, we take the egs, they make more egs.”
Fox 8 uses his speaking and reading skills to try to make sense of the commotion in the forest. Yumans are “rekking” the forest to build “FoxViewCommons” (a “Mawl”), causing death and destruction to foxes and other living things. This sweet fable takes a dark turn, and Fox 8 asks, “what is rong with you people?” He types out a note to humanity, and ends with some advice: “If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser.”
The short story includes whimsical line drawings of chickens wearing glasses, foxes hiding in a SuperMall, and Fox 8 typing on a manual typewriter. These add charm and emotion to the tale. Fox 8 is a slim tome that’s good for a giggle as well as some quiet contemplation. A dear Friend of the Library from Point Roberts suggested I give it a read and now I pass it along to you.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, April 4, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Books that Suit You||
It can be challenging to find your next great read, but the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) has stacked the deck in your favor. To celebrate our 75th anniversary and our love of sharing stories, we’ve created a full deck of reading recommendations, one for each week of 2019.
These recommendations are selected from many genres, both adult and youth, and categorized by suit: clubs for belonging, diamonds for strength, hearts for love, and spades for growth. Staff made suggestions from their own favorites for each themed title included in the deck, so all are tried-and -true great reads.
A recently revealed “club” suggestion is The Little Barbarian by Renato Moriconi, an all-pictures, no-words celebration of youthful dreams that can be enjoyed by young and old alike. In this picture book, a little barbarian undertakes an adventure, foiling foes hither and thither, but it turns out he’s really just one of us. Paul Fullner, Everson Library staff, cautions that “all is not as it appears, and every brave ride must come to an end (even if this end includes a lovely twist that will send you flipping back through the book for missed details).”
An example of personal strength, one of our “diamonds” is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. House arrest for the rest of his life inside Moscow’s luxury Metropol Hotel isn’t enough to prevent Count Rostov from becoming a man of purpose, even as society changes around him. Monica Zikusooka from the Blaine Library describes how the Count was able to live life to the fullest despite this limitation by “valuing his friendships and relationships and through discovery of the world around him.” In her words, this is “a novel to be savored… and to find delight in the language.”
Set in Texas during the Mexican Revolution, our six of hearts, Shame the Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, combining star-crossed love with drama, suspense and contemporary relevance. Thom Barthelmess, youth services manager, describes how the “two teens’ desperate love for one another is thwarted by their families, once close but now embroiled in the deepening conflict along the border between the United States and Mexico.” Suffused by themes of wealth, honor, romance and violence, Thom says this is a “sweeping, intimate and illuminating” read.
In the three of spades selection, Eleanor Oliphant may have convinced herself that she’s fine, but for this quirky loner, true happiness comes with growth when she opens herself to a world of possibility and connection. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is a funny, charming story of growth expected to be made into a movie by Reese Witherspoon, so read it now.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager for Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, March 20, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Deep Creek||
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston
Pam Houston was 31 years old when her first book, a collection of short stories titled Cowboys are My Weakness (1992), was published to some acclaim, earning her a check for $21,000—a lot of money for someone who was living in a tent and could fit all her belongings in her Toyota Corolla.
During the book tour for Cowboys, Houston looked for a place where she might want to use this money to settle down. She even came to Bellingham. But it was when she arrived in Creede, Colorado, met at the edge of town by a sign announcing a population of “586 nice folks and 17 soreheads,” that she knew she had found home nestled in the San Juan Mountains.
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country is a love letter to the 120-acre ranch that by several small miracles became hers with that $21,000. In her memoir told in linked essays interspersed with almanac entries about seasonal life on the ranch, Houston explores her traumatic childhood, small-town life, animal husbandry, climate change, and how to survive harsh winters and wildfires.
A horrific childhood at the hands of deeply narcissistic, alcoholic parents and an emotionally/physically abusive father made it difficult for her to trust enough to put down roots. The ranch and surrounding mountains offered Houston a place of safety and protection for the first time and inspired a daily gratitude despite the painful path that preceded it.
Because her childhood was so unpredictable, change had been a constant companion for Houston, so the regular pace of the ranch was both a challenge and a comfort. Fences need to be inspected and mended on a seasonal schedule, wood for winter heat chopped and stacked, hay stacked in the barn, chickens fed and eggs gathered.
Her two Irish wolfhounds, William and Fenton, are constant companions, as well as an assortment of horses, miniature donkeys, and Icelandic sheep; relationships that help her to understand what it means to be responsible and accountable to other living beings.
Fires that burned most of 100,000 acres of forest in 2013, right up to the edge of the ranch, inspire the essay entitled “Diary of a Fire” that laments human’s role in climate change and the seemingly irreversible devastation we are causing the planet.
Despite this planetary deterioration, Houston finds reasons for hope and the courage to be honest about our role in the damage. “And even if the jig is up,” she writes, “even if it really is game over, what better time to sing about the earth than when it is critically, even fatally, wounded at our hands.”
Deep Creek provides an emotional roadmap for how to simultaneously feel grief about our beaten-up world (and the role we play as damagers) and wonder at the beauty that remains.
If you haven’t read Houston before, but enjoy the writing of Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) and Lidia Yuknavitch (author of the memoir The Chronology of Water), you may want to add Deep Creek to your TBR list.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System. Find more reading recommendations at https://www.wcls.org.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, March 13, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Things That Make White People Uncomfortable||
Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett
The Super Bowl may be over and the New England Patriots’ sixth championship win noted in the record books, but there’s plenty about professional football and racism in the United States to make white people ill at ease, and who better than Michael Bennett to spell it out?
He does just that in Things That Make White People Uncomfortable. With his typical direct, take-no-prisoners delivery, the former Seahawk lets you know what’s on his mind—and it’s not just football.
Bennett begins with the Seahawks’ first preseason game of 2017, when, mindful of the recent violent neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, he decided to sit during the playing of the national anthem. “The fact that it made people angry, uncomfortable, and even hateful was proof that I was right to make a stand and take a seat,” he says.
Bennett has high praise for Colin Kaepernick, “one of the best fighters for justice and equality in sports history,” as well has his Seahawk teammates, who chose to sit out the anthem on Sept. 24, 2017 as a unified symbol of their commitment to work toward freedom and equality. He credits their ability to share their differing viewpoints respectfully and to be vulnerable with one another as a reason they are so successful as a team (and admirable as people).
Though Bennett had a successful college football career at Texas A & M, he calls B.S. on the NCAA and the media’s whitewashed portrayal of the college game as somehow “post-racial” because white fans cheer for majority-black teams. The players make no money, he points out, and are just there to provide entertainment. “Brainwashing athletes to play in the NCAA is an essential part of the NFL pipeline.”
Bennett asks some tough questions and presents hard data about professional football, where white businessmen are “owners” and the players are…property? He reviews recent studies of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and the physical toll football takes on its players. He also acknowledges the sport’s function as “soap opera for men.”
He’s not ungrateful, however, for the paycheck, and the opportunities his NFL position have brought him. Like many of his teammates and opponents, Bennett has a charitable foundation. His focus is on underserved children, STEM programming, and hunger issues. Bennett has three daughters and takes the role of feminist seriously. He’s also a proponent of intersectionality as the best hope for change.
Bennett addresses the Black Lives Matter movement and the importance of standing up for what you believe. He honors all the athletes who have used their platform on the international stage to bring attention to important issues and ends with a pledge to advocate at a grassroots level for progressive change in America.
Bennett shares writing credits with Dave Zirin, sports editor for the Nation, who is likely responsible for organizing Bennett’s thoughts into a cohesive narrative. He has mixed results. Just when the prose starts to meander, however, Bennett delivers a zinger that is clearly his own, and his insights are spot-on and worth pondering.
He also shares his sense of humor and some inside intel on the inspiration for his infamous “sack dance” (he calls it “two angels dance while chocolate is coming from the heavens on a nice Sunday morning”).
Whether you’re a diehard 12 or someone who prefers a good hike instead of spending some hours watching grown men plow into each other for sport, Bennett’s book is an accessible and thought-provoking look at racism, injustice and the power of protest.
Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 27, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Vox||
Vox by Christina Dalcher
It’s the near future, and all women and girls across the United States are required to wear word counters that limit them to 100 words per day. For each word beyond 100, the irremovable “bracelets” deliver a series of electric shocks that increase in intensity from painful to completely devastating.
What’s more, women are not permitted to read books, or write, or use sign language. They are not allowed to work outside the home. Their only purpose is to serve men as homemakers.
What makes Christina Dalcher’s first novel, Vox, so creepy and prescient is how normal and relatable the main characters’ lives are—and how quickly their lives change once these government edicts are enacted.
Jean was a cognitive linguist studying aphasia at a Washington D.C. research facility. Patrick, her husband, works in the White House. Busy raising their three sons and one daughter, it hardly registered that Reverend Carl Cobin’s Pure Movement was taking hold across the country.
To Reverend Carl and his acolytes, a return to traditional values was essential. Modern women had said too much. They needed to be silenced.
Soon Reverend Carl had the ear of the president and the legislature. They gained key appointments to the courts. Boys, like Jean’s teenage son Steven, were encouraged to take AP Religious Studies, with a textbook that promoted wives’ complete obedience to their husbands. They were also recruited to join clubs that taught that women are “lesser” and not worthy of being heard.
Then one day, when Jean went to apply to renew the family’s passports, she discovered that hers, and her 6-year-old daughter Sonia’s, had been revoked. Mother and daughter were fitted with slim bracelets—word counters. It didn’t take long for Jean to blithely cross the 100-word threshold—and be excruciatingly shocked.
Now dinner table conversation is stilted, with mother and daughter only able to respond to simple yes/no questions. Books are kept under lock and key to prevent Sonia from learning to read. Jean’s days are filled with mind-numbing monotony and solitude. Her emotions run the gamut from fear to anger to resentment, especially toward Patrick, who goes along with every ruling without question.
Then Jean is forced to return to her lab to complete her research, ostensibly to cure victims of traumatic brain injury suffering from speech loss. But she soon discovers the government has an ulterior motive, and she must use her wits and every ounce of courage to come up with a plan to thwart it.
Dalcher envisions a dystopian future that is alarmingly possible. She’s excellent at documenting the interchanges between family members, the details of modern life, and the oppression felt under the totalitarian, misogynistic regime. Her heartbreaking descriptions of how quickly Sonia adapts to the “new normal” are devastating, and the warnings made by Jean’s activist friend resonate strongly: “Think about what you need to do to stay free.”
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 16, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: A Home on the South Fork||
A Home on the South Fork: An Early History of Acme by Margaret A. Hellyer
After reading A Home on the South Fork: An Early History of Acme by Margaret A. Hellyer, it is easy to conjure the wild place this river valley once was: ancient cedar and fir trees growing tall in fertile soil; the south fork of the Nooksack River running thick with salmon, crossed by logjams of old growth.
For millennia, Coast Salish peoples lived well among this wildness until the lure of the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862 brought a hardy group of white families from lands abroad to this area of Whatcom County. A descendent of such settlers, Hellyer follows her family’s homesteading adventures and those of other settler families that made claim to the South Fork Valley in the 19th century.
For new arrivals, it was no easy task to navigate the bottomlands after the 12-mile trip across Lake Whatcom to the boat landing at Park, and then nine more miles traversing the hardscrabble trail to Acme. Once in the valley, settlers had to endure long winters and hard summers proving up a claim. This was too daunting for some, but many stayed and persevered.
Hellyer’s text is replete with excerpts from letters, journals and newspaper articles that reveal the character of the times. The book can be opened at any place and the reader will find something of interest.
I particularly enjoyed Chapter 6: “Slates and Inkwells: Education in the Valley.” It tells about the Saxon School District, approved in 1887, which served 84 square miles with local, one-room schoolhouses until the current Acme Elementary School was built in 1938. It’s hard not to view the many photographs of serious and earnest-faced children without wondering what mischief these youth were getting up to as soon as the camera was put away.
It is fascinating to see the pictures carefully reproduced on each page and understand the impact made upon the landscape in just a few decades—the town of Acme springing from the forest with the stumps of the giant trees in the background. The settlers were extremely industrious, advocating for a post office, a voting district, a water district, roads and electricity for their burgeoning community. Their awe and pleasure in the country is apparent in many of the photos: women wading in the river, picnics in the woods, woodsmen posing next to ancient timber.
It is this history Hellyer so beautifully lays out in A Home on the South Fork, published by South Fork Press in 2018. The book is lovely in its outlay, large in format, and studded with photographs from the author’s private collection.
Hellyer, whose own valley roots stretch back four generations, spent 10 years writing this valuable contribution to rural history. She tells the South Fork story with thoroughly researched and detailed information collected from a well-documented variety of sources.
The book forms a bridge to the present and enriches the sense of place for those of us that live here, and it will be a resource and a joy for anyone with an interest in Whatcom County history.
Katrina Carabba is the branch manager of the WCLS Deming Library.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 9, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Unsheltered||
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
With trademark style, Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Unsheltered, tackles political and social justice issues through the story of two families inhabiting the same house, separated by more than a century, who find themselves terribly at odds with the changing world around them.
Willa Knox and her husband Iano are an educated professional couple whose world begins to fall apart when the magazine Willa is writing for goes out of business and the college where Iano is tenured closes its doors.
Iano finds an entry-level teaching position near Vineland, New Jersey, in happy proximity to a house they recently inherited. It soon becomes apparent, however, that, much like their lives, the house has a host of problems due to being built on an “insufficient foundation” and is threatening to come apart at the seams.
Struggling to make ends meet on one much-reduced income, Willa and Iano are further challenged when Tig, their 20-something daughter who has been incommunicado for several years, moves back home. Add to the mix caring for Iano’s cranky father, Nic, with his host of health problems. Then their Ivy-League-educated son experiences a tragedy and they take over the care of their infant grandson.
Suddenly, Willa and Iano find themselves with an empty bank account, no adequate health care coverage, living in a house they cannot afford to fix and asking themselves how things could have gone so wrong when they thought they did everything “right.”
Willa begins researching the history of the house, hoping to learn something that might qualify them for grant restoration money. She learns that the Vineland community was founded as a Victorian-era Utopia, and that a science teacher who believed in the theory of evolution (at odds with the community founders) lived in their house in the 1870s. Even a century before, Thatcher Greenwood despaired at the condition of the structure, which though newly built was poorly designed and executed, described by a contractor as the “whole house is at odds with itself.”
Thatcher loves his prim and proper wife, Rose, but often feels he doesn’t measure up to her standards. Rose’s social-climbing mother and teenage sister, Polly, also live with them; Polly’s fresh outlook and budding young feminism keep the story lively.
Thatcher takes intellectual refuge in the company of his neighbor, Mary Treat, a historical personage and scientist in her own right who corresponded with many of the great thinkers of the day and whose work informed Charles Darwin’s theories. Treat explores the appetites of carnivorous plants and keeps jars of tower-building tarantulas on her windowsills, disguised as terrariums so as not to shock the ladies who call on her.
Kingsolver is well-known to be unapologetically liberal in her political orientation, and Unsheltered is no exception, tackling Trump-era themes and communicating the existential threats that rock the foundations of so many people today.
In celebration of the release of Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, Village Books introduces a limited-run open book group that will delve into the rich history of her past books on the second Tuesday of each month, culminating in a discussion of Unsheltered in November of 2019. Each discussion will be facilitated by one of Village Books’ many booksellers or by a special guest. January’s discussion will focus on Homeland: And Other Stories. With the same wit and sensitivity that have come to characterize Kingsolver’s highly praised and beloved novels, she gives us a rich and emotionally resonant collection. Spreading memorable characters over landscapes ranging from Northern California to the hills of eastern Kentucky and the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Kingsolver tells stories of hope, momentary joy and powerful endurance. In every setting, Kingsolver’s distinctive voice—at times comic, but often heartrending—rings true as she explores the twin themes of family ties and the life choices one must ultimately make alone. Find Unsheltered—and Kingsolver’s other novels—at your local library in regular print, large print, or eBook formats, as well as book-on-CD, Playaway, and eAudio sound formats.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager for Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 2, 2019.)
|Book Buzz: Virgil Wander||
Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
Leif Enger’s first book in a decade (So Brave, Young, and Handsome was published in 2008) is a gentle, charming antidote to all that ails us as a society these days.
The title character, Virgil Wander, is the unassuming sole proprietor of a rundown independent movie theater in a struggling Minnesota town. Virgil’s on autopilot, lonely and at an impasse in his life, when a slick road in a sudden snowstorm lands him 40 feet below the surface of Lake Superior.
Rescued by a local junkman and diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury, Virgil suffers from terrible headaches, a loss of balance and a noticeable lack of adjectives. His Finnish neurologist assures him his language will return in time, but it’s clear to Virgil that something essential about him has changed, even if he can’t articulate it.
At first Virgil’s friends, like Beeman, who publishes the weekly newspaper, don’t notice Virgil’s transformation. Beeman drops Virgil off at his home above the Empress Theater where he’s lived for the past 20 years, unaware that to Virgil, the apartment seems to belong to a stranger.
Virgil sees the whole town of Greenstone with new eyes: the litter-strewn parking lot of the Voyageur Motel, the decrepit taconite factory now overgrown by saplings, the downtown main street with its air of defeat.
Virgil is looking at people in a new way, too. He meets a mysterious older man flying kites by the waterfront and, after discovering that Rune has nowhere to stay, offers him his spare room. Ann, Virgil’s irritating colleague at his day job at the Greenstone City Hall, no longer bothers him. He talks her into going with him to ask the town’s infamous millionaire, Adam Leer, to participate in an ill-conceived civic event. Where Virgil would have once felt cowed and deferential, he now notes Leer’s menacing charisma.
Virgil’s days, once quiet and mundane, start to build in intensity. The new Virgil speaks plainly to his longtime crush, only to find his feelings are reciprocated. He takes steps to repatriate the contraband reels of classic films that had been hidden in a closet at the Empress. He keeps a watchful, caring eye out for a 10-year-old boy who’s bent on catching the massive sturgeon he believes is responsible for his father’s death. And he works to pull together Greenstone’s Hard Luck Days, wondering if in fact the town’s luck (and his) is turning.
Despite the quirky characters and fantastic situations, Enger keeps the plot line believable. Virgil comes across as someone straight out of the Prairie Home Companion—honest, moderate, modest. His friendships are real, his decency is admirable, and his book—this book—is intelligent, amusing and well worth the several delightful hours it takes to read it.
If you’ve never read Enger’s debut novel, Peace Like a River, now’s your chance. It’s the tale of an 11-year-old, cowboy-obsessed boy named Reuben Land who goes on a cross-country journey to find his older brother—who’s trying to outrun a murder charge. The beautiful language, the time period, and the unforgettable characters will remind you of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, December 12, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: Season’s Readings||
What We Keep: 150 People Share the One Object that Brings Them Joy, Magic, and Meaning by Bill Shapiro and Naomi Wax
The leaves have fallen, the hours of daylight grow shorter and there is a cold snap in the air reminding us that year’s end is nigh, and with it, holiday shopping!
Delight the book-lover in your life with these recent releases in adult nonfiction that explore how objects, books and relationships shape us.
Objects can harbor deep meaning and represent the stories that make up our personal mythologies. Books can inspire and help us dream of the kind of people we would like to become. Relationships with the non-humans with whom we share the planet can inspire us to be our best selves.
A chance encounter with a locket at a garage sale caused authors Bill Shapiro and Naomi Wax to ponder what happens when our most treasured objects are removed from the people whose stories they represent. The result, What We Keep: 150 People Share the One Object that Brings Them Joy, Magic, and Meaning, is a collective trip down memory lane, where the famous and not-so-famous share secret histories of their most personal treasures, each beautifully unique.
Stunning photographs of the treasured objects and their people invite entry into these private worlds that harbor the seeds of self. Some “rememberers” are names you will recognize, like Cheryl Strayed, James Patterson, Melinda Gates, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Strayed says of her object, “It holds in its very being both the girl I was and the woman I became.” This beautiful book honors the curious connection we have with our special things and delights in our uniqueness.
Even the most avid reader would be hard-pressed to actually read all of the books recommended in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-changing List, but book-lovers can dream!
Encompassing fiction, poetry, science, science fiction, travel writing, biography, children’s books, history and more, this nearly 1,000-page tome manages to be reference book, inspiration and entertainment.
“A Miscellany of Special Lists” suggests reading in categories such as short and long reads, terrific audiobooks, mind-expanding and escapist titles. Of course, the first thing most bibliophiles will want to do is mark all the titles they have already read in the checklist at the back of the book.
More than a memoir, How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals is a call to deepen our empathic connections with other living creatures. Sy Montgomery writes about her life in the context of 13 animals that taught her things about being a good human being. She describes learning how to play with children from a pig, how she learned about aging gracefully from a border collie and about forgiveness from a wild weasel.
Gorgeous language and Rebecca Green’s lovely illustrations combine to make this a beautiful gem of a book, and a sure pick for anyone who loves animals or feels deeply the connection humans share with all living things.
Lisa Gresham selects these and other adult nonfiction titles for Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, November 28, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: The 57 Bus||
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater
At Whatcom County Library System (WCLS), we believe that the act of reading offers readers a window into other people’s lives, and that reading develops empathy.
We host more than a dozen book discussion groups for the public each month at libraries across Whatcom County (see Events at https://www.wcls.org for dates and times). We promote the Whatcom READS program at the beginning of each year. And this year we decided to build upon staff training initiatives related to diversity by undertaking a system-wide staff book discussion; we selected The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater to read together.
This nonfiction title recounts the horrific moments of Nov. 4, 2013 on a city bus in Oakland, California, when two teens’ lives fatefully intersected.
The basic outline is this: Sasha, a white, upper-middle-class teenager who identifies as agender, fell asleep while riding the 57 bus home from school. Richard, an African-American high school student from the opposite side of the city and lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, boarded the 57 bus with some friends.
Richard noticed Sasha, particularly the skirt Sasha was wearing. Spurred on by his friends, Richard flicked a lighter to the edge of Sasha’s skirt, which went up in flames. Sasha was rushed to the hospital with severe burns over a fifth of Sasha’s body. Eventually, Richard was arrested, charged as an adult for committing a hate crime, and sent to prison.
The spare facts of the story only hint at its complexity, which journalist Slater first presented as a feature in The New York Times Magazine in 2015. In this book version, Slater has room to explore what happened, and its implications, from all angles.
The narrative is separated into four parts: “Sasha,” “Richard,” “The Fire,” and “Justice.” Brief, poignant chapters are interspersed with lists and charts, poems, text messages and letters that add variety and interest.
Slater introduces vocabulary to build understanding of Sasha’s gender identity, sexuality and romantic interests. She details Richard’s upbringing, the hopes and dreams of his mother, and the sad reality of a life already touched by murder and violence. Slater interviews family members, friends and school officials for a thorough review of both teens’ lives prior to the incident and how they were both affected after the incident.
What first appears to be a book about gender and homophobia expands into a nuanced and open-ended exploration of race, class and the justice system. Slater is compassionate and descriptive, but not judgmental or sappy. She does not provide answers, but asks many questions—about the lifetime consequences of a momentary bad decision, about the value and possibilities of restorative justice, and about humans’ aptitude for redemption and forgiveness.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, November 21, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: See What I Have Done||
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
As the days get shorter and chillier and the specter of Halloween looms, creepy thrillers have seasonal reading appeal. In See What I Have Done, Australian novelist Sarah Schmidt presents a deeply disturbing retelling of a classic true crime story that fits the bill.
Remember the gruesome rhyme “Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks…”? Schmidt gets into the head of Lizzie herself, as well as her sister Emma, Bridget the maid, and a stranger named Benjamin, to explore what happened that fateful day in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892.
Andrew Borden was a wealthy businessman who, along with his second wife Abby and his adult daughters Lizzie and Emma, lived in a large two-story home at 92 Second St. Emma was staying with a friend out of town on the day Lizzie purportedly found her father’s body, slumped and bleeding on the living room couch. “Someone’s killed Father,” she is said to have yelled.
Schmidt begins her tale from Lizzie’s perspective in the minutes after the murder. Lizzie is dazed, her heart racing, feverish, nonsensical. She screams for the maid, Bridget, to send for Dr. Bowen. A neighbor, Mrs. Churchill, hears the commotion and enters the house, only to discover the grisly scene. Immediately it’s clear that Lizzie may know more than she’s letting on—but what?
While the actual murders happen off-page, sensitive readers will pick up the terrible feeling of foreboding that permeates the book. Flashbacks explore Lizzie and Emma’s childhood, the death of their mother, and their strained relationship with Abby, their stepmother. Their father is strict and harsh; tension abounds. Lizzie is manipulative and controlling, and Emma struggles to escape the bonds of both father and sister. There’s significant family dysfunction and possible mental illness.
Further complicating the scene is the unexpected arrival of their birth mother’s darkly sinister brother the night before the murders took place. Why is John there and what role did he play?
In Schmidt’s world, none of the Bordens are sympathetic. Only Bridget, haplessly trapped to a life of drudgery, comes across as sane and pitiful. The house itself, lit by kerosene and scented by days-old mutton soup, is oppressive and menacing. Lizzie’s beloved pigeons flap and flutter and claw. The book’s cover, of a painted pigeon, watercolors dripping down the page, is particularly arresting. This story will have you shivering under the covers as you stay up ‘til the wee hours reading to the bitter end.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, October 24, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: The Library Book||
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean loves libraries, but she didn’t set out to write a book about them. In fact, the bestselling nonfiction author and staff writer for The New Yorker had decided that she was done writing books entirely. “Working on them felt like a slow-motion wrestling match,” she declares, “and I wasn’t in the mood to grapple with such a big commitment again.”
But in 2011 Orlean learned about the devastating fire that swept through the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Branch years before. The unsolved mystery of the fire intrigued her. Almost before she knew it, Orlean began researching the fire and the history of the library itself, the results of which are woven together in her enthralling new work, The Library Book.
When bells began to sound at the Central Library on April 29, 1986, everyone thought it was another false alarm. Between temperamental smoke detectors and the general mischief that happens in an overcrowded building, alarms were a frequent annoyance. This time, though, the fire was real. A spark deep in the stacks quickly ignited into a blaze that burned for more than seven hours, at temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees.
When all was said and done, more than 400,000 books were completely destroyed and 700,000 more were damaged. Many were irreplaceable. It was a catastrophic loss, the most significant any American public library has ever sustained.
In the aftermath, while arson investigators set out to find the culprit, the mandate for library officials was clear: restore operations. Help came from all quarters, whether it was donating books, restoring damaged materials or reassuring the traumatized staff. The library’s tragedy was the city’s tragedy.
As readers learn, this was not the first time Los Angeles galvanized around their library. The Library Book reaches back to the city’s infancy, when civic leaders recognized that a library would put Los Angeles on the map. Journeying through history, we meet fascinating individuals like Mary Jones, who became city librarian in 1880 when women were not even permitted library cards; and eccentric Charles Lummis, who accepted the directorship, then walked from Ohio to Los Angeles.
Perhaps what this compelling, deeply researched book does best is take readers inside the Los Angeles Public Library, and by extension, modern libraries around the country. Blowing dust off the image of libraries as sleepy relics, Orlean shows libraries for what they really are—vibrant community centers humming with life, where staff connect patrons with resources, lead classes, support families and share materials.
The Library Book rings true to all those who know libraries and the crucial role they play in a democratic society. It is at once a history, a crime story, and a love story that springs straight from the author’s heart—a passionate homage to libraries, their caretakers, and the mission that drives them.
In the final pages, Orlean writes: “This is why I wanted to write this book, to tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine…. All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here is my story, please listen; here I am, please tell me your story.”
Mary Kinser is Collection Development Librarian for Whatcom County Library System, where she selects fiction, DVDs, music and audiobooks for adults. She can almost always be found with a book in her hand.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, October 17, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: The Golden State||
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
After the forest fires that raged across California recently, it’s hard to imagine the scenery of the high desert as brown and grassy but not charred and smoldering. However, in her new novel The Golden State, author Lydia Kiesling skillfully evokes a scorching summer in fictional Altavista, California, that will have readers fully engrossed.
Daphne, a 30-year-old first-time mother, has retreated with Honey, her toddler, to her grandparents’ abandoned mobile home on a whim, unable to face her job at a San Francisco University’s Center for Islamic Studies.
Her beloved husband, Elgin, lost his U.S. residency status and is stuck in Turkey mired in bureaucracy, and Daphne is folding under the strain of loneliness and single parenthood. She has a vague notion that the stark beauty of the rugged area she adored as a child will bring her some clarity as she ponders next steps. Also weighing on her is the death of a graduate student, killed in a car accident while overseas on a program Daphne coordinated.
As Kiesling relates Daphne’s sun-drenched and stultifying days in the hardscrabble remote desert, we get a keenly insightful portrait of the challenges of modern motherhood—the tedium, the repetition, the overwhelming love and sheer terror.
Packing up the diaper bag to haul Honey on a daily walk past the sagebrush and the Golden Spike to Sal’s Cafe, talking constantly to narrate every moment for Honey’s edification—it’s vividly real, as is when Daphne starts to wonder if she’s hallucinating Honey’s first words.
The details are modern—Daphne struggles with a Skype connection to check in with work; she shamefully downloads some Elmo videos using her Amazon Prime subscription to keep Honey occupied—but the general themes are timeless and universal.
Kiesling mixes some social commentary into the narrative about Daphne and Elgin’s forced separation, and contrasts their international worldview with that of Daphne’s rural neighbors, some of whom favor seceding from the state of California. Kiesling also introduces an elderly woman, Alice, who befriends Daphne when Daphne reaches her lowest point—but who has an agenda of her own.
Although the author has a bad habit of making frequent use of long, run-on lists, these can be skimmed over as one instead savors Daphne’s honesty and insight. There’s a lot to unpack in this novel, so it’s perfect for book clubs. Discussion can encompass writing style, figurative language, descriptions of place and internal monologues, as well as the themes of motherhood, immigration, loneliness and belonging.
Daphne’s run-ins with her neighbor Cindy’s group of State of Jefferson supporters, bent on securing the borders of a new 51st state, is particularly enlightening and thought-provoking. Whose state is the Golden State? What does this conservative, rural group of ranchers and farmers have in common with other Trump supporters across the country? How do we balance the needs of urbanites and rural residents? Immigrants versus disadvantaged multi-generational locals?
Kiesling does not provide any definitive answers, just a peek at one woman’s choices for herself and her family.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, October 10, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: Hope Never Dies||
Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer
Joe Biden in retirement is not a pretty picture: grouting bathroom tile, napping and watching Barack’s globetrotting adventures with the likes of Bradley Cooper and Justin Trudeau on cable television. Barack has yet to call him and he feels the sting as would a jilted lover. “No late-night texting. Not even a friendly poke on Facebook,” he laments.
In Andrew Shaffer’s Hope Never Dies, Joe learns of the mysterious death of his favorite Amtrak conductor, Finn Donnelly, hit and killed on the railroad tracks by the Wilmington train, the same train Joe rode daily for so many years when commuting from his home in Delaware to the Senate. Heroin was found in the man’s pocket and he was clutching a Google map printout pinpointing Joe’s home address.
Was the man drugged and his body dumped on the tracks? Was he trying to get in touch with “Amtrak Joe” for help? Wanting to clear his friend’s name of any criminal wrongdoing, Joe takes it upon himself to investigate.
Aware of the map and concerned for Joe’s safety—government-provided protection was pulled after six months, as is usual for former vice presidents—Barack and his no-nonsense Secret Service man show up in a beefed-up Escalade that he calls the “Little Beast,” a gift to himself after completing the first draft of his memoirs. Barack quips that when Michelle saw what he paid for it, she said, “You’d better have a couple more book ideas inside that thick skull of yours.”
They throw themselves into the investigation, abandoning the obvious Escalade for Joe’s neon-green Dodge Challenger, inventing thin disguises, and having run-ins with biker gangs, corrupt cops and drug dealers. The match-up of Obama’s cerebral Holmes to Biden’s bumbling Watson plays well, and readers who are nostalgic for the previous administration will enjoy the real-life tidbits about the two Shaffer works into dialogue and plot.
As an aside, during his years in the Senate, Biden was a huge proponent of public transportation and was well-known to constituents as he rode Amtrak on his daily commute. He began this practice after a tragic accident in 1972 took the lives of his wife and 1-year-old daughter; as a single parent to his surviving sons, Biden opted to commute daily to D.C. rather than maintain a residence there in order to be home with them each evening. Conductors knew him well and would occasionally hold trains for a few minutes if he was running late.
Shaffer confesses that he wanted to write Biden into an action novel ever since first seeing a photo of him wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses. The idea for this mystery came during the weeks after the new administration took office when news channels constantly ran footage of Obama on what seemed like an endless vacation. Shaffer couldn’t help but wonder what Biden was doing and how it would feel to have such an intense partnership suddenly severed. The mystery works largely because of its exploration of estranged friendships that take faltering steps to reunite in changed landscapes.
If you enjoyed the spirit of the Obama/Biden memes blasting around the Internet post-2016 election, I’m pretty sure you’ll find this mystery a refreshing break from the daily news. Shaffer keeps his political messaging light, instead focusing on the “bromance” aspect of our former POTUS and his veep in this wacky buddy whodunit. Some reviewers have questioned Shaffer’s purpose in writing this book. Was it nostalgia for a bygone administration? Therapy? Satire? I advise not thinking too deeply about it; just enjoy the slapstick ride.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager for Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, September 19, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: Jar of Hearts||
Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
Twenty-five years ago, Canadian serial killer Karla Homolka struck a plea deal with prosecutors in return for her testimony that her husband, Paul Bernardo, raped and murdered at least three minors in a series of grisly deaths that began with Homolka’s younger sister Tammy.
Convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a mere 12 years in prison, Karla served her time and walked free in 2005, despite the fact that videotapes were discovered during the trial that clearly showed her complicity in the gruesome crimes.
Homolka and Bernardo were household names in Canada throughout the 1990s when author Jennifer Hillier was growing up in Toronto, and the news coverage made a big impression on her. Hillier often wondered how Homolka was able to restart her life upon her release. Media accounts allege that Homolka married, changed her name, bore three children and is now volunteering in her children’s elementary school in Montreal.
Hillier marveled at Homolka’s audacity and her ability to put the past behind her, and set out to write a novel that would explore the limits of forgiveness, redemption and renewal. Jar of Hearts follows the story of Georgina Shaw, known as Geo, a successful executive at a Seattle pharmaceutical company. One day, police raid her corporate boardroom and lead Geo out in handcuffs, charged as an accessory in the murder of her close high school friend Angela Wong 14 years prior.
Angela and Geo’s other high school pal, Kaiser Brody, is now a detective for the Seattle Police Department, struggling to resolve his longtime crush on Geo with the knowledge that not only did Geo know where Angela’s body was all these years, but she also played a role in Angela’s death.
The narrative alternates between different perspectives, following Geo’s experiences serving her five-year prison sentence. Little by little it comes to light that Geo’s high school romantic obsession with a charismatic but deeply disturbed older man, Calvin James, set her on a terrible path. Though Calvin lands a lifetime prison sentence as the Sweetbay Strangler, he manages to escape. Then, just as Geo is about to be freed, several bodies are found, murdered in the same way that Angela was. Is it Calvin? Is Geo in danger? Can she ever escape her past and build a future?
Readers need to have a high tolerance for gore and sexual violence before choosing this book, but if you like Chelsea Cain or Gillian Flynn, or Hillier’s favorite novelist Stephen King, you should be all set. Hillier serves up a good helping of twists and turns and overall creepiness, all with a Seattle backdrop. The title is a reference to Christina Perri’s 2010 somber pop single, which would make a good soundtrack while reading.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, August 15, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: The Great Believers||
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers is a spot-on portrayal of the devastation and heartbreak of the AIDS crisis and the lasting legacy of those who survived it. In it, Makkai deftly weaves together two stories told in alternating chapters; one focusing on a group of friends in Chicago’s Boystown in the 1980s, and the other set in contemporary Paris.
At the center of the story are Yale Tishman, a development director for an art gallery in Chicago, and his partner, Charlie. Yale is more reticent than Charlie, who seems always to be in the spotlight at any party. In private, however, Charlie is suspicious about Yale’s activities and insecure about Yale leaving him.
Beautiful, beloved Nico is the first of Yale and Charlie’s friend group to become ill. Nico’s decline and death are gut-wrenchingly sudden, and occur just at the time when fear and misinformation about this mysterious disease are beginning to swirl through the Boystown community. If you lived through this time, you will well remember the paranoia and confusion that surrounded this illness.
Tragically, Nico’s parents excommunicated him when he became ill, but his younger sister, Fiona, stays by his side. Although only 18, Fiona dedicates herself to supporting other young men in Nico’s circle through their terrible suffering, taking on a burden of grief that makes her forever guarded about intimate relationships; she ultimately finds marriage and motherhood a difficult challenge as a result.
The second interwoven story places Fiona in Paris 30 years later, trying to track down her daughter, Claire, who she now suspects has a daughter of her own. They haven’t spoken for years since Claire became involved in a cult. While in Paris, Fiona stays with Richard, a photographer who documented AIDS in Boystown back in the ‘80s and knew Yale and her brother Nico. Richard, the search for her daughter, and several other events vividly invoke the past and Fiona is pressed to reconcile the ways in which she is scarred by it.
Because so little is documented about the AIDS crisis in Chicago, Makkai depended on original research. After putting out calls on social media to find survivors, she was able to meet and interview two doctors who founded a Chicago-based AIDS unit that became the model for AIDS treatment, staff who worked at the unit and AIDS activists. These real voices inform Makkai’s characters and add a vibrant urgency to the story.
The Great Believers is a completely absorbing, heartbreaking epic with finely described characters you will miss after the last page is turned. It is a story about families of choice, political action (and inaction), grief, friendship, love and art. It honors the love and bravery of those who lived through the beginnings of the AIDS crisis, and powerfully reminds readers that this is still a very real epidemic that needs continued attention and resources.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager for Whatcom County Library System. Her favorite reads? Books like this one where the characters live on in your imagination.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, August 8, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: There There||
There There by Tommy Orange
Tommy Orange did not grow up around books or aspire to be a writer. A recent graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, this debut novelist who came to writing late in life is making quite a splash with his first book, There There, a polyphonic story of 12 Urban Indians whose worlds collide at the Big Oakland Powwow.
Orange grew up in Oakland and clearly is writing about his home turf. A powerful prologue frames There There as an ode to Urban Indians who “know the downtown Oakland skyline better than any sacred mountain range, the redwoods in the Oakland hills better than any other deep wild forest.” Giving voice to the 70 percent of Native people who live in cities, among other things, Orange refutes the stereotype of the historical Indian.
In alternating chapters, we learn the backstory of each of the 12 first-person characters, some related, some whose lives intersect only briefly before their collision of fates at the powwow.
Orvil Red Feather knew he wanted to learn traditional dance the first time he saw Native dancers on TV (in an ironic aside, the narrator points out that it was in November, a time when it is easy to find Indians on TV). It awakened a hunger in him to be part of “something you could dance to.” Finding some dance regalia that more-or-less fit him in his mom’s closet, Orvil taught himself to dance by watching YouTube videos. Now he is going to the Oakland Powwow (he only knows about powwows from the internet) to dance in front of others for the first time.
Orvil’s grandmother, Jacquie Red Feather, is also heading to the powwow, excited to meet Orvil and his two brothers, her grandsons, for the first time. She has been estranged from her daughter, Blue, who is herself estranged from the three boys who are being raised by their great aunt. Jacquie is a substance abuse counselor and recently sober alcoholic.
Other characters include Tony Loneman, born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (which he calls “the Drome”), and Dene Oxendene, an aspiring young artist who is setting up a booth at the powwow to video document stories of Oakland Indians. Edwin Black is half-white, overweight, addicted to the internet, and searching Facebook for the father he has never met. And Octavio Gomez plans to rob the powwow of prize money, even figuring out how to 3D print guns out of plastic so he can get them through the security gates.
This landscape is rife with fractured families, violence, suicide and drug abuse; destructive cycles are faithfully portrayed in There There. It is also a birthplace of hope and cultivator of resilience, as characters take steps to create themselves anew.
At first glance, the title may be taken as words of comfort, but literati will recognize Gertrude Stein’s famous words (when returning to her native Oakland stomping ground to find it transformed into an industrial park), “there is no there there.” Orange spars with and challenges this notion, contending that “being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”
There There is already on many “best books of 2018” lists and is being described as stunning, devastating, masterful, ferociously honest, and destined to become required reading. You’ll want to add this debut to your summer reading list.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager for Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, July 18, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: Lawn Boy||
Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
When Bainbridge Island author Jonathan Evison visited Whatcom County in 2017 as part of the Whatcom READS program, we met a gregarious, intelligent, self-destructive and endearing writer who loves to talk about books and drink beer—a lot of beer.
He presents himself as a bit of a sad sack, an Everyman, but there’s a certain twinkle in his eye and twitch to his lip that indicates his brain is going a mile a minute and he’s got a lot to say, much like the lead character in his latest novel, Lawn Boy.
Mike Muñoz is just scraping by, grinding out one crappy landscaping gig after another. Topiary is his passion, but for now “the man” is keeping him down (or maybe it’s that he’s his own worst enemy?).
When he’s not sweating at work, Mike’s taking care of Nate, his developmentally disabled adult brother with a major attitude. Nate’s nothing short of a tyrant, and while Mike loves him fiercely, Nate can be a little much. Nate’s addicted to Oreos and has watched Despicable Me dozens of times. Mike is clearly lonely, but his limited income doesn’t leave much cash flow for impressing the ladies. Mostly he lurks around Mitzel’s hoping to catch a glimpse of the waitress he thinks he has a crush on.
When Mike loses his latest job after refusing to pick up a client’s dog poop, it’s time to kick his plan for self-improvement into gear and head to the public library. Though the small but daily disasters continue to pile up, the library’s got AC, plenty of self-help books and a lovable librarian named Andrew to help Mike discover his authentic self.
It’s rare to read a novel that is both compassionate about the plight of the working class and unsparingly honest. Evison can find moments of beauty and humanity among the strip malls and trailer parks. Through Mike, he explores what it’s like to grow up biracial, broke and fatherless. As Mike careens from one warped father figure to another, trying to achieve his dreams and understand his ethnic and sexual identities, we laugh, wince, cry and shake our heads along with him. Evison can be vulgar and blunt, but his characters are sweet at heart and vulnerable.
Whatcom County Library System and its partner, Bellingham Public Library, have plenty of copies of Lawn Boy at the ready for checkout at libraries around the area (with eBook and various audiobook formats on order). Take a break from mowing and weeding and borrow a library copy today!
Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, July 11, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: The Ensemble||
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
If you need a little extra inspiration before shelling out for tickets to one or more of the many performances taking place at the Bellingham Festival of Music next month, check out a copy of Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble from your nearest public library.
The Bellingham Festival of Music is celebrating its 25th year during its Silver Anniversary Season June 30-July 20, and The Ensemble, with its warm, sensitive portrayal of up-and-coming chamber musicians, puts a human face on the performers behind classical music performances.
It’s the 1990s at a prestigious conservatory in San Francisco, and four top students have agreed to forgo solo careers in favor of forming a string quartet. Jana is a driven, motivated first violin. She recently realized that she’s at her most engaged and creative when playing with others. Henry is a childhood viola prodigy, deeply loyal to his friend Jana. Brit, the second violin, is sweet, sad and sympathetic. She fears that she wasted her time attending “regular college” instead of a music school. Finally, there’s Daniel, the cellist, nearly 30 and older than the others. Daniel has been diligently working and waiting for his big break. This quartet may be the answer to his prayers.
The Ensemble follows their chamber group, the Van Ness Quartet, as they head to music competitions and get their first taste of success as well as some failures. Jana will do anything to achieve her goals. Henry, objectively the most talented, may be seduced into a solo career. Daniel is angry and bitter, hard on himself and the women who love him. Brit, an orphan, is beautiful, quiet and steadfast. They are friends, they are lovers, and they are intense, committed musicians.
As they age and mature and their talents grow and refine, the musicians’ relationships with one another evolve as well. It’s not all happiness and light, as they struggle with their ambition, loneliness, tendonitis and jealousy. But their close working partnership ultimately binds them together into something more than a quartet—a family of sorts, connected by their passion for the music and the way that in playing together they create beautiful art.
Even if you’re not a musician, you’ll find yourself cueing up your Pandora list of classical selections to accompany you while you read. The author cleverly provides a selection of chamber music pieces at the beginning of each of the four parts of the novel to make it even easier for to you create a multi-sensory experience.
This book is more about feelings and friendships than plot, so read this if you enjoy character-driven stories or if you want to know more about the orchestral world from a behind-the-scenes perspective. Gabel is herself a cellist and clearly has a deep understanding and appreciation for this milieu.
The Ensemble never hits a wrong note. Just like a talented, well-rehearsed quartet, this work of fiction is lyrical, moving and honest.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 13, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: Educated||
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
In her time studying at Harvard and Cambridge, Tara Westover often discovered profound gaps in her knowledge. Teachers would refer to specific events or places that she’d never heard of; other students would make cultural references she didn’t understand.
These discoveries sometimes upended Westover’s worldview, sending her scurrying to learn more, an effort to cover the truth about her past.
That she was accepted to study at such prestigious academic institutions was in itself somewhat of a miracle. Westover had no experience with formal education until age 17, when she entered Brigham Young University as a freshman. She taught herself enough math, science and English to pass the ACT, but had never attended school of any kind.
In Educated, Westover tells the incredible story of her life. Her family, led by her enigmatic firebrand father, espoused a belief system that viewed all outside interference with suspicion. The medical establishment was not to be trusted; illness was treated with medicinal herbs and prayer. The family stockpiled resources for the imminent government collapse. And though they were ostensibly homeschooled, instead of studying, the children were put to work in the family junkyard.
It is in the junkyard that Westover’s story turns tragic. Working with few safety precautions—her father believes such measures to be an affront to the angels—the siblings sustain injury after injury, each more horrifying than the last. The wounds the Westover children receive are more than physical, leaving scars that transform her brother Shawn into an unrecognizable abuser. When Shawn’s rage targets his sister, her parents cover and excuse the abuse.
At last, with the help of her brother Tyler, Westover begins to see that life could be something more. Tyler had escaped the family years before, and encourages her to try for admission to BYU. Westover pours her heart into study. When she is admitted, her father musters admiration, though never full support.
But as Westover ventures further into the realm of knowledge, the bedrock of her beliefs starts to crack. She questions an ideology she’s always assumed to be unimpeachable, tentatively trying on new perspectives.
The process is painful; Westover writes with candor about her fear of and love for her family, and the cost of a new life. “I understood now: I could stand with my family, or with the gentiles, on the one side or the other, but there was no foothold in between.”
Educated is raw and vulnerable; a gut-punch reading experience akin to Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Readers will marvel at Westover’s strength, not only in her will to survive, but also to completely transform. To say she is courageous scarcely does her justice.
At its most powerful, Educated is the story of a voice reclaimed. “My life was narrated for me by others,” Westover writes. “Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
In this candid and revealing memoir, Westover’s voice is not just strong, but searing.
Mary Kinser is Collection Development Librarian for Whatcom County Library System, where she selects fiction, DVDs, music and audiobooks for adults. She can almost always be found with a book in her hand.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, May 23, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: Crazy, Rich Asians||
Crazy, Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
In library school (yes, there’s such a thing, it’s a master’s program in Library and Information Science that trains professional librarians) students learn Rosenberg’s First Law of Reading: “Never apologize for your reading taste.”
So there’s no need to feel embarrassed if you occasionally (or regularly) get sucked into reading something lowbrow. Reading can be recreational, after all, and why not have fun? Crazy Rich Asians, which came out in 2013, is Kevin Kwan’s satirical comedy of manners that skewers the Chinese and Malaysian jet set. The rom-com movie version is scheduled to be released this summer, so grab a copy of the book now and you’ll be ahead of the game.
This fun and frivolous novel starts with family trees tracing the relationships between several of Singapore’s ruling elite dynasties. The cast of characters is lengthy and confusing (is it Astrid Leung who only wears couture but shuns Louis Vuitton? Or Fiona Tung who receives a stunning sapphire necklace from her Ah Ma but loans it to her cousin’s American Born Chinese girlfriend?), but you don’t need to stress about it.
The protagonist is Rachel Chu, a professor of economics at New York University who is persuaded by her dashing boyfriend Nick Young to join him at the wedding of his best friend Colin Khoo in Singapore. Little does Rachel know that this is going to be the event of the year, and Nick is the future heir to Sir James Young and Shang Su Yi’s immense fortune.
After meeting Colin’s fiancée Araminta, a fashion icon whose nouveau-riche parents are ponying up more than $40 million for the nuptials, Rachel is quickly circled by sharks at Araminta’s over-the-top bachelorette party. She’s immediately labeled a gold digger and the gossip network is all a-twitter, despite Rachel’s complete lack of awareness about Nick’s most eligible bachelor status.
Scene after scene of lavish opulence and catty conniving introduces readers to the intricacies of this ultra-rich social set. There are those who love comparing real estate holdings and stock options with other HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals), those who greedily snap up knock-off designer purses versus those who wouldn’t be caught dead with a fake, and those who happily send their children to the very best prep schools and fly their private planes to Hong Kong and Macau and tiny Indonesian islands. Kwan sprinkles in plenty of Chinese and Malaysian slang for color.
If you haven’t read a book with Chinese characters since The Joy Luck Club or Wild Swans, Crazy Rich Asians will bring you up to speed. Fans of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ book Snobs, or even glitzy TV soap operas like Dallas or Dynasty will surely have a grand time devouring this novel. It even includes a little modern romance to sweeten the deal. In today’s never-ending news cycle of violence and destruction, a little escapism can really fill the bill.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System. She has been known to read her fair share of books with sparkly covers.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly</em></a>, Wednesday, May 16, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah||
The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East by Adam Valen Levinson
With the recent news that Saudi Arabia will soon be offering tourist visas, the publication of Adam Valen Levinson’s new memoir/travelogue, The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East, is perfectly timed. More than an account of his travels, the book describes both realities and the flavor of life in countries ranging from Syria to Pakistan to Somalia.
Levinson grew up in the shadow of 9/11, and as a young adult recognized how many “fear” messages about the Middle East he had internalized. Armed with a knowledge of Arabic learned in college, curiosity and a mercurial restlessness, his travels to 23 Middle Eastern countries are definitely not the stuff of standard tourist fare, nor the sort of information you would find in even a Lonely Planet guidebook.
The countries he visits are often chosen because someone has told him it would be far too dangerous, or even impossible, to cross a particular border or travel by a particular route. In fact, he stops informing his parents of his travel plans and lets them believe that he is in Abu Dhabi, where he actually does have an apartment and an undemanding job as program coordinator for New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus.
Many of Levinson’s experiences completely debunk his expectations about these countries. And occasionally, he does find himself in situations that are truly dangerous. He crosses through checkpoints too numerous to count, often with a required military traveling companion, sometimes relying on his dark skin, dark hair and shalwar kameez (traditional outfit) to pass without scrutiny.
Along the way, he meets a zany cast of characters and their tentative friendships across cultures are both humorous and thought-provoking. Because Levinson finds shared humanity in these strange situations, his internalized fears dissipate and these Middle Eastern countries ultimately end up feeling less foreign.
The inclusion of the word “love” in the subtitle refers to Adam’s girlfriend, Masha; met in a whirlwind romance just before leaving for Abu Dhabi, their conflicted relationship is communicated through occasional shared email messages at the beginning of chapters. Masha respects that Adam wants to live a life that is not average, safe and predictable, and wishes she were less fearful herself; and also that he would choose her over Iraq or the Sudan.
Levinson is currently studying humor as a key to cultural understanding at Yale University, and this information gives insight into how this book reads. There is plenty of meaty political history here and the opportunity to learn concrete facts about these areas of the world. His unorthodox approach to travel and ability to communicate in the native language shares a boots-on-the-ground view of everyday life conditions and attitudes of local people. And, in the memoir part of the narrative, Levinson employs self-effacing humor to dissect his own biases and privilege.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System. She loves to travel, but might not be quite this adventurous.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, April 25, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: Shrill||
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
The word “shrill,” evocative and onomatopoetic, conjures high-pitched, grating voices. It’s used derogatorily, and it’s often aimed at women.
Author Lindy West re-appropriates it in her book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, a memoir that’s as funny as it is poignant. West is a former movie reviewer for Seattle’s The Stranger whose social commentary regularly appears in The Guardian, the New York Times, This American Life, Cosmopolitan, and Jezebel, among others.
She lets loose in longer form, with raucous, delightfully profane chapters recounting her childhood and adolescence and showing how she grew more adept at raising her voice to speak up on issues that mattered to her.
A core part of West’s identity is her weight. She writes heart-breakingly about a time when even the seatbelt extender on the airplane was not sufficient, and her panic and pain at having to squeeze into a seat. She eventually learns to embrace the term “fat,” and to find strength in her size.
She writes, “The breadth of my shoulders makes me safe. I am unassailable. I intimidate. I am a polar icebreaker. I walk and climb and lift things, I can open your jar, I can absorb blows—literal and metaphorical—meant for other women.”
West took some big hits when she penned an article for Jezebel entitled “How to Make a Rape Joke.” West attempted to find a middle ground between strident feminists who do not think rape is a laughing matter, period, and obtuse First Amendment supporters who claim their rights are violated (get it?) if they aren’t “allowed” to share their nasty, vitriolic humor.
According to West, jokes that poke fun at the rapist, not the victim, are fair game, as are ones that point out how frightening it can be to be a woman, or how oblivious some men can be about this. She listed several examples, cushioned it all with plenty of disclaimers and generally came across as reasonable.
Yet a corner of the internet exploded, and crude threats and insults rained down on West by the hundreds. They attacked her weight, her intellect and her gender, even saying she was “too disgusting to get raped.” One vile troll went so far as to create a fake Twitter account posing as West’s dead father. This level of harassment went way over the line, and how West addressed it (and ultimately received an apology from her attacker) makes for powerful reading.
Equally fascinating are West’s dialogues with comics and other powerful men she once admired (yes you, Dan Savage) and her honest and loving explorations of her relationships with her father and her husband.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System. She serves on the programming committee for Bellingham City Club.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, April 11, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: The Immortalists||
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
It’s halfway through a humid summer in 1969 on New York City’s Lower East Side, and the four Gold siblings are restless. There is no air-conditioning in the house, and life seems to be happening to everyone else but them. Kids are getting wasted at Woodstock, there is rioting outside the Stonewall Inn, people are even walking on the moon.
Daniel has heard that a rishika, a fortune-teller, recently moved into the neighborhood. Rumor has it that rather than foretelling what will happen in your life, her particular skill is naming the exact date of your death. The siblings find her apartment and she takes them in one at a time, making each promise never to speak a word to anyone about the date she shared.
Thus begins Chloe Benjamin’s family saga, The Immortalists, which follows Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya through five decades observing how the date shared by the rishika shapes their lives. Some of the dates are far in the future, some tragically close. It is what the siblings do with this knowledge that makes this such a compelling story.
If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life? Benjamin ably takes on the question of fate or free will, showing that such knowledge can be a double-edged sword. Do the siblings make decisions because of the prophecy? Are the shortest lives the ones lived most fully? Benjamin dedicates a section of the book to each, delving into each personality to explore how these questions of destiny play out.
Simon, the youngest, follows his sister Klara to San Francisco where, at 16, he commits himself to living an authentic existence as a young gay man. It is the early ’80s in the Castro District; people still mourn Harvey Milk’s assassination and the AIDS crisis is devastating the community. Simon gets a job dancing at a club, which eventually leads him to the Ballet Academy, where he becomes a featured performer and finds love with a fellow dancer.
Meanwhile, Klara hones her magic show and tries to make her way in a white, male-dominated profession where women are usually mere props. Idealistic Klara wants her magic to remind people of the mystery inherent in the world; practical Klara uses sleight-of-hand skills to pad her wallet through pickpocketing when money gets thin between shows. Her success eventually leads her to Las Vegas, where she is booked as the opening act for Siegfried & Roy.
The older siblings, Daniel and Varya, are more staid than Klara and Simon. Daniel becomes an Army doctor during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and stays closer to home and the Judaism of his youth. Varya, the eldest, is anxious, fixated on control, and takes an evidence-based approach to truth that leads her to scientific study. Ironically, determined to outsmart death, her life’s research is a longevity study with primates.
How many of these life choices were made because of the date lodged in their consciousness by the fortune-teller? Benjamin’s novel certainly reminds the reader of the power of thoughts to shape reality, and begs the question, so poignantly asked by poet Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, March 21, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: The Turtle of Oman||
The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye
When news headlines emphasize violence and strife, it can be comforting to engross oneself in a “gentle read,” and Naomi Shihab Nye’s delightful novel The Turtle of Oman fills the bill.
Although intended for a grade-school audience, it’s appropriate for adult readers, too, particularly those who enjoy learning about different countries and cultures. It recounts one week in the life of Aref Al-Amri, a young boy growing up in Oman, whose father has just left to attend the University of Michigan. Soon, Aref and his mother will join his father, but this week Aref must confront his anxiety about the move and say his goodbyes.
Aref is precocious, articulate and sensitive. His family is loving and supportive, and they understand his reluctance to pack his suitcase. Aref’s grandfather, Sidi, arrives to take him on some last adventures before his departure, and the two set forth into the desert.
Clearly, his grandfather’s plan is to take his mind off his worries, and create some memories together that Aref can cherish even when they’re far apart. The night sky resplendent with stars, waves lapping on the beach, and giant lumbering sea turtles are images Aref can hold onto forever.
Aref and Sidi go camping, fish in the Indian Ocean, and visit a turtle nesting ground. Aref keeps lists of facts about things that have meaning for him: stones, foxes, falcons and, of course, turtles. Ultimately, the turtles are a beautiful metaphor for home, as they take their shells with them wherever they travel, and they always return to the place they were born.
While Aref’s family are emigrating to a new country to pursue their PhDs, their story, and Aref’s feelings about leaving his home, are relatable to any child whose family is facing a move. It’s refreshing to find a novel that lacks overdone drama, and instead focuses on the quiet wisdom of the grandfather and the relationship he has with his grandson.
This novel is spare and poetic, no surprise as Nye is a celebrated poet with four Pushcart Prizes and numerous honors. Most recently, she was selected by the American Library Association to deliver the 2018 May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture, “Refreshments Will Be Served: Our Lives of Reading & Writing”.
This year, Western Washington University and the Whatcom County Library System partnered on a successful application to host the prestigious Arbuthnot Lecture, which will take place at 7pm on Sat., April 28 at Western Washington University Performing Arts Center.
The Arbuthnot Lecture is free of charge and open to the public, but registration is requested. Visit http://www.wcls.libcal.com/event/3504085 to sign up and ensure you have a place to sit.
Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, March 14, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: Read, Then Watch||
Read, Then Watch: The Power of Protests
If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of this year’s Whatcom READS title, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist</i>, you’ve still got time.
Author Sunil Yapa will be visiting Whatcom County March 8-10 at a variety of venues, so everyone can get a chance to discuss his visceral and unsparing but fictional account of one day during the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 28, 2018.
|Book Buzz: The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom||
The refugees arrive with nothing, not even the language, having escaped violence, poverty, unspeakable loss. Their destination is Denver, Colorado. There they will land in a classroom helmed by Eddie Williams, the teacher tasked with orienting refugees from around the globe to their new home in the United States.
Mr. Williams will teach English, yes, but also survival skills that are critical to transition. This is the Newcomers class, a Denver Public Schools program designed to support refugee students with educational gaps brought on, most frequently, by war.
To better understand what these students go through, journalist Helen Thorpe embedded in South High School for more than a year. She documents her process in her book The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship and Hope in an American Classroom. While many journalists absent themselves from the story, Thorpe interacts freely with students, allowing her to gain their trust and, for some, their friendship. It’s a technique that makes the book incredibly moving and intensely personal.
In Room 142, nothing is easy. The newcomers must learn classroom rules, cultural context, how to structure a sentence and where to find lunch—all from teachers who don’t share their language. Among the 22 students who join the class are Solomon and Methusella, brothers from the Democratic Republic of Congo devoted to their studies; bubbly Lisbeth from El Salvador, whose antics transform the classroom; quiet Hsar Htoo from Burma, for whom English is a particular challenge; and Jakleen and Mariam, Iraqi sisters whose traumatic past makes life in Denver almost unbearable.
The newcomers themselves are central here, but Thorpe also highlights the role of school staff and aid workers in setting students up for success. When possible, teachers connect new students to mentors, other students who have themselves transitioned to mainstream classrooms. The goal is to give learners something to strive for, and it works—newcomers go on to become involved in student government, athletics and other activities. But first they must overcome the challenges of assimilating to a strange new life.
The hurdles refugees face are unimaginable to most of us. After navigating the complex, years-long process of getting approval to resettle in the United States, families must secure housing and employment, navigate an unfamiliar city, learn to manage their finances and meet all of their legal obligations. Everything is bewildering, a minefield of cultural contradictions made more so by anti-immigrant sentiments that bubbled up during the 2016 election season.
That the students make it to high school at all seems miraculous; as she shares their progress, Thorpe’s admiration for their tenacity shines through. Against all odds, students bond and form friendships. Stephanie is from Mexico and Uyen from Vietnam; though they share no language, they talk via smart phone with Google Translate. Sports draws another group together, as they field a team for the all-school soccer tournament. Though their journey is not complete by year’s end, the connections the newcomers make will sustain them through the rest of the work to come.
It’s one thing to think of the immigrant experience in the abstract. It’s quite another to see it firsthand. In The Newcomers, Helen Thorpe gives voice to the struggle of refugees around the globe, leaving readers to wonder how they would bear up—or even if they could.
Mary Kinser is Collection Development Librarian for Whatcom County Library System, where she selects fiction, DVDs, music and audiobooks for adults. She can almost always be found with a book in her hand.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 14, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: The Water Will Come||
Flash forward to 2050. Most of Blaine and Birch Bay are underwater, as are Sandy Point, big sections of Slater and Ferndale roads, Squalicum Harbor, the new waterfront development, the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, and parts of Fairhaven—to name a few places in Whatcom County.
This is the future indicated by Surging Seas, an interactive map created by the website Climate Central, where visitors map potential sea level changes based on whether we continue current behaviors or make carbon cuts.
It is a future that is difficult to imagine, a mere several decades from now. To learn more about the factors impacting this predicted change and why, how and where it may happen, journalist Jeff Goodell’s critically acclaimed book, The Water will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World is a great starting point. In it, he stresses that the question is not “if” the water will rise, but “how fast” and “how high.” Goodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and has covered climate change for 15 years.
In Goodell’s prologue, he imagines Miami in 2037 after a fictional hurricane and its subsequent sea-level rise render the city largely underwater. A wastewater treatment plant is knocked out and cholera becomes a very real threat. A nuclear reactor is damaged, enveloping the city in a radioactive cloud. Clouds of mosquitoes spread Zika and other viruses. It is an effective attention-getter, well within the realm of imagination after the intensity of recent hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria.
Traveling to cities in peril in 12 countries to assess impacts of rising seas, Goodell points out that the hardest hit would be poorer populations in areas least equipped to deal with infrastructure problems. Whole islands may be submerged, and residents of coastal cities in the developing world displaced, creating as many as 200 million climate refugees by 2050, according to one estimate.
Scientists have posited that sea levels might rise a little more than three feet by 2100, but many now believe that six feet is a better estimate. A sea-level rise of six feet would affect one out of eight homes in Florida. Despite this, here in the United States, there are plenty of climate change deniers, and coastal city developers focused only on short-term gains. When Goodell asks an influential developer in Miami how he can keep investing and building considering this possible future, he responds with a flippant “By that time, I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?”
As the reality of this possible future enters our collective psyche, works of fiction are also starting to explore these high-water scenarios. American War by Omar El Akkad imagines America in 2075, in civil war over disagreements about our use of fossil fuels and with much of the coastline as we know it underwater. Other excellent dystopian novels set in climate change-induced rising seas are The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (London underwater) and New York 2140 by Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson.
For further nonfiction exploration of climate change encompassing multiple perspectives on the issue, search the library catalog for the subjects “climatic changes” or “paleoclimatology.”
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System. She lives at ~600 feet above sea level and is working to reduce her carbon footprint.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 24, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: The Oscars, Reading vs. Viewing||
Every January, buzz about the Academy Awards starts to build in anticipation of the big event in March. And every year, I make a resolution to see more of the nominated films before the winners are announced.
For me, there’s always a dilemma; if the movie is based on a book, should I wait to read the book first, then see the film? Here are four of last year’s Oscar contenders, all based on books, with time-saving suggestions about reading vs. viewing.
In the Best Picture category, Lion is an adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home. It chronicles Saroo’s amazing experience as a five-year-old boy from a rural Indian village who gets trapped on a decommissioned train and wakes up in Calcutta, more than 1,500 miles from home. Too young to know his last name or the name of his village, Saroo is truly lost, and eventually lands in an orphanage. Despite a comfortable upbringing and a loving adoptive family who raise him in Tasmania, Saroo becomes obsessed with finding the mother and siblings he lost. Although the memoir is in itself a gripping and inspirational story, the edge here goes to the film version, with its gorgeous, lush filmography and charismatic actors. Sunny Pawar plays young Saroo and Dev Patel is the adult version. Both have soulful eyes that show their pain as well as their unquenchable hope.
If you only have time for one version of Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, stick with the film, which wisely focuses on the experiences of three of the African-American female mathematicians who played key roles in NASA’s quest to put a man on the moon. The book delivers extensive historical detail, but jumps back and forth in time and from character to character in a way that becomes confusing and repetitious. The movie adaptation is more successful, building a narrative arc and showing what it was like for these trailblazing women during an oppressive but exhilarating time in history.
Another of last year’s Best Picture contenders, Arrival, is based on a short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life.” In this case, both the story and the film are excellent in their own way, with twists and a nonlinear approach to time. Louise Banks is a linguistics professor charged with learning how to communicate with extraterrestrial creatures who have landed at 12 locations on Earth. Why are they here? Are they friends or foes? The short story is able to get into more detail about the linguistics, while the movie adds a side plot involving the Chinese military. Both leave plenty of unanswered questions and much for discussion.
For those who’d like to get a jump on the 2018 Oscar contenders, Whatcom County Library System is already circulating copies of Dunkirk and Get Out, and will add other nominated films as they are released on DVD. WCLS also offers the book versions of Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman, and The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 17, 2018.)
|Book Buzz: My Old Man and the Mountain||
My Old Man and the Mountain by Leif Whittaker
Tales of climbing Mt. Everest are filled with legendary figures: George Mallory, Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Reinhold Messner, Scott Fischer, and Ed Viesturs, to name a few.
Right in there is famed mountaineer Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit the world’s highest peak. His book, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond, references his life philosophy: “If you aren’t living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
In it, “Big Jim” talks about his larger-than-life climbing adventures, his experiences as first paid employee of Recreational Equipment Inc. (he became its CEO in the 1960s), his heartbreaks and failures. Imagine growing up as his son, constantly reminded not to take up too much space.
My Old Man and the Mountain is Leif Whittaker’s homage to his father, a coming-of-age tale of emerging from his father’s shadow, plus a high-altitude adventure story rolled into one.
Leif was a 2007 Western Washington University grad, living back at home in Port Townsend, nursing a freak back injury and wondering what to do with his life when he was handed an amazing opportunity. Eddie Bauer (the company, not the man) hatched a plan to send him to Everest. Leif’s mom and Big Jim would make the trek to base camp with him to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Big Jim’s historic ascent.
Leif’s account of the journey clearly expresses the anticipation and trepidation of attempting to go where few others have dared—and his dad was one of them. It also gives insight about some of the challenges along the way. These include a terrible stomach ailment that has normally hearty octogenarian Big Jim lunging for the bushes on the long hike in high altitude, and has Leif groaning in empathy in his tent a few days later.
Leif recounts the epic 1963 American Mt. Everest Expedition as his own attempt to summit Everest unfolds. He contemplates what it was like for Big Jim, Sherpa Nawang Gombu, and the rest of the historic team, comparing the gear, the conditions, and the mindset that compelled his father forward to the top. Leif is appropriately humble and determined to summit himself. Failure is not an option—not for a Whittaker.
Leif’s book was a finalist for the 2017 Washington State Book Award, and rightfully honored. Leif is at turns lyrical, reflective, irreverent, honest and descriptive. Though there have been dozens of excellent books about Mt. Everest and the people who dare to climb it, Leif’s holds its own. The father/son relationship adds another dimension—of testosterone, ambition, legacy and love.
Leif’s website (http://www.leifwhittaker.com) says his home base is Bellingham, so keep an eye out on local trails (or perhaps one of our many brewpubs) for this accomplished climber and author.
Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System. She has no intention of ever climbing Mt. Everest, but loves to read about it.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, December 27, 2017.)
|Book Buzz: Holiday Reads for Bibliophiles||
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence
Bibliophiles looking to gift books or simply stock up on reading material for the holidays might enjoy these new titles that express the power of reading to entertain, inspire, comfort, teach and build bridges.
As a librarian and lifelong book lover, Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks is my new “go-to” book to give to friends and family who are avid readers. Recognizing the significant role that certain books have played in her life, librarian Annie Spence sets pen to paper and writes letters to them. This charming and clever collection includes adoring letters to her favorite books, breakup letters to books that have disappointed her, and “good riddance” letters to tomes that annoy her.
She even writes a letter to the Public Library Children’s Section, reminding the books about the importance of kids falling in love with reading so they can understand all the possibilities available to them. “Be a place of peaceful comfort and rowdy imagination and encourage lots of plan-making for the future,” she writes. “Don’t ask anything in return. You have to give it all away.”
Be aware that your “want to read” list will grow significantly if you finish this book. You may also find yourself wistfully recalling favorite books from the past and penning your own love letters to them.
Do you keep a list of everything you read? If not, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul might inspire you to do so. In Bob (her “Book of books”), Paul keeps track of every book she has ever read. More than simply a list of books, Bob’s entries become shorthand for major events in Paul’s life and how her reading choices both responded to those events and shaped who she has become.
At a deeper level, My Life with Bob delights in exploring why we read and the powerful relationship between book and reader. Paul was dumbstruck when someone in her book group (made up of literary agents, teachers, editors and authors—“hard-core book people” in her words) asked the group members “Why do you read?” It’s a simple question, but one many of them could not immediately answer. As they talked, members recognized how much their primary reasons for reading shifted over time. “I read for entertainment,” might become “I read to learn,” or to make sense of the world, to escape, because it makes me happy—why do you read?
Book-lovers with a philosophical or existentialist bent will want to crack Anne Gisleson’s The Futilarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading. Gisleson describes the experiences of a group of friends who, surrounded by loss and change in post-Katrina New Orleans, decide to meet monthly to explore these feelings. They call their group the Existential Crisis Reading Group; selections are eclectic, ranging from Kafka, Tolstoy, and Dante Alighieri to the King James Bible’s Book of Jonah, Fight Club, and The Giving Tree.
Gisleson’s specific grief involves the death of her father, an iconic and larger-than-life lawyer who gave pro bono time to represent death row inmates at Angola, as well as the loss of twin sisters, both to suicides. These book group meetings with other seekers provided sustenance, helping Gisleson come to terms with the tragedies of family loss and the devastation wreaked on her community by Katrina.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System. Between bookseller and librarian, books have been her livelihood for almost 30 years.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, December 13, 2017.)
|Book Buzz: The Unsettlers||
The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America by Mark Sundeen
Journalist Mark Sundeen’s previous book was about a man who has successfully lived without money for the past 15-plus years. The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America is also a study of idealism and the struggle to live an authentic life.
Sundeen follows three couples as they make dramatic life changes to create more sustainable lifestyles, with varying degrees of success. These new pioneers express their ethical dissent to the economy and the government by rejecting the “compromises of contemporary life,” seeking out off-the-grid, back-to-the-land lifestyles in Missouri, Montana, and Michigan.
Sight unseen, Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox buy an Amish farm in La Plata, Missouri, arriving by Amtrak and unboxing their bicycles to pedal there on dirt roads. One of the tenets of Possibility Alliance, the intentional community they plan to start in La Plata, is a rejection of petroleum dependence. In this conservative heartland community, Sarah and Ethan find their values to be surprisingly similar to their neighbors; families who also believe in hard work, frugality, self-reliance, and have moral qualms about supporting the federal government with tax dollars.
Brother Nature Produce is an urban farm in downtown Detroit on a city block partially reclaimed by nature, partially still the territory of dealers and addicts. When founders Olivia Hubert and Greg Willerer married, they bought a shotgun for themselves as a wedding present. Working with other urban farmers, they explore a new economic model of food distribution in this city often described as a food desert. Much has been written about Detroit recently, but Sundeen covers this territory from Olivia’s perspective as a black native Detroiter whose parents moved to the city from the South just months before the 1967 riots.
Curiosity about the sustainability of the voluntary simplicity lifestyle led Sundeen to Luci Brieger and Steve Elliott, now middle-aged, who raised three children on their farm in Victor, Montana, about 35 miles south of Missoula. Luci and Steve’s three-decade-long living experiment began in a kerosene lamp-lit teepee on the banks of Sweathouse Creek, where their first son was born. When Sundeen explained that he was writing a book about the simple life, no-nonsense and practical Luci responded that there is “nothing simple about it.”
The Unsettlers is not an idyllic tale of peace, love, and back-to-nature happiness. Sundeen—who will be in Bellingham Wed., Feb. 22 for a talk at Village Books—marvels at how incredibly hard these couples work, and how few indulgences their lifestyles permit. He also doesn’t shy from reporting their self-doubts and the compromises they inevitably make.
Although Possibility Alliance becomes a destination for visitors and those wishing to learn from them, Ethan and Sarah fail to attract full-time members to the community. Olivia and Greg end up moving their farm from Detroit to a small rural community north of the city, mirroring the suburban exodus of the 1960s and ’70s. And despite the practical, frugal values they tried to instill in their three children, Luci and Steve’s oldest son challenges their values by deciding to attend a “hoity-toity” art school whose tuition is far outside their resources.
The recent publication of The Unsettlers is timely; as the Paris Review writes, “especially in the shadow of an indefatigably evil administration,” the time is ripe for conversation about non-conformity and a redefinition of community based on value structures not shared by the powers that be.
A good companion read for The Unsettlers is Wendell Berry’s 1977 classic, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, or if you’d rather watch than read, check out the recent alternative lifestyle film Captain Fantastic(much of it filmed here in the Pacific Northwest).
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System where she selects adult nonfiction, eMaterials, and Hot Picks for county readers.
Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 8, 2017)
|Book Buzz: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving||
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison
Sometimes a book’s title really draws in readers, but the 2017 Whatcom READS! selection, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, sounds more like a textbook for a Bellingham Technical College nursing course than the tragicomic road trip novel that it is.
Don’t let the title stop you from picking up this worthy tale by Jonathan Evison and joining your friends and neighbors across Whatcom County in discussing the nature of redemption and what it means to truly care for someone.
The novel’s protagonist, 39-year-old Benjamin Benjamin, is a bit of a sad sack. His wife left him. He’s recovering (sort of) from an unnamed disaster. He’s scraping by with credit card cash advances. He’s never had a “real” job and he has turned to professional caregiving as a career of last resort.
When he gets an interview to become a caregiver for a horny teenager named Trev who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, he grabs the opportunity, never imagining how the experience will transform him.
Caring for Trev can be physically demanding, mentally numbing (hours and hours of Weather Channel and first-person-shooter video games) and depressing. As you can imagine, Trev doesn’t get out much, and even in his own sorry state, Ben worries that Trev isn’t really living.
Ben cooks up a project mapping out bizarre roadside attractions of the giant-ball-of-string variety. Before long, Trev hatches his own plan to set out on an actual road trip to visit his estranged father. En route, they pick up Dot, a tough-talking runaway, and Peaches, a pregnant farm girl, and learn about forgiveness, especially about forgiving oneself.
Johnny also experienced a devastating family tragedy, which he shares in an author’s note at the end of the book. Tragedy is a central element to Ben’s story. Bit by bit we learn the source of Ben’s profound sadness and guilt. Johnny knows what he’s writing about, and it shows, so that the funny parts seem real, and the sad parts seem real, and the resolution seems real and you’ll cry real tears but also will feel real hope at the end—for the characters, and for humankind.
Readers will have the chance to meet Johnny and learn more about The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingMarch 9-11, when he visits Whatcom County.
The Whatcom READS! committee, headed by WCLS Adult Programming Coordinator Ann McAllen, has lined up a variety of fascinating programming to round out your appreciation of the tome.
In addition to being the focus of many book group gatherings throughout Whatcom County leading up to the big event—including this week in Blaine and Bellingham—highlights include a workshop on “Caregiving and the Art of Living During a Prolonged Illness,” a visit from the authors of Weird Washington: Your Travel Guide to Washington’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets, and a “Think and Drink” beer tasting with Johnny with special beers created by the North Fork Brewery. Check out the full schedule at http://www.whatcomreads.org, and get reading.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 18, 2017)
|Deep Roots: Finding Food and Community||
The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island by Kathleen Alcalá
Sustainability. Buy local. Support local farmers. All are mantras of the Pacific Northwest. But how would our community fare in the case of food shortages caused by disaster or as the result of environmental degradation? Would we be able to produce enough food to feed ourselves?
Spurred by personal health concerns and with these questions asking to be explored, writer and longtime Bainbridge Island resident Kathleen Alcalá began interviewing friends actively involved in food production.
She probed these questions with farmers and foragers, chefs and restaurant suppliers, immigrant farmworkers and Suquamish elders. Six years in the making, the result is a meditation on the relationship between food, community and the environment that explores eating as an act that is agricultural, economic, political, social and spiritual.
Reading the products of this research in her new book, The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, feels like getting to walk, talk, pick, poke, cook, forage and preserve right alongside Alcalá. It is a layered experience of discovery, moving organically between personal stories, cultural history, and discussions of environmental policy.
Unifying the narrative is a section at the end of each chapter entitled Haleets, the Coast Salish name for an ancient petroglyph-inscribed boulder that sits offshore Bainbridge Island and may have been a boundary marker or served a calendrical function for indigenous peoples. Alcalá invokes the long-view perspective of Haleets and the lifecycle of salmon that are so intrinsic to our environment to reflect on what has occurred on the land since the carvings were made.
Bainbridge Island is a perfect microcosm through which to explore the question of local sustainability. The community enjoys resources of wealth, education and natural abundance. There is strong local interest in food and a rich farming history. Even so, if supplies were cut off to the flagship Town & Country Market, the island would be out of food in a day.
It is a pleasant surprise to hear from some Whatcom County locals among Alcalá’s interviews. Rick Pedersen, who grew up in Ferndale and is now the store director at Town & Country, describes how decisions are made about what is purchased locally and what from factory organic sources. Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Bellingham’s Community to Community food justice organization, also makes an appearance in a discussion about farmworkers’ rights and working conditions at Sakuma Brothers farms in Burlington. (The Sakumas were one of the families removed from Bainbridge Island and sent to internment camps during World War II; after their release, they settled in Burlington and resumed berry farming.)
All are welcome to learn more about the struggle of these local farmworkers for a just food system and their historic decision to form Familias Unidas por la Justicia—an independent farmworker union representing more than 500 Triqui, Mixteco, and Spanish-speaking workers at Sakuma Brothers Berry Farm—at “An Evening of Thanks, Honor, and Action” taking place from 6-8pm Sat., Jan. 14 at the downtown Food Co-op Connections Building.
The perspective presented in The Deepest Roots believes the land can tell us what it needs and entire generations of people lived on the land harmoniously and without destroying it by listening to it. Can we become those types of people? Taking all of these stories together begins to paint a picture of what needs to happen for us to inhabit that future.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System, where she selects adult nonfiction titles for the collection.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 11, 2017)