Book Buzz Archive

Book Buzz: Here With You

Here With You: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Addiction by Kathy Wagner

The opioid crisis has reached epidemic proportions with virtually no place escaping its devastation. Here in Whatcom County, according to data provided by the Whatcom County Medical Examiner’s Office, there were 136 overdose-related deaths in 2023, up from 91 in 2022.

Libraries and other agencies now offer free naloxone, a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose, and groups like All Hands Whatcom, Whatcom Has Hope and the Native Transformations Project bring community members together to seek community responses.

A story of how one family has been impacted by this epidemic, “Here With You” by Kathy Wagner, is a searingly intimate account of Kathy’s son Tristan’s struggle with addiction that ended when he lost his life to fentanyl poisoning. Kathy lives just over the border in the metro Vancouver area and will be visiting Village Books in Fairhaven at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 9 to talk about her book and her son’s life.

Tristan was the youngest of Kathy’s three children and she describes him as being a sensitive, very loving child. Kathy’s two older children had troubles of their own, keeping her full of worry as a single mom; the middle daughter, Tanis, is a Type 1 diabetic who was not always attentive to managing her disease, and Jenn, the eldest, was reckless, strong-headed and dealing with her own demons in the form of alcoholism.

Kathy thought the first few drug and alcohol episodes when Tristan was 14 might just be teenage experimentation, but when Tristan started regularly not coming home at night and went to four schools in less than two years due to being expelled, she had to face the reality that Tristan’s brain was different. Drugs would never be “just a phase” for him but were “his North Star” that led to “a dark and tangled trail that ended nowhere — at least, nowhere good.”

After failing to get Tristan to go to a residential rehab program, Kathy leaned into his love of martial arts, finding a yearlong intensive program in China where he could study with a Shaolin master. Borrowing from his college education fund to pay for the program, Tristan and Kathy traveled to China together and Kathy studied at the same school for five weeks, beginning her own healing journey with Tai Chi and meditation classes. Tristan excelled under the disciplined regime and direction of the teacher Shifu Wang … until he didn’t.

Leaving China before the end of the program and returning home, the following years were a roller coaster of hope and despair for Kathy as Tristan alternately excelled in a rehab environment, only to break the rules and be asked to leave. During this up and down time, he enrolled in culinary school, nurturing his love of cooking, and worked at several upscale restaurants in the Vancouver area, although the jobs always seemed to end with him being let go after failing to show up one too many times.

Kathy worked hard on her own recovery journey during this time, attending Nar-Anon meetings, setting and keeping difficult boundaries, and learning to say “no” to providing money, a place to stay and other support. Anyone who has loved someone struggling with addiction will find Kathy’s story painfully familiar.

Whether you have firsthand experiences with addiction and recovery or just want to better understand the impact of this crisis on individual lives and families, “Here With You” is a brave and timely account from one mother’s perspective.

To learn more about how opioids infiltrate communities and how different communities have been impacted by the epidemic, check out Sam Quinones’s excellent books “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” and “The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth.”

Kathy Wagner will be at Village Books in Fairhaven at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 9 in conversation with local author and writing coach Anneliese Kamola.

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager for the Whatcom County Library System,

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, May 5, 2024.)

Book Buzz: The French Ingredient

The French Ingredient: Making a Life in Paris One Lesson at a Time by Jane Bertch 

Midwesterner Jane Bertch wasn’t much of a world traveler when her job in finance took her overseas. But after spending several years in London, she felt ready to sign on to life in Paris. It wasn’t long before she fell in love with the city and with the idea of opening her own business there. Together with her partner, Jane embarked on what seemed an impossible dream: starting a cooking school for tourists. In this warm and engaging memoir, Jane relates her journey to opening Le Cuisine Paris with no culinary background and only a few connections. She faces a host of obstacles, some of which she expected (the famously thorny French bureaucracy) and others that came out of nowhere, like complaining neighbors, pandemic lockdowns and even a surprisingly significant Dijon mustard shortage. Through it all, Jane keeps pushing on. Readers will be enchanted by her drive to turn Le Cuisine into a world-renowned destination for foodies. Full of candor, wit and plenty of butter, this can-do memoir is a can’t-miss read.  

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive May 2024 issue.)

Book Buzz: The Kamogawa Food Detectives

The Kamogawa Food Detectives by Hisashi Kashiwai 

From childhood favorites to special meals with friends or family, few things bring us back to the past as immediately as the smell or taste of a particular dish. But sometimes foods become lost to time and circumstance, and that’s where Nagare and Koishi Kamogawa come in. From their unassuming restaurant in the backstreets of Kyoto, the father-daughter team run a side business recreating significant culinary experiences in order to help clients relive treasured memories, resolve past issues, and move forward into their future. Working from scant details, Nagare and Koishi deliver healing and hope in the form of beloved dishes, earning them a host of grateful customers in the process. This charming novel was a smash hit in Japan before making its way to the US. It’s the perfect light read for those who love stories of food, family and connection – just be sure to have your own comfort foods at the ready! 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive May 2024 issue.)

Book Buzz: Daughters of Riga

Daughters of Riga by Marian Exall

Bellingham author Marian Exall trades mysteries for historical fiction with her newest title, “Daughters of Riga,” which follows the lives of several women whose lives crossed paths in Latvia during World War II. While so much has been written about the Blitz in Britain and the occupation of France and the Netherlands, readers may be less familiar with the history of Latvia during that time.

“Daughters of Riga” conveys the complicated socio-political dynamics at play while adding a human dimension with the stories of two girls, Berta and Dani, who meet at the Dutch consulate in Riga. Berta is the shy, young daughter of Richard Vandercam, a Dutch civil servant posted to Latvia at the end of the 1930s.

Berta’s beautiful mother Margriet is a socialite who is miserable to find herself in what she perceives to be a provincial backwater, saddled with a 4-year-old. Berta’s world brightens with the arrival of Dani Loesseps, the 9-year-old daughter of her father’s new assistant, Nellie. The girls enjoy blissful hours in the consulate courtyard, engrossed in make-believe, unaware of the personal and international tragedies unfolding around them.

Dani’s mother Nellie knew she was taking a risk returning to Latvia, but after her Dutch husband died she yearned to be closer to family in Riga. Though Jewish, like most Latvian Jews at the time, Nellie’s family had never been particularly observant, and the looming specter of Nazi Germany did not seem as troublesome as the increasing encroachments of Russia from the east.

But as German hostilities across Europe mount, Nellie introduces a local rabbi to Richard, who hatches a plan to provide travel visas to Dutch colonies, allowing young Jewish men to escape. Soon there are lines of Jewish refugees awaiting papers. Nellie and Richard throw themselves into this work, aware of the risk but compelled by urgency to continue.

Exall’s tale takes a while to build. She jumps back and forth in time, from Dani to Berta, at different points in their lives, and back again. It isn’t until the narrative returns to the final days at the Dutch consulate in 1940 that the pace quickens and readers are fully hooked.

According to the author’s blog, “Daughters of Riga” was inspired by Exall’s visits with her niece’s neighbor in Southwest France. The neighbor’s father was the Dutch Consul in Kaunas, Lithuania. He issued more than 2,300 visas to Jews fleeing the Holocaust and was credited posthumously with saving hundreds of lives. Exall sets her novel in Latvia, but her consul shares the same strategy (granting visas to Curaçao and other Dutch colonies in the Caribbean) as a means of shepherding Jewish immigrants to safety. Though fictionalized, Exall’s story is equally compelling and inspiring.

For other wartime stories set in Eastern Europe and the Baltic, try “Salt to the Sea” by Ruta Sepetys, “Anna and the Swallow Man” by Gavriel Savit and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman. All are available for checkout from your public library at

Christine Perkins is executive director of the Whatcom County Library System,

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sunday, April 14, 2024.)

Book Buzz: This Is the Honey

This Is the Honey: An Anthology of Contemporary Black Poets; edited by Kwame Alexander

In 2020, poet Kevin Young, current director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and poetry editor for the New Yorker, published “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song.” Young’s 1,110-page anthology is a comprehensive array of Black poets from 1770’s Phillis Wheatley to 2020’s Mahogany Browne. It belongs on any poetry lover’s bookshelf.

Four years later, Kwame Alexander, a poet, educator and author of children’s books, has come out with “This is the Honey: An Anthology of Contemporary Black Poets.” Alexander’s anthology is less a catalog of poets and more a moment in time. Alexander gathered the 154 or so poems in this book with thoughtfulness and deliberation, hoping to acknowledge and shine a light on the joy and sorrow of the Black experience today through the provocative beauty of this poetry. “It’s an unbridled selfie,” he writes in the introduction. “To marvel at. And reflect.”

The book is divided into six sections, each titled with a clue to the contents: The Language Of Joy, That’s My Heart Right There, Where I’m From, Devotions, Race Raise Rage: The Blackened Alphabet and When I See The Stars: Praise Poems.

As the title indicates, the poets are all contemporary living Black poets, including well-known names like Elizabeth Acevedo, Rita Dove, Ross Gay, Nikki Giovanni, Amanda Gorman, Sonia Sanchez, Tracy K. Smith, Alice Walker, Frank X. Walker and the same Kevin Young who edited the 2020 anthology mentioned above. Some of the poets have fewer awards and accomplishments than these standout writers, but all the poems were selected for their power.

And while Alexander says the poems are “unapologetically matter-of-fact Black,” he invites everyone to find inspiration and to rejoice in the hope this book contains. I would add a caveat that the hope you find in these poems has always come at a cost, and that is not forgotten in these pages.

Jacqueline Allen Trimble describes her mother, dressed to the nines, walking down Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama, in “The Language of Joy.” With “folks on the street joining in the celebration,” the poem creates a rich and colorful visual worthy of a Broadway musical:

“singing and dancing like a free people up Dexter Avenue, / and don’t think they didn’t know they were walking in the footsteps / of slaves and over auction sites and past where old Wallace / had held onto segregation like a life raft, but this / was not that day.”

Trimble acknowledges the dark history of the South calling out the slave trade and segregationist Gov. George Wallace, but the poem is indeed a tangible celebration of Black Americans who have got their own. The poet delights in centering her mother in the story but the end of the poem shows, once again, how the best of times still can cast a shadow and all you can do is keep on heading home.

Tragic events of the recent past are called out too. Kevin Powell’s poem “Happy,” ends with the date, Thursday, June 4, 2020, and you can infer that Powell wrote the poem two weeks after the death of George Floyd and the day of his memorial service. Frank X. Walker uses the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic to deliver a heartbreaking poem about his mother.

Many of the poems have a musical theme. A roll call of popular Black musicians name-dropped in these poems includes Mahalia Jackson, John Coltrane, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Withers, Nina Simone, Otis Redding, James Brown and Beyonce, all gathered in service of the celebration.

Alexander rose to the task of bringing these voices together to tell the important story of the Black experience. All the poets are at the top of their game and the book is immersible, by which I mean you can immerse yourself in the poems, moving from one to the other as in a flowing stream, letting the joy and sadness wash over you in waves.

This is Alexander’s second anthology of Black poetry. His first, “360° A Revolution of Black Poets,” co-edited with New Orleans author and activist Kalamu ya Salaam came out in 1998. That book, according to Alexander, was a “call to action,” and while action is still needed, “This is the Honey” might be described as a call to celebration. Either way, it’s a call to stand up. Ruth Forman’s poem, “Stand” drives home the importance of standing up.

“…but here is the truth / someone will always tell you / sit down / the ones we remember / kept standing”

“This is the Honey: An Anthology of Contemporary Black Poets” is available at Bellingham and Whatcom County libraries and independent bookstores. Alexander will be appearing at Sehome High School at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 10. Tickets are available through Village Books. Info:

Neil McKay is the online experience coordinator for Whatcom County Library System,

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sunday, April 7, 2024.)

Book Buzz: The Night Parade

The Night Parade: A Speculative Memoir by Jami Nakamura Lin

“Maybe this isn’t a story about ghosts, but a story about telling a story about ghosts.” 

This genre-defying memoir uses multiple storytelling traditions to make sense of mental illness, motherhood, and grief. Jami Nakamura Lin, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at seventeen, has always struggled with the more mysterious and chaotic parts of herself. While researching Japanese folktales for her novel, she finds herself reflected in stories about the yokai: supernatural beings that can be described as ghosts, spirits, or demons. 

Inspired by the myth called the Night Parade of the Hundred Demons, Lin dedicates each chapter to a different yokai, all illustrated in expressive watercolor by her sister. During an emotionally intense time when her father is dying of cancer and she is trying to have a baby, Lin feels comforted by the yokai’s otherworldly grief and rage.  

Like the folktales she studies, The Night Parade contains multitudes. At turns scholarly, contemplative, and emotionally gutting, Jami Nakamura Lin teaches us to never stop telling ghost stories.  

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive April 2024 issue.)

Book Buzz: Brutalities

Brutalities:  A Love Story by Margo Steines  

Since she was a teenager, Margo Steines has been drawn to risk and self-inflicted suffering. Substance use, an abusive relationship, and careers as a dominatrix and a welder in high-rise buildings are all stops on her lifetime tour of pain—both physical and emotional. Even after she settles into a life of relative comfort and safety, her addiction to overexercising takes a toll on her body.  

From the vantage point of her most dangerous situation yet—a high-risk pregnancy in 2020—Steines reflects on her unique relationship to violence. Why is self-harm easier than self-care? Why is pain preferable to feeling nothing at all? Her partner is a gentle man who coaches MMA, and she marvels at his ability to limit violence to the sparring mats. 

Even while describing shocking and brutal experiences (this book comes with a high dose of trigger warnings), Steines’ prose is always thoughtful, never sensational. This memoir is about how to choose softness in a world that has been hard on you.  

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive April 2024 issue.)

Book Buzz: Find Yourself at Home

Find Yourself at Home: A Conscious Approach to Shaping Your Space and Your Life by Emily Grosvenor

Emily Grosvenor is a feng shui consultant, editor of Oregon Home magazine and author of “Find Yourself at Home: A Conscious Approach to Shaping Your Space and Your Life.” (Photo courtesy of Beth Olson Creative)

How would your life change if your concept of home was not as sanctuary, a place to get away from the outside world, but as a place to embody your deepest values and be reminded of who you aspire to be in the world? This is the question posed by Emily Grosvenor, feng shui consultant and Oregon Home magazine editor, in her latest book, “Find Yourself at Home: A Conscious Approach to Shaping Your Space and Your Life.”

In five unique sections each ending with a “Find Yourself” prompt for further reflection, Grosvenor invites readers to explore how the places they’ve lived have shaped them in the past — as well as the ways their current home subtly influences who they are in the world right now.

When studying the physical aspects of what makes a great home, Grosvenor turned to the work of environmental psychologists who point out the importance of strong structural foundations to give a feeling of stability, views of the natural world, use of natural materials and adequate daylight to regulate sleep/wake cycles.

A home can have all these structural elements in spades, but the items and your relationship to them may be holding you back, Grosvenor warns. If your home or life feels stagnant but you aren’t sure where to begin making changes, Grosvenor offers simple suggestions for how to get unstuck. Because the Chinese art of feng shui considers 27 to be a powerful number for changing stagnant energy patterns, one exercise suggests moving 27 things in your home, working with what is already there to change your perspective.

Other exercises prompt you to methodically consider your relationship to the objects in your home. Do they keep you stuck in the past or current status quo, or do the objects in your home create a sense of vibrant energy and possibility?

Inherited objects can be especially tricky. The presence of some inherited objects contributes to the longer story of who we are and where we came from. But if the inherited objects are kept only because they were meaningful to the relative or family member who passed them along and have no meaning personally, your home may begin to feel more like a museum.

Grosvenor identifies another type of object we collect which she labels “hopeful objects,” things that represent something we aspire to or want to change. Think clothes that don’t fit anymore, half-finished projects, never-read books. While cultivating hope is a good thing, if we are not willing to take the action that would bring the hope to fruition, Grosvenor suggests that it might be freeing to let these items go and move on from them.

For those who work at home, or simply use spaces in the home to work on projects, Grosvenor encourages evaluating your workspace to see if it supports doing deep work, lengthy periods of uninterrupted creative work (idea borrowed from the popular book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport). Is there adequate lighting to create the necessary sort of energy required for the work being done? If your workspace includes a desk, is it in the feng shui “command position” (facing the room, view of the door, wall behind you)? A desk that faces the wall might create a feeling of being proverbially “up against a wall” or “hitting your head on a wall” at work.

Curious for more ideas on creating meaning and purpose in your life by making spatial shifts and interior design choices in your home? Visit your local library to get “Find Yourself at Home” in print, eBook or eAudiobook.

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager for the Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Monday, March 25, 2024.)

Book Buzz: Thunder Song

Thunder Song: Essays by Sasha taqʷšǝblu LaPointe

Sasha taqʷšǝblu LaPointe has been on many local reading lists as her debut book, “Red Paint: the Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk,” is the 2024 Whatcom READS selection. LaPointe is visiting Whatcom County March 14–16 and participating in a variety of events that are free to the public – check for tickets.

Her visit coincides perfectly with the launch of her newest book, “Thunder Song,” a collection of essays that give a counterpoint to, play off of, and dive deeper into themes she explored previously in “Red Paint:” her identity as an Indigenous queer woman, the impacts of multigenerational trauma, and the role of art and music as an outlet for rage and creative expression.

LaPointe kicks off the collection by channeling her namesake, her great-grandmother, the indomitable Vi Hilbert. After dedicating her life to the study and teaching of the Lushootseed language, Hilbert had the idea to commission a symphony based on two spirit songs. One of the songs was a family song. The other was Chief Seattle’s thundersong.

Standing on the stage at Benaroya Hall for the premiere of “The Healing Heart of Lushootseed,” 83-year-old Hilbert intoned, “People have lost their way.” Her hope was for the healing medicine of the music to help guide people forward.

LaPointe juxtaposes Hilbert’s powerful vision with the grief and anger she felt after the murders of George Floyd and so many others at the hands of police, and the protests that followed. She recalls the fear and uncertainty of the first year of the pandemic, particularly acute for her due to her asthma. She describes her anxiety on Election Night 2020, wondering if she would ever feel safe again. She notes that it was a song — a Ramones tune strummed by her partner as a distraction while the election results came in — that transported her, lifted her spirits and gave her hope.

In “Reservation Riot Grrrl,” LaPointe shares her mixed feelings about the riot grrl movement: so important to her personal development, yet also so exclusionary to people of color. In “The Jacket,” she remembers being obsessed with mermaids as a child — and the cruelty of a white classmate who mocked the off-brand jean jacket her mother lovingly embellished with a picture of Ariel in fabric paint.

In “River Silt,” LaPointe recalls her uninhibited joy playing in the mud along the Nooksack and resolves to allow herself to feel this joy again. Another heart-rending essay is “Licorice Fern,” where LaPointe fearlessly explores her complicated relationship with her mother, and ultimately lands in a space of forgiveness and healing.

After the string of abusive relationships recounted in “Red Paint,” LaPointe appears to have found a partner who accepts her contradictions, honors her deep ties to the Pacific Northwest and celebrates her talents as an artist. That she feels loved and supported is evident. Whether one reads “Thunder Song” cover-to-cover or one-by-one as discrete essays, the overall impression is one of honesty, precise observations and love. “Thunder Song” is further evidence of a star on the rise, well worth following.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System. Visit to reserve a copy of “Thunder Song” and to learn more about the power of sharing at the library.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sunday, March 10, 2024.)

Book Buzz: The Lost Journals of Sacajewea

The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling

Schoolchildren across the country have heard the story of Sacajawea, and can readily recall her association with the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 – 1806.  She is commonly referred to as the expedition’s interpreter.  One has the impression of a beautiful, competent, wise young woman who matter-of-factly guided a team of white men across the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pacific.  The golden dollar coin introduced in 2000 in her honor further solidifies the mythology; it bears the image of a calm, smiling mother with a baby sleeping snugly on her back, glowing with good health.     

Not much is known about Sacajawea.  She was born around 1788 into the Lemhi Shoshone tribe near what is now Salmon, Idaho.  In 1800, when she was approximately 12 years old, she was kidnapped by a Hidatsa raiding party and a year later sold to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French fur trapper, as his second wife.  By the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark agreed to hire Charbonneau and his child bride to accompany them, Sacajawea was pregnant with her first baby, who she gave birth to en route and subsequently carried thousands of miles.  Lest this sound romantic or mild, let’s restate: she was stolen from her family as a girl, raped repeatedly, sold into slavery, forced into marriage with an older man who had multiple wives, and compelled to deliver and care for her first child while suffering extreme physical hardship and hunger. 

Sacajawea (or Sacagawea, depending on what you were taught and whether you believe her name comes from the Shoshone word for “Boat Launcher” or the Hidatsa word for “Bird Woman”) was only mentioned in Lewis and Clark’s journals a handful of times.  Despite their relative silence, she made a major impression on the two, as they named the Sacagawea River after her in 1805.  Clark later took her son Jean-Baptiste and her daughter Lizette to raise as his own.  Was this a mercy for Sacajawea, or something else?   

Author Debra Magpie Earling, who is Bitterroot Salish and a retired professor from the University of Montana, takes the bare bones of Sacajawea’s story and invents a rich interior monologue for her, something wholly unique and stylistically challenging.  Some will find the broken English, sentence fragments, and unfamiliar Shoshone words to be off-putting, or perhaps pretentious.  Readers who are willing to puzzle through strange capitalizations and enigmatic descriptions will find keen insights and transcendent beauty.  Earling’s Sacajawea is observant and pragmatic, a survivor.  She is taught by her Bia to work hard and not complain.  Through her journals, we get her perspective when white men condescended to teach her English, thinking her ignorant and unsophisticated.  Her contempt for Charbonneau is thick and bitter.  Her life, so marred by fear and violence, has moments of serenity and triumph.  Earling gives non-native readers a fascinating glimpse of indigenous ways of knowing and presents a portrait of Sacajawea that is so much more powerful than the whitewashed lore we were fed as children. 

The Lost Journals of Sacajawea is an excellent companion piece to this year’s Whatcom READS selection, Red Paint by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe.  Read these books (available at and join in the discussion.  A full listing of Whatcom READS events can be found at

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Wednesday, February 28, 2024.)

Book Buzz: The Frozen River

The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon 

It’s winter 1789 in Hallowell, Maine. Midwife Martha Ballard is summoned to the town’s tavern to attend a patient. When she arrives, Martha is surprised to learn she’s been asked to examine a body found frozen in the icy Kennebec River earlier that morning. The dead man is Joshua Burgess, who, along with another man, stands accused of raping a local woman. The rape has not been brought to trial, and Martha is one of the few who seems to believe an assault occurred. Now Burgess has been murdered. It’s obvious to Martha that the rape and the murder are connected, and she slowly realizes that she might be the only one able to push for justice. As in her previous books, author Ariel Lawhon grounds this work in fact, drawing from Martha Ballard’s real-life notes and journals to recreate true events. This is historical fiction done right – immersive and character-rich, a page-turner that’s faithful to the past even as it addresses larger issues that are still relevant today. 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive March 2024 issue.)

Book Buzz: The Storm We Made

The Storm We Made by Vanessa Chan

In this evocative novel set in British-colonized Malaya, a chance encounter sets off a chain of events that irrevocably alters a family’s life. Housewife Cecily Alcantara is charmed by merchant Bingley Chan when the two meet at a party in 1934. The two grow closer, and eventually Chan reveals his secret: his true name is General Fujiwara, and he is an agent for the Japanese Imperial Army seeking to cast off British rule. Fujiwara persuades Cecily to steal information from her husband’s government employers – information that, years later, leads to a brutal period of Japanese occupation during WWII. Cecily’s children and husband are caught in the net of violence brought on by the war. The two storylines are intertwined as both Cecily’s actions and their effects are slowly revealed. Readers will be riveted by this absorbing story and the questions it asks about loyalty, honor and the aftermath of war. 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive March 2024 issue.)

Book Buzz: Paved Paradise

Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar

Why are so many places expensive, unsafe, and unwalkable? In Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, journalist Henry Grabar argues that in most American towns, the answer is parking.  

In chapters that read like podcast episodes (think 99% Invisible or Planet Money), this book digs into the reasons why our culture became so car-centric. Grabar’s eye for compelling anecdotes turns what could otherwise be dry topic into a wild journey through American history. For example: did you know that parking tickets fueled New York City’s “Ice Cream Truck Wars”? Grabar also introduces readers to local heroes worth rooting for, like a Chicago pastor whose plan to build a church in his walkable neighborhood is foiled by parking minimums.  

Paved Paradise illuminates how parking is connected to so many social forces: affordable housing, public safety, pollution, and the prosperity of our downtowns. You’ll never look at the parking lot the same way again.  

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive February 2024 issue.)

Still Life with Bones

Still Life with Bones: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains by Alexa Hagerty

In this unique memoir, anthropologist Alexa Hagerty brings us behind the scenes of her time working with globally renowned forensic anthropology teams in Guatemala and Argentina. Together, they exhume and identify bodies from the mass graves left behind by dictatorial violence. Decades later, families of the “disappeared” still suffer from knowing their loved ones weren’t properly laid to rest. 

Hagerty’s mantra while working in grave sites is “Don’t faint. Don’t vomit.” The work is physically and emotionally difficult, but it is rewarding when victims’ bodies are identified and reunited with their families. Hagerty attends burials where community members find healing by sharing their testimonies and creating new death rituals. Along with survivors’ stories and necessary historical context, Hagerty weaves her own meditations on death, grief, and how we can create meaning for ourselves out of tragedy.  

This is a difficult but powerful read. In beautiful and highly readable prose, Hagerty unearths questions about humanity and our complicity in genocide. Gripping, poetic, and perennially important. 

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive February 2024 issue.)

Book Buzz: Love & Saffron

Love & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love by Kim Fay

Love & Saffron is a heartfelt epistolatory novel of long-distance friendship. Through beautifully crafted letter exchanges, Kim Fay develops a story of historical fiction in compelling and delightful ways, spanning an evolving 1960s America. The story begins when aspiring writer Joan sends a letter of appreciation to one of her favorite food columnists, Imogen. Along with her kind words, Joan includes a gift of saffron and a recipe for steamed mussels. This loving gift blossoms into years of correspondence as these two women develop a lifelong friendship of love and support which sees them through both times of joy and times of sorrow.

Food remains a throughline for the novel, as both women share their culinary adventures and discoveries, continually inspiring each other to explore new cooking avenues, and finding enduring connections through a shared love of food. Yet food is merely a touchstone for the plot’s journey, as the heart of the story is about friendship and its strength when facing adversity. Love & Saffron explores many social issues that span the 1960s to today, including the role of women in the workforce, women’s health, interracial relationships, racial and cultural discrimination, and the traumas of war, to name but a few.

In addition to the era, Love & Saffron is a novel of place: a firmly West Coast tale. Joan writes of life in southern California and travels to Mexico, while Imogen is a Camano Island resident who becomes active in Seattle’s civic preservation. Imogen’s letters should resonate particularly well with longtime PNW residents, and those curious about life in Seattle some sixty years past. Fay writes with such craft that the setting almost becomes a third character at times, drawing the reader intimately into the times and places of Love & Saffron.

Love & Saffron should appeal to readers of historical fiction, as well as foodies, and those interested in a story of loving friendship and support. Visit to find Love & Saffron and other similarly themed stories.

Jonathan Jakobitz is an avid reader and the branch manager of the Blaine Public Library.

(Originally published in The Northern Light, Wednesday, January 31, 2024.)

Book Buzz: Hula

Hula by Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes

Now that winter has finally arrived in Whatcom County, readers might enjoy a literary escape to warmer climes, and “Hula: a Novel” by Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes is the ticket. 

Set primarily in Hilo, Hawai’i, “Hula” conjures the glittering ocean, the sizzling sun and misty rain, and the fragrant and colorful hibiscus, jasmine and lehua of tourists’ daydreams. The story, however, is more about the local inhabitants of the Big Island, their heritage, their complicated history and their legacy.

With fair skin and red hair, Hi’i does not resemble her mother, nor any of her young brown Naupaka cousins who run half-naked along Puhi Bay, dashing among the waves and gobbling their grilled fish and rice. Years of being called “Haole girl” and “mosquito food” leave her feeling vulnerable, an outsider in her own family.  

Hi’I doesn’t know her father — and her mother, Laka, has no explanation for why she fled Hilo that summer of 1966 or what happened during the two years she was on Maui. All Hi’I knows is that her mom was crowned Miss Aloha Hula at the Merrie Monarch Festival right before she left and that surely, Hi’I too could claim her birthright and dance hula. Hi’i’s journey of self-discovery and acceptance ultimately has her following in her mother’s footsteps, in a story that is both personal and relatable to a broader Hawaiian experience.

The author, Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes, is careful to note on her website ( that, like Hi’I, she was born in Hawai’I to a dark-skinned mother, but is light skinned herself. Neither Hakes nor her mother have Native Hawaiian on their birth certificates, but may share this heritage even if it is not documented. She recognizes that her novel is controversial to some, who believe that she does not have a right to tell this story, which touches on sensitive issues related to race and cultural appropriation. 

Hakes writes eloquently and critically of the blood quantum system, initially imposed by colonizers to limit citizenship, that continues to divide and exclude people. She addresses her own struggles feeling deeply connected to a place and culture without feeling able to legitimately claim the culture as her own.

“Hula” alternates between the stories of Hi’I, her mother Laka, and Laka’s mother Hulali, intermixed with commentary from an omniscient first-person plural narrator representing the community at-large. Dialogue is sprinkled with a fair amount of Hawaiian pidgin, left for the reader to decipher in context. Readers will gain a deeper understanding of the beauty and significance of hula and the history of the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement, while following the difficult and bittersweet relationships of three generations of women. 

By all means, if you want to linger in the islands, revisit James Michener’s epic novel “Hawaii,” which came out in 1959, the year that Hawaii was granted statehood. Note the differences with Lakes’ more modern (and Native Hawaiian-centered) interpretation of history. You may also enjoy Kawai Strong Washburn’s “Sharks in the Time of Saviors” or Kaui Hart Hemmings’ “The Descendants.”

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System. Visit to reserve a copy of “Hula” and to learn more about the power of sharing at the library.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, January 20, 2024.)

Book Buzz: The Ways of Water

The Ways of Water by Teresa H. Janssen

“Life, like a river, can take some sharp twists and turns. People can shift as much as a water’s course. There are reasons I broke my promises. I want them to be known.” 

Thus begins the coming-of-age story of Josie Belle Gore, daughter of a Louisiana train engineer and a Texas seamstress, as she struggles to make a life for herself during one of the most turbulent periods of American history. “The Ways of Water” by Teresa H. Janssen is historical fiction inspired by Janssen’s grandmother’s life. 

Set in the Southwest desert and California between 1907–21, Josie and her family are buffeted by world events — economic boom-and-bust, war and pandemic — that take Josie from New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto to Bisbee, Tucson, Los Angeles and finally post-World War I San Francisco. 

Janssen intended to write a biography of her grandmother’s life based on interviews conducted at the nursing home in Seattle where she lived, but as she began writing, she realized there were too many gaps in the story and that it was better suited as historical fiction. Told in first person from Josie’s perspective, the novel does retain the intimate feeling of a diary.

Josie’s childhood feels like it is nothing more than a journey from one calamity to the next, some created by world events like Pancho Villa and civil unrest threatening their desert homestead in Chihuahua, and some by family dysfunction, like Papa losing his job with the railroad due to his drinking. 

Josie’s journey is heart-wrenching, but not unusual for young girls and women in that day. When her mother needs to go to work to make ends meet, Josie foregoes schooling to take care of her brothers and sisters. When she leaves home at 16 rather than be married off to an older suitor in whom she has no interest, she finds work at Western Union and a boardinghouse to live in, run by a strict but caring matron who watches out for “her girls.” From there, Josie is aided at many crucial transitions by the kindness of strangers who take her in and treat her like family. 

Janssen is a historian herself, and “The Ways of Water” is firmly grounded in the history of the times: railroad strikes, the Spanish flu epidemic, revolution and civil war in Mexico, the trauma of losing so many young men in the first World War and the impact of the war on society. If you enjoy well-researched historical fiction, put this engaging debut on your reading list. 

You can also meet the author and hear about her process for turning fact into fiction when Janssen visits Village Books and Paper Dreams in Fairhaven to talk about “The Ways of Water” from 4–5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28 in the Readings Gallery. 

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager for Whatcom County Library System. Visit to reserve a copy of “The Ways of Water” and to learn more about the power of sharing at the library.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Monday, January 8, 2024.)

Book Buzz: How the Other Half Eats

How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America by Priya Fielding-Singh

“How the Other Half Eats” takes an in-depth look at the American family’s complicated relationship with food. Through extensive field research conducted at dinner tables across America, interviewing families spanning the range of socio-economic backgrounds, Priya Fielding-Singh paints a portrait of both inequity and commonality.

All parents want what’s best for their children. Yet Fielding-Singh finds that what is “best” is highly subjective and greatly impacted by one’s economic status. Splurging on a coffee shop treat or giving in to a child’s request for junk food can be seen as a waste of money or an unhealthy habit by some, but for families working multiple jobs and drowning in debt, these things can be something totally different: An all too infrequent opportunity to say “yes” to a child’s request.

When so much is economically out of reach, parents view things completely differently. Conversely, households with strong economic stability have the capacity to worry about a child’s supposed excessive weight gain; an issue a family living paycheck to paycheck may not have the bandwidth to see as a concern.

Moving beyond the topic of food inequality in America, Fielding-Singh also highlights the enduring role mothers typically assume as the parental figure who bears the psychological weight of family meals and their children’s health and eating habits. Despite many advances in gender equality, this entrenched legacy endures. The burden spans the socio-economic divide impacting most mothers. While not brought forward at the outset of Fielding-Singh’s work, this runs as a larger theme undergirding the whole book.

“How the Other Half Eats” opens a window on the scope of food inequality in America and can serve as a nice starting point for engaging in conversations about our varied and unique experiences with food security and insecurity, family meals and lingering gender roles.

“How the Other Half Eats” is the January selection for the Books & Bites book group. Read the book and then join Books & Bites at the Blaine Library 1 p.m. Friday, January 19 for a time of community and lively conversation. For more information, visit

Reviewed by Jonathan Jakobitz, branch manager of Blaine Public Library, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in The Northern Light, Wednesday, January 10, 2024.)

Book Buzz: Roaming

Roaming by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki 

High school best friends Zee and Dani have always dreamed of visiting New York City together. In Roaming, they reunite in Manhattan for spring break after their freshman year at separate colleges. Tagging along is Fiona, a glamorous new friend from Dani’s dorm who would rather see the “real” New York than visit the museums on Zee and Dani’s bucket list.  

In strikingly detailed line art with pops of periwinkle and peach, Roaming captures the transformative—and sometimes frustrating—experience of traveling with friends. The threesome spends as much time exploring the city as they do bickering in their youth hostel. Fantastical illustrations of Times Square, the Met, and Central Park amplify the characters’ inner struggles as they face conflicting desires and hurt feelings.  

This new collaboration by the award-winning Jillian and Mariko Tamaki (Skim, This One Summer) is an ode to New York, friendship, and figuring out who you are. 

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive January 2024 issue.)

Book Buzz: Accountable

Accountable: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed by Dashka Slater 

It began with a meme. A single image that an Albany High junior saw as edgy, intended to court his friends’ dark sense of humor. Soon that meme was a private Instagram account. The content grew more offensive, more personal – racist and sexist, featuring images not of strangers but of other Albany students. Still private, but not for long. When the account is exposed, the small community is shaken to its core. Account victims are traumatized and angry; account followers grapple with the consequences of their choices. Protests follow, then news features, expulsions, legal actions. In telling this story, author Dashka Slater resists the lure of easy answers. Instead she presents a sensitive, nuanced look at both victims and followers that reveals the long-lasting impact of what happened without diminishing the harm caused. Though written for teens, this book is a riveting read for anyone interested in the role of social media in the lives of young people, an analysis that invites both discussion and reflection. 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive January 2024 issue.)

Book Buzz: Working Boats: An Inside Look at Ten Amazing Watercraft

Working Boats: An Inside Look at Ten Amazing Watercraft” by Tom Crestodina

For many of us, the working vessels that ply local waters and the people who work aboard are a bit of a mystery. 

We board ferries. We watch sturdy tugs push heavy barges. And we may eat the catch the mariners bring to shore. But exactly what is going on aboard — and under the waterline — is mostly unknown. 

The organizers of Bellingham’s SeaFeast and Dockside Market do their part to pull back the curtain, inviting locals to learn more about maritime culture and our working waterfront at the annual October festival and twice-monthly seafood market at Squalicum Harbor.

On a recent Saturday, that is where I met author and maritime artist Tom Crestodina. Among Dockside Market booths selling cod, halibut, wild Alaska sidestripe shrimp and chowder, he was setting up a table loaded with his books, “Working Boats: An Inside Look at Ten Amazing Watercraft” — a 2023 Washington State Book Award finalist — and the recently released companion coloring book. 

Published by Sasquatch Book’s Little Bigfoot imprint, the 56-page, 9-by-12-inch full-color “Working Boats” is marketed to young readers, but it will appeal to people of all ages. In highly detailed cutaway illustrations, Crestodina peels back the exterior of the vessels to reveal the mechanics of each featured boat. The result is like having a chance to peek through the windows of a house passed each day. 

In addition to being an artist, Crestodina is also a working commercial fisherman and maritime engineer, which is evident in the vibrantly colored three-dimensional perspective drawings, cutaways and exploded view illustrations. His firsthand experience lends an accuracy and charming intimacy to each illustration. 

This is a book to slowly page through, spending time to study the intricately drawn illustrations of interior and exterior working elements and to consider what it must be like to work and to live aboard. Readers will become absorbed in the details, looking for slices of life — like a guitar on a bunk or laundry hanging on a line in the engine room of a salmon seiner. We see where the catch is stored, and find out where the crew eats and sleeps. 

Through sketches and brief text that is both practical and whimsical, we learn the mechanics of engines and propulsion and how to make a set when fishing for salmon. A cutaway of a double-ended ferry shows the activity of the upper decks most Washingtonians know — cars loading, passengers choosing snacks from the galley and families standing on the deck — but Crestodina’s illustration and text also reveal the engine room and hardworking propellers below.

In addition to details of the 10 featured vessels, “Working Boats” also describes topics such as safety gear, navigation aids, commercial fishing and lighthouse lenses.

The author and illustrator began making cutaway drawings in 2011 to connect with his young son while Crestodina was at sea. Soon, fellow mariners began asking for illustrations of their boats and a side business was born. Sasquatch editors found his work hanging on the walls of a Seattle coffee shop. 

“In part, (the illustrations) are made so that seafarers can hang them on their wall and use them to explain their work to aunts and uncles from Oklahoma,” Crestodina writes on his website, “Some are diagrams that explain fishing methods and other aspects of the maritime trades. Many of them contain inside jokes just for fishermen and sailors. Some contain silly jokes just for kids.”

Following the success of “Working Boats,” last month Sasquatch published the companion coloring book with 31 full-page illustrations of vessels, marine life and seafaring scenes to color. Bow-based poet and fisherman Tele Aadsen wrote the tightly crafted, compelling descriptions for each drawing. 

According to his website, Crestodina is working on a third title in his Working Boats Library to be titled “Safety, Salvage, and Survival at Sea.” 

When he’s not at sea, Crestodina lives in Bellingham with his wife and two children. His books are available at the library and local bookstores and will also be sold during the Holiday Dockside Market taking place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16 at the Fishermen’s Pavilion at Squalicum Harbor. They are a delightful way to learn more about seagoing vessels and our neighbors who work aboard.

Reviewed by WCLS Community Relations Manager Mary Vermillion

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Dec. 11, 2023

Book Buzz: 2023 Literary Gift Guide for All Ages

It may seem strange for a public library system to publish an annual gift guide, but hear us out: All of the books mentioned in the 2023 roundup are gifts, whether you check them out from Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) as a treat for yourself, or purchase them for friends and family.  

Our fabulous librarians have a firsthand view of all the new materials added to our library shelves over the past year, and have selected some of the best to share with you.

You can pick up a paper copy of WCLS’s 2023 Gift Guide at any WCLS branch library — we serve all of the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham — or view it online at

The following are a few highlights to get you started.

For a young child who marches to their own beat: Bellingham’s talented picture book author and illustrator Keith Negley’s book “A Lot Like Batman” speaks to all the kids who may not feel like they fit in. Negley’s exuberant illustrations celebrate kids who may be quiet, shy or introverted — and points out they share these characteristics with a famous superhero, and it’s great to be amazing on your own terms.

For the school-aged reader who appreciates little details: “101 Ways to Read a Book” by Timothee de Fombelle and Benjamin Chaud presents a creative rundown of cleverly named types of readers — from the diva who gestures widely while reading aloud to a flock of birds, to the innovator who “upends the norm” by sitting in a chair turned on its side. Readers of all stripes will recognize themselves and realize they are not alone.

For the tween reader who adores animals and beautiful words: Dave Eggers (yes, that Dave Eggers) has written a wholly original children’s adventure story about a stray dog named Johannes. “The Eyes & the Impossible” follows Johannes as he notes the changes happening in his urban park and reports them to three wise bison who are the Keepers of the Equilibrium. The book is interspersed with lush oil-painting-like illustrations.

For the teen who’s glued to their phone: “Tell Me What Really Happened” by Chelsea Sedoti is a thriller where the mystery is reported entirely through police interviews. Five teens head out into the forest one night to have some fun — and then one vanishes. The four who remain all tell different stories to the cops. Who’s lying? What are they trying to cover up?

For the adult mystery fan who loved “Knives Out”: Meet Ernie Cunningham, a wise-talking member of a notorious crime family, heading to a family reunion at a remote mountain resort. As the title states, “Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone,” and when a dead body turns up, Ernie knows he won’t have to look far for the culprit — but which family member did it? Author Benjamin Stevenson has invented a modern-day sleuth with attitude.

For the newcomer to Whatcom County, or for someone who loves the Northwest in all its glory: “On Island Time: A Traveler’s Atlas” by Chandler O’Leary is a collection of “illustrated adventures on and around the islands of Washington and British Columbia.” Loaded with charming hand-drawn illustrations and maps, readers will want to savor all the details, recognize familiar places, and learn about the wondrous animals, vegetables and minerals of our corner of the Salish Sea. This one’s going on the top of my own wish list (hint, hint).

Reviewed by WCLS Executive Director Christine Perkins

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Dec. 9, 2023

Book Buzz: The Wok: Recipes and Techniques

The Wok: Recipes and Techniques by J. Kenji López-Alt

The 2023 winner of the Washington State Book Award for General Nonfiction, J. Kenji López-Alt, is not a flash-in-the-pan.

His first book, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” was a New York Times bestseller and won a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award. In 2020, he wrote a children’s picture book, “Every Night is Pizza Night.”

His latest is a tribute to the wok, “the most versatile pan in your kitchen,” and it takes the science-meets-art approach he honed as a cook in “America’s Test Kitchen” and as an editor for Cook’s Illustrated.

Like the venerable magazine, “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques” includes copious how-tos with step-by-step instructions and full-color photographs. It also offers lengthy sidebars that get into the nitty-gritty of related topics such as “The Truth About MSG” and “Buying and Salting Eggplants for Stir-Fries.”

Finally, because finely sliced meats and veggies feature prominently in wok cuisine, there are multiple pages devoted to knife skills. For those who just want clear, easy-to-follow recipes, this book has many, with chapters on rice, noodles, frying and simmering, and “simple, no-cook sides.”

López-Alt grew up in Manhattan, the grandson of Japanese immigrants. After working as a cook and editor, he became the managing culinary director of the food blog, Serious Eats. He started a YouTube channel in 2006 (now boasting 1.43 million subscribers and 195 million views), opened a restaurant in San Mateo in 2007, became a New York Times columnist in 2019 and moved to Seattle in 2020.

He now has an Instagram account (618,000 followers) and posts regularly on TikTok, all of which led The Seattle Times to call him “maybe the most powerful food influencer this city has seen in the social media age.” His GoPro videos of late-night forays into the kitchen to cook Asian comfort food showcase his laid-back style.

López-Alt is not afraid to show a little personality in his books, with plenty of puns (wok on!) and not-so-serious asides. Take his investigation into what makes inexpensive Chinese-American takeout so beloved: “A little gloppiness is OK. It’s an essential part of the totally authentic inauthentic experience.”  

He’s all business when it comes to technique, however. He has thoroughly researched the best knives and woks to buy, the key pantry ingredients and tips on how to use electric burners when a gas range is not available. His recipes are no-nonsense with clear directions.

Two things to look out for: specialty ingredients and ambitious cooking times, which may be accurate for a practiced chef but not for a neophyte. The crispy chow mein noodle cake with shiitake and bok choy topping I made was savory and crunchy as advertised, although it could have been more piquant.

Sichuan smashed cucumber salad was a winner, fresh with a touch of heat. López-Alt’s pad thai came as close to “restaurant flavor” as any pad thai recipe I’ve tried so far. Palm sugar and tamarind pulp seem to be the secret, with dried small shrimp and shrimp paste for additional authenticity.

The recipes are primarily from Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisines, although there are some Filipino, Korean, Malaysian, Taiwanese and Vietnamese dishes as well. If you’re craving quick and flavorful Asian food, grab a wok and a copy of “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques.”

Reviewed by WCLS Executive Director Christine Perkins

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Dec. 2, 2023

Book Buzz: The Book of (More) Delights

The Book of (More) Delights: Essays by Ross Gay

In this sequel to The Book of Delights (2019), Ross Gay is back with even more digressions about delight. This book is the result of Gay’s project to notice and record everyday moments of gratitude for one year, starting in August 2021. As the world opens back up after months of pandemic restrictions, Gay appreciates all the little ways that “bumbling, flailing, hurting, failing, changing” people show up for each other.  

The magical thing about reading Gay’s Delights books: his delights will become your delights, too. I hadn’t previously considered the “nefariousness” of QR code menus or the intimacy of clothes on an outdoor clothesline; now, I’ll smile the next time I encounter them in the real world. Reading Ross Gay will inspire you to notice the things in life that you find delightful.  

The Book of (More) Delights is ideal reading material for watching the world go by. Bring this book with you to the airport, a café, or your front porch.  

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive November/December 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Congratulations, the Best Is Over!

Congratulations, the Best Is Over!: Essays by R. Eric Thomas

In this new collection of laugh-out-loud funny essays, R. Eric Thomas picks up where his last memoir (Here For It, 2020) left off. Newly married and enjoying professional success, Thomas’ life is upended when his husband, a Presbyterian pastor, takes a job in Thomas’ hometown of Baltimore. He wonders if, after more than a decade away, it’s possible to go home again. And does he even want to?  

Between musings about Oprah and gay frogs, Thomas finds humor in his life’s upheaval. He struggles with depression and making new friends. He buys a house in the suburbs and feels weird about it. He supports his grieving partner after the loss of a parent. Throughout, Thomas confides his fears and insecurities with his signature self-deprecating, over-the-top style. Even in dark places—the cemetery, the ER, a class reunion where no one remembers his name—R. Eric Thomas’ writing is joyful and uplifting. 

This book is for anyone out there struggling with getting older and embracing change.

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive November/December 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Where the Language Lives: Vi Hilbert and the Gift of Lushootseed

Where the Language Lives by Janet Yoder

Vi taqʷšɘblu Hilbert was 49 years old when she got a phone call that changed the course of her life. 

Thom Hess, a linguist at the University of Washington, called Hilbert and asked her to review an audio recording of one of her mother’s traditional Coast Salish stories he was transcribing.  

In 1972, Hilbert began her formal study of Lushootseed, the language she had heard at home as a member of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. Before long, she was teaching the class herself.

She wrote a textbook with Hess, and then the first Lushootseed dictionary. Hilbert gathered traditional stories into book form, transcribed tape recordings of elders speaking Lushootseed and made it her mission to revive a language that was nearly dormant.

Hess once said, “Thanks to [Hilbert’s] herculean efforts, much more [Lushootseed] history, grammar, lexicon and myth have been saved from oblivion than posterity has any right to expect.”

Janet Yoder experienced her own transformative moment at the age of 27, when she joined Hilbert’s class at UW to fulfill an academic requirement for her master’s degree. After volunteering on several projects, Yoder was welcomed into Hilbert’s circle.  

Over the course of 30 years, Hilbert became Yoder’s mentor and dear friend. Hilbert brought Yoder along to hundreds of cultural gatherings, rituals, canoe races, lectures and celebrations. In turn, Yoder faithfully recorded and transcribed conversations with Hilbert and published essays about her work.  

“Where the Language Lives: Vi Hilbert and the Gift of the Lushootseed” gathers these essays into one volume, presenting a sympathetic portrait of a formidable woman whose impact on Indigenous culture and our understanding of it earned her the distinction of being named a Washington State Living Treasure in 1989.  

Although Hilbert died in 2008, Yoder’s sensitive depiction of her will live on, as will Hilbert’s work and the Lushootseed language she shared with the world.

Yoder begins with “Ten Things I Learned From Vi Hilbert” (No. 1 is “Make Strong Coffee”) and this list vividly illustrates Hilbert’s personality and verve. 

According to Yoder, “Vi was happiest when her calendar had a lot of entries on it,” she loved shopping and gift-giving, honored her ancestors, and worked with increased urgency after a stroke and an aneurysm reminded her that time was short.  

In the book, Yoder points out that Hilbert could be generous and loving, but could also become angry and hold a grudge. Mostly, she writes, Hilbert expected people to do what she wanted and did not accept “no” for an answer. 

Yoder’s essays are straightforward, her diction plain and terse at times. One gets the sense that Yoder has internalized Hilbert’s speaking pace and delivery in her writing. This allows moments of wisdom to shine through, and touches of humor, too, like when Hilbert, who consulted daily with the spirit world, was asked where the “other side” was.

“Beats me,” she said.

Yoder muses, “Perhaps we don’t need to know where the other side is, only that we may reach it via fire or prayer. Or through love.”

This book was nominated for a 2023 Washington State Book Award for Creative Nonfiction/Memoir, an award won by Vi Hilbert’s great-granddaughter Sasha taqʷšɘblu LaPointe, her namesake. LaPointe’s “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk” is the Whatcom READS 2024 selection.

Reviewed by WCLS Executive Director Christine Perkins

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Nov. 6, 2023

Book Buzz: Launched: Whatcom County Poets with New Titles in 2023

Former Washington State Poet Laureate Rena Priest will host a night of diverse poetry as part of an inaugural festival.

“Launched: Whatcom County Poets with New Titles in 2023” will be presented as part of Whatcom County Library System’s Open Book festival on Sunday, Nov. 5 at the Ferndale Events Center.

Each of the highlighted scribes — Tennison Black, Chris Gusta, Sati Mookherjee and Hannah Yerington — has had a book published this year and each will perform a selection of their work. 

The new festival is billed as a celebration of readers, writers and bookish enthusiasm.

The poets come from a diversity of backgrounds. Priest grew up in the Lummi Nation, while Yerington was raised in Bolinas, California. Gusta hails from New Jersey, while Black was raised in the Sonoran Desert. And Mookherjee grew up in Bellingham but spent the summers of her school years in Kolkata, India.

Black’s poem, “Under the Only Tree for Miles,” has a line that may shed some light on how all these poets from everywhere, or at least this poet, ended up in the northwest corner with us: “I was running away 180 knots and headed west and north and out to sea to get away from the desert / but I wasn’t always /and I didn’t forever.”

The poets write in free verse and in form, they speak of grief and ritual, magic and the mundane, sometimes forcefully, sometimes cushioned in humor or metaphor. They explore their pasts and in doing so, call us to explore our own.

Priest, talking about Gusta’s book, says, “… you may recognize your friends, your lovers, and yourself in the attitudes and anecdotes that inhabit these pages.” In interviews, Mookherjee speaks of the value of holding space for “not knowing.”

In the midst of their diversity, what these poems have in common is authenticity and introspection. 

Yerington’s poem, “Honey Incantation,” points out where poetry fits in the taxonomy of magic: “I learn magic that turns my fingertips yellow/ How to use a drill: practical magic. /How to call raccoon mystics to my front yard: impractical magic. /How to pin poems to a prayer box: necessary magic.”

Poetry is necessary magic indeed. We are fortunate these magicians are willing to share their incantations with us.

As Washington’s Poet Laureate, Priest edited the anthology “I Sing the Salmon Home: Poems from Washington State.”

By Neil McKay, online experience coordinator, Whatcom County Library System. Open Book: A Festival for Readers is noon-5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5 at the Ferndale Events Center. Learn more about the free event at

Original published in Cascadia Daily News, Oct. 27, 2023.

Book Buzz: O Lady, Speak Again

O Lady, Speak Again by Danya Patterson

Let’s face it, I’m not at all qualified to review this powerful book of poems on the themes of feminism, Mormon culture and the women of Shakespeare’s plays. 

I’m in over my head, yet I’ve been drawn in by both wordplay and intimacy as Bellingham poet Dayna Patterson navigates between the thoughts of 16th-century Shakespearean women and her own history and experiences as a 21st-century woman. 

Earlier this year, I attended a poetry reading where Patterson featured and read from “O Lady, Speak Again,” and I was struck by both the concept of the collection and the intimacy of her presentation.

Patterson has put together a unique collection of poems in which several of the female characters who populate the plays of William Shakespeare are given a platform to speak out about their lives, their desires, their dreams and passions through a feminist lens, blended with an abundance of Mormon cultural references derived from the poet’s own background. 

The result is an illuminating backstage view of the challenges, obstacles and motivations that shape Shakespeare’s female characters. Patterson has done the work to fully develop these women and allow their voices to rise above the male-dominated plays.

In the poem, “Hermione, Shapeshifter,” Hermione, whose child, Perdita, was taken from her, details her supernatural visitations, “Ghost or bear, Storm or stone. Child I’m whatever / you need.”

I’ll leave it to you to dive into the play “The Winter’s Tale” and find those references to ghost, bear, storm and stone. Patterson, in those lines, imbues these critical scenes with Hermione’s maternal intervention. Shakespeare did not claim the bear and ghost to be manifestations of Hermione, but Patterson’s explanation makes sense and makes for a more interesting story. The bard has been one-upped by the poet.

In another poem, Hermoine’s daughter, Perdita, now 16 years old, voices the confused pain of her abandonment with a stinging rebuke, “To out-mother my mother is easy … All I have to do is / Don’t disappear.”

Such a wicked burn, undeserved if we know the whole story, but Perdita only knew she had no mother. Again, this is not Shakespeare, it’s from Patterson’s imagination, but it rings true to anyone who has had interactions with a teenager.

This is a collection that will stimulate both brain and heart. Sit with it on a quiet Sunday morning with nothing to interrupt your deep dive. Take one poem at a time. Soak in the poem, then turn to Wikipedia to discover the backstory. Then read the poem again. 

This is not a “one and done” type of poetry book. Each poem is a doorway into a deeper investigation of the literature and culture behind it. Each character is drawn with a depth that goes beyond their original depiction. Patterson invests them with characteristics and mindsets that feel authentic whether they are women of the 16th century or the 21st. 

This collection has sparked my interest in the 400-year-old plays that inspired it, and I know as I delve into the works of Shakespeare, whether on the page, stage or screen, this book will be close at hand to bring out the feminist voice of these characters. 

Reviewed by Neil McKay, online experience coordinator, Whatcom County Library System

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Oct. 9, 2023

Book Buzz: Teaching in the Rain: The Story of North Cascades Institute

Teaching in the Rain: The Story of North Cascades Institute by John C. Miles

The North Cascades inspire dreamers. Count among them a group of five friends who, beginning in the early 1980s, turned a shared vision into the North Cascades Institute. 

The nationally respected environmental education nonprofit organization marked its 35th anniversary in 2021. The milestone spurred author and institute insider John C. Miles to chronicle the organization’s remarkable history in “Teaching in the Rain: The Story of North Cascades Institute.”

To write the story, Miles combed through historical records and interviewed staff — chiefly Saul Weisberg, who was among the five determined dreamers who conjured the idea of a field school in the North Cascades. 

Weisberg went on to serve as the organization’s first executive director until his retirement in 2021. Bec Detrich now leads the institute based in Sedro-Woolley.  

The 254-page book honors Weisberg’s leadership, but it also records the contributions of National Park Service staff and others who built the dream of transformative learning experiences at the “convergence of natural and cultural history, science, humanities and the arts.”  

Miles, who is professor emeritus of environmental studies at Western Washington University’s College of the Environment, was among the early supporters. He was the first chair of the institute’s board of directors, and for three decades helped to steer and cheer its growth.  

Because of his own long connection to the organization, Miles’ careful recounting of North Cascades Institute’s development is enlivened by a behind-the-scenes perspective. His book reads as local history, a business lesson and a love letter. 

The honest retelling of the organization’s history includes tense moments between North Cascades Institute leaders and skeptics among National Park Service and Seattle City Light staff. The book also addresses issues of equity and diversity in the institute’s programming and staffing.  

Chapters trace the lifecycles of North Cascades Institute’s environmental education programs for adults and young people, including the popular Mountain School, and the construction of the Environmental Learning Center on the shores of Diablo Lake.

Readers may recognize people who contributed to the nonprofit’s success, including board members such as Village Books co-founder Chuck Robinson, instructors such as Robert Michael Pyle and staff such as Wendy Scherrer, among many more. Black-and-white photos of staff, students, supporters and institute sites, as well as small sketches by Susan Morgan, illustrate the book. 

“Teaching in the Rain” will stir happy memories for alumni of North Cascades Institute programs, while also providing a peek behind the curtain, revealing the sometimes-uncertain trajectory of the scrappy nonprofit that — at least to this participant — always presented itself as an assured professional. Readers unfamiliar with the institute can enjoy the book as a history of environmental education, as a nonprofit handbook or simply as encouragement to go outside.  

Sitting quietly in the background as the institute’s story unfolds are the North Cascades themselves. “A wild, gloriously scenic concentration of mountains, glaciers, deep forested valleys, and falling waters,” Miles writes. His history of North Cascades Institute invites us to explore, to honor and to protect this spectacular ecosystem.  

This summer’s Sourdough Fire is a reminder of just how fragile this dream remains. The fire burned close to the institute’s Environmental Learning Center, causing staff to cancel classes and to temporarily close the center. 

Just as they did during COVID when they shifted to online classes, institute leaders are determining how to navigate this uncertain time. To learn more or to donate, visit North Cascade Institute’s website or attend the 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3 “Teaching in the Rain” book launch party at Village Books’ Fairhaven store. Reserve a seat at Published by Village Books’ Chuckanut Editions, the book arrives on shelves that same day. 

Reviewed by Mary Vermillion, community relations manager, Whatcom County Library System

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Oct. 1, 2023

Book Buzz: The Art Thief

The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel

Stéphane Breitwieser’s crimes seem almost unfathomable. In the span of 6 years, from 1995 to 2001, the French thief and his girlfriend stole more than 200 paintings, sculptures, and priceless objects from museums across Europe. They committed their crimes in broad daylight, swiping artworks from small collections, sometimes with guards and cameras present. What’s more incredible is Breitwieser’s motive: not financial gain or notoriety, but a mania for surrounding himself with remarkable beauty. As a collector, Breitwieser stashed his plunder in his attic apartment, building a gilt-lined refuge filled to bursting with nearly $2 billion worth of treasure. It’s hard to believe The Art Thief is not the work of a novelist’s imagination, but every bit is backed in research and interviews with Breitwieser himself. Author Michael Finkel spins this incredible true story into a compulsive page-turner; readers will be astonished both at the thief’s brazenness and just how long he escaped detection.

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive October 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Edison’s Ghosts

Edison’s Ghosts: The Untold Weirdness of History’s Greatest Geniuses by Katie Spalding

You know their names. You might even know their famous accomplishments. But do you know how truly, well, weird they were? Probably not – which is exactly where mathematician and author Katie Spalding shines. Pulling back the layers of reverence that surround well-known geniuses like Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie and others, Spalding shows us how very imperfect these high achievers really were. Learn about Albert Einstein’s disastrous attempts at sailing; Ben Franklin’s “prank” electrified wine glasses; Nicola Tesla’s unhealthy attachment to a pigeon; and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle’s astonishing gullibility. Readers will find the book’s premise, that geniuses are maybe not that special after all, relatable and deeply reassuring. (By the way, don’t skip the footnotes! Those are some of the best bits.) Blending an impressive amount of research with irreverent, often biting humor, Edison’s Ghosts is a highly entertaining slice of history perfect for holiday gifting. 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive October 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: The Creative Act: A Way of Being

The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin

Legendary music producer and founder of Def Jam Recordings Rick Rubin is known for his light touch with artists and an ear for what’s profitable.

The list of musicians and bands he’s worked with is a who’s who of rap, hip-hop, heavy metal and rock: Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C., Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and Metallica, to name a few. He created mega-hits with Johnny Cash, Adele, Neil Diamond and others. Dr. Dre calls him “Hands down, the dopest producer ever that anyone would ever want to be, ever.”

Rubin’s evolution from college innovator to media mogul would make a fascinating memoir. Instead, his first book is not that — at all. “The Creative Act: A Way of Being” is a poetic primer for unlocking your creative potential.

Filled with zen kōans, pithy quotes, poetry fragments and bulleted lists, it’s a quick read that may set off your “woo-woo” detectors … until you stop and ponder, re-read and come around to the idea that Rubin may be on to something.

Known for sporting a trademark flowing white beard and dark shades, Rubin projects a laid-back, zen vibe. To many, he’s achieved guru status, so his enigmatic words of wisdom throughout this book are on-brand.

“When the work has five mistakes / it’s not yet completed. / When it has eight mistakes / it might be,” he writes. “Look for what you notice / but no one else sees.”  

The cynical among us might balk at the obviousness of some of Rubin’s observations or the meandering nature of the narrative. Others may wish for a few more anecdotes from his colorful past, some name-dropping perhaps, but Rubin sticks to concepts instead of spilling the tea.

He’s divided his treatise into “78 Areas of Thought” beginning with “Everyone is A Creator” and ending with “What We Tell Ourselves,” with stops for “(Possibility),” “A Whisper Out of Time” and “(Regeneration).”

This may be one of the most cryptic Tables of Contents ever written. Yet allow yourself to sink into its pages, suspend your disbelief momentarily, and go with the flow. Open yourself to Rubin’s analogy of the source of creativity being a cloud — constantly changing in shape and form, disappearing and re-appearing, always emerging as something new yet deeply familiar.  

Follow his advice to consider your responses when experiencing new art for the first time, especially radical, groundbreaking work. And, for Pete’s sake, if you’ve checked out a library copy of this book, use sticky notes to keep tabs on interesting musings and leave the highlighter for your personal edition.

Judging from the number of rave reviews on Goodreads (4 stars, nearly 13,000 ratings and counting) plenty of people find Rubin’s book to be inspirational and practical. Young writers, musicians and other artists just starting their creative journeys may be especially jazzed.  

Rubin’s ability to coax artistic genius from the musicians he works with speaks for itself. Let “The Creative Act” guide you on your own artistic path.

Reviewed by Christine Perkins, executive director, Whatcom County Library System

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sept. 23, 2023

Book Buzz: Trailer Park Psalms: Poems

Trailer Park Psalms: Poems by Ryler Dustin

Ryler Dustin’s latest book of poetry, “Trailer Park Psalms,” is a slender volume of poems that speaks to readers with a quiet voice. 

Dustin developed his skill as a poet and spoken word performer at the long-running Poetry Night open mic at Stuart’s Coffeehouse on the corner of Bellingham’s Bay and Holly streets, and went on to represent Seattle in the Individual World Poetry Slam. His voice is uniquely his own but calls to mind some of the great American and Pacific Northwest poets of previous generations. 

These poems are restless and searching. Searching for the holy. Searching for meaning. 

“Bless our uncooked Northwest skins / ghost white, except for Ian’s,” he writes. 

The book begins with a benediction, a blessing for the storyteller’s humble beginnings in Whatcom County — the corrugated tin and duct tape of the trailer park, the neighborhood kids with their quirks and secrets, the blackberries, nettles and Douglas fir that many PNW folks recognize as touchstones of their own childhood.

From there, the tome traces a spiritual and geographical search for respite or maybe release.

Locals will recognize the Bellingham landmarks mentioned in the poems: Northshore Road, Agate Bay, Whatcom Creek. That last one was the scene of a tragic accident that is recounted in the second poem. Certainly, it’s the most powerful moment in the book. It evokes a sadness that shapes our interpretation of the rest of the poems. 

Dustin writes: “If a boy’s palm cups to catch the whisper
Of flame, if he stands passing a butane lighter
Back and forth with his friend
It is to learn how beauty burns the fingers
How the forbidden holds inside it the holy.”

These poems are restless and searching. Searching for the holy. Searching for meaning. The speaker travels far from home, recounting to us his thoughts and experiences with a wistful voice. 

Some poems take place in London, England and Bergen, Norway; others closer to home in Washington and Oregon towns, outside Henderson Books and “in the empty lot across from K-Mart.” The distant poems provide contrast to the local ones. 

When I read “The night we met was pink gin, your grin / limbs lifting in fake fog,” I felt like I knew which bar in Bellingham that was. But the scene might well have taken place in a drinking establishment in London or Bergen instead.

There is a lexicon that is familiar to those of us who attended church as children. It’s a language of faith that is second nature, and feels comfortable on the tongue or in the pen. In Dustin’s poems, you can sense his awareness of the presence — and sometimes of the absence — of God.

“It is dangerous, on nights like this / to look for the Lord in his works,” he writes. 

Dustin is a poet on a dangerous journey, searching for “the Lord,” or the truth, or a sign or a connection as he makes his way home. He currently resides in Bellingham and for that, we are grateful.

“Trailer Park Psalms” is available at Bellingham and Whatcom County libraries and independent bookstores. Ryler Dustin will be reading his poetry at 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17 at Village Books. Register in advance at

Reviewed by Neil McKay, online experience coordinator, Whatcom County Library System

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sept. 13, 2023

Book Buzz: I Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer

I Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer by Robert Lashley

I have read and heard Robert Lashley’s work for more than 15 years. He has published three books of poetry and has presented his work in venues across the country. 

In 2021, at the peak of the pandemic, Lashley gave a live 10-poem performance via Zoom. Filmed at Mount Baker Theatre’s Walton Theatre with just four audience members allowed in the theater, he delivered a performance both forceful and melancholy. It’s required listening for anyone who wants to familiarize themselves with the not-so-quiet storm that is Robert Lashley. 

Lashley’s first novel, “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” is a human story, a tale told through letters written by a young Black man, Albert, to his mentor, Professor Thompson. The location is modern-day Tacoma, and the theme is regret and second chances. This same theme and location figure heavily in his three books of poetry.

A cursory glance at the titles of some of his poems bear witness to the world inhabited by the novel’s characters: “Elegy for a Stick-Up Kid,” “Ode to a Basement Hair Salon,” “Said the Ghetto Nerd to Narcissus at the Bar” and “From the City Bus that Took My Black Ass to School, 4:51 AM.”

Lashley’s protagonist, Albert, spends much of the novel regretting his past. “I’m not Grendel,” his first letter begins, with melodramatic and literary aplomb. Albert believes he is worse than this evil monster killed by Beowulf, the hero of the thousand-year-old epic poem of the same name. (Note: if you never actually read “Beowulf” in high school, you are in good company. The literary references had me confronting the gaps in my knowledge and flipping through Wikipedia across the entire novel.)

Albert knows Grendel because he has been given a literary education by respected elders in the Black community in Tacoma, including his mama. They have made it their business to provide him every opportunity to succeed. But these opportunities do not protect him from the drug culture on the streets of Tacoma. Born in the Hillside Terrace Housing Projects, Albert is timid and vulnerable and an easy target for a drug dealer named Big Thomas.  

Big Thomas offers him protection, food and candy in exchange for running small amounts of drugs and then raises the stakes on Albert. While the novel does not describe sexual assault or violence in detail, these are difficult passages to read through and Albert returns to his thoughts of Big Thomas throughout the novel. 

Albert and the other characters in the novel ring as true as those in his poems. (Image courtesy of Robert Lashley)  

In a much later scene, Albert is confronted by a young boy nervously pointing a gun at him during a gang initiation and he expresses empathy and sadness. “They prodded him like they prodded me, just like now-faded men in gutters had once prodded them as boys. The specter of all our Big Thomases hung in the air.”

At the beginning of the novel, however, Albert is not so wise nor confident. He is writing from a homeless shelter. His life, he feels, is a series of bad choices and consequences that have left him feeling like a monster, undeserving and repentant. 

Deserving or not, Albert is given a second chance working in Mrs. Eulalah’s beauty shop, which becomes the safe refuge in which Albert finds some humanity and acceptance and humor. The women who work there accept him but push him to do better through no-nonsense dialogue and concrete service. Self-pity has no place among the combs and the creams and the Crown Royal. 

Albert and the other characters in Lashley’s novel ring as true as those in his poems. The conceit of letter-writing is delivered with an earnestness that elicits empathy. Albert’s voice blends street talk and literary references with a bit of endearing nerd-speak. (“Kick rocks in flip-flops,” he says in an angry rant to his mentor.)

Throughout, there is extensive use of a racial epithet used to refer to Black people, which reads as authentic and integral to the voice of the letter-writer. This slim volume is a fairly quick read, but it will move you and challenge you.

“I Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” is available at independent bookstores and Bellingham and Whatcom County libraries. 

Lashley will discuss his novel with fellow author and Western Washington University English Professor Carol Guess at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 11 at Village Books, 1200 11th St. Register for the event at

Reviewed by Neil McKay, online experience coordinator, Whatcom County Library System

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sept. 8, 2023

Book Buzz: Phoebe’s Diary

Phoebe’s Diary by Phoebe Wahl

Welcome to Bellingham. The year is 2006. Teenagers smoke weed, play pool at Kendrick’s and rent movies from Trek Video. Flirting happens via flip phone and Myspace. Irony and ballet flats are in. 

Phoebe is a sophomore who wears DIY skinny jeans, listens to the best indie bands and attends play rehearsals with her drama club friends. In the sanctuary of her room, she draws and writes about the complex social dynamics she encounters in high school. When we first peek inside her diary, we discover that 15-year-old Phoebe is full of desires — some material, like an iPod that won’t randomly skip around, and some intangible. She wants a BOYFRIEND, to be a Real Artist and to not feel so alone. 

Spoiler: She becomes a Real Artist. 

“Phoebe’s Diary” is the fictionalized and illustrated version of Phoebe Wahl’s own teenage journals. This is Wahl’s fifth book and her young adult (YA) debut. Her previous books, including “Little Witch Hazel” and the Ezra Jack Keats Award-winning “Sonya’s Chickens,” are picture books illustrated in Wahl’s lush, distinctive style of collage, colored pencil and bright watercolors. 

Most pages of “Phoebe’s Diary” are illustrated with inky watercolor scenes from Phoebe’s life. In intricate, full-page illustrations, Phoebe and her friends traipse through Bellingham’s wooded trails, crowd together to watch “Rocky Horror” at a Halloween party and celebrate Passover (with real wine!) at a raucous seder. Drawings of Bellingham scenery add texture and context to Phoebe’s diary entries. Miniature still lifes and expressive portraits with speech bubbles illuminate moments that are too big to be expressed with words alone. 

The illustrations in “Phoebe’s Diary” are a tribute to young people’s superpower: self-expression through style. Whenever Phoebe writes about a new character, she introduces them with a drawing that highlights their unique sartorial choices. Annie: “Definitely not on the skinny jeans train.” Nora: “Long, glorious hair like Eowyn from ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but red.” 

Wahl honors the seriousness of special occasions and the clothes that accompany them with full-body illustrations of the outfits Phoebe wears to Bumbershoot, prom and her 16th birthday party. 

When Phoebe starts keeping this journal in the weeks before her sophomore year, she is crushing on three different boys in her theater club. Her yearning for romantic love is a regular topic of diary entries — a chance encounter is enough to fuel days of daydreaming. By October, she has winnowed her crushes down to two, and by November, she is holding hands with someone who takes her by surprise.

As her first real relationship blossoms, Phoebe brushes up against new tensions. How can she follow her heart without leaving her best friend behind? Can she convince her big sister that she is mature enough to have sex — or at least will be by next summer? 

In between significant, sometimes sporadic life updates, Phoebe confesses her obsessions, fears and insecurities. The life she leads in her head is passionate and exciting, and the real world often feels bland by comparison. Halfway through the school year, Phoebe is faced with a tough decision: Will she focus on her paintings for the Community Arts Showcase, or keep performing with her theater friends? 

Speaking personally, reading “Phoebe’s Diary” as an adult was a nostalgic, bittersweet experience. I attended high school during the same years as Wahl, and this book brought me back to a simpler, less frightening time — or at least that’s how it exists in my memory. The YA readers who make up this book’s target demographic aren’t old enough to remember mix CDs, but teen angst is relatable no matter what decade you grow up in. 

Phoebe’s earnestness made my heart ache for teenagers everywhere who are struggling to become their true selves. I wish I could gift this book to a younger, less secure version of myself and say, “See, it’s not just you. You’re not alone.” Wahl and her fictional counterpart give voice to the universal truths we hold inside ourselves: the desire to be loved and the vulnerability of loving others. 

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sept. 2, 2023

Book Buzz: Yellowface

Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

“Bad Art Friend” meets psychological thriller in this pacy, satirical page-turner.  

June Hayward is a struggling author whose debut novel flopped. Her college friend, Athena Liu, is a bestselling author who just landed a Netflix deal. When Athena dies in an accident, June finds herself in possession of the secret manuscript for Athena’s next project: a historical novel about Chinese laborers in WWI called The Last Front. June convinces herself that it’s better to rewrite and submit the draft under her own name than to let it languish in obscurity—even though a plagiarism scandal would ruin her career.  

Kuang herself has been a vocal critic of Big Five publishers during the recent HarperCollins strike, and she doesn’t pull any punches as she takes The Last Front through its fictional publishing process. Yellowface conveys the nuance inherent to discussions of plagiarism and cultural appropriation while remaining highly readable. Tense and compelling.

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive September 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: American Mermaid

American Mermaid by Julia Langbein 

This splashy debut novel is part Hollywood satire, part girl-power eco-thriller. High school English teacher Penny moves to LA for the summer to adapt her bestselling novel into a movie. In Penny’s book, also called American Mermaid, protagonist Sylvia is an asexual engineer who discovers that her disability—she has chronic pain in her lower body and uses a wheelchair—is due to her true nature: she’s a mermaid. Despite Penny’s protests, the bro-y screenwriters assigned to the project want movie-Sylvia to be sexed up, aged down, and have superpowers.  

Between chapters about awkward Hollywood parties are excerpts from Penny’s version of American Mermaid. Her original characters are well-rounded with complicated motives, which makes the screenwriters’ attempts to flatten them—”What if she just KNOWS science?” even more cringeworthy. Author Julia Langbein is attempting a lot here, but the result is a hybrid novel that adds a feminist, sci-fi twist to mermaid lore. A dryly funny, genre-bending beach read. 

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive September 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: No Two Persons

No Two Persons by Erica Bauermeister

Some people mark summer by road trips and barbecues. Book lovers track the season by the pages we’ve read. Like Jenga pieces, we pull hardbacks from our teetering “to be read” piles, scan media for trending titles, and turn to library and bookstore staff for the next great book we’ve yet to discover. 

What makes a great book? I think author Erica Bauermeister has it right. Quoting her friend Holly Smith, Bauermeister says: “A great book is one that you love.” This truth drives Bauermeister’s latest title, “No Two Persons,” a novel that celebrates the life of a particular book.

This quiet celebration of the power of story and the world of books may be the perfect coda for your late-summer reading. 

Published in May, “No Two Persons” is Bauermeister’s fifth novel. Her popular backlist includes “The Scent Keeper,” which was a Reese’s Book Club pick. She also wrote a memoir, “House Lessons: Renovating a Life,” which chronicles her family’s decades-long journey renovating a historic home in Port Townsend where she now lives with her husband. 

In her years of writing and reading, Bauermeister noted how readers can perceive and respond differently to the same story. She says “No Two Persons” is “inspired by all the readers and book clubs I’ve talked with, all the students I have taught. Each with their own opinions. Each with their own love of words.”

In “No Two Persons,” she honors opinions and books by following a fictitious debut novel, “Theo,” from its creation through publication and criticism and, finally, down its varied pathways to readers. 

The book opens with the story of the writer, Alice Wein, and how “Theo” came to the page. In separate chapters, Bauermeister summons nine readers; the distinct personalities and range of occupations are a testament to Bauermeister’s instinct for story. 

First up, we meet Lara the publishing assistant, who finds Alice’s book among a slush pile of manuscripts. Next, there’s Rowan, a former actor who has retreated to a remote island in British Columbia where he records audiobooks in his home studio. In subsequent chapters, “Theo” inspires an artist named Miranda and a free diver named Tyler, and it saves the lives of Nola, a homeless teenager; Kit, a bookseller seeking love; and William, a widower. The eighth reader, Juliet, is an intimacy coordinator for movies. The final character is Madeline, the agent who published the book. 

Each of these nine readers reacts to Alice’s book in diverse ways, but all find the story they need because of who they are when they read it. Bauermeister quietly links the lives in each chapter. Beyond the obvious ties, careful readers may find additional references and associations the author has described as “love notes slipped between pages.”

As Bauermeister foretells, readers will have their opinions and connect in different ways — or not at all — with “No Two Persons.” I have a soft spot for the character of Madeline, who suggests it’s not the number of books we read that matter, but the beauty of the search and the power of the ideas we discover.

At least that’s the message I heard. 

Bauermeister’s trademark empathy and hope are the heart of “No Two Persons.” On her website, she attests that she writes “about the things we don’t pay attention to — our sense of smell, the food we cook, the houses we live in, the way our filters affect our perceptions of the world. I write about those quiet spaces between words, and all that goes on in them. But most of all, I write about compassion — because that is what teaches us to see everything else.” 

Readers have a special opportunity to think about those quiet spaces and books — and the end of summer — with Bauermeister and fellow author David B. Williams on Village Books’ Sept. 12–14 “Books A’Sail” book group at sea aboard the Schooner Zodiac. She’ll also join Williams at the Sept. 14 Chuckanut Radio Hour. Find more information about both events at

Reviewed by Mary Vermillion, community relations manager, Whatcom County Library System.

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Aug. 26, 2023

Book Buzz: Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club

Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal 

It seems natural that Ned and Mariel would end up together. After all, they were both raised in the Midwest by families with deep ties to the restaurant community. But the similarities end there. While Ned’s family helms the chain restaurant empire Jorby’s, Mariel grew up in Floyd and Betty’s Lakeside Supper Club on Bear Jaw Lake, where the prime rib platters are staggering and Betty’s signature “lemonade” is always flowing. Though Ned wants to build his future in the family business, Mariel’s heart is forever bound to the Lakeside, a bond that only deepens when the couple’s life is marred by unimaginable tragedy. Intertwining Mariel’s story with that of her mother and grandmother, Stradal pays homage to the culture and character of his setting without shying away from difficult topics. Every bit as warm and relatable as his previous books (Kitchens of the Great Midwest and The Lager Queen of Minnesota), this new novel is a perfect choice for readers who love stories of food, family, and connection. 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive August 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: No Two Persons

No Two Persons by Erica Bauermeister 

At first glance, you might not understand the connection between the theme of this novel – the magic and power of story – and its title — No Two Persons. Inspired by the familiar adage “no two persons ever read the same book,” Bauermeister plays with structure to create a collection of linked stories that speaks directly to the heart of book lovers everywhere. The uniting thread is a fictional book called Theo. Though readers get only vague hints at the plot and themes of Theo, we follow the novel through its lifespan, from the writing process through publishing and then into the lives of nine of its readers. Notably, each person engages with the book in a different way; though some are people you might expect to find in a book about books (agent, bookseller), others are thoroughly unique, like a caretaker grappling with grief or a record-breaking free diver. Bauermeister, a Northwest favorite, is at her best when it comes to creating relatable and complex people and emphasizing her theme: that stories call to us, imprinting our lives in ways we might never imagine.

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive August 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: The Least of Us

The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by Sam Quinones

The Least of Us takes us into the lives of people involved with and impacted by fentanyl and super-meth. 

Sam Quinones, a former award-winning investigative reporter and now author, has extensive contacts in Mexico and across the rural United States and is gifted at getting to the heart of their stories in this 2021 book and explaining how their experience shines a light on the epidemic.  

The Bellingham Public Library co-hosted “All Hands Whatcom: An Evening with Sam Quinones” with the Chuckanut Health Foundation to hear Quinones discuss how the opioid crisis has expanded and become more devastating with the emergence of synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine. Both have become prevalent in Whatcom County.

Quinones is a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times whose investigative journalism skills shone in his groundbreaking book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2015. In “Dreamland,” he followed the path of black tar heroin from Mexico up the West Coast of the U.S. to the East; and then OxyContin, from Purdue labs on the East Coast and back across the country, overlapping to create a terrible cross-hatch of addiction and death.

In the years since that book came out, Quinones noticed changes in the way the opioid epidemic was playing out. As word slowly spread around the medical community about the dangers of over-prescribing pain medications and governmental regulations limited supply, people addicted to pain pills transitioned to illegal substances like heroin. Then new drugs emerged, like fentanyl. Synthetic drugs could be made on a massive scale, flooding the market, lowering prices and wreaking havoc on entire communities, the book details.

 The book takes readers into the lives of people involved with and impacted by fentanyl and super-meth. Quinones has extensive contacts in Mexico and across the rural United States and is gifted at getting to the heart of their stories. (Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing)  

According to Quinones, hyper-potent fentanyl “upended the dope world the way tech disrupted business. No farmland needed — no pesticides, no harvesting, no seasons, no irrigation. It shrank the heroin supply chain.”

Quinones interviewed Drug Enforcement Agency agents, addiction treatment providers, recovering addicts, incarcerated dealers, neuroscientists, family members affected by addicts, pharmacologists, local jail administrators and citizens trying to rebuild their drug-torn communities. 

While each person’s story is crushing and terrible, not all are bleak. Quinones finds hope in the growing awareness of the way these drugs work and the development of best practices for how to treat addicts and rebuild their lives. 

Most inspiring is the coalition of people who recognize that this epidemic affects us all, and to solve it, we all must play a role. All hands are needed in Whatcom County — will you join us?

If you missed his presentation, you can participate in one of two free community discussions: noon to 1:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 14, or 5:30–7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 17 at the Bellingham Public Library Lecture Room. (You can register for a free ticket at

Reviewed by Christine Perkins, executive director, Whatcom County Library System.

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Aug. 8, 2023

Book Buzz: Cascadia Field Guide

Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry edited by Elizabeth Bradfield, CMarie Fuhrman and Dereky Sheffield

The collection Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry is a love story masquerading as a field guide. In the book, 14 artists and more than 100 poets and writers express their devotion to the bioregion through black-and-white illustrations, place-inspired poetry and evocative prose.

Whether you have a longstanding love affair with Cascadia or are new to its charms, this field guide is a fresh and intimate illumination of the extraordinary place we call home.

Editors Elizabeth Bradfield, CMarie Fuhrman and Derek Sheffield describe Cascadia — a unifier defining the Pacific Northwest by watersheds rather than political borders — as stretching from “Alaska’s Prince William Sound through British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon to northern California’s Eel River, and from the Pacific Coast to the Continental Divide in Idaho and Montana.”

In their introduction, the editors acknowledge that unlike traditional field guides identifying plants and animals by appearance, habitat and behavior, Cascadia Field Guide employs stories, art and poetry to introduce readers to 128 beings (their preferred alternative to species) that live in the 13 bioregions of Cascadia. They capitalize the names of the named beings to highlight their individuality and agency. The result is not a complete taxonomy but a reverent story of connections that create place.

This is a literary rather than a scientific guide. You might not learn the average life span of a Steller’s Jay, they write, but you might learn how it feels “to have Jay on a branch by your shoulder.”

One other distinction: Measuring 6 inches wide, 8 1/2 inches tall and 1 inch thick, the 396-page field guide won’t fit in a pocket and it’s most likely too heavy to lug along on a backpacking or kayaking trip. Read it when you’re back from the trail to recall the wonder and to reestablish a connection with place.

The guide’s stories are inextricably linked — like the natural world they celebrate. For example, in the Tidewater Glacier section, former Washington State Poet Laureate and Bellingham resident Rena Priest celebrates Salmonberry in her poem, “Tour of a Salmonberry.” The closing notes of Priest’s poem (“float above the earth, feel/the sun, and return”) flow seamlessly to a description of the early spring runs of Eulachon (also known as Candlefish, Ooligan, Hooligan and Saak), which is fished for food, for use as a natural preservative, and for its oil, which is fatty enough to serve as a light source.

The Bull Kelp entry that follows deepens the connection, revealing that the long, hollow stems of Bull Kelp historically served as flexible tubes for storing and transporting Eulachon oil.

The writers — some well-known, others emerging — have deep ties to the region. Their work is shaped by this place and their poems add a layer of intimacy.

In addition to Priest, local writers featured in Cascadia Field Guide include Robert Lashley, Donald J. Mitchell, Nancy Pagh, Jeremy Voigt and Jane Wong. The art of Raya Friday, a member of the Lummi Nation, illustrates the book’s Outer Coast section.

Friday’s preferred medium is glass and her open ocean illustration that begins the section is like a stained-glass window, evoking reverence for tufted puffin, spotted ratfish, Dungeness crab, Heermann’s gull, tomcod/bocaccio, giant Pacific octopus, sea otter and Bigg’s killer whale.

The book’s organization is, the editors admit, a bit loose. It’s as if you’re seeing Cascadia through the branches of a Western Red Cedar — veiled, slowly revealed, an invitation to explore more deeply.

This is a book that encourages you to see and to know but also to feel. The writers ask the reader to “listen to rain patter on the broad-spanning leaves of Devil’s Club,” “… close your eyes and take a deep breath, smelling the unique mix of wet rock, Bunchgrass, dust, Lupine, Desert Parsley, and everywhere, the distinctive bite of Sagebrush,” to “lie back, close your eyes … thank the stars above … for your time” here.

Reviewed by Mary Vermillion, community relations manager, Whatcom County Library System

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, July 10, 2023

Book Buzz: Making of a Rescuer

Making of A Rescuer: An Otto-biography of the Life of Otto T. Trott, MD by Nicholas Campbell Corff

If you’ve ever taken a run down the Ottobahn between Chair 8 and Chair 7 at the Mt. Baker Ski Area, you may have wondered how it got its punny moniker. It’s named for Dr. Otto Trott, an early and longtime member of the Mt. Baker Ski Patrol, whose lists of accomplishments and accolades in the realms of mountaineering and mountain rescue are lengthy and internationally recognized.  His first ascent of the west wall of Mt. Shuksan in 1939 has legendary status. He skirted a hanging glacier in pursuit of the most direct line up the ominous vertical rock face using a technique that was new at the time: walking straight up using the leading spikes of their crampons on the steep ice.

Trott’s immensely readable biography is lovingly documented by his son-in-law Nicholas Campbell Corff, who shares Trott’s reminiscences, diary entries, and candid photos to relate a purpose-driven and joyful life spent in the mountains. Trott is personally responsible for saving dozens (if not more) lives of climbers and hikers across the Cascades and up in Alaska, and indirectly credited with innumerable other rescues for pioneering mountain rescue techniques and creating the Mountain Rescue Council along with his good friends Wolf Bauer and Ome Daiber.

Born in 1911, Trott became entranced with mountain climbing at age 12 in his homeland of Germany. After earning his medical degree in in 1936, it became clear to Trott that because of a Jewish ancestor in his family tree, he would not be able to practice medicine nor stay in Germany under the increasingly oppressive Nazi regime. He resolved to emigrate to the United States, leaving behind his aging parents and his sisters. Trott landed a job teaching skiing at a golf course in Syracuse, New York, while completing another residency required to secure his American medical license. Next, Trott moved to Seattle and took a position as Resident Physician at the King County Tuberculosis Hospital.  This locale was the perfect basecamp for adventures on Mount Rainier and throughout the Northwest.

Trott quickly connected with the Mountaineers, who introduced him to “the most spectacular sight of a mountain I had yet seen in America”: Mt. Shuksan. On his first visit to the Mt. Baker area, he was joined by two teenagers: Fred and Helmy Beckey, who later achieved fame for their numerous first ascents throughout the Cascades and Coast ranges. Trott’s skill and fearlessness as a climber, skier, and outdoorsman made him good company on any expedition, but it was his medical training that made him a standout.  He translated the seminal book “Mountain Rescue Techniques” from German, gave frequent lectures about the dangers of hypothermia, and designed special carts to transport injured climbers from precarious mountaintops. Trott was serving as Medical Coordinator for the Mountain Rescue Council in 1960 when he got the call to assist in the rescue of Jim and Lou Whittaker and others from Mt. McKinley, in what became one of the largest organized rescue efforts in North America to that point.

Trott fell in love with Mt. Baker (and at Mt. Baker, where he met his future wife while putting a cast on her broken leg).  For many years, Trott and his family spent every weekend in a cabin that had served as a dressing room for Clark Gable during the filming of “Call of the Wild”. The tales of their family adventures are both heartwarming and inspiring, as it is clear that all of Trott’s four daughters loved the mountain life as much as their energetic, irrepressible father.

Although that cabin was bulldozed to put in the ski area parking lot, Trott built another one near Glacier, and you can savor Trott’s biography “on location” by reserving a few nights – search Airbnb for “75 year Mt. Rescue anniversary historic Trott cabin.”

If you have any backcountry hikes, ski trips, or climbing plans on the horizon, you’ll benefit by reading this book cover-to-cover. Addendums include Trott’s original pamphlet “Improvised First Aid for Severe Mountaineering Injuries.” Trott died at home in 1999, after having skied and climbed well into his 80s.

Reviewed by Christine Perkins, executive director, Whatcom County Library System 

Originally reviewed in Cascadia Daily News, July 7, 2023

Book Buzz: Romantic Comedy

Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld 

As a writer for late-night comedy show “The Night Owls”, Sally’s career is pretty much her life, and she’s okay with it. Between working long hours and catering to celebrity ego, there’s little time for romance, which Sally figures is fine, since she’s had her share of heartbreak. When musician Noah Brewster turns up to guest host the show, Sally proposes a sketch playing on relationships between high-powered women and basic dorky guys, noting that the reverse – an average woman and an ultra-famous man – rarely happens. Sparks fly as Noah and Sally work closely on the piece; yet Sally pulls away, certain that a star like Noah couldn’t possibly find a woman like her attractive. Fast forward a few years and the pair reconnects during COVID lockdown. It’s clear that Sally and Noah must get past misunderstandings and fears to find out what their relationship could become. Blending relatable characters and witty dialogue with a peek into the world of sketch comedy, Sittenfeld delivers a readable page-turner that’s light yet memorable. This one’s a winner for your summer beach bag.

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive June/July 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Much Ado About Nada

Much Ado About Nada by Uzma Jalalludin 

Canadian author Uzma Jalaluddin is known for contemporary romances that recast classic stories with fresh, modern settings and people. Her latest novel, Much Ado About Nada, is no exception. Inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Jalaluddin takes the Regency comedy of manners into the Muslim community in a glitzy Toronto suburb. Nada and Baz have a complicated history dating back to childhood. As adults, they’d just as soon stay far away from one another. However, Nada’s best friend just became engaged to Baz’s brother, bringing the two into contact for the first time in years. Now Nada and Baz are forced together in ways neither of them want, even as they try to keep their past a secret from ever-curious family and friends. Lively and fun, this sparkling book delivers not only on the romance front but also as a story of a woman coming into her own. Prepare to fly through this delightful enemies-to-lovers read, and then immediately share it with all your romance-loving friends.

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive June/July 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City

Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City: A Memoir by Jane Wong

Some memoirists paint the past with soft edges, intentionally or perhaps subconsciously smoothing out the rough bits and lingering fondly on the pleasant ones.  Not Jane Wong.  She lays it all out there, presenting a vivid, heart-wrenching, pull-no-punches exploration of her life (so far).  Like the Bruce Springsteen song she chose for her title, Wong’s book has an undercurrent of sadness, and flashes of defiance that signal her strength.  It also relates some lighter moments, and conveys her appreciation for her working-class upbringing.

Wong grew up as a “restaurant baby” playing under the tables of her parents’ Chinese restaurant in New Jersey.  Her immigrant father, addicted to gambling, abandoned his family for Atlantic City, “like a moth drawn toward light”.  Her dear mother didn’t dwell on their misfortune, just worked longer hours sorting mail for the U.S. postal service. After a bumpy adolescence competing for Miss Preteen New Jersey 1997, flirting with shoplifting, experimenting with skin whitening products and green glitter nail polish, and raiding her friend’s parents’ liquor cabinet under the thrall of her alter ego “Wayne”, Wong became the first in her family to attend college. She eventually earned an MFA and a PhD and became a professor, a published and highly lauded poet, and now, a memoirist.

Lest this summary come off as overly sanguine, be assured that from a young age Wong was consumed by rage, which is a running theme for her.  At 13, she says, “I felt this feeling churn within me, this rage, this pimple-popping lusciousness of rudeness, this gleaming desire for sudden destruction.” (p. 98)  Not merely the throes of hormones, Wong’s anger is fueled by the near-constant stream of indignities and cruelties thrown in her direction, many because of her Chinese heritage.  Grade school taunts, noses turned up at her homemade Toisanese lunches, assumptions that she should excel at math and ping pong.  Grad school classmates who imply she only got in to meet a racial quota.  Worse, her undeniably horrifying experiences with men.  The Asian woman fetish is disgustingly real, and on top of that Wong seems to attract a string of “future ex-boyfriends” who demean, assault, threaten, lie to, and cheat on her.  Wong struggles with internalized racism, imposter syndrome, and esteem issues.

Wong’s brother Steven and her mother Jin Ai are her biggest supporters, and the mutual love and respect they have for one another is an important balancing force in her life.  Her mother sends her boxes laden with Asian pears, reminds her to visit the cemetery for Grave Sweeping Day, proudly FaceTimes from the USPS breakroom, nibbles on mango pits with her and reminds her every day that persistence and tenderness can transcend poverty and abuse.

Wong is first and foremost a poet, and her precise and colorful imagery is evident throughout her memoir.  Her narrative is not linear; chapters circle around themes and motifs.  While they could be read as independent essays, presented together they create a cohesive portrait of a sensitive, feisty woman “a total nerd, a weirdo, a goofball, someone who wants everyone to love writing as much as I do, someone who knows her worth—despite everyone who doubts me.” (p. 234)

Because Wong teaches creative writing at Western Washington University, Bellingham locales (the Lettered Streets Coffeehouse, Village Books, the Fred Meyer gas station) bubble up occasionally, which add an extra level of familiarity and connection for Whatcom County readers.

Reviewed by Christine Perkins, executive director of Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, June 19, 2023)

Book Buzz: The Necessity of Wildfire

The Necessity of Wildfire: Poems by Caitlin Scarano

Have you ever sat with a friend late into the night, listening as their stories turn from interesting memories to cries for help? It’s late and everyone else has gone home, leaving you alone with your friend as they tell you, “Back then I kept this great scream in my body.”   

They tell you “There are people who start fires, not to tend them but to see how things burn,” and you realize the conversation has turned a corner and you are now obliged to hear them out all night, until the dawn arises. 

That’s the impression I got from Bellingham poet Caitlin Scarano’s short book of poetry, The Necessity of Wildfire. Scarano, winner of the 2023 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award for poetry, takes us on a harrowing journey of wide-eyed wonder at the stark realities of death and life and abuse and intimacy. The first poem, “The houses where they eat the lambs,” immediately hints at the depth of this conversation with unexpected turns of phrase and allusion: “but we are not the bird. Nor the feather / nor the stone that brought her warm / body down.”  

When the second poem, “Every disaster branches out from another” described the protagonist’s fear as “a throat full of bees,” I realized this was real and important. This book builds a detective story of sorts, and as you read the poems within, you begin pulling out themes, recognizing patterns, comparing versions of stories in order to find out what happened to this woman. 

The poems are intense and powerful in their language and original thoughts. “My body cavernquiet as he kisses my hip.”  Free verse with choice words and lines stacked delicately like a house of cards and the occasional prose poems which read like streams of consciousness. She tells us her dreams and recounts details of her Virginia childhood. “A history of hammers” she says, and we wonder what that could mean. 

The author drops surprising metaphors. “…the way a cat opens her mouth / and says nothing.” Symbols are everywhere: rabbits, deer, wolves, wasp nests, hammers, snakeskins, shovels, water, fire, all stepping in, masking other, more sinister themes. We might be reading a private journal with memories and family secrets as we hear about the protagonist’s mother and grandfather, her dying father, her sisters and her lover(s). The thread that ties them all together is her memory. We hear some concrete stories, but the author admits “every memory is two-sided” and we end up wondering again. We want a happy ending for her but “healing, like everything / else was not what we expected.” 

This book is dark and yet, the author still manages to drop in a small hint of redemption: 

In the morning I see a spider by a drop / of water on the bathroom floor. / When I realized she’s drinking / from it, it’s enough to stop me / from killing her. 

Take this book as a collection of poetry or look at it as a confessional or maybe a puzzle to solve. Let the phrasing and ideas wash over you and then read it a second time. Caitlin Scarano aims to move you. 

Reviewed by Neil McKay, online experience coordinator for the Whatcom County Library System.

Originally reviewed in Cascadia Daily News, June 12, 2023

Book Buzz: Monsters

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer

I have been waiting to read Claire Dederer’s “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma” since approximately 7:50 p.m. June 22, 2017. So, when it arrived at libraries and bookstores April 25, 2023, I was ready. And oh, my, was it worth the wait. “Monsters” tackles a complicated question — can we love the work of monstrous creators? — in a hopeful manner that will have you powering through its 257 pages and then revisiting the book and matters of art, humanity and morality on your own and with friends.  

But, first, back to 2017.

On June 22, 2017, I was sitting in a darkened theater for Village Books’ Chuckanut Radio Hour. Dederer, the evening’s featured author, was on tour for her acclaimed second memoir “Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning.” During the interview,she mentioned her next book would be a critical review of if we could love art by monstrous men. Unprompted, the audience applauded this hint of a book. The response seemed to surprise Dederer and affirmed she was on to something.

In“Love and Trouble,” Dederer used a variety of narrative forms to explore her teenage and midlife self, including an open letter to Roman Polanski. The Seattle-based Dederer, who began her career as the Seattle Weekly film critic, admires the director’s work but — especially as an at-the-time mother of a 13-year-old daughter — struggled to separate his movies from Polanski’s 1977 rape of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey.

Despite the chapter addressed to Polanski, Dederer told the Chuckanut Radio Hour audience, “I really didn’t say everything I had to say. … I wanted to write about the way that he is a genius. His work is great. And yet he is monstrous; he did a monstrous thing, to my mind it’s monstrous. And so how do we sort of reckon with what he made?” How do we watch one of his films knowing what we know? Do we not watch? Do we boycott him? How about Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and other “makers of really important genre-changing art who did awful things?”

Dederer said the book ultimately wouldn’t be about the monsters. “… it will be about us and what we do about the work. … It’s almost like an autobiography of the audience and how we reckon with each one differently.”

After years of reflection and writing, that is exactly what Dederer has written — a self-examination for us all chunked into chapters headlined by well-known male and female artists who have created great art and committed great harm. She had a list of artists (Polanski, Allen, Cosby, J.K. Rowling, Virginia Wolff, Doris Lessing, etc.). As #MeToo emerged, the list grew with new names dropping weekly. With the ubiquity of the internet and the rise of cancel culture, Dederer’s questions multiplied. What do you do when the art is truly great? When the artist is a genius? Who decides what has value, what is good? What if the monster is you?

Dederer employs her skills as a journalist and memoirist to form her argument. Her vulnerability, intellect and humor make it feel as if she’s in the room with you, building her case, sharing her fallibility, inviting you to join the debate.“Monsters” is a perfect book club selection.

As Dederer promised in 2017, “Monsters” is a story about us, the audience, and what we do when creations integral to who we are become stained by the artists’ monstrous acts. In this powerful work of criticism, Dederer skillfully holds and examines the question from many angles, including — and significantly — love.

Mary Vermillion is the community relations manager for Whatcom County Library System. Find and listen to Dederer’s 2017 Chuckanut Radio Hour interview on KMRE 102.3 FM or on Village Books’ podcast.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Monday, June 5, 2023)

Book Buzz: A Fever in the Heartland

A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them by Timothy Egan

Seattle author Timothy Egan is adept at bringing history to life for readers, often identifying little-known people whose lives played a pivotal role in “how it all turned out.”

His recently published book, “A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them,” is a riveting account of the second uprising of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), an event that was in sharp contrast with (or possibly response to) the dramatic cultural changes of women’s empowerment, Prohibition and the Jazz Age of 1920s America.

Egan intended to write a Pacific Northwest story about the rise of the klan in Oregon. But research led him to the lesser-known story of D.C. Stephenson, a charlatan and womanizer who singlehandedly made Indiana an epicenter of klan activity and provided the momentum for klan membership growth throughout the heartland and in western states.

Grand Dragon Stephenson could be charming and knew how to manipulate an audience. Deliberately vague about his origins, Stephenson, known by his followers as simply “Steve” or fondly referred to as the “Old Man,” changed his story as it suited the moment. From a base in Kokomo, Indiana, he built the heartland klan into an empire with himself at the epicenter.

Klan targets in the 1920s were Black Americans, Jews, Catholics and immigrants. Klan members were largely white Protestants from small-town America who felt threatened by changes to American society. By the end of 1923, nationwide, the klan had nearly 3 million members; Indiana had more klansmen than any other state and the women’s klan was rapidly adding members. In Kokomo, population 30,000, half the town were klan members.

Those who put their lives and livelihoods on the line to speak out against the violence, hatred and corruption that the klan stood for quickly discovered there could be no justice when police, prosecutors, judges and community leaders were klansmen. Once a secret society whose members hid their identity under white hoods, klan membership in many areas of the heartland and western states was now a badge of honor and symbol of being a decent, God-fearing Christian.

It was the tragic death of a likable, vivacious young woman, Madge Oberholtzer, that finally revealed Stephenson as “a drunk and a fraud, a wife-beater and a sex predator, a serial liar and an unfettered braggart, a bootlegger and a blackmailer.” Oberholtzer’s family blamed Stephenson for her death and a grand jury was convened. Egan’s descriptions of the court proceedings have the feel of reading a thriller although the subject matter was horrifyingly true.

Stephenson’s eventual conviction for Oberholtzer’s death began to turn the tide against the klan. While hatred of other human beings for skin color, place of birth or religious faith was acceptable to many, the klan was now also associated with rape, murder and political corruption. “Good” people began to distance themselves from their previous klan membership and many a robe and hood were found decades later, hidden away in garages and outbuildings.

“A Fever in the Heartland” shows us another time in American history when democracy was threatened, undermined by a man who knew how to capitalize on “the renewable hate of everyday white people” who could be “induced to pay $10 for the privilege of hating their neighbors and wearing a sheet,” as Hoosier writer Meredith Nicholson summed it up at the time.

Egan suggests that Stephenson was successful in bringing about the second uprising of the klan, not because he created the perfect vehicle for hatred, but by tapping into a vein of hatred that was always there and is equally evident today. Progress and change come slowly; it was only in 2022 that a bill making lynching a federal crime was passed — 122 years and an estimated 5,000 lynchings after such legislation was first introduced.

Bellingham didn’t escape this dark time. The Exploring Systemic Racism walking tour created by Western Washington University’s Systemic Racism Curriculum Project (which can be found online) traces the route of a KKK march from Cornwall Park during the 1929 KKK convention held in Bellingham, at which time the Grand Dragon was given a key to the city by the mayor. As described in the walking tour description online, “Klan members [here in Bellingham] were involved in local government and regarded as just and heroic persons.”

I think readers will find they agree with author Erik Larson’s blurb on the back cover of “A Fever in the Heartland” calling this book “chillingly resonant with our own time.” It’s available at local bookstores, or visit or to request it in print, eBook or downloadable audiobook.

Lisa Gresham is collection services manager for Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Monday, May 22, 2023.)

Book Buzz: Ducks

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton

Katie loves her hometown of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. But growing up, she knows that one day she must leave to find work elsewhere. Over grayscale drawings of the island’s coastline, she tells us: “I learn that I can have opportunity or I can have home. I cannot have both, and either will always hurt.” 

When she graduates college with student loans, she sets out to find “the good job, the good money, the better life” in the oil sands of northern Alberta. She starts as a “tool crib attendant” and signs out hardware to male employees who leer at her and make lewd comments. As Katie bounces between remote work sites where sexual harassment is the only constant (men outnumber women 50-to-1), she wonders if good money always equals a better life.  

Ducks is a fully-fledged graphic memoir, a departure from Beaton’s comic strips (Hark, a Vagrant!). Her expressive, understated artwork captures the toll that the fossil fuel industry takes on Canada’s landscape and its humanity. 

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive May 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Confidence

Confidence by Rafael Frumkin

Ezra Green is a smart, bored high schooler who winds up in juvie for selling fake drugs to his classmates. It’s there he meets Orson: charming, ambitious, opportunistic. They become friends, then roommates, then business partners—though Ezra never gives up hope that their relationship will become something deeper. 

Their series of petty cons snowballs into something riskier when Orson pitches his (false) life story to investors. NuLife, a tech/wellness startup that guarantees enlightenment, is born. Orson charms the press and basks in his newfound cult-leader status while Ezra takes care of business and ignores his own deteriorating health. As NuLife’s popularity explodes, Orson refuses to turn down any business opportunities—even ones that land NuLife (and Ezra) in international hot water. 

Rafael Frumkin’s second novel about lovable grifters is a sharp, funny satire inspired by wellness cults and white-collar crime. Recommended for fans of the Anna Delvey and Elizabeth Holmes sagas. 

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive May 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Finding Elevation

Finding Elevation: Fear and Courage on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Lisa Thompson

Washington state is home to many notable big-mountain climbers past and present. Names such as Whittaker (Jim, Lou and Leif, who now lives in Bellingham) and Wickwire, Ridgeway, Roskelly, Beckey, Molenaar, Schoening — and more recently Steve House, Dave Hahn, Garrett Madison. The list goes on.

You’ll note this rundown of Washington-based high-altitude athletes is predominantly male (no surprise) but there are many female climbers in our state, including this standout: Lisa Thompson.

With thousands of vertical feet under her crampons, Thompson has scaled many of the world’s highest mountains, including the Seven Summits. She conquered Mount Everest in 2016, then became the second American woman to summit K2 in 2018. Thompson’s book, “Finding Elevation: Fear and Courage on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain,” chronicles her first forays into mountaineering at age 37 through her K2 expedition 10 years later.

In the book, Thompson notes her fears, her drive and her strategies for success that she now engages in her work as a coach and trainer. Thompson is as tough as her male counterparts, yet brings a woman’s perspective, which adds something new to the climbing memoir genre.

Before she turned 35, the idea of climbing K2 — or any other mountain — wasn’t even on Thompson’s radar. Having dutifully earned a degree in biomedical engineering and begun her ascent of the corporate ladder, Thompson impulsively decided to tackle Mount Rainier when she heard the guys at her Seattle office crowing about their climbing exploits. Thompson admits she was looking for a way to be included. She wanted affirmation that she was strong and courageous. She was irritated she was “letting men define her boundaries as a woman.” So she set her sights on Mount Rainier and started training.

Throughout her life, Thompson prided herself on her work ethic, putting in the hours to get results. Her approach to conquering Rainier channeled this willingness to work. She memorized climbing routes, practiced tying knots with her eyes closed, and charted out a fitness regime that took her from weekend warrior to mountain-ready. Her first time summiting gave her a quiet confidence — and a burning interest in pushing her limits to see what she might be capable of. More climbs followed, including Denali, Vinson, Kilimanjaro.

Then life happened. A breast cancer diagnosis, followed by a bilateral mastectomy. The end of her 12-year marriage. Thompson hid out in the mountains, setting herself up for high-altitude climbs. She was intent on making sure her fitness, the one thing she could control, was at its peak. She summited Manaslu in central Nepal five months after surgery. From there, it was onward to Everest and then, inevitably, to K2, the “Savage Mountain.”

What makes “FindingElevation” different from other climbing memoirs is Thompson’s experiences and insights as a woman. The indignities of peeing into a funnel inside your sleeping bag in sub-zero temperatures. The freedom of not wearing a bra post-mastectomy. Being constantly underestimated for her slight stature and blond hair. Thompson prefers to undersell her abilities and then blow past people on the slopes. She shares her complicated relationships with her family members, her insecurities and doubts, her regrets about her ex-husband.

She also notes her major takeaways and her hard-earned wisdom. Someone tells her, “Don’t give up until you are transformed,” and at the top of the world’s second-tallest mountain, Thompson realizes she has achieved this goal.

If “FindingElevation” doesn’t slake your appetite for alpine adventure, you can visit to stream some amazing mountain climbing documentaries. To get a flavor for Thompson’s experience in the Karakoram range, watch “K2: Siren of the Himalayas.” For an absolutely gripping tale, don’t miss “Meru,” which follows Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk on their second harrowing attempt on the Shark’s Fin route of the Indian Himalayan peak.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of Whatcom County Library System (WCLS).

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Wednesday, May 17, 2023.)

Book Buzz: Soul Boom

Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution by Rainn Wilson

Viewers of the sitcom The Office may wonder why the guy who played the “beet-farming, paper-selling, tangentially Amish man-baby with the giant forehead and short-sleeved mustard shirts” is writing a book about spirituality and how it can save humanity from all that threatens to overwhelm us. 

Three-time Emmy nominee, Rainn Wilson, may be best known for his role as Dwight Schrute on The Office, but in his other roles is no stranger to taking on big topics. Wilson is cofounder of the media company SoulPancake that hosts a docuseries about climate change, a podcast on metaphysics, and an upcoming series on bliss that will air on Peacock. 

Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution, Wilson’s third book (after SoulPancake and The Bassoon King) delves into life’s biggest questions – why are we here? is there a god? what does it mean to be a spiritual being? – and makes the case that a spiritual revolution may be the missing piece that will help us successfully address the challenges of climate change, racism, economic injustice and other global and societal threats. 

Wilson grew up in the Baha’i faith which he continues to practice as an adult, but the twists and turns of addiction and depression prompted him to seek out answers from other great spiritual traditions; Soul Boom is full of quotes from spiritual teachers ranging from Luther Standing Bear to Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Buddha to the Beatles. In his questioning years, Wilson read all of the central holy books from the world’s religions, and his familiarity with other teachings is evident. 

Pop culture references, jokesy humor and an entertaining and irreverent writing style keep Soul Boom from feeling preachy. Wilson uses Star Trek and Kung Fu to elucidate the twofold path of any spiritual journey; Star Trek representing collective spiritual aspirations (world peace, embracing diversity, etc.) and Kung Fu the inner spiritual journey (wisdom, morality, etc.) In a fun exercise, quotes from Kung Fu and from holy texts are presented together and it is impressively difficult to differentiate; for example, “Peace lies not in the world … but in the man who walks the path” (Kung Fu) and “There is nothing so disobedient as an undisciplined mind” (Buddha). 

Because the Baha’i faith believes that all religions are the changeless face of the same God, and figureheads like Jesus, the Buddha and Muhammed all divine messengers manifesting the same God, Wilson is a natural advocate for embracing a spirituality that seeks to unite people from all religious faiths. 

While anyone who is spiritually seeking would likely enjoy Soul Boom, Wilson seems to have written it particularly with younger generations in mind. He reports hearing three things from young people when talking to them about religion; they often say they “kind of” believe in God, they are not interested in organized religion and they shy away from anything remotely hippy-dippy/airy fairy (to use Wilson’s description). Wilson hopes that Soul Boom and the broader SoulPancake community will inspire young people to take a spiritual journey and give them a place to talk about life’s biggest questions. 

If you are interested in spirituality, looking for a dose of hopefulness for humanity and the future of our planet, or maybe just a Dwight Schrute fan, you’re in luck because Village Books is bringing Rainn Wilson to Mt. Baker Theater for a “Booked at the Baker” event on Friday, May 5th. Tickets include a copy of Soul Boom (which will be released on April 25th) or reserve a library copy of the book at or

Lisa Gresham is collection services manager for the Whatcom County Library System whose vision is an engaged community where curiosity is cultivated, literacy flourishes, and democratic ideals thrive. 

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Monday, April 24, 2023.)

Book Buzz: I Have Some Questions for You

I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai 

The Granby School is an elite institution with a history marred by the scandalous murder of student Thalia Keith in 1995. Athletic director Omar Evans was convicted of Thalia’s murder, but online crime buffs have speculated for years that the case was rushed to judgment. In 2018, former student Bodie Kane is invited to teach at Granby. She accepts knowing that she’ll be reliving some of the worst years of her life; Thalia was Bodie’s classmate, her death a defining moment of Bodie’s past. Then one of Bodie’s students announces that their class project will center on reopening the case. The memories Bodie has buried now begin to push their way to the present — for Bodie has her own theory about who killed Thalia, and it’s definitely not Omar. Written as a dialogue to an unknown subject, this carefully crafted literary thriller unfolds its truths slowly, building the suspense page by page. I Have Some Questions for You melds social commentary and immersive storytelling in one haunting and irresistible package. 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive April 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Our Best Intentions

Our Best Intentions by Vibhuti Jain

Vibhuti Jain’s compelling, character-driven novel introduces readers to a fresh new voice in fiction. In the affluent suburb of Kitchewan, Babur Singh believes he has done everything possible to ensure a bright future for his daughter Angela, a talented swimmer. One afternoon Angela stumbles onto a shocking scene – Henry McCleary, her friend’s brother, has been stabbed and left bleeding on the school campus. The blame falls to a young girl with a troubled home life, one of the school’s only Black students. Henry’s wealthy parents immediately unleash their social connections to garner public sympathy and gain control of the narrative. Before they know what’s happening, Angela and her father find themselves at the center of controversy as the community divides itself along lines of race and class. Book clubs will want to make room on their spring reading schedule for this arresting debut, a thought-provoking reflection on opportunity and belonging. 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive April 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Calling Bullshit

Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in A Data-driven World by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West

Ahh, spring in Whatcom County! The stench of cow manure wafts over fields. Home gardeners load Subarus with giant bags of the stuff. Bullshit — to be both crass and obvious — is everywhere.

Authors Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West would agree, though the B.S. they’re referring to is more figurative than literal. Both men are professors at the University of Washington. Bergstrom studies evolutionary biology and West helms the Center for an Informed Public at UW’s iSchool (that’s Information School, for those unfamiliar with the term). Their book, “Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World,” gives readers the tools to improve their B.S. detection skills, understand data and how it may be manipulated, and become more knowledgeable citizens.

In the preface to “Calling Bullshit,” Bergstrom and West distinguish what they call “old-school bullshit” — purple prose and deliberate obfuscation — from “new-school bullshit,” which blinds readers to shaky assertions with complicated charts and graphs, statistics and misleading percentages.

As data scientists, the authors have a high regard for logic and quantitative measurement. They strive to impart critical thinking skills to their college students, but have come to believe these skills need to be more universally adopted. “We have civic motives for wanting to help people spot and refute bullshit … (at the risk of grandiosity), we believe that adequate bullshit detection is essential for the survival of liberal democracy.” Amen.

Bergstrom and West proceed to lay out example after example of data-driven B.S., in case you needed any convincing it’s out there. Unlike the T-shirt that proclaims “78.4% of statistics are made up on the spot,” the authors provide citations to all their sources. They look at how data can be presented from different perspectives to convey different messages, and how, like a game of telephone, conclusions about data get garbled as they are transmitted from one source to another.

“Calling Bullshit” reads like a Malcolm Gladwell book — breezy, chock-full of fascinating anecdotes, and generally easy to follow with occasional sections where the authors nerd out. If you get bogged down in a discussion of derivatives, linear correlations or Venn diagrams, simply flip a few pages to read about zombie statistics, data visualizations (think USA Today) or the susceptibility of science. Plus, there are illustrations! The authors address causality, selection bias, and conditional probabilities. They also give tips on identifying B.S. and how to refute it humbly and effectively (first tip: be correct).

After reading this book, you may be tempted to throw up your hands in despair. Everything is B.S! Trust nothing! It’s all a conspiracy!

Resist the urge to yell “fake news” and to restrict your media consumption to the Hallmark Channel. The world needs thoughtful, engaged citizens to ask good questions and demand clear, logical answers so we can solve complex problems.

Tune in, not out. You can start by attending a free presentation on “Truth, Trust and the News” at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13 at Whatcom Community College’s Heiner Auditorium. The event, which will feature Bergstrom and West, is presented by online news organization Salish Current; reserve free tickets by visiting

Christine Perkins is the executive director of Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS is partnering with UW iSchool and public libraries across the country to share information literacy skills with the public through a grant from the National Science Foundation. Find out more at

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, April 9, 2023.)

Book Buzz: Rose Quartz and I Sing the Salmon Home

Rose Quartz: Poems by Sasha taqʷšblu LaPointe and I Sing the Salmon Home: Poems from Washington State edited by Rena Priest

Just in time for National Poetry Month, there are two newly published poetry collections by writers with roots in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

“RoseQuartz” is the debut poetry collection by Sasha taqʷšblu LaPointe, the author of “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk,” the featured book for the 2023–24 season of Whatcom READS. LaPointe, from the Nooksack and Upper Skagit Indian tribes, comes from a strong tradition of storytelling, as the great-granddaughter of Vi taqʷšblu Hilbert, respected teacher of Lushootseed language and culture.

The poems are divided into four sections, each titled with the name of a healing gemstone and a tarot card, the significance of which is not spelled out. The symbolism in this book is there to discover, but not without some effort.

LaPointe appears to be the central character of the poems that collectively form a story of trauma and growth. If you have read her memoir, “Red Paint,” you’ll recognize the themes of that book, told here with poetry and metaphor. The book is spellbinding and the language alternates between ethereal and concrete.

The author summons Northwest Indigenous cultural myths and European fairy tales to deliver digestible truths. Like Hansel and Gretel, she drops breadcrumbs to keep us on the right path: references to bands like Boys II Men and Bikini Kill, movies such as “Wolverine” and “Pocahontas” and the television show “Twin Peaks” remind us how we are connected to this poet. Localities such as La Conner; Skagit County; Astoria, Oregon; the Space Needle; and the Duwamish River tell us this is happening where we live, up and down Interstate 5 and Highway 101. LaPointe is a storyteller for our time and place.

Another collection to look out for is “I Sing the Salmon Home: Poems from Washington State,” edited by Rena Priest.

A poetry anthology is like a flight of beers at your local taphouse. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to a variety of flavors and walk home with some new favorites.

As the culminating project of her two-year reign as Washington State Poet Laureate, Priest, from the Lummi Nation, has put together a flight of 100 poems from Washington state poets, celebrating the salmon that have always lived in our waters.

The poets in this collection are published by Empty Bowl Press, located in Chimicum, Jefferson County. Contributors include everyone from elementary school children to world-class writers like Port Angeles poet Tess Gallagher and her late husband, renowned short story author Raymond Carver.

With poets hailing from Spokane to Seattle, Yakima to Point Roberts, I was somehow not surprised to find 27 poets from Whatcom County represented in this volume. We are surrounded by writers.

Cast your net into this river of poems, and you will get a haul of stories and prayers and memories and hopes. You’ll read poems that take place in Roxhill Park and Thornton Creek, Hammersley Inlet and the Grand Cooley, Newhalem and Bellingham’s Taylor Dock. LaPointe’s heartbreaking Salmon People’s Island is another point of reference: “on a wooden square / in the Salish language / it read Salmon People Island / and I was excited to find / something about this place / that I could recognize,” she writes.

Some of these poems are snapshots of life, or subtle commentary on our mistreatment of salmon, some are visual poems, some are anchored with scientific terms or Indigenous words. Some are humorous, some call upon tradition. Some are about saving the salmon, some are about eating them. A hundred voices, a hundred thoughts, a hundred poems written by our neighbors.

In her introduction, Priest writes, “It is my hope that stitching together these poems will bond the poets in real life as well as in these pages … ” Hear from her, and a number of other poets in the anthology, at public readings taking place at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 8 at the Seattle Public Library, and 4 p.m. Monday, April 10 at the State Reception Room on the third floor of the Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. Both events are free. Find out more at

Neil McKay is the online experience coordinator for Whatcom County Library System. Visit to place your hold on “Rose Quartz” and “I Sing the Salmon Home” and to learn more about the power of sharing at the library.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Monday, April 3, 2023.)

Book Buzz: Stolen Focus

Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari

If you’ve ever Googled “how to get my brain to focus” or lamented your lost capacity for concentration, check out writer and journalist Johann Hari’s most recent book, “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again.”

Hari spoke with experts around the world to investigate this degrading of our attention and the result is a readable and thought-provoking exploration of a problem that has reached epidemic proportions.

He identifies 12 causes for our stolen focus, including higher levels of stress, deteriorating diets and environmental pollution. As you might expect, technology that tracks and manipulates, and social media figure prominently, including fascinating insider interviews with Instagram and Google designers who are now deeply concerned about the damaging impact of their work on human behavior.

Data revealed by studies Hari cites is shocking — for example, on average, an adult working in an office stays on task for only about three minutes — and we rarely experience flow states. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, known for his groundbreaking book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” succinctly sums up the outcomes of fragmented attention and flow states, noting that fragmentation makes our lives “smaller, shallower, angrier” and flow makes us “bigger, deeper, calmer.”

Physical and mental exhaustion are other factors that make it difficult for us to pay attention; while many circumstances (like stress) contribute to exhaustion, today 40% of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. The impact of screen light on our brains contributes to this problem. Adequate sleep is also important because dreaming can help us adapt emotionally to events that occur in our waking lives, but many of us never get to reap the benefit of dream-rich REM periods that typically occur after seven or eight hours of sleep.

Screens have also changed our relationship with reading; reading a book requires focus over a sustained period, but Hari notes that much of the reading we do on screens is more akin to “dashing around a busy supermarket to grab what you need and then get out again.” He wonders, if we struggle to focus long enough to read a book, how will we solve challenging problems like climate change?

Hari estimates that steps he has taken personally as a result of this research have improved his focus by 15 or 20% in a short amount of time. He stopped switching tasks so much by using tools like kSafe, which locks your phone in a box for a set period of time, and he turns off the internet on his laptop for periods of time using a web blocker. He makes time for mind-wandering, going for an hour walk every day without his phone or any other distractions. He has committed to sleeping eight hours a night.

Hari is quick to note, however, that while individuals can take steps to regain focus and brain autonomy, solving this problem will require a systemic response; something like an Attention Rebellion movement “liberating ourselves from people who are controlling our minds without our consent.”

System solutions could include a ban on the “surveillance capitalism” business model, making it illegal to collect behavioral information that is then sold to the highest bidder. Social media providers could provide the option for users to turn off “infinite scroll,” giving people a moment to make a choice about whether to continue viewing content by clicking “next page.” Facebook could ask how much time users want to spend on the platform and then push customized messages to help them achieve their goals. Or ask what changes users would like to make in their lives and then connect them with various forms of support that can help them realize their intentions.

If you are like me and have experienced issues with focus, “Stolen Focus” is a useful toolkit to better understand forces that erode your ability to pay attention and offer ideas for changes you can make. It is, however, also a call to action; pointing out that a democratic society counts on the ability of its citizens to be able to pay attention and identify issues that negatively impact us collectively, then come up with solutions and hold leaders accountable.

Lisa Gresham is collection services manager for the Whatcom County Library System — where you can enhance your focus through reading, discovering meaningful activities you want to focus on, and giving your mind space to wander. Info:

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sunday, March 26, 2023.)

Book Buzz: Patricia Wants to Cuddle

Patricia Wants to Cuddle by Samantha Allen

The Bachelor meets Bigfoot in this wacky page-turner.  

The cast and crew of reality dating show The Catch travel to a remote island in the San Juans to film an episode on location. The four remaining contestants all want very different outcomes from their time on the show, and it’s not necessarily a proposal from “the catch.” Ambitious production assistant Casey is determined to catch their squabbling on camera. But this production has more to reckon with than its sloppy host and uncooperative castmates. Someone thinks they saw a large hairy person in the forest, and isn’t this the same island where those hikers disappeared?  

Patricia Wants to Cuddle manages to pack multiple genres into its short length: satire, romance, horror. The narrative bounces between Casey, the contestants, love letters, and true crime forum posts. The result is both funny and a little gory, with surprisingly heartfelt messages about conservation and the human condition.  

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive March 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Small Game

Small Game by Blair Braverman

Writer and dogsledder Blair Braverman has faced down nature on dozens of real-life adventures. After she became violently ill on an episode Naked and Afraid she wondered: what would have happened if the crew wasn’t there to pull me out? 

Small Game is Braverman’s answer to that question. In her debut novel, adventure guide Mara is cast on a new survival reality show called Civilization. She and four strangers are dropped into an undisclosed wilderness location and must work together to survive for six weeks, all in front of cameras. But shortly after they arrive, the crew stops coming to camp and the cast is left wondering: is this part of the show?  

As time crawls by, the Civilization experiment becomes an actual survival situation. Braverman packs her writing with vivid details about the natural world that make Mara’s danger feel urgent and real. This tense, woman-vs-nature thriller will make you grateful to live in civilization.

Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive March 2023 issue.)

Whatcom READS announces 2024 selection

Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe is the Whatcom READS 2024 book selection. Jess Walter, author of the 2023 featured title, The Cold Millions, announced the book and author during the March 3 author event at the Mount Baker Theatre.

Winner of a 2023 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award, Red Paint traces LaPointe’s personal story of trauma, healing and the search for home. In her April 2022 review for Cascadia Daily News, Lisa Gresham of the Whatcom County Library System called the memoir “a vulnerable and luminous debut set against the backdrop of Coast Salish ancestral land.” The book presents a wide range of discussion and event opportunities leading up to the author’s visit in March 2024.

Community members may borrow Red Paint as a book, eBook or eAudiobook from local libraries or purchase it from Village Books, which donates a percentage of each sale to Whatcom READS.

Leading up to the author events in March 2024, the Whatcom READS planning committee will work with community groups to create programs that explore themes from Red Paint. Inspired by the book, the 2024 Whatcom WRITES prompt is Legacies. Visit Whatcom READS website,, and social media pages for updates and to get involved.

About the author: Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe is from the Upper Skagit and Nooksack Indian Tribes. Native to the Pacific Northwest, she draws inspiration from her coastal heritage as well as her life in the city. She holds a double MFA in creative nonfiction and poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Yellow Medicine Review, Hunger Mountain and elsewhere. She lives in Tacoma, Wash. Her critically acclaimed memoir Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk was published by Counterpoint Press on March 8, 2022. Her collection of poetry, Rose Quartz, was published by Milkweed on March 7, 2023.

About Whatcom READS: Northwest Washington’s premier annual literary event, Whatcom READS celebrates reading, readers and strong communities through the shared experience of one book. Now in its 15th year, Whatcom READS is presented by all the public and academic libraries in Bellingham and Whatcom County – Bellingham Public LibraryBellingham Technical CollegeNorthwest Indian CollegeWestern Washington UniversityWhatcom Community College and Whatcom County Library SystemVillage Books is Whatcom READS’ community partner. Learn more at

Book Buzz: The Swimmers

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

It takes a minute to dive below the surface of Julie Otsuka’s third novel, “The Swimmers,” because its style and point of view, told initially from the first person omniscient, is disorienting.

We know we’re in a pool, underground, where many people come to swim laps. Collectively, the swimmers are telling the story. Though Otsuka enumerates them with endless descriptive lists, who really is “we?”

“We are overeaters, underachievers, dog walkers, cross-dressers, compulsive knitters (just one more row), secret hoarders, minor poets, trailing spouses, twins, vegans … ” Her list goes on, in a stream of consciousness rush, till she sums it up: ” … down below, at the pool, we are only one of three things: fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.”

If you’ve ever done a flip turn at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center, the YMCA or perhaps Western’s Rec Center pool, you will immediately recognize the regulars. Otsuka describes them knowingly: “Aggressive lappers, determined thrashers, oblivious backstrokers, stealthy submariners, middle-aged men who insist on speeding up the moment they sense they are about to be overtaken by a woman, tailgaters, lane Nazis, arm flailers …”

Otsuka’s paragraphs are one long run-on sentence after another, and if you find the quotes shared here to be too tedious, this book is not for you.

If you’re willing to paddle onward you’ll soon get into the meditative rhythm of a lap swimmer, whose mind can ponder the infiniteness of the universe while focusing solely on the rippled black line at the bottom of the pool. That’s what “we” do, secure in “our” subterranean world, until one day, “we” notice a crack in the concrete at the deep end of lane four. The crack sets the swimmers into a spin, unsettling them and ultimately forcing them to venture back into the world.

The next section of the novel alights on Alice, one of the swimmers, who has dementia. Without the exercise and familiar routine of going to the pool, she becomes more and more disoriented.

Otsuka deftly conjures Alice’s experience through her vivid memories: “She remembers that you once had a cat named Gasoline. She remembers that you had two turtles named Turtle. She remembers that the first time she and your father took you to Japan to meet his family you were 18 months old and just beginning to speak … She remembers that a blind fortune-teller once told her she had been a man in her past life … She remembers that everything she remembers is not necessarily true.” These closing observations sneak up and surprise with their honesty and clarity.

When Alice goes to live at Belavista, a memory care facility, the narrative voice shifts again, to second-person singular (“you”) although it is evident that “you” is Alice’s daughter. Otsuka’s portrayal of a long-distant daughter coming to terms with her mother’s decline is emotionally wrenching but not overly maudlin.

The daughter, an author, submerges briefly into her mother’s world, belatedly seeing her for the first time. It’s a unique and unforgettable portrayal of a bittersweet mother-daughter relationship that recently won Otsuka a Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Readers who are losing or have lost loved ones to dementia will be particularly moved.

Christine Perkins is executive director of the Whatcom County Library System,, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, March 11, 2023.)

Book Buzz: 111 Places in Seattle That You Must Not Miss

111 Places in Seattle That You Must Not Miss by Harriet Baskas

February and March can be challenging months here in the Pacific Northwest. Snow is on the ground as I write this, the temperature is freezing and it will be dark in a few hours. It’s a time when PNWers fantasize about trips to warmer climes, being able to hike in the mountains again or enjoy a sunset kayak on the bay.

In the midst of this annual winter doldrums feeling I came across Harriet Baskas’ new book, “111 Places in Seattle That You Must Not Miss,” with photographs by Cortney Kelley.

Baskas, a Seattleite, is a freelance writer with quirky interests who self-describes as being “happiest in an airport or unusual museum.” Her books include “Washington Curiosities and Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t Or Won’t Show You,” and she is an online contributor to USA Today, NBC News, CNBC and other news outlets.

In her work, Baskas delights in uncovering little-known wonders and eccentricities. For the Oregon Historical Society, she interviewed Ollie Osborn, a talented PNW cowgirl and rodeo bronc rider between 1913–32. Research for “Hidden Treasures” took her into the back rooms of museums, where she discovered a fruitcake made in 1878, a piece of wedding cake from the wedding of Tom Thumb to Lavinia Warren in 1863, and a doughnut made in 1873 by a woman who later died in childbirth and her family, unable in their grief to eat the last doughnut made by their mother, handed it down from generation to generation.

Given her skill at finding off-the-beaten-path treasures, I expect that even longtime PNW residents quite familiar with Seattle and environs will be surprised by the local gems Baskas divulges in “111 Places in Seattle.” True crime podcast addicts will want to visit the shop of strange collectibles that includes a special collection of serial killers’ mementos, and may want to consider a picnic to the Green Lake murder site as part of the experience.

Baskas reveals a place where you can pay to use a variety of tools (provided) to break and smash things (and they clean up the mess). Or how about a monthly fireside Silent Reading Party event that has been going on since 2009? And a food hall where you can experience a rotating selection of regional cuisines, at the same time supporting women of color who are recent immigrants to the U.S. trying to get started in the food industry?

If these pique your curiosity, use the maps at the back of “111 Places” to pick several nearby locations and plan an adventure to break up the winter blahs.

As an example, park at Lake Union and head around the south end of the lake on foot. On the east side of the lake, look for a plaque in the Roanoke Street mini-park commemorating the site where Boeing launched its first airplane in 1916. For a little more exercise, take a slight detour to the Howe Street Stairs, Seattle’s longest stairway, and be sure to check out the Streissguth Garden as you climb — it’s a one-acre public garden area founded by two neighbors who fell in love.

Continue to Lake Union’s north shore and refuel at Ivar’s Salmon House Whalemaker Lounge; while enjoying the view, see if you can spot the houseboat that starred in “Sleepless in Seattle” and try to find the whale “oosiks” (penis bones) tucked in among the liquor bottles on the bar. Hot Tub Boats on the northwest shore of the lake provides a perfect finish to the day (and balm for your muscles after the long walk) with a leisurely tour around Lake Union in a private hot tub boat “magically engineered for buoyancy” and capable of traveling at speeds up to 5 mph.

“111 Places” is actually a travel guidebook series focusing on revealing best-kept city secrets to help readers “find the hidden places, stories, shops and neighborhoods that unlock a destination’s true character, history and flavor.” The series covers dozens of places around the world, including Vancouver, British Columbia, Whistler, Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco. Happy exploring!

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager for Whatcom County Library System. Visit to reserve a copy of “111 Places in Seattle That You Must Not Miss” and to learn more about The Power of Sharing at the library.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, February 18, 2023.)

Book Buzz: The Cold Millions further reading

Whatcom READS season is in full swing, and now that you’ve had a chance to read Jess Walter’s novel “The Cold Millions,” you can dig deeper by availing yourself of library materials from public libraries and local higher-ed institutions. The Whatcom READS website links to a lengthy list of titles exploring topics mentioned in the book, such as the early years of the labor movement, vaudeville and Spokane history.

In “Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology,” editor Joyce L. Kornblum presents a vivid picture of the groundbreaking labor union known as the Wobblies. Cartoons and photographs lend visual interest to transcripts of seminal speeches by union organizers. She includes a section with “language of the migratory worker” with such etymological gems as “biscuit-shooter” (a short-order cook) and “jungle buzzard” (a hobo who loiters around a railroad gathering spot hoping for a meal). There are also a smattering of Wobbly slogans and Joe Hill’s protest songs.

Those who loved Walter’s portrayal of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in “The Cold Millions” will enjoy reading the detailed and elucidating recount of the Paterson Strike Flynn delivered to the New York Civic Club in 1914, six years after the Spokane free speech fights.

For a fictional account of another female organizer, look to Mary Doria Russell’s “The Women of the Copper Country,” which tells the story of Annie Clemenc of Calumet, Michigan. “Big Annie” led the Women’s Auxiliary No. 15 of the Western Federation of Miners during the Copper Country strike of 1913–14. Russell’s writing is engaging, fluid and well-researched.

Karl Marlantes’ novel “Deep River” also features a female protagonist, a stubborn and stoic Finnish immigrant named Aino Koski, whose fight for timber workers’ rights in the forests of southern Washington threatens her life and her dreams for a family of her own.

Local readers will recognize familiar names in this sweeping epic — like Bloedel, Simpson and Weyerhaeuser — although the Finnish ones, like Kyllikki, Jouka and Lempi, may take some getting used to. Reading this book takes dedication — it clocks in at 714 pages, but for those who enjoy in-depth history and following one character’s whole life, this fits the bill.

Those who prefer their history delivered via screen can check out the documentary film “The Wobblies,” available on DVD. First released in 1979 and restored by the Museum of Modern Art, this movie is unapologetically one-sided in its admiration for the men and women who were at the forefront of the modern labor movement, bringing together unskilled workers from disparate industries (timber, mining, manufacturing, agriculture) under the IWW umbrella.

The directors were fortunate to be able to interview many former Wobblies, then in their 80s and 90s, making this a treasure of first-person accounts. The film includes clips of songs, cartoons and archival footage to give the full flavor of the early days of the Wobblies, from their founding in Chicago in 1905.

If these books and film have not sated your curiosity about the IWW, don’t miss a talk on “The IWW Today” presented by organizers from the Whatcom–Skagit chapter taking place at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15 at Village Books in Fairhaven.

Additional Whatcom READS programming explores other topics, like “Vaudeville and Vice in the Early 1900s,” to be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18 at Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall Rotunda Room. Author Jess Walter visits Whatcom County March 2 to 3. For more details and to register for events, go to

Christine Perkins is executive director of the Whatcom County Library System, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, February 11, 2023.)

Book Buzz: You Are Not Broken

You Are Not Broken: Stop “Should-ing” All Over your Sex Life by KJ Casperson

Nestled between articles on China’s approach to COVID-19, Ukraine’s cyber-defense program and needle exchanges in New York City, the Dec. 3, 2022, edition of The Economist included a piece titled, “The wounds of silence.”

The author compared modern discomfort about talking about sexual problems to the similar way society avoided talking about mental health issues in the past: “A generation ago being depressed or anxious — let alone having serious mental-health problems — meant suffering in silence … These days the stigma has faded, if not entirely disappeared … A similar transformation is due for sexual problems, which lie beneath the same blanket of taboo and embarrassment as mental health once did.”

Bellingham urologist Dr. Kelly Casperson couldn’t agree more. After more than a decade as a pelvic surgeon, Casperson realized that patients were coming to her clinic with questions that many people — even doctors — weren’t prepared to talk about. They were asking about lack of desire, not enjoying sex and physical issues during sex.

Casperson began reviewing everything she could find related to sexual function — especially female sexual function — in medical and popular literature. She found a lot of dubious scholarship of the “woo-woo” variety, and a number of dry, highly academic papers that made even sex sound boring, but only a few she considered worthy of sharing. Suddenly, she realized her life calling — learning “all the best wisdom available to empower women to have the best sex lives possible.” She started a podcast, which she titled “You Are Not Broken,” to let women know their sexual problems are not anyone’s fault, and the problems are fixable. Each episode is informative, upbeat and empowering. As of this January, 192 episodes have been downloaded a combined one million times — and Dr. Casperson anticipates another 500,000 listens before the year is out.

Casperson has what it takes to be an excellent podcaster — a cheery conversational tone, endless curiosity and enthusiasm for her subject. She can be self-deprecating, witty, salty and real. She invites interesting guests to join her and share their sex-pertise. She speaks in plain, non-clinical English and sounds like someone you’d confide in at a book club gathering — indeed, it’s through book clubs and other women’s social networks that word of her work is spreading. Not all book club discussions are focused on capital L Literature, obviously.

One drawback to the podcasts is that Casperson speaks quickly, citing medical journals and research studies rapid-fire, encouraging listeners to rewind and re-listen as necessary. For those who need more time to reflect and dig deeper, her book, “You Are Not Broken: Stop ‘Should-ing’ All Over Your Sex Life” is the perfect solution. Written in the same breezy style, it nonetheless packs in a lot of information and the citations to back them up.

Casperson acknowledges her book may come across as heteronormative, with a focus on cis-gendered women in heterosexual relationships. She takes care to recognize all who identify as female and accept all who have intimate relationships with these women. With chapters titled “Bad Sex Sucks” and “Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Body” there’s something here for everyone, and she encourages all readers not to miss “Maybe It’s Menopause” — even if it’s years away.

For those who are still uncomfortable with this subject, or feel that all the sex education they need can be found on the silver screen, The Economist has a pithy rejoinder: “Trying to learn about sex from Hollywood is like watching James Bond for tips on a career as a British civil servant.” Why not listen to our own local expert instead?

Note: there are other books out there with similar titles (“I’m Not Broken”, “We Are Not Broken,” “We’re Not Broken,” “You’re Not Broken”) so if you’re looking for this one, make sure you’ve selected author KJ Casperson.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of Whatcom County Library System. Don’t miss the chance to see Casperson in person. She will be talking about “You Are Not Broken” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19 in Bellingham at Village Books, 1200 11th St. The event is free, but advance reservation is recommended. Get more details at

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Monday, January 16, 2023.)

Book Buzz: Meredith, Alone

Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander 

You might think that just because Meredith has not left her house in 1,214 days, she’s lonely. Far from it! After all, Meredith has her jigsaw puzzles, her online support group, grocery delivery and her cat Fred. Oh, and the visits from the volunteer charity arranged by her friend Sadie. It’s all fine, really. Except for the dark thoughts that stop her cold whenever she thinks of leaving the house or reconnecting with her harsh, judgmental mother. And once Meredith begins to deal with these thoughts, the floodgates open, and she is forced to remember painful experiences that threaten the steady, familiar life she’s built inside her home. As a reflection on living with trauma and mental health issues, this novel faces difficult topics head on, but it does so with a quiet strength. Those who have struggled with finding purpose after loss or isolation will find a kindred spirit in Meredith, even as we root for her to find fulfillment and peace. 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive January 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Now Is Not the Time to Panic

Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson 

Many summers ago, Frankie was a bored teenager in a small town. Messing around with an old copy machine one afternoon, Frankie and her friend Zeke created a poster emblazoned with edgy illustrations and an enigmatic phrase. They hung copies up all over town anonymously, not expecting what happened next – that the poster’s haunting words would take off in the public imagination and build to a full-blown panic. Today, Frankie has a family and a successful writing career. She left the Coalfield Panic in her past, but now, somehow, a reporter has discovered Frankie’s involvement. Suddenly Frankie is reliving that strange summer, trying to unravel how everything escalated so quickly. In this relatable, poignant story, author Kevin Wilson uses his trademark offbeat humor to full effect. This firecracker of a novel asks how a moment of youthful creativity could ripple outward far beyond its creators’ estimation, and in doing so explores not only adolescence, but also the transformative power of self-expression. 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive January 2023 issue.)

Book Buzz: Better Than We Found It

Better Than We Found It: Conversations to Help Save the World by Frederick and Porsche Joseph

Intended as an introduction to topics of the day for a teen audience, adult readers of “Better Than We Found It: Conversations to Help Save the World” by Frederick and Porsche Joseph will appreciate this inspired examination of society’s most pressing problems, and gain a better understanding of and appreciation for the Gen Z psyche.

The Josephs take turns presenting 16 of the most crucial issues of our time, digging deeper into each through interviews with prominent people knowledgeable about the topics. The result is an intimate and inspiring call to action. References throughout point to a glossary of terms, source notes and an online toolkit with suggestions for further reading, viewing and organizations whose work relates to each chapter’s topic.

Although the Josephs currently reside in New York City, Porsche grew up in Seattle and shares how a middle school friendship with a girl whose family lineage was Yakama Nation/Makah Tribe opened her eyes to the terrible legacy of cultural genocide. Porsche concludes this chapter on “The Importance of Addressing Indigenous Land Theft” by interviewing her childhood friend, Andrea Tulee, now a community leader on the Yakama Reservation, where she runs a nonprofit promoting culture and language revitalization.

In the chapter “We Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Leave Home,” Frederick describes the way he was bullied as a young person growing up in Yonkers, New York, and shares his personal story of how gun violence destroyed the lives of several youth in his neighborhood.

In the aftermath of their judicial sentences, Frederick laments the fact that during the process, no one asked why a teenager who was living on the street could so easily buy a gun for $50, or the part that bullying played in this particular tragedy, or the systemic racism that contributes to trauma in children of color. Interviews with Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, and Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting, show the power of joining our voices to say “enough” to the epidemic of gun violence.

Despite the gravity of the subjects, throughout is the hopeful message that young people today do care deeply about these topics. Data on Gen Z youth compiled by the Pew Research Center indicate that diversity is their norm — they grew up with the first Black president and witnessed the legalization of gay marriage. They are likely the last generation that is predominantly white (52%). More than any generation, they’ve had to deal with high levels of mental and emotional stress; beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also inheriting social issues like health care reform, police brutality, climate change, the spread of disinformation through social media and more that are covered in this book.

In Porsche’s interview with economist and former United States Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, in the chapter “The Damage Caused by the Wealth Gap,” Reich comments on the young people he has taught in the classroom for the past 40 years, saying he has never taught young people “as diverse or as committed to equal opportunity and improving the possibilities for everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity or gender” as this current generation of young people.

I found these candid stories to be full of hope, and the interviews an inspiration to take action on one of these pressing topics of our time and try to inspire change. Frederick sums it up at the end of the chapter on the devastating gun violence in the U.S. with the invitation that “it isn’t about where you start, but rather that you just start somewhere.” All in all, “Better Than We Found It” is a great first footstep on that journey, for readers of all ages.

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager for Whatcom County Library System. Visit to reserve a copy of “Better Than We Found It” and to learn more about the power of sharing at the library.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sunday, January 15, 2023.)

Book Buzz: The Gift of Books

Season’s Readings: The Gift of Books

Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa … December is a time of celebration, and in many traditions, that celebration takes the form of gift-giving. As a book-lover, I most admire the Icelandic Jolabokaflod tradition — roughly translated as “Christmas book flood” — where books are given as gifts on Dec. 24 and everyone spends the evening reading and drinking cocoa in front of the fire. Heaven! 

As a salute to that tradition and an invitation to gift books this year, or simply find a new special book for your own reading, the following are some suggestions from WCLS librarians and local booksellers that hopefully will help you find something exactly right for all ages.

WCLS Collection Development Librarian Emma Radosevich brought “Special Topics in Being a Human: A Queer and Tender Guide to Things I’ve Learned the Hard Way About Caring for People, Including Myself” by S. Bear Bergman (illustrated by Saul Freedman-Larson) to my attention, and I’ve already purchased a copy for a niece who is feeling her way into adulthood. 

Of this beautifully illustrated graphic novel guide/memoir, Radosevich says it “will gently nudge you to better show up for yourself and the people you care about.” Favorite topics include: “How to Avoid Getting Upset All Over Other People When You Feel Out of Control” and “How to Be Bad at Things and Do Them Anyway.” Recommended for fans of Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” and other advice columns, “Special Topics in Being a Human” would be a great gift for college-aged or 20-somethings whose lives are actively taking shape, but also a wonderful centering read for any special person in your life.

Who doesn’t love a new cookbook? If you haven’t yet discovered the “triumphant but unfussy” recipes by Smitten Kitchen food blogger Deb Perelman, pick up a copy of her newest, “Smitten Kitchen Keepers: New Classics for Your Forever Files.” The recipes are kid-tested, and Perelman is attentive to simplifying instructions by removing time and equipment hurdles without compromising deliciousness. How about a hearty soup for your Dec. 24 Jolabokaflod reading fest? I highly recommend slow-simmered lentils with kale and goat cheese, or creamy tomato chickpea masala. Yum!

Booksellers often have titles they are really hyped about hand-selling, so I asked Village Books co-owner Kelly Evert what book she is most excited about right now. Kelly recommends Still Life” by Sarah Winman as “one of those novels that makes you re-read passages for the sheer delight of words chosen to describe a scene. A novel of battlefields, both far and near, and inside oneself. Of love and friendship, art and travel. Set in Italy and England, I adored the characters — even the foul-mouthed parrot. ‘Still Life’ would make a great gift for anyone on your list.” 

“Best Books of 2022” lists are legion in December and these lists can be fruitful places to find wonderful books you might have missed during the year. Because they were all stellar and I can’t decide which to review, I’m going to name three debut novels that were among my most memorable reads this year. Worth your attention are Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah (for fans of Louise Erdrich and Tommy Orange); How High We Go in the Dark” by Sequoia Nagamatsu (mind-bending science fiction); and Remarkably Bright Creatures” by Shelby Van Pelt (“A Man Called Ove” meets “My Octopus Teacher”). All are authors to watch.

For readers looking for mystery, intrigue and a dash of romance, WCLS Teen Services coordinator Tamar Clarke loved Anatomy: A Love Story” by Dana Schwartz. Of it, Clarke says “Ambition and the macabre entwine in this engrossing tale about young Hazel Sinnet, a 19th-century Scottish noblewoman, whose determination to become a surgeon pulls her into the dark alleyways of Edinburgh, and an even darker world filled with secrets, lies and, yes, lots of dead bodies. Hands down, for teen or adult readers, it’s the best mix for a winter read.”

Finally, for the youngest readers, I asked WCLS Youth Services manager and picture book connoisseur Thom Barthelmess for a recommendation from among the many delightful stories and evocatively illustrated picture books in the library collection. Barthelmess dished up (no pun intended) Night Lunch by Eric Fan, illustrated by Dena Seiferling. In it, “a horse-drawn lunch cart rolls into a starlit street to provide welcome and sustenance to a passel of nocturnal animals. The owl-chef prepares a variety of delicacies, each according to the appetites of the fox or possum, badger or moth, and finally offers up a veritable feast for an otherwise forgotten street-sweeper mouse.” Barthelmess describes “Night Lunch” as “atmospheric, evocative and shining with everyday magic; a fanciful exploration of the wee hours that thrums with warmth and comfort.”

Hopefully, some of these titles will resonate with you and the readers you love. Booksellers and library staff are trained to help you find reading that is right for you; share your interests or a few titles that you have enjoyed and they will help you find more in the same vein. May good books be warm companions to you as we move toward the darkest day of the year and then circle back toward the light.

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager for the Whatcom County Library System. Experience the power of sharing … at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, December 16, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Soccernomics

Soccernomics: Why European Men and American Women Win and Billionaire Owners Are Destined to Lose by Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski

Fans of the “beautiful game” who are finding it hard to ethically rationalize watching the World Cup this go-around may take interest in the 2022 World Cup Edition of Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski’s seminal work “Soccernomics: Why European Men and American Women Win and Billionaire Owners Are Destined to Lose.”

This fascinating study has been greatly updated and expanded since it first came out in 2009, and a future edition will no doubt include further analysis of the economics of hosting the World Cup tournament and the devastating impacts on the workers brought in by host countries to build stadiums.

For those unfamiliar with the original work, “Soccernomics” is to soccer as “Moneyball” is to baseball — a quantitative analysis of the various aspects of the sport, intended to provide insights about what makes teams successful.

Kuper, a columnist for the Financial Times, and Szymanski, a professor of Sport Management at the University of Michigan, were drawn together based on their love of the game and their love of numbers. They note their books are not about money: “The point of soccer clubs is not to turn a profit (which is fortunate, as few of them do).” Instead, they use economic tools and principles, combined with those from the fields of psychology and sociology and other social sciences, to inform our understanding of the sport.

This edition includes a chapter addressing racism in soccer, specifically the transfer system of “buying” and “selling” players. According to the authors, this system is unjust as well as inefficient. While wages buy success — spending more for talent translates into better performance — clubs are notorious for making poor decisions and there is historical statistical evidence of racial discrimination. Today, Black players are overrepresented on European teams compared to the general population. However, discrimination persists in attitudes about playing style, wages and suitability to coach.

Kuper and Syzmanski also tackle inequities between men’s and women’s soccer, suggesting that financial reparations should be paid to women. They recount the first international women’s soccer match, England versus France, in 1920, which drew a crowd of 53,000. Although attendance was higher than most men’s events, the English Football Association decreed in 1921 that all Association clubs must refuse to let women use their fields, exiling them to playgrounds and substandard venues. Countries around the world followed suit, stymieing the women’s game for more than a half-century.

The authors include copious anecdotes and observations that illustrate the lighter aspects of soccer, particularly in regard to soccer fans. They do a deep dive into whether or not the hardcore devotees depicted in Nick Hornby’s beloved book “Fever Pitch” actually exist, or whether soccer supporters are actually polygamists. They make the case that for affluent countries, hosting a World Cup brings happiness. They also report that the camaraderie and shared experience of watching soccer reduces suicide rates across Europe.

Kuper and Szymanski revel in the fact that most professional clubs now employ a cadre of data analysts crunching numbers to improve their competitive advantage. They also admire freely available open-source data tools and the way the democratization of data brings fresh understanding of the game. It is their view that soccer as an industry will continue to expand, with streaming services adding revenue and making matches more available to viewers. Those who love soccer, especially the numbers associated with soccer, will have plenty to chew on for years to come.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of Whatcom County Library System, She spent more than a decade on the sidelines cheering for her children’s Whatcom FC Rangers soccer teams.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, December 10, 2022.)

Book Buzz: A Little Bit of Land

A Little Bit of Land by Jessica Gigot

Jessica Gigot did not grow up on a farm, nor did she set out to become a farmer. Nevertheless, today Gigot owns Harmony Fields, a sustainable sheep farm in Bow known for its farmstead cheese.

Gigot retraces her meandering path, from farm intern to horticulture Ph.D. candidate to landowner, in her gentle memoir “A Little Bit of Land.” Gigot’s quiet, thoughtful essays are an ode to a meaningful, work-filled but simpler life.

You may be tempted to take a drive to the Skagit Valley to spy on the farm’s sheep and miniature donkeys. If you’re in the market for certified Animal Welfare Approved lamb, you can make an appointment to stop by and pick up a Fall Lamb Box.

So how did Gigot become a sustainable farmer? As a child, her family moved a lot from suburb to suburb. Her diet leaned heavily on prepared foods like Hot Pockets, consumed in front of the television. Her main introduction to scratch cooking came from annual trips to her grandmother’s house in Wisconsin. Her fascination with livestock — particularly sheep — began with a photo of a New Zealand sheep-farming family she tore out of a National Geographic and carried with her for years.

Despite these early longings for domesticity and a sense of place, Gigot began as an English major in college. She wanted to write poetry that celebrated nature, like Emily Dickinson. However, Gigot’s freshman-year Ecology professor made a huge impression on her, and before long Gigot transferred to the biology department.

The book jumps from one experience and place to another — a seasonal internship at an herb farm in Southern Oregon, another on Lopez Island, and a research project studying plant pathology at Washington State University. The list goes on. The through line is learning about what it takes to be a farmer.

Gigot is a voracious learner, unafraid to ask questions and follow her curiosity. She quickly discovers she has an aptitude for hard labor. A dream takes shape — to find some land where she can dig in and start a farm of her own.

The essays in this memoir move back and forth through time and read more like short vignettes, flitting from one idea to the next. Gigot references her admiration for scientist and bestselling author Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose book “Braiding Sweetgrass” is clearly an inspiration. Another hero is Wendell Berry, the renowned poet, professor and environmental activist who left his position in higher education to return to farming. Gigot writes letters to Berry, and remarkably, he writes back. His advice: “Don’t take on so much work that you overwhelm your gratitude.”

Gratitude is something Gigot has in spades. She’s grateful for her supportive husband, her lively daughters, the chilly winter months when she can focus on her writing and the hectic summers where she’s busy from dawn to dusk tending to her farm. She recognizes that “small farming is almost all risk” but that it is also deeply rewarding. It brings her a feeling of belonging — to the earth and to her community, “caring for this landscape as best we can.”

For another charming take on small farms, stream the film “The Biggest Little Farm.” It’s available from Whatcom County Library System’s Kanopy subscription. Go to and enter your WCLS (or Bellingham Public Library) card number to begin.

Christine Perkins is executive director of the Whatcom County Library System, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, November 26, 2022.)

Book Buzz: The Waters Are Rising

The Waters Are Rising: Stories of Inspiration and Hope from the Sumas, Washington Flood of November 2021 by Carl Crouse

Early on the morning of Nov. 15, 2021, all roads in and out of Sumas closed as the Nooksack River overflowed its banks in Everson and the water headed north toward Sumas. At 10:30 a.m., a Facebook post by Sumas City Hall urged residents to stay calm and get to an elevated part of their houses if possible. At this time, most residents were still thinking the flood would be similar to the 1990 flood level.

Then, the water rose so fast that it breached the railroad tracks berm on the west side of town which previously had always provided containment protecting Sumas. A call for volunteers with boats was issued.

“A boat just floated past my house,” “We need help getting out. Please help” and “Be careful in the boats doing rescues. The current is strong, and the small boats can’t handle it” were some of the comments posted in response.

Collecting these and other stories about the events of the flood and its devastating impact on Sumas, the recently published “The Waters Are Rising: Stories of Inspiration and Hope from the Sumas, Washington Flood of November 2021” by Carl Crouse is a valuable historical document as well as a tribute to the spirit and resilience of the people who call Sumas home.

Crouse grew up in Sumas and now serves the Sumas Advent Christian Church as associate pastor. The church became a nexus for the recovery effort, opening a Resource Center where food, cleaning supplies, clothing, blankets and more were distributed, as well as emotional and spiritual support. Crouse welcomed visitors to the center and often provided the compassionate, listening ear they needed. His interactions with visitors at the Resource Center are the source of many stories shared in “The Waters Are Rising” — which is told through the lens of Crouse’s Christian faith.

Dozens of photos by Sumas residents give an eyewitness view of what it was like to live through the flood and its aftermath: Jet skis traveling through the rushing waters to check on residents, personal possessions floating in flooded rooms, stranded residents being carried over the water-filled streets in front-end loaders, and mud, mud and more mud. Appendices include historical photos from floods in 1917, 1951 and the back-to-back floods of 1989 and 1990 — all considered landmark flood events in their time.

Flooding in the Nooksack River in 1990 was devastating, with peak flows at 37,900 cubic feet per second near Deming. More than 1,000 people across Gooseberry Point and Lummi Island were isolated, with home damage estimates in the $4 million range ($9.12 million in 2022 dollars), according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.

The 2021 floods saw peak flows in the Nooksack River at more than 60,000 cubic feet per second, with damage estimates topping more than $150 million.

Feelings of defeat are also part of this story, as some longtime residents and renters share their decision not to return to Sumas. Police Chief Daniel DeBruin comments on how difficult it was to see so many personal belongings in the dump in the center of town and recognizes they represented people who lost everything and had to start over.

But mostly, “The Waters Are Rising” communicates the hope and resilience of Sumas. When a Seattle TV station arrived to cover the cleanup effort, the newscaster intended to interview Sumas people helping their neighbors only to discover that very few of those volunteering in the effort were from Sumas. “I can understand neighbors helping neighbors,” she mused, “but this is strangers helping strangers.”

While we pause to remember these events of a year ago — honoring the stories and heroism of all who were impacted and responded to aid the community — the rebuilding effort in Sumas is ongoing. Crouse concludes with an invitation to support the work of the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group, an organization committed to the rebuilding effort (

Reserve a copy of “The Waters Are Rising” by visiting and watch for a WCLS Library Stories Podcast where Everson/Sumas Library Branch Manager, Paul Fullner, interviews Carl Crouse about his book (

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager for Whatcom County Library System, where you can experience the power of sharing, and is looking forward later this year to reopening the Sumas Library, which was damaged in the flooding.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Monday, November 21, 2022.)

Book Buzz: On Fragile Waves

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

This year’s Washington State Book Award winner for fiction is E. Lily Yu’s astonishing novel “On Fragile Waves,” about two Afghan children whose family flees their war-torn home only to face an uncertain future in Australia. Yu weaves poetry, folklore and simple, direct dialogue into a mesmerizing story that is timeless and yet of this time.

Firuzeh and her brother, Nour, are of an age where they still adore their father’s gentle storytelling when they first leave Kabul, Afghanistan, for Pakistan on their way to Australia. Atay’s familiar tales of Rostam and his brave and faithful steed, Rakhsh, who fought lions and dragons and had marvelous adventures, are meant as a comfort and a distraction. But over time, as the children experience the hardships and challenges of being unwanted immigrants, their patience for these stories wanes.

“Telling stories is difficult,” Firuzeh says to Nour, “Even when you know how they should end. And living’s harder.”

First, there is the terror of crossing the border into Pakistan, with only a name and number of a man they have given their life savings to in exchange for documents and plane tickets. Then there is their first airplane ride, to Jakarta, where they try papayas, rambutan and jackfruit, and Firuzeh becomes violently ill.

Next, there is a late-night summons to a fishing boat where they are crowded aboard with their new friend, Nasima, and family. They evade boredom and sharks and hunger on the week-long voyage to Australia, only to be devastated by a typhoon. Then, safe at last on the shores of an oppressively hot island, they are left to molder while officials ponder their fate.

Yu ably conveys the strain that uncertainty places on the family, and the difficulties the children face assimilating into Australian school. Fit and active Nour readily joins sports teams but the family struggles with paying for his uniform. Firuzeh falls in with other immigrant girls, but clashes with Gulalai, who sees her as a rival. Firuzeh is a compelling protagonist, wise enough to appreciate the pressures on her parents and yet still frustrated by their reluctance to adjust to Australian mores and let her go to the movies with her friends.

This novel reads quickly enough that it can be finished in a few sittings, then re-read and savored. Yu is skilled at showing not telling, and having readers understand her meaning with a few choice words. She portrays each of her characters with sensitivity and compassion, showing their faults as well as their courage and strength. She deftly includes elements of the supernatural, like ghosts and jinni, who comfort and guide Firuzeh and Nour.

It is easy to understand why Yu has received much recognition for her short story writing, which has been published by McSweeney’s and, among others. This first novel is a knockout and readers will eagerly anticipate whatever she writes next.

Visit to put a hold on the book or eBook version of “On Fragile Waves.”

Christine Perkins is executive director of the Whatcom County Library System, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, November 12, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Drop what you’re doing and prepare yourself to fall hard for this absorbing story of loss, love and video games. Sam and Sadie connected as kids over a shared love of games like Super Mario and Oregon Trail. The two were virtually inseparable until a falling-out brought an abrupt end to their friendship. Years later, with Sam studying at Harvard and Sadie at MIT, a chance meeting on a subway platform leads to a reconnection. Together with Sam’s roommate Marx, the pair begin designing a video game that will chart an entirely new path for all three. The years that follow are marked by wild successes and crushing failures, the effects of which play out in Sam and Sadie’s lives together and apart. Steeped in pop culture and brimming with both hope and tragedy, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow examines the bonds of friendship in an entirely fresh and unforgettable way. 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive October 2022 issue.)

Book Buzz: All That’s Left Unsaid

All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien

It’s 1996, and Ky Tran has left her tiny hometown of Cabramatta and her Vietnamese immigrant community to scratch out a future as a journalist in Melbourne. Then tragedy strikes: Ky’s brother Denny, a star student with a bright future, is brutally murdered in a popular restaurant. Despite the presence of witnesses, the police have almost no information and no leads on the killer. Ky’s parents sink into mourning and urge their daughter to leave it alone, fearful of what may happen if she asks too many questions. But Ky, consumed with grief and guilt, is compelled to pursue the truth. What she finds leads her into the past, to the pain of growing up as an outsider in a country where her family isn’t welcome. Though debut author Lien explores hard topics like xenophobia and generational trauma, at its heart this is a compelling mystery peopled with an unforgettable cast of characters. This rich, complex novel is a sure-fire pick for great book club discussion. 

Reviewed by Mary Kinser, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System

(Originally published in Bellingham Alive, October 2022 issue.)

Book Buzz: Firekeeper’s Daughter

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

If you’re in the mood for a satisfying, twisty thriller laced with contemporary and traditional Native American culture, Angeline Boulley’s debut novel starts with a bang. Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine is the titular “Firekeeper’sDaughter,” half Ojibwe, half French/Italian/English, and entirely herself.

A talented hockey player and aspiring doctor, Daunis has made the tough decision to defer admission to the University of Michigan so she can stay in Sault Sainte Marie to help care for her ailing grandmother. Her mother, devastated by the recent death of her brother, is overjoyed that Daunis will remain at home, as is Daunis’ friend, Lily.

Though Daunis is resigned to her choice, she’s never felt like she fits in. She’s a descendant of the Sugar Island Ojibwe tribe, but because her affluent white grandparents were ashamed by her mother’s illegitimate pregnancy, she’s not an enrolled member. She played on the men’s varsity hockey team in high school, but she’s not one of the guys. Wary of smooth-talking hockey players who spout Guy Lies, Daunis tries to keep Hockey World and Regular World from overlapping. But when a good-looking new player joins the local Junior A team, Daunis finds it harder and harder to do that.

Then, bang, Daunis witnesses a horrific murder. Shocked and angered, she is drawn into an undercover investigation of a drug ring that’s distributing a wicked, hallucinogenic strain of methamphetamine. People are overdosing in reservations across the Upper Peninsula. Daunis must use what she knows about traditional medicine and modern chemistry, as well as her understanding of family connections, to unravel the truth and save her community.

Boulley says she wrote this novel “because there are simply too few stories told by and about Native Americans, especially from a contemporary point of view. We exist and have dynamic experiences beyond history books or stories set long ago.”

The author excels at showing us Daunis’ traditional heritage juxtaposed with modern settings and situations. For example, Daunis brings elders offerings of semaa (tobacco) before asking them about special places and native plants on Sugar Island. Then she teaches them how to download their favorite songs from iTunes.

Firekeeper’sDaughter” portrays the larger Anishinaabe community in all its complexity, with characters who are educated and financially secure, as well as those who are scraping by, those with shady dealings with narcotics dealers and those who are focused on bringing them to justice. Some are hockey-obsessed and others are more interested in powwows and jingle dances. Boulley shows how Daunis loves and respects the members of her community even as she acknowledges their weaknesses and struggles.

Boulley worked on her novel every morning for nearly 10 years before heading to work as the Director for the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Once it was complete, it sparked a bidding war and landed Boulley a lucrative contract, as well as interest from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions company, which is adapting the book into a Netflix limited series.

Firekeeper’sDaughter” is available in many formats for readers and listeners; visit to place a hold on the book, audiobook on CD, eBook or eAudiobook.

Christine Perkins is executive director of the Whatcom County Library System, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, October 15, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Think Black

Think Black: A Memoir by Clyde W. Ford

Few people have lives as varied and interesting as Bellingham’s own Clyde Ford. In his professional life, he’s been a chiropractor, a psychotherapist and a business owner. He’s studied mind-body healing, African mythology, the environment and history, and he’s channeled these interests into a career as a renowned writer and speaker.

Any of the elements of Ford’s colorful life would make for fascinating reading. But Ford’s memoir “Think Black” centers on a very personal subject: his trailblazing father John Stanley Ford, the first Black software engineer at IBM.

In 1946, Stanley Ford was personally recruited by IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, part of a push to employ the most talented minds. Almost immediately he faced extreme racism — barriers not only to doing the work he was hired for, but just to exist in the field for which he’d found his passion. Rather than leaving IBM, however, Stanley Ford doubled down, turning to the Black community for support and working harder than ever.

He also mentored other Black professionals in the emerging tech industry, including his son. Clyde himself joined IBM in 1971. He brought the same steely determination as his father but rejected the elder Ford’s buttoned-up image. Instead, Clyde sported a trendy wide-lapeled suit and an impressive Afro.

Those style choices provoked an immediate reaction from Clyde’s manager, the first hint that despite his revolutionary ideals, Clyde’s experience would echo his father’s decades earlier. He, too, encountered racism and discrimination at every turn. And while Clyde ultimately chose a different path, his time working at IBM provided unexpected insight into his father’s behavior and choices, something Clyde would reflect on years later.

“Think Black” may be set in the world of technology, but rest assured, Ford takes pains to make it accessible for even the least tech-minded among us. Instead, the focus is on people, with the connection between father and son forming the core of this compelling, emotional story.

Ford has received numerous well-deserved accolades for his work, including a 2021 Washington State Book Award for “Think Black” in the category of Creative Nonfiction. His newest book, “Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives and the Making of White Power and Wealth,” was published in 2022 to nationwide acclaim.

This fall, readers will have several opportunities to hear Ford speak about “Think Black” as part of the Whatcom County Library System’s annual Read & Share program. Each year, Read & Share brings Whatcom County residents together to read and consider a work of nonfiction by a Northwest author. “Think Black” is the library system’s 2022 selection.

Read & Share programs this year also include a slate of writing-related events. Adults can participate in a workshop with Ford on Saturday, Oct. 8 from 1–2 p.m., while teen writers have a chance to engage with the author on Nov. 10 from 4–5 p.m. Book talks with Ford take place Oct. 20, Oct. 27 and Nov. 5. All Read & Share events will be online via Zoom. Learn more at

In the final chapter of “Think Black,” Ford reflects: “Whenever I hear the blips and bleeps, the whines and whirs of a computer, I recall what I learned from my father about these machines, about being a man who’s Black and about being first. These lessons live on in me.” Readers will be grateful to Ford for sharing these lessons with all of us.

Mary Kinser is a collection development librarian for Whatcom County Library System, where she spends her days spreading the joy of reading. She can almost always be found with a book in her hand.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Thursday, October 6, 2022.)

Book Buzz: The Book of Difficult Fruit

The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (with Recipes) by Kate Lebo

Mixing culinary history, personal reflections and tantalizing trivia, poet and pie aficionado Kate Lebo delves deep into 26 lyrical essays featuring “difficult” fruit — one for each letter of the alphabet — in her first work of nonfiction, “The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (with recipes).”

But what makes a fruit difficult? It might be the smell, as is the case with durian, an acquired-tasting spiny fruit native to Southeast Asia, whose odor the Spokane-based author likens to sewers, turpentine and motor oil, and describes as feeling “close and unpleasant, like a belch.” Or the betrayal of biting into an uncooked quince, the astringent sourness so at odds with its honey/citrus/rose smell. Blackberries are difficult for their thorny invasiveness; cherries for their pits, which contain both almond flavoring and poisonous cyanide.

Packed with fascinating trivia, Lebo began research for this book back in 2013, drawing on sources ranging from “Gerard’s Herbal,” published in 1597, which records juniper’s uses for “women’s troubles,” to interviews with contemporary experts such as LaRae Wiley, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, who schools Lebo on picking huckleberries (don’t over-pick; if you are younger, pick in difficult terrain and leave the flat, easily accessible places for the elders; and leave some berries for the bears).

Each chapter concludes with several recipes, some developed after years of experimentation with these difficult fruits. You might opt to pass on the odiferous durian lip balm (“Some people will say this lip balm stinks. No kisses for them.”), while recipes for gooseberry cheese, medlar jelly, pomegranate molasses and pickled rhubarb beckon the culinarily adventurous to the kitchen.

Throughout, Lebo intertwines the metaphor of these difficult fruits with events from her own life. Some are commonplace, like neighborly disagreements on using herbicides to get rid of dandelions rather than organic methods. Low-maintenance Italian plums in the backyard of a Seattle rental house invoke memories of a failed high-maintenance relationship. A sweet rhubarb treat that her mother used to make as a child is contrasted with the sad, sour temperament of her grandmother — food providing comfort in a way that her human family could not.

I would be remiss to write about this book and not mention the recent Washington State Book Awards (WSBA) announcement that “The Book of Difficult Fruit” was one of five finalists for the Creative Nonfiction category. On Sept. 13, it was announced that Lebo’s book took home the award. Visit for a list of current and previous year’s winners and finalists for this Pulitzer Prize of the Pacific Northwest. 

Notable WSBA winners include 2021 Fiction winner “The Cold Millions” by Spokane author Jess Walter, which is the Whatcom READS community reading title for 2023, and “Think Black” by Whatcom County’s own Clyde Ford. “Think Black” is the featured title for Whatcom County Library System’s Read and Share program this fall (events from Oct. 8–Nov. 10) and was the last year’s Creative Nonfiction winner.

Some of the other 2022 WSBA finalists that are in my to-be-read pile are “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration,” a graphic novel about three brave and heroic Japanese Americans who rejected the government’s violation of the civil and constitutional rights of an entire community; and “Crossing the River: Seven Stories that Saved My Life,” which describes how Seattle journalist Carol Smith found strength and solace after the sudden death of her 7-year-old son by profiling others who had faced their own intense challenges and survived.

“The Book of Difficult Fruit” is available at your local library in print, eBook and eAudiobook formats, or from local booksellers, as are many of the other WSBA finalists. The Pacific Northwest is blessed with an abundance of local authors; explore the WSBA website or ask your local librarian or bookseller for reading ideas.  

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager at the Whatcom County Library System, where you can find reading suggestions and more at

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, September 17, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Monk and Robot series

Monk and Robot series by Becky Chambers

In the gentle, hopeful future world of the ‘Monk and Robot’ series by Becky Chambers, Sibling Dex, a tea monk on the planet Panga, and a scatterbrained and lovable robot named Splendid Speckled Mosscap (robots in Panga are named for the first thing their awareness touches on, in this case, a mushroom) travel from city to city together, serving custom-crafted teas from Dex’s ox-bike cart and attempting to answer the question, “What do humans need?”

Before meeting Mosscap, Dex learned in school how robots were used in manufacturing during the Factory Age until they developed sentience. Though offered the opportunity to remain in Panga and join humans as free citizens, robots choose to separate themselves completely from the world of human design, setting off to “observe that which has no design — the untouched wilderness.” Dex never dreamed of seeing, much less meeting, a robot until the day Mosscap walked out of the forest into camp.

Mosscap had never met a human before, either; the Parting Promise guaranteed robots the right to return to human civilization at any time and travel freely, but stipulated that humans could not initiate contact. Recognizing that leaving the factories was a great inconvenience to humans, the robots send Mosscap as an emissary to see how human society has progressed without them. Mosscap’s first question to Dex is, “What do you need, and how might I help?”

In “A Psalm for the Wild-built,” the first book in the series, Dex and Mosscap visit an abandoned hermitage in the wilderness, based on the possibility that they might be able to hear cloud crickets there. All crickets are believed to be extinct, and Dex wants — needs? — to hear crickets in the wild. Dex makes teas from lion grass, feverfig and boreroot. A bear visits their camp. They have many conversations about the nature of consciousness. Mosscap is surprised and delighted by everything it learns about humans and its guileless opinion of humanity is a breath of fresh air.

Dex and Mosscap come down out of the wilderness in “A Prayer for the Crown-shy,” the second book in the series, and despite an initial reluctance, Dex agrees to introduce Mosscap to the communities along their tea route. Mosscap has acquired a pocket computer which it carries in an embroidered satchel, and it takes dozens of photos of the blooming spice plum trees along their route.

They pay a visit to Kat’s Landing in the Riverlands, where the people are considered experts in the river-build, repurposing garbage that accumulated in the Lacetail River and surrounding landfills prior to the Transition and attracting other like-minded “landfill miners” to their community. 

Later in the journey, when one of Mosscap’s mechanical parts breaks, severely affecting its balance and ability to walk, it is fixed by Leroy, a 3D printer who works with biodegradable plastics made from casein, pectin, sugar, potatoes and algae.

Throughout both novels, Chambers alludes to environmental and ecological issues on Panga that are similar to human-caused issues here on Earth, offering up the hopeful vision that Pangans were able to recognize the impact they were having on their planet and take action to restore the balance.

These are both short, sweet reads at around 150 pages, perfect if you are hungry for something fresh, fun and uplifting and have limited time or energy. Chambers’ dedications at the beginning of these books give a good sense of their intended audience — “for anybody who could use a break” and “for anybody who doesn’t know where they are going.” 

One Amazon reviewer describes “A Psalm for the Wild-built” as “a heart-hug of a novel,” which really captures the feeling you have as you turn the final page, inspired by a goofy robot and a young monk trying to find his place in the world that there is a way to live in the world and respect all life.

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager at the Whatcom County Library System, where you can find great summer reading suggestions and more at

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, August 27, 2022.)

Book Buzz: The Storyteller

The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl

Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but many of us Northwesterners claim Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl as one of our own, even if his life-changing stint as the drummer for Nirvana only lasted four years, and to hear him tell it, he wasn’t a big fan of Seattle’s never-ending months of gray.

For those who lived through and loved the grunge era, Grohl (plus the members of Pearl Jam and a handful of others) is one of the few left standing, and the chance to remember that time a bit by dipping into his recent memoir is understandably irresistible.  

For a self-described hyperactive guy like Grohl, who is 53 years old, multiple canceled tour dates due to pandemic lockdowns could have spelled psychological disaster. Instead, he channeled his creative energy into crafting a book filled with colorful anecdotes and celebrity cameos. “The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music” is an apt title, as Grohl knows how to spin a yarn.

For a man who puts away a significant amount of alcohol and way too much caffeine, Grohl’s memory is remarkably sharp. He remembers his early days as a 17-year-old drummer touring Europe with the punk band Scream, his big break joining Nirvana, his devastation on hearing about Kurt Cobain’s overdose in Rome and the emptiness he felt when he learned about Cobain’s suicide.

Throughout “The Storyteller,” Grohl comes across as thoughtful, goofy, joyful and deeply appreciative of the love and support he received from his single mom growing up. He’s awestruck and proud of his three daughters. He may be a tad self-centered — well, it is a book about him, and he is a rock legend — and juvenile (he cops to a DUI he received in Australia but makes it into a silly anecdote rather than taking it seriously), but he’s charming and entertaining and easily forgiven.

Grohl calls his book “a collection of memories of a life lived loud” — with loud being the operative word. It’s no wonder he admits to major hearing loss, saying he’s been reading lips for years. He has no regrets, though, chalking it up to the perils of being a rockstar.

If, after reading “The Storyteller,” you’d like to hear more from Grohl, take a peek at the documentary “Sound City,” about the recording studio where Nirvana recorded “Nevermind.” When Grohl learned it was going out of business, he arranged to buy their analog mixing console. 

The first part of the documentary chronicles the history of the legendary studio and the famous acts who recorded there — Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and Tom Petty among them. For the second half, Grohl invites these same musicians to write and record a song with him. Paul McCartney rocking a cigar box guitar while fronting the remaining Nirvana bandmates is not to be missed.

“The Storyteller” is available at your library in book, eBook and eAudiobook versions at Grohl himself narrates the eAudiobook version for added flair and interest. You can also check out the “Sound City” DVD or stream it for free using the library’s Kanopy subscription ( 

Christine Perkins is executive director of the Whatcom County Library System, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News on Saturday, August 13, 2022.)

Book Buzz: 52 Ways to Nature

52 Ways to Nature: Washington: Your Seasonal Guide to a Wilder Year by Lauren Braden

Now that the Fourth of July has come and gone, signaling summer has finally arrived to Whatcom County, it’s time to make adventure plans to make the most of each precious weekend. Seattle-based travel writer Lauren Braden’s “52 Ways to Nature: Washington: Your Seasonal Guide to a Wilder Year” is a one-stop idea center for accessible, immersive activities for year-round outdoor adventure.

Organized by season, each section contains 13 suggestions for exploring nature here in Washington state. An introduction gives an overview of the activity and includes details about things like flora and fauna, safety considerations and historical or cultural context. “Where To Go” identifies a handful of locations around the state to try the particular activity. Each activity also includes a “Nature Notebook” journaling prompt encouraging attentiveness and deeper reflection.

What new activities will you add to your summer slate? If sailing a boat, catching a trout, sleeping in a fire lookout or stargazing sounds interesting, “52 Ways to Nature” will point you in the right direction. 

For example, learning to sail a boat can be a daunting undertaking. Braden suggests six different organizations that offer in-depth sailing classes covering navigation, docking, tacking, jibing, tying knots and more. One of the suggested locations is Chariot Adventures in Bellingham, which offers a six-day “Cruise ‘n Learn” experience which will certify you to charter a boat on your own.

If you don’t have the time to invest in a class, Braden recommends several organizations that offer the opportunity to join a public sail where you can help the crew raise the sails and learn some basics about sailing culture. Once again, you don’t need to travel far, as one of the suggestions for public sailing is Schooner Zodiac, sailing from the Bellingham Ferry Terminal in Fairhaven, and offering many day sails (some including brunch or a salmon dinner) as well as multi-day sails.

The “Learn to Sail” section is rounded out with suggestions to attend the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend — which takes place this year from Sept. 9–11 — as a showcase for Washington’s rich maritime culture. Watch videos from the American Sailing Association to jumpstart your nautical knowledge, and contact Gig Harbor Boat Works if you are interested in owning your own handcrafted sailboat. The Nature Notebook prompt asks, “If you could sail away in your own sailboat, where would you go? What would you take with you, and what would you leave behind?”

In addition to writing freelance travel articles, Braden founded the local trip-planning website Northwest TripFinder in 2008 out of a desire to share her favorite Pacific Northwest getaway places with other locals who love to explore. This website focuses on sharing awesome trips in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia that are fun, unique, affordable and easy to plan. And local travel supports our regional tourism, one of our biggest economic engines, so it feeds resources back into state and local economies.

“52 Ways to Nature” would be a great welcome gift for someone new to the area, and longtime residents will get the information and inspiration necessary to learn more about the wonders of Washington’s great outdoors. Find “52 Ways to Nature” in your local library catalog ( for Whatcom County residents, or  if you live within the City of Bellingham) or at your local bookstore. Happy adventuring!

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager at the Whatcom County Library System, where you can find more great summer reading suggestions at

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, July 16, 2022.)

Book Buzz: The Family Chao

The Family Chao by Lan Samatha Chang

Lan Samantha Chang’s latest novel, “The Family Chao,” centers around a murder, but it’s less of a whodunit than a psychological study of complicated family relationships. The plot is similar to “The Brothers Karamazov,” but you need not be a scholar of 19th-century Russian literature to appreciate this rendition.

The Family Chao revolves around its patriarch, the larger-than-life Leo Chao, immigrant proprietor of Haven, Wisconsin’s only Chinese restaurant. Egotistical, bellicose, greedy and demanding, Leo Chao tormented his wife and three sons even while turning out delicious food.

But when Leo Chao’s anguished corpse is discovered in the restaurant’s walk-in freezer, nobody is really surprised.

Each son could be implicated: Gentle James, the youngest, heard a thumping noise from his apartment above the restaurant but did not investigate. The middle son, Ming, had such contempt for his father that he only returned home from his successful career in New York City to attend the family’s annual Christmas Eve dinner. The eldest, Dagou, a talented chef, was witnessed with his hands on Leo’s throat, threatening to kill Leo when Leo cruelly rebuffed his request to assume ownership of the restaurant. Minnie Chao, Leo’s wife, is the only one with an alibi. She was in the hospital, recovering from a stroke.

Novelist Chang gives readers a deep look at each son. James is a first-year college student. Inexperienced, empathetic and unsure of where his life is going, his decision to assist an elderly Chinese man at a train station on his way back home for the Christmas holiday may be a critical factor in his father’s death.

Ming is the intellect, keenly aware of the way his father bullies his mother and siblings. He’s traumatized by his mother’s outward subservience to Big Leo and vows to never date an Asian woman as a result. Plagued by the local rednecks as a kid, he nevertheless finds himself hanging out in their diner whenever he’s back in Haven.

Dagou is the most obvious culprit, and indeed he is forthright in admitting he thought about killing his father many times, including the night he died. Most like his lusty and intemperate father, he is nevertheless a disappointment to him. Long betrothed to Katherine, the Chinese daughter of two white adoptive parents, Dagou is having an affair with Brenda, a waitress at the restaurant.

Katherine is a particularly interesting character — despite growing up in a white household, she craves connection to her Chinese heritage and enmeshes herself in the lives of the Chaos, even though it is clear Dagou does not love her.

Each of the three brothers has his own conflicted relationship with his Chinese-American identity. Chang explores what it is like to be a child of immigrant parents, as well as the dynamic of a small Chinese community in the Midwest — happy to eat the Chaos’ tasty cuisine but quick to judge when their fortunes turn. She doesn’t spare the other inhabitants of Haven, who are cruel and perpetuate lies about them.

Like Dostoyevsky’s masterwork, the central messages in “The Family Chao” seem to be: don’t judge others for their sins, forgive them and find paths forward for their redemption. These themes are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.

Christine Perkins is executive director of the Whatcom County Library System, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Visit to experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sunday, July 10, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Everything Left to Remember

Everything Left to Remember: My Mother, Our Memories, and A Journey Through the Rocky Mountains by Steph Jagger

Bainbridge Island author Steph Jagger follows up her memoir “Unbound” with “Everything Left to Remember: My Mother, Our Memories, and a Journey Through the Rocky Mountains,” a heart-wrenching yet hopeful recounting of a mother-daughter road trip taken 11 months after her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

According to the 2022 “Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures,” an annual report released by the Alzheimer’s Association, one in nine people over 65 in the United States have Alzheimer’s dementia, so many readers will be touched personally by this memoir that explores loving someone with Alzheimer’s. 

Leaving her parent’s home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Jagger and her mother, Sheila, fly to Bozeman, Montana, then rent a car and visit Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks over the course of several weeks. Sheila, always avid about the outdoors, revels in tent camping, horseback riding, hiking and even a gentle whitewater raft trip, though these experiences wash out of her memory immediately; the trip that was intended to get to know her mother better actually seems like a witness to her disappearance.

Sheila was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 67, confirming Jagger’s worst fears after noticing personality changes and increasing confusion during her visits home several times a year; changes that were more difficult to notice for family members who saw Sheila daily. Jagger’s maternal grandmother also suffered from dementia, making it seem to Jagger as though “the groundwater running through my lineage is poisoning the bloodline — that it runs from our roots, all the way into our brains.”

The road trip gives Jagger time to reflect on the ways her family holds in feelings, coping by using “self-deprecation, sarcasm, and wit, or just plain silence about tender things, things like loneliness, sadness, anger, or despair.” Both she and her mother learned to hide parts of themselves from the world, her mother by using silence and pulling inward, and Jagger by creating outward noise and distractions to “fill the space with a story.”

Jagger comes to understand that this closeting of parts of the self was both accepted and expected. Observing that many of the things her mother hid related to motherhood and being a woman — one of the mysteries of her mother’s life is evidence that she gave a child up for adoption due to a teenage pregnancy — Jagger reflects that she learned by observation to cut off aspects of the feminine and let them dry, “like heartwood.”

Ultimately, Jagger recognizes that, while Alzheimer’s is taking her mother away bit by bit, the disease also gives her the opportunity to see her mother in new ways. The road trip lets them share new experiences together, communicate silently in nature and allows Jagger to watch her mother’s joy and wonder at the beauty of nature.

While Jagger’s first impulse was to try to control the narrative of her mother’s life as it disintegrated, being in nature helped Jagger remember there is a larger energy at work and encouraged her to let go and surrender to her mother’s shifting reality.

Sheila’s inability to reflect Jagger’s identity back to her ultimately meant that Jagger needed to learn to do that for herself, reclaiming parts of her that had been hidden and discounted. She realizes that “this trip was never about unearthing the mystery living inside my mother, but the one that has been living deep inside of me.”

Similar to Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” “Everything Left to Remember” also mines the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship with nature as a sounding board, and explores grief, letting go and learning to embrace new realities. Place a request by visiting the Whatcom County Library System catalog. 

Lisa Gresham is Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System; visit to experience the power of sharing … at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Monday, June 27, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Northwest Know-how: Beaches

Northwest Know-how: Beaches by Rena Priest

Nature lovers and poetry enthusiasts have a couple of chances to meet a local treasure, Washington State Poet Laureate Rena Priest. Priest will be speaking about her latest book, “Northwest Know-How: Beaches” from 7-8:30 p.m. Friday, June 10 at Village Books in Bellingham as part of the spring “Nature of Writing” series. Humanities Washington will also host Priest for a reading and presentation at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, June 12, at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship. 

This tiny tome is a pocket-sized guidebook to 34 beaches along the Washington and Oregon coasts and islands, from Semiahmoo Spit to Sunset Bay State Park near Coos Bay. Each entry includes a wee lyrical description and a bite of “know-how” — tips about parking, passes needed, whether pets are allowed and other details.  

Although the list of beaches does not contain any major surprises, the choices made in describing them are delightful. For Fay Bainbridge Park it reads, “Building a fort of any kind is a childhood highlight. You can relive that glorious experience at this scenic beach by building a driftwood fort within view of Mount Rainier. The size of driftwood that washes up here is perfect for such an endeavor.” Priest will have you wistfully dreaming of beach forts and packing your picnic basket and kite before you finish turning the pages.

Sprinkled throughout this slim volume are Priest’s graceful stories and poems, such as her retelling of “The Story of Raven” and “Salmon Woman.” Priest’s rendition is a quiet reminder that nature must be kept in balance. As long as man takes only enough salmon to nourish himself and his family, there will be plenty.

Deceptively simple line drawings by Jake Stoumbous illustrate the book. A limited palette of blues and tans reinforces the gentle, soothing images which are accurate but stylized depictions of the beaches they represent. Although the default for travel guides these days is full-color photography, these drawings allow readers to imagine themselves in the scene and are in keeping with the uncomplicated narrative and accompanying poetry.

Priest’s poems are what transform this book from a sweet tchotchke to a sublime gift. Written in the pantoum form (four-line stanzas with the second and fourth lines repeating as the first and third lines of the next stanza), these poems have the effect of waves gently lapping along a sheltered shore. In “Beach Fire,” Priest implores readers to: “Measure wealth by how well you enjoy the hours/Fluttering by in praise of sunshine and the ocean breeze …”

Her words effortlessly conjure an afternoon at the beach, staring out at the sea, content and heart-happy.

Priest, who received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, is the 2022 Maxine Cushing Gray Distinguished Writing Fellow at the University of Washington Libraries. Her debut poetry collection, “Patriarchy Blues,” won an American Book Award in 2018. Her work has appeared in such publications as Seattle Met, YES! Magazine, Poetry Northwest and High Country News. She is a National Geographic Explorer (2018) and an enrolled member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation.

You can place a hold on all of Priest’s books via the Whatcom County Library System catalog. Please register in advance for the June 10 and 12 events. 

Christine Perkins is Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Visit to experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Tuesday, June 7, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Very Cold People

Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso

If Edith Wharton wrote Ethan Frome in 1986, it might look like Very Cold People. Also set in a fictional Massachusetts town, Sarah Manguso’s first novel is a pithy coming-of-age story with a bleak outlook.

Ruthie doesn’t know why her non-WASP family lives in Waitsfield– they can’t afford it and they don’t fit in. Her parents are skinflint and emotionally withholding; they make Ruthie regift her birthday presents to other girls. Family secrets, sexual violence, and the exhaustion of hovering above the poverty line are background noise.

This is a book to read for prose, not plot. Sarah Manguso is a poet, and she writes in passages that are less vignette and more snippet. Ruthie’s observations are uncomfortably astute and gave me visceral middle school flashbacks. Very Cold People captures one of the more horrific aspects of childhood: the claustrophobia of being too young to escape your circumstances. Highly recommended for readers who appreciate realism.

(originally published in Bellingham Alive, April, 2022)

Book Buzz: The Swimmers

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

At the community pool, obsessive lap swimmers adhere to a strict, unspoken social code. They stick to their lanes and keep an eye out for each other–especially Alice, who has been swimming laps here for 35 years. Her dementia doesn’t seem as big of a deal when she’s at the pool–in the water, she feels like herself again, and not just “another little old lady.”

A mysterious crack appears in the bottom of the pool overnight. Is the crack dangerous? Will the pool have to close for repairs? Suddenly, nothing seems certain for this community of fanatics who thrive on routine.

The first half is narrated by the swimmers themselves, a collective “we”; the second half is addressed to Alice’s daughter. In under 200 pages, Julie Otsuka has written a short novel, nearly a novella, that is lovely and surprisingly tender. The Swimmers is a book about memory, habits, and how a little social collapse can bring strangers together before it forces them apart again.

(originally published in Bellingham Alive, May, 2022)

Book Buzz: Black Cake

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson.

FRUIT, RUM, SUGAR, spices — their mother Eleanor’s black cake is a family tradition that runs throughout Benny and Byron’s childhoods, tying them to their Caribbean heritage and to one another. When Eleanor passes away, she leaves her children one final black cake to share, along with a mysterious recorded message.

Though the siblings are estranged, they agree to sit down together and listen to their mother’s final words. But neither is prepared for the stories that spill forth, secrets kept locked away in Eleanor’s memory for decades.

Now Benny and Byron must reconcile the image they had always had of their mother with these unforeseen revelations and a version of their family story that upends everything they knew to be true. Evoking the rich warmth of the black cake for which it is named, this debut novel is a book to both savor and share.

(originally published in Bellingham Alive, May, 2022)

Book Buzz: Tell Me an Ending

Tell Me an Ending by Jo Harkin.

Our lives are shaped by our memories. They influence our understanding of the world, and through them we develop our sense of self. But what if you could excise a piece of your past?

At Nepenthe, memory erasure is big business, allowing clients to eliminate snippets of recall that trouble them. Clients can even choose a self-confidential procedure, where the deletion itself remains secret. It seems foolproof, until some report “traces,” lingering bits of memory coming to the surface. Now Nepenthe clients are presented with a choice: remain as they are, or restore the deletions and deal with what comes next.

Alternating between characters, the story explores how each one grapples with a central question — should I remember? — and what happens after they decide. Author Jo Harkin sets this absorbing near-future novel in a world much like our own, making the moral questions all the more piercing. “The future is here,” muses one character, “and it wasn’t thought through.”

(originally published in Bellingham Alive, April, 2022)

Book Buzz: Orhan’s Inheritance

Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

Long before President Biden declared Russia’s Ukraine war “genocide,” and long before the word was first coined during World War II to describe Nazi Germany’s actions toward European Jews, the Ottoman Empire’s ruling Committee of Union and Progress systematically implemented the mass murder of approximately 1 million Armenians in what is now known as the Armenian genocide.  

Although Ottoman Grand Vizier Damat Ferid Pasha acknowledged in 1915 that 800,000 Armenians perished as a result of state-sanctioned murder, and 31 countries, Pope Francis, the European Parliament and a preponderance of non-Turkish historians all concur, the modern Turkish government insists that it was not genocide. Semantics aside, there is no question that 2,000 years of Armenian civilization was nearly completely eradicated.

Author Aline Ohanesian’s moving debut novel, “Orhan’s Inheritance,” relates the story and legacy of the Armenian genocide. She begins with Orhan, a young Turkish businessman who returns to his family’s Anatolian village in 1990 to mourn his grandfather’s death. Orhan discovers that his grandfather bequeathed his textile factories and businesses solely to him, making only a small provision for Orhan’s father Mustafa and Auntie Fatma.

Adding to the shock, the attorney announces that the family home has been left to an unknown woman, Seda Melkonian. Orhan’s father is apoplectic. Orhan is confused and concerned — if Mustafa contests the will to regain the house, Orhan’s inheritance will also be in question. Orhan tracks down the elderly woman, now living in an assisted living facility in California. He flies out to meet her, determined to convince her to return the home to his family.

Part II goes back in time to 1915, when 15-year-old Lucine is on the brink of adulthood, the beloved daughter of a Christian Armenian rug manufacturer. Confused by her deepening feelings for her childhood friend Kemal, Lucine is further distressed by the increasing unrest threatening her small village. First Uncle Nazareth disappears, likely conscripted by the Ottoman army. Bread becomes scarce. Then all Armenian men are ordered to report to the town square, Lucine’s father among them. Families must prepare for relocation. Suddenly, Lucine’s entire world is upended in terrifying and horrific ways.  

Genocide is not easy to read about. While Ohanesian is unafraid to portray the brutal realities Lucine experiences, she does so with compassion and honesty. The narrative jumps between Orhan and Seda, Lucine and Kemal, examining the effects of this tumultuous time period on Armenians and Turks alike. Ohanesian vividly describes each setting and character, skillfully addressing difficult topics that continue to have implications today.

On May 24, 1915, Russian, British and French allies condemned the Ottoman Empire for “crimes against humanity and civilization.” Yes, the widely popular and salty party game Cards Against Humanity takes its name from a description of despicably violent acts, perpetrated by the state, that represent a severe assault on human rights. Let that sink in for a moment. 

Before you plan your next adult game night, why not check out “Orhan’s Inheritance” from the library and learn a little about this wretched chapter in world history? “Orhan’s Inheritance” is available in book, large print and eBook formats.

Christine Perkins is Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Visit to experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, May 28, 2022.)

Book Buzz: The Salt Fields

The Salt Fields by Stacy D. Flood

In spare prose with haunting images, Stacy D. Flood’s novella, “The Salt Fields,” tells of a Black man’s train journey north, leaving South Carolina with its ghosts and grief for a fresh start in the northern steel mills. Set just after World War II during the beginning of the great migration north, Minister Peters also hopes to leave behind the violence, discrimination and segregation experienced by Blacks in the South.

A private, taciturn teacher, Minister’s marriage ends when his wife — who accuses him of “only seeing the edges of things, never the center or the whole or the heart” — leaves him for another man, then tragically is murdered shortly after. In an “age when the murder of a Black woman didn’t warrant the pay, ink, or gasoline that it would take to investigate, especially should the evidence lead to anyone other than a Black man,” her murder was never investigated.

Minister is left to raise their young daughter, whose smile reminds him too much of his wife’s and consequently, the two of them smile less and less and often eat meals together in silence. When his daughter drowns in a neighbor’s well, Minister begins seeing the ghost of her “in every periphery and shadow” and hearing her calling “Daddy” in the sounds of the wind and the rustling of birds. Leaving South Carolina for good, he hopes “for the promise of great, steel-bending jobs and the opportunity for a different life, or at least fewer ghosts in the night air.”

On the northbound train, Dawn Lightning, Minister’s seatmate Carvall, a young Black man in full Army dress uniform, is also escaping the South and heading north to find “a good job up there and never look back. Steel mill. Milkman. I don’t care.” Soon, the bench seat across from them is occupied by Lanah and Divinion, a couple in name only who can’t seem to agree on anything — Divinion darker-skinned and talkative, Lanah elegant in a fine dress and pearls, or as Divinion describes her, “she’s a good person, but she can seem kind of uppity.”

Minister is attracted to Lanah in a detached sort of way, surreptitiously stealing glances and savoring the scent of her perfume. There are lengthy station stops along their route; at one, Divinion convinces Carvall to get a haircut (“you practically have a rug on your head”) and Lanah announces that Minister is taking her to a little catfish joint she has heard of that is near the station.

At another station stop, Divinion takes Minister to visit some of his family, only to leave Minister behind to find his own way back to the train. Minister catches a ride to the next station from Ryland, one of Divinion’s relatives, but traveling the roads at night in this part of the country is dangerous business for two Black men and apparitions of lynchings press close on all sides. Minister gets back on the train, but does Ryland make it back home? Ominously, Minister sees headlights converging on Ryland’s car as he drives away, but is powerless to do anything to help him.

Their final station stop adventure is to a “seriously jumping juke joint in the Virginia woods” that they heard about in the barber’s shop where Carvall got his hair cut. By this time, tensions between Carvall and Divinion are high, as is the feeling of impending violence that makes this venture feel doomed before it even begins.

Flood leaves readers with plenty of food for thought about the meaning of the title, “The Salt Fields,” the ways that the South has historically been toxic and lethal for many Black Americans, and how grief and loss can open up new horizons. As Minister reflects in his old age, “You lift one foot, put it in front of the other, and then repeat until you’re someplace else. Someplace you’d rather be. It’s about renewal.”

Flood will be the featured guest at the next Chuckanut Radio Hour at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 26 at the FireHouse Arts and Events Center, 1314 Harris Ave. He’ll be interviewed by Julie Trimingham, local author of the novella “Mockingbird.” Seats are limited; for more information, contact Village Books at

Lisa Gresham is Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System; visit to experience the power of sharing at the library.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Thursday, May 19, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Murder at the Mission

Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West by Blaine Harden

Whether you’re a “Whittie,” know someone who attended Whitman College, or have never heard about early Washington pioneer Marcus Whitman, you’ll still find much to learn by reading veteran journalist Blaine Harden’s deeply researched work, “Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West.” 

The book is a thorough exploration of the troubled mythology of the settling of the Pacific Northwest and its devastating impact on native peoples. It centers around the oft-repeated tale that Marcus Whitman was himself singularly responsible for “saving” Oregon Territory from the British, allowing Americans to achieve Manifest Destiny.  

As legend goes, Whitman, a medical doctor and ordained Presbyterian minister, was happily leading his congregation on the banks of the Walla Walla River when he learned of a plot by the British to wrest control of the Northwest from the American public. He charged east on his horse through bitter storms, arriving in Washington, D.C. to persuade President Tyler to grant federal support for westward expansion. 

Whitman’s grisly death, and the deaths of his wife and 11 other white settlers at the hands of five Cayuses in 1847, solidified his martyrdom. Tales of Whitman’s alleged heroism spread and inspired the formation of Whitman Seminary (later Whitman College) in 1859. No less than Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, himself a Whittie, once proclaimed that Whitman’s legacy should, “fill the hearts of our people with pride and teach them that courage and devotion can overcome the impossible.” Too bad most of it wasn’t true.

As Harden painstakingly recounts, Whitman was an ineffective missionary, failing to convert more than a handful of Native Americans to Christianity in 11 years in Oregon Country. His relations with the Cayuse tribe deteriorated over time. His fabled ride to Washington was a desperate plea to keep his job. His death may have been a reaction to his inability to cure tribal members of smallpox, or to his ceaseless boosterism for white settlement.

Harden shows that Whitman’s contemporaries were aware of his shortcomings. Fascinatingly, rival missionary Henry Spalding is the one who took up Whitman’s mantle, making it his life’s work to discount the naysayers and honor Whitman. Spalding was largely successful, despite his mercurial nature, anti-Catholic sentiments and proclivity for conspiracy theories promulgated by his fellow Know-Nothings. 

Later, Stephen Penrose, Whitman College’s third president, uncovered Spalding’s account and furthered it in an attempt to save the college from bankruptcy. Today, Whitman College is solvent, secular and has distanced itself from its namesake. A bronze statue of Whitman in buckskin was quietly moved to a nondescript location and is now being considered for removal by the Walla Walla City Council.

While “Murder at the Mission” sounds like the title of a paperback whodunnit, the only mystery in Harden’s well-researched account is why so many people continued to promote a false narrative about Whitman despite much evidence to the contrary, and why so many are loathe to acknowledge the profound effect that American settlers had in displacing native peoples such as the Cayuse and Nez Perce.

For another author’s perspective on the Whitman story and its impact, read “Unsettled Ground: The Whitman Massacre and its Shifting Legacy in the American West” by Cassandra Tate. “Murder at the Mission” is available at your local libraries in book, audiobook and eBook formats.  

Christine Perkins is Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Visit to experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Friday, April 29, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Of Blood and Sweat

Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives and the Making of White Power and Wealth by Clyde W. Ford

Over his distinguished writing career, Bellingham author Clyde Ford has entertained and challenged readers with his works of fiction and nonfiction alike. His previous book, “Think Black,” is a vivid portrayal of the intersection between technology and race, relating his father’s experiences as the first Black software engineer at IBM. “Think Black” garnered critical acclaim and was awarded the 2021 Washington State Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.

In his newest work, “Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives and the Making of White Power and Wealth,” Ford meshes his storytelling talents with his skills as a historian, tracing the ways in which Black labor built the very structures and systems on which our nation rests.

The meticulousness of Ford’s research is evident from the first pages of the book. Readers are introduced to Philip Corven, a Black man and former indentured servant who, in 1675, argued for his freedom in the courts of colonial Virginia. Corven wanted not only to be free of servitude but also to receive “freedom dues,” a payment rendered in acknowledgment of his years of service, which were part of his original contract. 

Corven’s case was eventually settled in his favor. In ruling for Corven, the court was acknowledging “a belief that power and wealth created from the labor of others entitled those who helped create that power and wealth to their fair share.” This system was a part of English common law, under which servitude was an agreement entered into by two parties, with both a definitive end date and an acknowledgement of service in the form of payment.

However, the Corven case was a bellwether of things to come. With the ever-increasing demand for labor in the colonies, white planters and settlers chafed at the constant need to find more workers with whom they must contract and share profits. The system, they felt, must change, and so it did.

In its early chapters, “Of Blood and Sweat” traces the fledgling nation’s seemingly inexorable slide toward slavery, revealing one by one the dominoes that needed to fall in order for this brutal hierarchy to take hold. Citing passages from historical documents and testimonies from various proceedings, Ford reveals how not only the legal system but also religion and culture played a role in creating and perpetuating slavery.

The book imagines the experiences of Anthony and Isabella, the first enslaved Africans to arrive in the colonies. Here the storyteller’s touch is evident, as Ford breathes life into scraps of history in order to embody the reality of what life must have been for them here, from their arrival to the backbreaking labor of working the tobacco fields.

Under slavery, a privileged few benefited from the unpaid labor of many. The influence of this oppression crept into nearly every area of American life. Black men, women and children bore the weight, and white institutions grew rich, as political and cultural systems became further and further enmeshed with the inhuman practices of enslavement. Even the nation’s founding documents owe a debt to the labor of Black lives, Ford argues, as without others to sow fields and harvest crops, would the framers have had time to debate such lofty concepts as freedom?

As the narrative progresses, the book continues to hold a lens to the past in order to better understand the realities of modern America.  Ford traces the country’s economic growth from tobacco to cotton and beyond, analyzing the rise of banks and white planters’ use of slaves as collateral for loans to cover their debts. Systems of infrastructure are similarly laid bare, including the role of Black labor in shipbuilding, import and export, and the construction of the nation’s railways, which some enslaved Americans later used as a ticket to freedom.

Of course, the codified system of slavery did eventually end. However, as the book explains, even the Emancipation Proclamation did not bring true freedom. The promise of “40 acres and a mule” was an empty one, rapidly abandoned in favor of keeping wealth in the hands of white elites. Though formerly enslaved persons eagerly grasped at their rights under Reconstruction, there were new means of oppression rising. We can see the effects of that oppression even today. “The terrible effect, the awful legacy, of Reconstruction on America is that the exercise of democracy by citizens is now too often met with the exercise of violence by the state,” Ford writes.

“Of Blood and Sweat” is an immensely readable account, blending sociopolitical analyses with the stories of real men and women whose lives influenced the trajectory of history. Through it all, Ford’s research supports his thesis: that the freedoms and wealth of white Americans came at the cost of Black lives, futures and security for their children and grandchildren. Even ardent students of history will find much to learn here, and much to consider. 

Reflecting on his work in the afterword, Clyde Ford writes, “Looking back over that seeded earth, the main regret I have is that I couldn’t tell more stories of these human seeds, more stories of why Black lives mattered in the creation of America.” After finishing this compelling and thought-provoking history, one hopes that Ford returns to the telling.

Mary Kinser is a collection development librarian for Whatcom County Library System, where she spends her days spreading the joy of reading with communities across Whatcom County. She is a book reviewer for Bellingham Alive magazine and has served on the Whatcom READS selection committee for the past four years. She and her husband share their home with one son, one cat and far too many books.

(Originally published in Salish Current, Tuesday, April 12, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Writer in a Life Vest

Writer in a Life Vest: Essays from the Salish Sea by Iris Graville

As the first-ever writer-in-residence for the Washington State Ferries System, Iris Graville’s office was a booth on the passenger deck of the MV Tillikum, the inter-island ferry that threads San Juan, Orcas, Shaw and Lopez islands. Her beat was the Salish Sea, including its endangered marine life.

Now, the Lopez Island resident invites readers to ride along and act against threats to the intricate ecosystem in her book, “Writer in a Life Vest: Essays from the Salish Sea.”

In the collection of 36 nonfiction essays, Graville, a self-described “storytelling lover of the Salish Sea,” sketches the rhythms of her yearlong residency aboard the ferry.

She shares the Tillikum’s history; it’s the oldest vessel in Washington state’s fleet and is slated to be retired this year. She describes the people who work and ride the inter-island loop — including the emergency-drill-practicing crew, gatherings of writers and mah-jong players, and the Floating Ukulele Jam.

But “Writer in a Life Vest” is not a sunny summer passage. Graville’s book invites readers to take a deep breath to explore below the water’s surface and to examine the impact of the 8 million people who live along the inland sea’s 4,642-mile coastline. The ferry “drags my fears for the Salish Sea in its wake,” she writes. 

The duality of awe-inspiring beauty and heartbreaking extinction links the inspiring essays. Graville counts her blessings, naming river otters scampering across rocky beaches, the undersea forest of kelp and orcas “swishing their tails to balance upright and spy on me.”

A longtime Lopez resident, she mines years of observation to craft intimate images such as a cetacean pupil that “closes like a smiling mouth.”

It’s her love of this place that drives her to serve as witness to its peril, especially that of the endangered Southern Resident orcas. Graville clarifies she is not a scientist but a writer who is responding to the climate crisis through personal essays and poems in which she names her own “vows” to protect the Salish Sea. She asks readers to do the same. The book includes resources for further exploration. 

Graville read as much as she wrote during her ferry residency. The research is evident in the breadth of topics covered in the book’s six sections. There are essays that are imagined conversations with conservationist Rachel Carson and climate activist Greta Thunberg and introductions to oceanographer Sylvia Earle and SeaDoc Society Science Director Joseph K. Gaydos.

A piece fashioned as a petition to the court records the successful effort to name the Salish Sea by Western Washington University Professor Emeritus Bert Webber and others. Elsewhere in the book, Graville explores the connection between climate change and racism. 

Writers may especially enjoy the creative nonfiction forms Graville employs to describe her thoughtful journey. In the book’s opening, she shares that she chose the varying styles “as a metaphor for the new thinking I believe is an essential response to the climate crisis we’re in. I offer them as symbols of resilience, inspiration and hope.”

Meet the author

Iris Graville, a former Bellingham resident and Chuckanut Writers Conference faculty member, will read from “Writer in a Life Vest” at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 9 at Village Books, 1200 11th St. The event is part of the bookstore’s Nature of Writing series with North Cascades Institute. Registration is required.

Mary Vermillion is the community relations manager for the Whatcom County Library System. Visit to register for free library events, including author readings and writing programs for people of all ages.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Thursday, April 7, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Red Paint

Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of A Coast Salish Punk by Sasha taqwšeblu LaPointe

An Indigenous artist from the Nooksack and Upper Skagit Indian tribes, Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe, shares her story of trauma, healing and the search for home in “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk,” a vulnerable and luminous debut set against the backdrop of Coast Salish ancestral land.

Tracing her lineage back through several generations of wise and resilient women, including her great-grandmother, Comptia Koholowish, a prominent Lushootseed linguist and storyteller, LaPointe applies a punk rock aesthetic to her rich ancestral history.

A dominant theme of “Red Paint” is LaPointe’s longing for a permanent home. As a child, LaPointe’s family moved frequently, often living in temporary housing that felt and sometimes was dangerous for Sasha. In her teens, LaPointe began running away from home, which led to a different type of nomadism — sleeping in abandoned buildings with other teens or couch surfing at friend’s houses, further fueling her longing for a safe, permanent home.

LaPointe takes inspiration from her great-great-grandmother, who always carried a square of linoleum that she rolled out wherever the family landed and created a home around. One of the ways LaPointe contends with feelings of impermanence is by arranging objects that have deep meaning to her in her temporary homes — a can of salmon that was a gift from her grandmother, stones, candles — to create a sense of rootedness and belonging. 

“Red Paint” raises interesting questions about how present-day nomadism, largely driven by following jobs, education or affordable housing, differs from ancestral nomadism where LaPointe’s ancestors traveled the Skagit River and surrounding land following salmon, ripening berries and other forms of sustenance. 

These same ancestors had their ancestral lands taken from them and LaPointe recognizes ways this generational settler-colonial trauma has impacted her own life, amplifying the haunting feelings of impermanence she has experienced. She writes, “I realized I wasn’t sure what permanence looked like because we weren’t meant to survive.”

LaPointe began exploring the trauma caused by sexual assault experienced when she was young while working on her graduate program thesis at the Institute of American Indian Arts. While ultimately a healing process, writing unleashed other memories of trauma. 

LaPointe realized that she was suffering from what is described by her tribe as “soul sickness,” a belief that when your spirit is angry, it can actually abandon you. Of that time, LaPointe says “I had excavated the bones of these memories, unaware that they would reanimate, that they would chase me into dreams.” 

LaPointe calls “Red Paint” an “ancestral autobiography” because her story is inextricably entwined with and inspired by stories of the women in her family. The Coast Salish punk element refers to her embrace of punk culture and community as a teenager. She also sees her great-grandmother’s language revitalization work as a sort of punk activism, taking a stand against cultural erasure and refusing to assimilate to the status quo.

If you liked “Sharks in the Time of Saviors” by Kawai Strong Washburn, which is fiction but also a resilient survival story that addresses the generational trauma of colonization, “Red Paint” feels like its memoir close relation.

Learn more about “Red Paint” on Thursday, April 14 when LaPointe will be the featured guest at the Chuckanut Radio Hour at the FireHouse Arts and Events Center in Fairhaven. Find out more about the event at  

Lisa Gresham is Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System; visit to experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Tuesday, April 12, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Little Witch Hazel

Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest by Phoebe Wahl

Move over llamas, foxes and rainbow unicorns — this is the year of the gnome.

The fuzzy, pointy-hatted fellows are everywhere, on coffee mugs, tea towels, garden statuary and more. So it would be understandable if, at first glance, you mistook the rosy-cheeked character on the cover of local author-illustrator Phoebe Wahl’s latest picture book for a gnome.  

But, as the title so clearly spells out, Little Witch Hazel is not a gnome, she’s a witch, a tiny one, no bigger than a red-capped amanita mushroom. She lives in Mosswood Forest, which looks a lot like the woodlands around Whatcom County sprinkled with a dash of magic. Four gentle stories chronicle the seasons as Hazel tends to her friends and neighbors with her herbs and good deeds.

Wahl’s illustrations are lush and nostalgic with details that invite repeated readings. Hazel even has tiny leg hairs to delight the astute observer. Wahl uses a limited color palette that complements the story and tone.

Her heroine is plucky, kind-hearted and courageous. Her messages of friendship and appreciating nature are gracefully delivered. “Little Witch Hazel” has the feel of a classic children’s book and would make the perfect gift, as would reading it aloud with your favorite youngster.

If you haven’t read Wahl’s other picture books, be sure to check them out from the library. Whatcom County Library System has multiple copies of “Sonya’s Chickens,” “Backyard Fairies” and “The Blue House,” available at

Each book is gloriously illustrated using watercolor and collage. “Backyard Fairies” has obvious appeal to children who delight in creating fairy houses in their gardens or in the woods. “Sonya’s Chickens” earned Wahl the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award. “The Blue House” feels like something quintessentially Bellingham — a touching story about a boy and his dad, who must leave their cozy blue rental home when the owner sells the property to developers.

Wahl crafts each page with loving detail and small jokes — album covers for Gordon Rightfoot, the Beverly Brothers and Black Shabbos for example. Wahl’s stories are quiet and sweet, but not saccharine. Her illustrations harken from an earlier era — yet seem timeless. They’re perfect bedtime reading, radiating calm and good feelings.

Wahl grew up in Washington and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design. She now lives in Bellingham, where she owns a retail store at 112 Grand Avenue, Suite 101. You can also find her illustrations and designs on a variety of calendars, greeting cards and gift wrap at There are lots of gnomes to be found, in addition to witches, woodland creatures and floral designs. 

Last year, Wahl’s artwork illustrated the People First Bellingham campaign for Initiatives 1 to 4, and she occasionally teaches illustration as an adjunct faculty member of Western Washington University.  

Writing and illustrating children’s picture books is much more difficult than it may seem, and it takes an artist of Wahl’s talent and experience to pull it off successfully. “Little Witch Hazel” shows that Wahl is in fine form and increasing her skill with each new book.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System, which brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Friday, March 25, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Hiking Washington’s History

Hiking Washington’s History by Judy Bentley and Craig Romano

A few sunny days are all it takes to start getting excited about hiking season. One way to add variety to your repertoire of favorite trails, and add some mental stimulation, is to choose hikes with historical significance.  

The second edition of Judy Bentley’s guidebook “Hiking Washington’s History” (now co-authored by Craig Romano) serves up 44 historical hikes around the state. While the ones in the Puget Sound Region, North Cascades and Central Cascades may be the most suited for day trips, there are great options on the Olympic Peninsula and on the east side for longer getaways.

In the introduction, Bentley explains the need for a second edition. The Puget Sound region is growing and changing; new historic trails have been established; the removal of the Elwha dams affected trail access. This edition of the guidebook includes 12 new trails and three significantly revised hikes. It also provides supplemental, nearby hikes to the main hikes for folks who have time to fully explore a region.

The historical details are what make this book stand out from other trail guides. You may be familiar with the infamous San Juan Island Pig War, but how much do you know about the ill-conceived Press Expedition, which called for “men of vim and vigor” to cross the uncharted Olympics in the depths of winter.

How about the Knights of Labor strikes at coal mines near Roslyn, when the Northern Pacific Coal Company brought in hundreds of African Americans to replace the striking workers and greatly increased the Black population in the state? Those interested in learning more can reference a lengthy list of books for further reading.

Bentley and Romano make excellent co-authors. Bentley used to teach Composition, Literature, and Pacific Northwest History at South Seattle College for more than 20 years and has written multiple books, including “Walking Washington’s History: Ten Cities.” She is also past president of the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild and leads history walks and hikes around the Puget Sound region.

Romano came on board for the second edition of “Hiking Washington’s History.” He’s one of the leading authorities on Washington’s trails, having hiked more than 30,000 miles in Washington alone. His writing has appeared in Backpacker, Paddler, Northwest Runner and more than 20 other publications; he’s authored more than 25 guidebooks.

Together, Bentley and Romano have crafted a book that is informative, clear and entertaining. You can read it cover-to-cover, immersing yourself in Washington state history, or you can use it to plan out your next excursion. This guidebook is the perfect size to tuck into a backpack, and the full-color photos and handy maps make it a reading pleasure.

Speaking of backpacks, Whatcom County Library System and our partner Bellingham Public Library both offer Check Out Washington backpacks that come complete with a Discover Pass, binoculars and plant and wildlife identification guides. You can search for “Check Out Washington” in the library catalog at and place a hold on a backpack just like you would for a book or movie.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS), which brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide selection of online content. Last summer she convinced her husband to take a side trip to Monte Cristo on a gloriously sunny day along the South Fork Sauk River. This year she’s gearing up to hike to the Sourdough Mountain Lookout.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Friday, March 11, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Shoal Water

Shoal Water by Kip Robinson Greenthal

Meeting in 1971 at a Vietnam anti-war rally, Kate and Andy’s beliefs about U.S. involvement in Vietnam inspire them to leave New York City behind and follow their yearnings for a simpler life. Set in a small Nova Scotia fishing village where Andy’s family has a summer home, “Shoal Water” is an imaginative, atmospheric debut novel from Lopez Island author Kip Robinson Greenthal.

From the beginning, Kate seems uncertain about her radical, impulsive decision to leave with Andy, and is unsettled by much of Slate Harbour life that is unfamiliar — the smell of gasoline from the fishing boats, the marine pressure giving her a headache, the disorienting presence of the fog, and the ocean itself giving her a “vague sense of peril.” 

It doesn’t help that Andy’s family home was previously owned by Basil Tannard, a fisherman who, in 1936, was lost at sea for a week and given up for dead, only to return to the village relatively unscathed with the story of being saved and cared for by a selkie. The villagers think Basil has gone mad, and Basil, unable to reintegrate into human society, drowns himself, leaving his ghost to wander the rooms of the Tannard house. 

Eventually, though, Kate and Andy’s lives take on a simple harmony; Kate plants a garden and replaces her New York hippie clothes with plainer styles in order to fit in better with the women of Slate Harbour. She finds real friendship with Verlene, the wife of Andy’s best friend, Ivan, and with Ivan’s mother, Lena. Andy takes a job building dories. Kate agrees to marry Andy, but it is an agreement with a lot of unanswered questions. Does Kate really love Andy? Will she be happy staying in Slate Harbour? 

Opening a bookstore together gives the couple a common purpose and the bookstore becomes an important place in the life of the community. While the book business and the birth of a son bring Kate and Andy happiness, Kate contends with an ever-present attraction to Ivan, an attraction that is mutual and only grows as Andy begins to drink more, staying up late with a second bottle of wine and never turning down an opportunity to drink rum with the local fishermen.

Shoal water — an in-between place that is neither fully land or sea, sometimes treacherous, a place where the unexpected can occur — is an apt metaphor for Kate’s life, caught between allegiance to the United States and Canada during the Vietnam War, between New York City and rural living, between two men. It is a place where rogue waves can develop, water changed by sudden shallowness and made turbulent, and this story does have its share of both real and metaphorical rogue waves. 

Kate, Andy, Ivan and Lena have all experienced loss and how they choose to navigate these losses gives “Shoal Water” an interesting texture. Andy’s father was murdered shortly before their move to Nova Scotia — his father worked for the CIA and had some information about the Vietnam War that lent suspicion to his murder — and Andy drinks both to fill this loss and assuage his anger.

Kate’s mother often told her that the happiest times of her life were two summers spent on the Nova Scotia coast, and saying “yes” to following Andy was in large part Kate chasing the ghost of her mother’s happiness. Ivan’s now-sober father, Will, was drunk and abusive to Ivan when he was a child, and Ivan suppresses these memories and is emotionally distant from his father. And Lena, Ivan’s mother, has chosen forgiveness and the grace of new beginnings as her path forward out of loss.

While not exactly a romance novel, the many shapes love can take is a central theme of “Shoal Water;” fractured love, dissolving love, the love between parents and children, the buoyant love of friendship, and in the case of Ivan and Kate, the “restraint of love.” Readers will find themselves deeply drawn to the simplicity of life in this remote location, and to the lives of these characters, struggling to find their way free of multigenerational traumas and navigate their hopes and losses.

Read the book and then “meet” the author at a Village Books’ Zoom author event at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 22 when Kip Robinson Greenthal will discuss her book with bestselling author Brenda Peterson, who calls “Shoal Water” a “haunting, lyrical, and startling debut novel.”

Lisa Gresham is Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System; visit to experience the power of sharing … at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Friday, March 4, 2022.)

Book Buzz: This Land of Snow

This Land of Snow: A Journey Across the North in Winter by Anders Morley

When setting off on a solo cross-country ski journey during the coldest months of a Canadian winter, an ordinary person might be discouraged by having chronic knee problems flare up the first day on the trail, forcing a return to the starting point to rest for 10 days.

But Anders Morley’s desire for an extended ski adventure in unforgiving temperatures was stronger than caution, and “This Land of Snow: A Journey Across the North in Winter,” winner of the 2021 National Outdoor Book Award in the Journeys category, is the author’s report of this winter wonderland adventure.

As a child, Morley was fascinated by accounts of the great Arctic and Antarctic explorers, and conspired to have similar adventures in the rugged backcountry and harsh conditions of New Hampshire winters. His adult life took him to Europe for graduate school, where he met his wife, Elena, eventually settling down in Italy.

A vague discontent had crept into their decade-old marriage, however, which wasn’t helped by Elena not being particularly supportive of the idea for this winter journey. Morley left for Canada anyway, fully aware, and perhaps even courting, the idea that this trip could mean the dissolution of his fractured marriage.

The trip began in late 2012 in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, although there wasn’t enough snow to ski on until reaching the inland city of Terrace, where Morley harnessed himself for the first time to the sled he would pull for the next four months. He packed a gun because he was worried about grizzlies, but an old-timer at the local outfitter shop told him he should be more concerned about wolverines, and in the end, Morley sold the gun before embarking on the trip.

In addition to never having pulled his sled prior to the trip, Morley had also never experienced temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero and hoped that the clothing and sleeping bag he brought would be enough to keep him warm. In his tent one particularly cold night, the cold caused him to burst out weeping uncontrollably, crying “Why am I doing this?” and writing only this brief note in his journal: “Despair. Loneliness. Cold.”

Morley didn’t have any imposed requirements about only sleeping out-of-doors in a tent, so occasionally when passing through communities, he took advantage of the cheapest hotel in town to sleep in a warm bed, although he notes that in some of the places, the carpet “would make a cockroach cringe.”

Prior to the journey, he connected with cross-country ski enthusiasts along his route and arranged to have them help with supply drops; these people and many others met along the way opened their homes to Morley, brought him hot meals at his campsites, shared maps and local trail information, and generally watched out for his well-being.

More than just an account of this journey, “This Land of Snow” is a seasonal meditation on wilderness, solitude and how access to wild places can help us find our way back to our most authentic selves. Observations on the history of cold-weather exploration and Nordic skiing, the right-to-roam movement and winter ecology provide interesting detours along the way.

Morley’s trip ends in Northern Manitoba five days before the spring equinox, skiing the last 10 days in the company of his father, who drove from New Hampshire to join him. Morley hadn’t skied all the way across Canada as was intended, but he does count the trip as a success “in the way that winter is always a success” — giving organisms an opportunity to make themselves stronger for surviving it.

Learn more about Anders Morley’s journey at an online event hosted by Whatcom County Library System at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 10; visit for more information and to register.

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, February 26, 2022.)

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System. WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at

Book Buzz: Astra

Astra by Cedar Bowers

Canadian writers Cedar Bowers and Michael Christie may be the latest literary power couple. Christie’s book “Greenwood” — which was reviewed last week in the Cascadia Daily News — is this year’s Whatcom READS selection; Christie will be speaking in Whatcom County March 3–5.

Christie’s wife Bowers is no slouch either. Her debut novel “Astra” was long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize and holds its own as a vivid, insightful character study of a spellbinding, complicated woman searching for love and belonging. “Astra” is described as a “vivid, insightful character study of a spellbinding, complicated woman searching for love and belonging.” 

Each chapter of Astra’s story is told from the point of view of one of 10 different people, starting with her father Raymond. Cofounder of Celestial Farms, a commune in British Columbia, Raymond is deeply committed to a life unfettered by family or rules. When Astra Winter Sorrow Brine comes into the world and her mother Gloria dies soon thereafter, Raymond is at a loss. His disinterest and neglect have a profound effect on Astra, leaving lasting scars.

We next meet Astra through the eyes of Kimmy, a lonely 7-year-old whose troubled mother parks her in Quiet Time for hours. Kimmy spies Astra emerging from the woods behind Kimmy’s house and is instantly captivated when Astra shimmies over the windowsill and into Kimmy’s room. Astra seems fearless, and feral, immediately claiming Kimmy’s sparkly kitten sweatshirt as her own. Kimmy is thrilled to have a friend — then quickly terrified by what Astra might do.

By the time Gloria’s friend Clodagh returns to Celestial, Astra is 15 years old, all legs, with waist-length black hair and piercing eyes. She’s oblivious to the catcalls and lewd remarks from the local ne’er-do-wells and accustomed to fending for herself. We see her through Clodagh’s guilty conscience: guilty for having abandoned the girl even after a terrible incident put Astra in grave danger.

Astra’s unusual upbringing makes her self-reliant, lonely and precocious. She doesn’t follow social norms, as shown in a chapter by Brendon, the infatuated manager of Street Stylz who offers Astra her first paying job and a free place to stay at his apartment. In another chapter, Sativa glimpses Astra’s life as a new mother, playacting the role of middle-class housewife with a man who’s not the baby’s father. Astra seems to try on new personalities, searching for her identity and for someone to love her. With Raymond’s old friend Doris, Astra finds some stability, but even Doris cannot abide by Astra for long.

One by one, these people are drawn to Astra’s backstory and her quirky take on the world, but ultimately struggle to connect.

Throughout the book, characters take turns tossing a tiny metal 10-sided die, choosing to believe the message that each roll seems to share. Bowers seems to be painting a metaphor about fate, and the importance of ignoring the fate you’re handed in order to truly live.

For another book featuring an enigmatic Canadian heroine, try “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel. “Astra” also draws comparisons to “The Girls” by Emma Cline. The novel “Astra,” like its namesake, is complex, slightly sad, and will stay etched in your mind for some time.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide selection of online content at Your public libraries are an essential “green” resource — reduce, reuse, read!

(Originally published by Cascadia Daily News, Thursday, February 11, 2022.)

Book Buzz: The Ministry for the Future

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

This year’s Whatcom READS title, “Greenwood” by Michael Christie, imagines the near future, where eco-tourists pay top dollar to experience one of the last surviving old growth forests. While “Greenwood” is not overtly science fiction, the effects of climate change are certainly a major element in the story. That’s why the Whatcom READS lineup of supporting events includes several that address climate issues.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel “The Ministry for the Future” is an excellent example of “cli-fi,” written by a much-heralded and respected science fiction author at the top of his craft. Like Robinson’s previous works, which include the “Mars Trilogy,” “The Years of Rice and Salt,” and “Antarctica,” “The Ministry for the Future” examines the intersection between nature and culture. Robinson asks, “how will humanity survive the climate crisis?”

Robinson invents a global ministry, authorized under the Paris Agreement and established in Zurich after COP29. A team of international experts staffs the ministry, looking at any and all ways to fend off the devastating effects of climate change and save humanity. There are economists looking at alternatives to carbon-based capitalism, conservationists tracking species extinction, and lawyers litigating challenges to climate-friendly policies. There’s a team of glaciologists sent to Antarctica to investigate ways to pump water from beneath the ice cap to rebuild the glaciers and fend off sea level rise. The Ministry for the Future is a bustling hive powered by realists taking action.  Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel “The Ministry for the Future” is an excellent example of “cli-fi,” written by a much-heralded and respected science fiction author at the top of his craft.  

Robinson relates the story in eyewitness accounts by diverse narrators. The changing viewpoints keep the plot from getting bogged down and heavy. As different characters review the events that have come before, Robinson gives readers another chance for the ideas to sink in. This is key, as the ideas are plentiful, and complex, and worth pondering. Some readers may find his approach scattershot, or perhaps too basic — yet for the average person filled with a looming sense of dread about the future but no concrete plan of what to do about it, this book is full of promising concepts worth further research.

At the helm of the Ministry is Mary Murphy, a 42-year-old Irish labor attorney. It is hard to imagine a more compassionate but pragmatic person to take on this important work. She has no illusions that her ministry has any teeth — it has no authority, no enforcement and a limited budget.

Yet she doggedly perseveres, making difficult decisions and encouraging everyone to “go long.” “You can short civilization if you want,” she says. “Not a bad bet really. But no one to pay you if you win. Whereas if you go long on civilization, and civilization (therefore) survives, you win big. So the smart move is to go long.”

This is Robinson’s prevailing viewpoint — a realistic read of the negative aspects of human behavior but also an optimism that humans can, and will, see the light.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). She is also the Treasurer of Whatcom READS and has been part of the planning committee since Whatcom READS began in 2009. WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide selection of online content  at Your public libraries are an essential “green” resource — reduce, reuse, read!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Friday, January 28, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Small World

Small World by Jonathan Evison

Screeching brakes, shattering glass, passenger names on a manifest, a retirement party that never happens. Jonathan Evison shows his hand on the first page of his new novel, “Small World,” described by Kirkus Reviews as “a bighearted, widescreen American tale.”

Knowing that the characters will all find themselves in this train wreck just contributes to the immersive, page-turning ride of a spellbinding story that sheds light on the good, the bad and the ugly of 170 years of nation-building.

Amtrak engineer Walter Bergen is on the final Portland to Seattle run of a celebrated career. Bergen, the fourth generation of his family to work on the rails, is a descendant of Nora and Finnegan Bergen, twins who immigrate from Ireland with their mother in 1851. The conditions in the ship’s steerage during their Atlantic crossing are deplorable, and the America that greets them is not the land of opportunity they had imagined.

After their mother’s untimely death and several weeks scrounging on the streets and alleys of Chicago, Finn and Nora are sent to the Catholic Orphan Asylum and put to work. Finn’s path takes him ever westward laying the rails that will connect America’s east and west, while Nora’s servitude reaps unexpected fortune.

“Small World” is the story of four families, spanning from the 1850s to present day. In addition to the Irish Bergens, there is Brianna Flowers and her son Malik, a bright and promising high school basketball star whose forebear, George, was a Kentucky slave who escaped on a trip to Chicago with his master. Malik and Brianna are on the Amtrak train heading to a basketball invitational in Seattle where Malik hopes to be noticed by college recruiters.

Successful, high-powered corporate fixer Jenny Chen is the descendant of Wu Chen, a Chinese immigrant who turned tragically-begotten Gold Rush gold into a thriving produce business in San Francisco. Jenny has recently quit her job, and with her husband and two sons, moved from Portland to McMinnville, Oregon. The transition to small-town life has been difficult, and the Chen-Murphys are hoping the family Amtrak trip from Portland to Seattle will give them all a fresh perspective.

Finally, there is Laila Tully, a recently sober descendant of a Miwok woman, Luyu Tully. Laila has few resources to call her own, but is determined to escape her abusive husband, Boaz, with the encouragement of a cousin from Queets who is sure Laila can get a job at the lodge in Kalaloch. The truck Laila stole from Boaz dies partway between Red Bluff, California, where she has lived her whole life amid the ghosts of her Miwok ancestors, and Queets, so she uses most of her remaining cash to take the Amtrak north to Seattle.

Evison authentically creates each of these characters and other supporting characters — Worthy Warnock, slave owner and an opportunist hoping to cement his fortunes investing in railroads; Ai Lu, the defiant daughter of a produce seller with whom Wu Chen falls in love; and Abraham Seymour, the wealthy, childless benefactor who adopts Nora — and lets them tell their stories in brief chapters that skip about in time.

Throughout, racial inequities and class disparities are on display, as are the larger stories of our nation-building; from our history of slavery, to the way immigrants and Indigenous people were and are treated, to the transformation created when human labor linked the rails east to west, “shrinking the great wide world with every mile of track they laid.”

Readers may remember Jonathan Evison’s visit to Whatcom County in March 2017 when his novel “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” was the Whatcom READS selected title (or from his visit last week to Village Books). From Bainbridge Island, Evison is part of our Pacific Northwest “small world.”

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System. WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Thursday, January 27, 2022.)

Book Buzz: Mud, Rocks, Blazes

Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail by Heather “Anish” Anderson

In summer 2013, Bellingham-based Heather “Anish” Anderson set the fastest, unsupported time on the Pacific Crest Trail. She recounted the 60 day, 17 hour, 12 minute thru-hike in her 2019 memoir “Thirst: 2,600 Miles to Home.” It is an exhilarating personal tale of a legendary feat, but the story of what happens next — which Anderson shares in her 2021 follow-up “Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail” — is even more inspiring for its universal message of grit, perseverance and love.

“Mud, Rocks, Blazes” begins as Anderson runs at night along the South Bay Trail in Bellingham. As she sprints up Taylor Dock and reflects on her time hiking the PCT, she wonders what’s next. Soon, she realizes to be happy she needs to create a life on the trail. After failed attempts to complete the John Muir Trail and the infamous Barkley Marathon, Anderson begins to doubt herself and to question if her PCT record was a fluke.

How do you test yourself when you are a thru-hiking legend? Go back to where it all started: the punishing rocky spine of the Appalachian Trail.

Anderson’s thru-hiking obsession began at the AT in 2003. A self-described awkward kid, she chose the 2,189-mile footpath from Georgia to Maine as her first multi-night backpacking trip. When she returned in 2015, she had 20,000 miles of hiking under her feet. And, the experience of knowing anything can happen.

Quietly, she determined to attempt a self-supported, fastest-known time southbound from Maine’s Mount Katahdin to the trail’s end at Springer Mountain in Georgia. She wrote her resolve on the back of her food resupply schedule: “I want to be stronger, braver, and more courageous in everything from communicating to hiking. I can’t let the past define me … ”

In her first memoir, Anderson hinted at the personal demons that drove her to the trail. In “Mud, Rocks, Blazes,” she goes deeper. Her commitment to growth shows in her writing, which is richer here.

In a pulse-racing tempo calmed with lyrical descriptions of the human kindness and natural beauty she finds along the trail, Anderson details the challenges of her 40-to 50-mile-a-day schedule. At food resupply stops, she inhales calories in the form of espresso-laced chocolate milkshakes. She clambers across granite boulder fields and fords rain-swollen streams. Often, white blazes are the only indication she is on a trail. She vividly describes storms and her blistered feet as she desperately plods through the mud and the night, vacillating “between the desire to give up and the tenacious hope that things would get better.”

After falling behind schedule, Anderson resists the urge to walk off the trail and focuses on doing her best. She begins hiking “from songbird to screech owl,” knowing the trail would ultimately provide the answers. And it does. As she nears Georgia, Anderson embraces herself — body and soul. The AT cracks her open beautifully in, yes, a record-setting 54 days, 7 hours, 48 minutes. The personal affirmation she finds along the Appalachian Trail may be just the inspiration you need in these uncertain times.

Mary Vermillion is the community relations manager for the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Wednesday, January 26, 2022.)

Celebrate local with these holiday gift ideas

Cascadia Revealed: A Guide to the Plants, Animals & Geology of the Pacific Northwest Mountains by Daniel Mathews
Old Barns of Whatcom County: Photos and Poems by Jeff Barclay
Inside My Sea of Dreams: The Adventures of Kami and Suz by Susan Conrad

If gift-giving is part of your holiday tradition, think about keeping it local with these outdoor-focused suggestions for books about the Pacific Northwest by people who live here.

Folks from the PNW are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about our beautiful, bountiful great outdoors, and Cascadia Revealed: A Guide to the Plants, Animals & Geology of the Pacific Northwest Mountains is a guaranteed delight for outdoor enthusiasts, bringing to life our mountain environment with stories of how this landscape was formed and profiling the plants, animals and people who call it home.

Organized like a traditional field guide, the crisp, clear photographs and definitive line drawings in Cascadia Revealed make identification of flora and fauna easy. For the less initiated, Latin names include both a pronunciation key and root meanings.

What makes this guide unique is author Dan Mathews’ experience, humor and love of lore that shine in the prosaic text entries, where traditional use of plants by indigenous people are documented and Mathews’ own recent observations are noted, such as the fact that in the earlier-than-usual snowmelt of 2015, glacier lilies were observed to bear their flowers face-up rather than upside-down on shorter stalks than is normal, possibly an adaptation to 21st century climate trends.

Nature enthusiasts will want to read Cascadia Revealed from cover-to-cover for the lifetime of knowledge and research that Mathews has packed into its pages. The warning alert that you’ve likely heard marmots make while hiking in the high country? Not a whistle, as often described, but literally a shriek that is made with their vocal chords. Who knew that belted kingfisher nests are made from a heap of regurgitated fish bones piled at the end of a hole in a mud bank; Mathews asks, “is ‘nest’ too sweet a term for such debris?” North Cascades Institute director, Saul Weisberg, describes Cascadia Revealed as “a love poem to the living things” that inhabit our landscape. Highly recommended!

With the recent flooding that devastated rural parts of Whatcom County, Old Barns of Whatcom County, with photos and poems by local resident Jeff Barclay, reminds us that these beautiful old barns on farms all around the county have survived many a harsh challenge since they were built. Barclay begins the book with a description of various barn roof types—gambrel, broken gable, Dutch, gothic. Colorful photos of 111 barns throughout the county are identified by barn roof type, road and community name.

Old Barns of Whatcom County is a loving tribute to our agricultural history and to the generations of farming families who have made their homes in Whatcom County. Nine of Barclay’s original poems, sprinkled throughout, both celebrate these elegant structures and lament the changes that endanger the future of these old friends: I stopped by here the other day/And found the barn is gone/The field scraped clean, the barn removed/Making room for more new homes

Finally, for the kiddos, an inspiring real-life adventure of a kayak journey from Whatcom County through the Inside Passage to Alaska. The picture book Inside My Sea of Dreams by local author Susan Conrad tells the story of Conrad’s solo 1,200-mile voyage through the Inside Passage, adapted from her adventure memoir Inside: One Woman’s Journey Through the Inside Passage, which was a Washington State Book Awards Finalist in 2017. Young readers follow Susan and her kayak, Kami, being introduced to orcas, eagles, Spirit Bears in the Great Bear Rainforest, and a Tlingit community, as well as the encouragement that if you follow your dreams, anything is possible.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System, If you decide to purchase any of the suggested titles as gifts, please consider supporting local businesses.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, December 15, 2021.)

Book Buzz: The Last Thing He Told Me

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

Sometimes when the world is heavy, a book that’s not too complicated and not too dark can be just the thing for a rainy or windy weekend. The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave fits the bill. It’s not quite a thriller, not quite a mystery, and serves up a believable stepmother-daughter relationship with enough intrigue to keep the pages turning.

Hannah Hall is still easing into married life, adjusting to her move from bustling New York City to sleepy Sausalito, building her wood-turning business, and trying to win the heart of her resistant 16-year-old stepdaughter Bailey, when a girl knocks on her door and hands her a note that upends her world. “Protect her,” it says, and immediately Hannah knows what it means. She must protect Bailey. But from what? Or from whom? And where is Hannah’s husband Owen?

At first, Hannah is puzzled, but only mildly alarmed. She starts leaving Owen messages that go straight to voicemail. When he doesn’t show up that evening, she hears a news report on the radio—the CEO of The Shop, the company Owen works, for has been arrested on suspicion of fraud. Senior staff are likely implicated. More indictments will follow. She picks up Bailey from a school event and discovers that Owen left a duffel bag stuffed with rolls of cash in Bailey’s locker, along with a note. “Please help Hannah. Do what she tells you.” Owen is missing, and now the former adversaries only have each other.

Although Hannah and Bailey don’t immediately become fast friends, Dave presents a believable account of their improved relationship and growing trust. She provides backstory in flashbacks that start at 24 hours earlier, jump six weeks back, then three months prior, eight months, and so on. Each time you get a clearer picture of Owen’s past—and Hannah’s—and begin to understand what happened and why Hannah is the perfect person to be handling the situation put before her.

Hannah receives a visit from a U.S. Marshal who claims to be investigating the dealings of The Shop. According to him, Owen’s mixed up in something criminal and dangerous. Then the FBI shows up, and they claim no knowledge of the marshal. Hannah doesn’t know who to trust—but realizes that sometimes if you need something to be done right, you need to do it yourself. So, with Bailey in tow, she ventures forth to figure things out.

Many readers will agree that it seems highly unlikely that anyone receiving a cryptic note and several visits from law enforcement wouldn’t have a major freakout and become paralyzed. Hannah’s actions—heck, big chunks of the entire plot—are far-fetched. However, that’s part of the fun of reading this book—to not take it very seriously and just enjoy the ride. It’s interesting to ponder: if I were Hannah, would I make the same choices she does? Dave throws in a last-minute twist to keep readers guessing, and it’s just the thing to see the book through to the end.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at All branches of WCLS are open to the public.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, November 10, 2021.)

Book Buzz: At the Edge of the Haight

At the Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman

One night several years ago while driving through Golden Gate Park, journalist Katherine Seligman and her husband were stopped by a frantic man who jumped in front of their car, pleading with them to stay with him and saying that someone was threatening to kill him. They called the police, and Seligman’s husband followed where the man was pointing and saw an injured young man lying on the grass, gasping his last breaths.

Shaken by the event, Seligman (pictured) learned that no one was ever charged with the murder and found herself wondering about the young man’s family and how he came to be in trouble in the park that night. When questioned, police said they didn’t know what happened, but that “neither of these guys was up to any good.”

These real-life events form the opening scenes of Seligman’s fiction debut, At the Edge of the Haight. Maddy Donaldo, homeless at age 20, lives in the hidden places in Golden Gate Park where she and her makeshift family have claimed an area as their encampment. A nearby shelter provides support in the way of meals and showers, and she relies on her pit bull mix, Root, for companionship as well as protection.

Witnessing the death of the young man, Shane, haunts Maddy, as does the fact that she was seen by the supposed perpetrator and fears he will hunt her down to keep her quiet. Shane’s father Dave turns up at the park, hoping to learn more about Shane’s last days and what his life on the street was like. Dave and his wife, Marva, try to convince Maddy to reunite with her mother, who Maddy last saw in a boardinghouse after her mother suffered a breakdown.

Dave and Marva’s desire to spend time with Maddy and the stability they represent awaken feelings of longings and reflections on the meaning of family. Maddy’s mentally ill mother was never able to adequately care for her, and the foster family and distant cousins that she lived with for a time abandoned her when the commitment became inconvenient. Maddy has done her best to create a family of choice in her friends Ash, Hope, and Fleet, but finds herself questioning the strength and longevity of these bonds.

Having lived for 25 years in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, Seligman knows this territory well. As a journalist, she has covered homelessness issues for the San Francisco Chronicle MagazineSan Francisco Examiner, and USA Today.

In addition to her years of experience living in this neighborhood, Seligman did research for the novel by spending time in area hospital ERs and the court system watching how people experiencing homelessness are treated. She also befriended several young people who generously shared their stories and helped her understand the challenges of life on the street and how it is a full-time job just to take care of basic needs.

At the Edge of the Haight was the 2019 winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize established by author Barbara Kingsolver to bring manuscripts by promising new authors to print. Previous Bellwether winners include The Leavers by Lisa Ko, Heidi Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound.

Stories like these increase our ability to feel empathy and may compel readers to examine their own prejudices. In the character of Maddy, Seligman strove to make visible the lives of people we may walk or drive past every day, hoping readers would come to understand that “someone you see on the street often isn’t so different from your own child, or your sister.”

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) which brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County. At the Edge of the Haight is available in print, eBook, and eAudiobook. For details, go to Photo of the author by Penni Gladstone.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, November 3, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Damnation Spring

Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

Set in the redwood forests of Northern California near the Oregon border, Ash Davidson’s impressive debut novel, Damnation Spring, tells the story of a logging family and community clinging to a vanishing way of life.

Davidson sets her story during the late 1970s, when the National Park Service is expanding, taking redwood groves out of reach of the timber industry, and the Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Water Act are more vigorously addressing the use of chemicals in the environment.

Living in Klamath, CA in the coastal redwood forests just south of the Oregon border, Rich Gunderson is a fourth-generation logger who has worked for the Sanderson Timber Company for 38 years. Rich is fiercely dedicated to his wife Colleen, 20 years his junior, and their 5-year old son, Chub. In hopes of a better life for Chub, without telling Colleen, Rich cashes in the family savings and takes on significant debt to purchase an old-growth redwood grove that he hopes to harvest and make millions.

But as summer turns to fall, dark clouds shadow Rich’s plans and threaten the well-being of his family. Rich struggles to make the land loan payments when work at Sanderson is curtailed as environmentalists flock to the community to protest the cutting of the redwoods, and there are increasingly volatile clashes between the loggers and protesters. Yurok Tribe members decry the destruction of their sacred homeland and the impact of logging on Klamath River salmon.

Colleen experiences her eighth miscarriage, and as the de facto midwife for their small community, is aware there have been other miscarriages as well as birth defects and stillbirths. When she encounters an old flame now doing environmental research in the area, a seed is planted that the miscarriages in the community may be related to the herbicide defoliant sprayed aerially by the timber company to clear brush in cutting areas for ease of access.

Could the herbicide also have contaminated Damnation Spring, from which Rich and Colleen draw their drinking water? Might it be causing Chub’s frequent nosebleeds? Although Rich is outwardly opposed to the protesters, he can’t deny the possibility that the herbicide is poisoning his family and soon they are using a purified water dispenser so they can stop drinking the water from the creek.

Tensions rise, both in Rich and Colleen’s marriage and within the community, as the town is pulled apart with the knowledge that their way of life is threatened—there are no more of the giant trees left to log, and the industry that provides their livelihoods may also be poisoning them.

Davidson admirably resists allowing her story to become an oversimplified tale of loggers vs. environmentalists; there are heroes and villains, victims and victimizers on all sides. The people who log the woods also live and recreate there and she draws into sharp focus the complex ways the needs of the planet and the needs of the market actually play out in people’s lives.

Damnation Spring joins other novels like Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins in exploring and celebrating trees and forests and the impact humans have on them. It shares themes of family, forests and survival with the 2022 Whatcom Reads title, Greenwood by Michael Christie, both authors taking on the challenge of creating stories about “the hopeful, impossible task of growing toward the light.”

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) which brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County. Damnation Spring is available in print, audio CD, and eBook. For more info:

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, October 12, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Yellow Bird

Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and A Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch

The recent media frenzy over the murder of 22-year-old Gabby Petito is drawing some disheartening comparisons to the attention paid to the alarming number of missing indigenous women across the United States. In South Dakota alone, there are currently 30 women who are missing. On some reservations, Native American women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average.

Lissa Yellowbird-Chase, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota, knows all about the stats. A former meth addict turned sleuth, Yellowbird-Chase has been doggedly pursuing murderers and seeking justice ever since she was released from prison herself in 2009. Her specialty is cold cases, which she throws herself into, paying little heed to her health, safety, or what people think about her.

You may have heard about her on the radio program This American Life or on NBC’s Dateline. Author Sierra Crane Murdoch spent multiple years getting to know Yellowbird-Chase in all her complexity, and presents a thoroughly researched and sensitive account of Yellowbird-Chase’s early cases. The book, Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian County, was honored as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and can be appreciated by those who enjoy powerful, narrative nonfiction as well as true-crime enthusiasts.

Yellowbird-Chase is a fascinating force of nature. Throughout her life, she suffered multiple traumas, toxic relationships, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness. Her kids suffered too, especially in 2006 when Yellowbird-Chase began a 10-year sentence in state prison for intent to distribute methamphetamine. After serving nearly three years, she emerged, sober, wanting to reconnect with her children and provide a steady home. But a quiet life proved to be elusive.

When a 29-year old white contractor named Kristopher Clarke went missing from the Fort Berthold Reservation in 2012, Yellowbird-Chase felt compelled to investigate. Soon, she became obsessed, chasing down leads, interviewing possible witnesses, staying up until all hours piecing together clues. She forged an uncomfortable friendship with Clarke’s estranged mother, made enemies of the people she believes were involved in Clarke’s disappearance, and discovered a rotten core lurking beneath the surface of her small community.

Murdoch, a journalist, details the effect the Bakken oil boom has had on North Dakota and specifically on the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation—the tremendous influx of wealth, outside interests, and lawlessness that pervades Yellowbird-Crane’s reservation. Murdoch shows us the historic and ongoing tragedies of exploitation—of both natural resources and people. She also deftly captures the essence of Yellowbird-Chase, at times scattered and brusque, at others laser-focused, manipulative—even charming. Murdoch recognizes that her own white privilege is problematic in sharing Yellowbird-Chase’s story. Her bona fides: her long tenure reporting on the American West and specifically issues in Indian Country. Murdoch was a contributing editor for High Country News.

Yellowbird-Chase does not approach cases in a linear fashion, and neither does Murdoch in telling her story. Those wishing for a straightforward narrative of Clarke’s murder and the subsequent path to justice may be disappointed. But others willing to dig in to the book will come to appreciate the complexity and sadness of the work to be done, and the strength and unique dedication that Yellowbird-Chase brings to this terrible endeavor.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at All branches of WCLS are open to the public.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, October 6, 2021.)

Book Buzz: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

It’s not surprising that Deesha Philyaw’s story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was a National Book Award finalist. Her writing is confident, moving, insightful and real. Each of the nine stories is deliberately and finely crafted.

Philyaw (pictured) begins with an epigraph by southern poet Ansel Elkins titled “Autobiography of Eve:” “Let it be known: I did not fall from grace. I leapt to freedom.” The characters in Philyaw’s stories belong to one of four generations of women. Each in their own way is on a precipice, choosing between the bonds of their deeply held faith and family and their personal desires and needs. These women are black, and beautiful; fierce, flawed and unforgettable.

The collection begins with a story about Eula and Caroletta, childhood friends and longtime lovers whose annual New Year’s Eve rendezvous is marred on Y2K because Eula still clings to the hope of creating a “normal” family with a husband and children.

In “Not-Daniel,” two adult children of hospice patients find solace and sexual release in the hospital parking lot. “Snowfall” looks at two southern transplants, Rhonda and Leelee, suffering through their first northern winter. Rhonda is comfortable with their move, insisting that for her, Leelee signifies home. But Leelee is more than nostalgic for Easter dresses and blue crab suppers with grandmothers and aunties—she’s keenly aware of the loss of all those things when she chose love and authenticity over tradition and family.

Sometimes short stories can be unsatisfying—not long enough to fully develop characters, or abrupt in their endings. Philyaw has a deft touch at integrating telling details, such as this one where Olivia reflects on the peach cobblers her mother made for Pastor Neely and forbade her daughter to eat: “Even though I no longer ate the peach cobblers out of the garbage can at night, my hunger remained. I still watched my mother make them because I didn’t want to forget how she did it.”

The complicated relationships between mothers and daughters is a repeated theme, as is infidelity. “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” gets right to the point: “You, the infantilized husbands of accomplished godly women, are especially low-hanging fruit.” The narrator makes it plain: we will not exchange phone numbers. Bring original copies of your STI test results. “When you’re here, don’t dawdle. I hate small talk. Leave your nerves outside my door. Do or don’t do; there is no try.” Philyaw hits every note with precision and clarity.

By contrast, “How to Make Love to a Physicist” is a tender take on new love. Forty-something Lyra is an art teacher convinced she will never find a man. When she meets Eric at an out-of-town conference, the connection is immediate, but her conservative upbringing compels her to be cautious despite her age. If she’s still not comfortable with her own body, how is she going to share it with her love? When her therapist asks, “What are you afraid of?” Her answer says it all: “Everything.” Yet Lyra, like all of Philyaw’s characters, is ready to face her fears and enjoy a more hopeful future.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at All branches of WCLS are open to the public.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, September 22, 2021.)

Book Buzz: The Anthropocene Reviewed

The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-centered Planet by John Green

What do Canada Geese, Diet Dr. Pepper, and the song “Auld Lang Syne” have in common?

In the mind of author John Green, these disparate topics become pitch-perfect prompts for essays exploring life in the Anthropocene, the current geologic age defined by human activity’s dominant influence on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

Green is well-known for his young adult fiction; the critically acclaimed The Fault in Our Stars (2012) was made into a popular film and Turtles All the Way Down (2017), a novel about an American high school student who shares Green’s OCD and anxiety mental illness, became an instant bestseller. Green and his brother, Hank, also produce video blogs, podcasts and YouTube content.

When asked why he decided to change gears and write The Anthropocene Reviewed, essays published for an adult audience, Green describes how fiction may tell the author’s life story, but all in code. Readers had begun to imagine that they’d cracked Green’s code, confusing Green with his fictional Turtles All the Way Down protagonist, which made him realize he had tired of writing in code and wanted to share his life as it is.

Green was also struggling, as so many of us were, and are, with all the uncertainty of living through a pandemic, and found himself needing to focus on how “hope is the right response to consciousness.” These essays explore directly and earnestly how his life touches and is touched by big historical forces like the pandemic.

The result is a book that is serious and emotional and funny in just the right places—a perfect balm for world-weariness and, with each essay able to be read as a stand-alone and most less than five pages long, a great reading choice for busy, distracted people.

When Green writes about Scratch ‘N’ Sniff stickers, for example, he doesn’t just revisit the imperfect simulacrums of the pizza, mown grass, and cotton candy scratch ‘n’ stiff scents from his childhood collection. He also tells about how the stickers provided him comfort from the terrible bullying he endured in school, and explains the micro-encapsulation process that traps scent in a tiny drop of liquid that is released when broken; the same technology that provides Green adult comfort in the form of the timed-release medications that control his mental illness.

Each essay ends with Green giving the subject a rating based on the five-star rating model, so the World’s Largest Ball of Paint (yes, it is really a thing) gets four stars and teddy bears only get two-and-a-half stars (you’ll have to read the essay to find out why). Part of Green’s intention with these ratings, as well as pointing out the absurdity of our obsession with them, is to use them to help him “pay attention to what I pay attention to” and to invite readers to do the same.

A core contradiction at the heart of understanding the Anthropocene age is, as Green puts it, “we are at once far too powerful and not powerful enough.” We’ve radically reshaped the biodiversity of our planet, but aren’t powerful enough to choose how this reshaping is happening. We’ve escaped Earth’s atmosphere into space, but can’t escape suffering.

Green suggests that the antidote to the despair and suffering of living in a wounded world, largely of human making, can be found in our connections, in our capacity for wonder, and in falling in love with the world even while knowing how loving ends, and for this, I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four-and-a-half stars.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System (WCLS), which brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, September 8, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Hippie Food

Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by Jonathan Kauffman

There is no shortage of “hippie food” in Bellingham. Between the Wednesday and Saturday Farmers Markets, the Community Food Co-op, CSA Farm Boxes, meat shares, Whole Foods, and community gardens—we’re up to our ears in whole grains, organic produce, kombucha, lentils and tempeh. Practically every restaurant has a vegan option; Sage Against the Machine is a 100 percent vegan food truck.

Perhaps more remarkable is the ubiquitous availability of grocery products that were once hard to find. Now Costco, Fred Meyer, and Haggen all offer organic fruits and veggies, free-range antibiotic-free poultry, locally milled wheat, and several brands of plant-based burger “meat.” Ingredients once considered exotic are plentiful, even common—such as açai, alfalfa sprouts, quinoa, bulgur, miso paste.

Readers of a certain age may remember when salsa was a strange and exciting taste sensation, or when cooking a stir fry—with soy sauce!—was considered creative and cultural. Granola was another oddity, as was yogurt. In Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat, author Jonathan Kauffman takes us back, and chronicles the rise of what he calls “hippie food” in a culinary and cultural history of the United States.

Taking a journalistic approach, Kauffman portions out his story into three eras. He calls the first era before 1968 “pre-history.” The second era, from 1968 to 1974, he calls the “revolutionary era” because of the great political changes afoot, with food as fuel for the fire. The third and current era is one characterized by an emphasis on lifestyle changes for a broader audience—healthy eating for the masses. He looks at the origins of “hippie food” in the health food, macrobiotics and whole foods movements, traces the industrialization of food, and explores the counterculture’s creation of a new cuisine that they then introduced to the mainstream.

Along the way, Kauffman introduces us to a full menu of colorful characters, from the proprietors of the Aware Inn on the Sunset Strip—one of the first restaurants in the U.S. to use the word “organic” on its menu—to “dietary evangelists” Paul Bragg and Gayelord Hauser, who preached bran breads and salads as the pathway to movie stardom.

There’s Gypsy Boots, who opened the Back to Nature Health Hut, Arnold Ehret, proponent of the mucusless diet, and Adelle Davis, a biochemist whose book Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit earned her the moniker the “high priestess of nutrition” by Time magazine.

Kauffman does a deep dive into whole wheat breads, tofu (soy products being a super-efficient and sustainable way to feed the masses), vegetarianism, the rise of food co-ops, and more. He maintains a quick pace and sprinkles in lots of details to keep things interesting.

If you own a dog-eared and drip-splattered copy of The Moosewood Cookbook, you’ll savor Kauffman’s fascinating stories about the people who transformed the way Americans eat. You may also enjoy digging into the source materials that inspired the movement—WCLS owns copies of A Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé, as well as the Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Brown and The Good Life by Helen Nearing. Or call and request Zen Macrobiotics via Interlibrary Loan.

The only downside to all this reading—a hearty appetite. Just make a quick trip to the Co-op so you can nibble as you turn the pages.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at All branches of WCLS are open to the public.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, August 11, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Great Circle

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

Author Maggie Shipstead was not on my radar until picking up her latest novel, Great Circle, and now I’m wondering how I missed her previous novels. An epic, swashbuckling novel that spans a century, described by The Telegraph as “a masterclass in historical fiction,” Great Circle’s two engaging heroines are daring and adventurous women, determined to chart the course of their own lives, no matter the cost.

At the heart of the story is Marian Graves, saved as an infant from a sinking ship to be raised by a well-meaning but inattentive artist uncle in 1914 rural Montana. When Marian is swooped over by a barnstormer pilot “at an age when the future adult rattles the child’s bones like the bars of a cage,” the event deeply impresses her and instills an unshakeable ambition to be a pilot.

Such dreams are not easily grasped for young women of that era, however, and the path to flight for Marian involves an ill-fated, complicated and sometimes abusive relationship with a wealthy bootlegger who pays for her flight lessons and buys her a plane in exchange for marriage and contraband delivery flights over the Canadian border.

It is a relief when Marian escapes this marriage and, with a new name and identity, disappears into the wilds of Alaska, finding work as a bush pilot. When the United States joins the Great War, Marian signs up for an all-women pilot corps that takes her overseas where she finds a tender, tentative love with one of the other women pilots, although wartime demands ultimately separate them.

Circumnavigating the globe longitudinally by flying over both poles holds a great allure for Marian, and after the war she embarks on her own attempt at this feat. While heading north towards New Zealand, Marian, her plane, and her navigator, Eddie Bloom (in one of many interwoven threads, Eddie is the gay husband of Marian’s wartime lover, Ruth) vanish near the Ross Ice Shelf. Years after her disappearance, a journal that appears to be Marian’s is found floating in a life preserver in the Arctic Ocean.

This journal becomes the basis for a film about Marian’s life in a parallel storyline set in 2015 Hollywood. Hadley Baxter is a scandal-plagued movie star of a Twilight-esque series of fantasy films, and the opportunity to play Marian is a path to get her faltering career back on track. Hadley feels a strange affinity with Marian, but trying to piece Marian together from the scraps left behind proves a formidable task, begging the question of how much we can actually understand the inner life of historical figures.

Shipstead is also a travel writer, specializing in desolate landscapes and polar regions, and during the seven years of writing Great Circle she made five trips to the Arctic and two trips to Antarctica. Her research amassed an eclectic book collection including books on ships and planes, the history of flight, historic Montana, Sing Sing prison, and Canadian landscape painters.

One of the most interesting themes in Great Circle is Shipstead exploring her fascination with the idea of disappearance. The many ways that various characters find to disappear—into the landscape, into themselves, into sex or love or alcohol—makes for interesting discussion.

Although reading Great Circle is a hefty undertaking—the print edition is 608 pages—this remarkable novel is a perfect candidate for an immersive end-of-summer read that will have you lingering over every page, wishing it didn’t have to end.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) which brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County. Great Circle is available in print, eBook, and eAudiobook; as the WCLS eRead of the Month, with a WCLS library card, there is no waiting during the month of August for the eBook and eAudiobook. Info:

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, August 4, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Under the Wave at Waimea

Under the Wave at Waimea by Paul Theroux

Known primarily as a travel writer, Paul Theroux’s latest novel definitely incorporates his skill for deeply observing and writing about different locales. Reading Under the Wave at Waimea felt, at times, as if I’d been transported to Hawaii, complete with the sound of the surf and warm sand beaches, making this a perfect summer read.

Theroux has lived on the North Shore of Oahu near Waimea Bay for decades and, while not a surfer, his familiarity with surfing and surfer culture results in an immensely compelling character in aging surfer Joe Sharkey.

Sharkey, a barely literate high school dropout living off sponsorships and an inheritance from his mother, lives to surf. A brief stint as a lifeguard is the only job he ever held. His status as a surf celebrity gained him access to the best parties, as well as invitations to surf big waves in every corner of the planet. Now in his 60s, Sharkey still surfs, but sponsors are looking elsewhere and he is “just another leathery geezer in flip-flops” to new up-and-coming surfers.

Heading home one night after one too many drinks and too much pakalolo smoke, insisting to his girlfriend, Olive, that he can drive, Sharkey hits and kills a homeless man on a bicycle on a dark, rain-drenched section of road. Because of his surf celebrity status, the police look the other way regarding Sharkey being intoxicated and the homeless man who was killed remains an unnamed body in the morgue.

Sharkey tries to downplay the accident and his culpability (“I hit a drunk homeless guy”), but Olive is deeply troubled and presses Sharkey to come to terms (“You killed a man”). Things begin to go wrong for Sharkey after the accident and he slowly unravels, the first third of the book ending with Sharkey’s near-drowning while surfing in Waimea.

The middle chapters delve into Sharkey’s childhood—his domineering but often absent Special Forces military father, emotionally needy mother, and the teasing and bullying he endured as a haole outsider growing up as one of few whites at his school. Discovering that he was fearless in the water and skilled on a board meant status with the locals, girlfriends, access to pakalolo, and never-before-experienced freedom and confidence.

Theroux is known for including real-life characters in his books, sometimes to the point of creating controversy. In Under the Wave at Waimea, Sharkey is befriended by larger-than-life American journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson, known for his debauchery, who in real life visited Hawaii every year and loved to watch surfing. Theroux knew Thompson and said that he basically gave Sharkey his experiences with Hunter, giving this fictional friendship an incredibly authentic feel.

The final section of the book takes us back to the present and Olive’s insistence that they discover the identity of the man Sharkey killed, an investigation that uncovers surprising secrets, taking them as far as Arkansas on the mainland, as well as to places in Oahu that many people who live there avoid. Through the process of accepting responsibility for the death of the man, Sharkey reconnects with his vitality and can once again take refuge in the waves that sustain him.

Yes, Under the Wave at Waimea is about surfing, and anyone interested in surfing will love this book, but the appeal goes far beyond that. At its core, this is a novel about privilege, relationships, mortality and learning to ride and survive the “big waves” that occur in all of our lives.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System, which brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, July 21, 2021.)

Book Buzz: The Exiles

The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

Scorching summer days call for some escape reading—engrossing books that transport you to another time and place so you can ignore the heat at home. Christina Baker Kline’s latest novel, The Exiles, does just that, sailing from 1840s London to Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in what is now known as Tasmania.

Readers of a certain age may recognize the name from a U2 song about the leader of an 1848 Irish uprising. However, they may not know that British women as well as men were exiled “down under,” many for petty crimes. Approximately 12,500 women were sent to New South Wales, Australia, and an equal number landed in Van Diemen’s Land. Some went directly to prison, while others were assigned as workers in local households.

Kline (pictured) surmises that the fledgling colonies had great need for cheap labor—and the many men already “transported” to Australia to serve seven or 14-year sentences had great need for women. Approximately 20 percent of today’s Australian population are descended from people transported as convicts. While life for the convicts was often brutal and extremely challenging, some did survive and manage to build new lives for themselves upon release.

The Exiles centers around several young women who have each been torn from their homes under terrible circumstances. Evangeline, a vicar’s daughter, is working as a governess when she’s accused of stealing a ruby ring and lands in the fearsome Newgate Prison. Hazel, a skilled midwife, has more street smarts than Evangeline but is nevertheless charged with theft of a silver spoon. Olive, saucy and unrepentant, is convicted for prostitution. They meet aboard the converted slave ship Medea and bond over the course of a miserable, four-months-long passage from London to Hobart Town.

Before long, Hazel is assigned to work as a maid for Governor Franklin’s household. There, she meets Mathinna, an aboriginal orphan girl who has been taken on as curiosity by the governor’s wife. Conversant in English and French, tutored in mathematics and ballroom dancing, Mathinna is bright and desperately lonely. Hazel recognizes Mathinna’s precarious position and shows her some of the only kindnesses of her young life.

Kline keeps the plot humming along—the women’s travails in prison, Mathinna’s Pygmalion transformation, a sinister deckhand from the Medea who resurfaces, bent on revenge. Kline sprinkles in the sights and scents of Tasmania and rich details about the practice of medicine and midwifery during that time period. Though rich and entertaining, this book can be devoured in a few short sessions.

Kline excels at historical fiction. Her novel Orphan Train shed light on the resettlement of more than 200,000 orphaned children to the American West between 1850 and 1930. A Piece of the World is a novel about the painter Andrew Wyeth and the subject of one of his most iconic paintings, “Christina’s World.”

Each of Kline’s books features strong female characters grappling with their identities and their roles in society. She includes enough historic detail to be vivid and descriptive without bogging down the plot. Importantly, while her characters are relatable to modern readers, they’re not anachronistic. It’s easy to believe they are of their time and it’s compelling to root for them. Better yet, while we’re reading about them we enter their world and forget all about the temperature here at home.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at All branches of WCLS are open to the public.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, July 14, 2021.)

Book Buzz: The Glass Hotel

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Sometimes a novel comes along that is atmospheric and beautiful and so enigmatic it begs discussion. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel is that book: frustrating, elusive, open to interpretation. What does it all mean? Readers who enjoy literary analysis will turn the last pages and immediately want to connect with others to puzzle it out.

The Glass Hotel begins with shards of poetry, labyrinthine flashbacks to Paul and his half-sister Vincent’s teen years, and then, the Hotel Caiette—a five-star showcase of old-growth cedar and floor-to-ceiling windows on a speck of land off the northern coast of Vancouver Island owned by billionaire investor Jonathan Alkaitis.

It takes some time for the pieces to come into focus. Vincent, once a headstrong wild-child, is now tending bar at the exclusive resort on the island she couldn’t wait to escape. She’s convinced Paul, long in and out of rehab, to join her as the hotel’s night houseman. One evening, someone etches “Why don’t you swallow broken glass” in acid on one of the picture windows. It’s disturbing and curious, an ominous threat.

The plot quickly advances. Alkaitis charms Vincent, who moves to New York with him to a life of opulence and leisure. But it’s not long before this world shatters. Alkaitis’ multibillion dollar empire is nothing more than an elaborate Ponzi scheme, and even before he is sentenced to 170 years in federal prison, Vincent disappears. Eventually, she becomes a cook on a transoceanic container ship, filming videos of the roiling seas and traveling from port to port. We flash forward to Paul, now a successful composer and functioning heroin addict. Then back to Vincent—adrift, but seemingly content.

Alkaitis is clearly based on Bernie Madoff (who, you may have heard, died in prison this April). The peek into his brain and those of the people around him is fascinating. There are the gullible and greedy investors, the scheming conspirators, the clear-eyed analysts whose warnings to the SEC go unheeded. There might be a glass houses metaphor somewhere embedded in this novel, although no one is actually throwing stones—most are content to stay in the glass hotel, pampered and privileged, looking at the wilderness but not in the wilderness, as long as the riches keep flowing.

Canadian author Mandel first rose to prominence when her novel Station Eleven was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2014. Despite being speculative science fiction, that book, about a devastating pandemic that wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population, is a little too real given our current coronavirus situation.

The Glass Hotel, by contrast, is set in a more familiar modern milieu, yet comes across as otherworldly and distant. What the two books have in common is their tone: quiet, dark, haunting. There is a sadness and loneliness throughout The Glass Hotel. This could be too much for some readers at this time; others looking for a puzzle to ponder will enjoy the challenge.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at All branches of WCLS are open to the public. Whatcom County Library System is a separate entity from Bellingham Public Library, although the two systems often partner. Photo of Emily St. John Mandel by Sarah Shatz.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 30, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Crying in H Mart

Crying in H Mart: A Memoir by Michelle Zauner

Michelle Zauner, the indie rock sensation who records as Japanese Breakfast, was only 25 years old when she lost her mother to cancer. Her mother, Chongmi, was 56 when she died. “It was the year her life ended and mine fell apart,” Zauner states.

In the aftermath of the loss, Zauner published a New Yorker essay entitled “Crying in H Mart” that went viral; this 2018 essay forms the basis for the first chapter of her new memoir by the same name. In it, Zauner explores her complex relationship with her mother, growing up biracial and Korean American, and how food is an integral part of remembering her mother’s life.

H Mart is an Asian grocery store where Zauner frequently shopped with her mother. The “H” stands for han ah reum, a Korean phrase that roughly translates to “one arm full of groceries.” After her mother’s death, Zauner returns to H Mart for traditional ingredients, but struggles to read labels as she doesn’t speak or read Korean fluently. She finds herself wondering, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?”

Growing up in a largely white, semi-rural area around Eugene, Oregon, Zauner—whose mother is Korean and whose father is Jewish-American—endured racist comments at school and not feeling Korean enough at home. Chongmi had high expectations of her only child, and Zauner’s adolescence was characterized by rebellion against these expectations. College on the East coast presented the opportunity to leave these expectations behind. As a student at Bryn Mawr College, she began fronting for indie pop bands and establishing a career as a musician.

With her mother’s cancer diagnosis, however, Zauner leaves this life behind to return to Eugene and help care for her mother through the first chemotherapy treatments, struggling with feeling inadequate because she is unable to prepare the foods that would sustain Chongmi—jjigaetteokbokki, and other Korean delicacies.

As Chongmi grows weaker, Zauner and boyfriend and fellow musician Peter Bradley become engaged with the dream that Chongmi could attend her only daughter’s wedding, which takes place two weeks before Chongmi’s death.

After her mother dies, Zauner seeks solace by spending hours in the kitchen cooking complex meals. She becomes a regular devotee of a YouTube Korean-American cooking channel and learns to recreate traditional dishes. For their honeymoon, Zauner and Bradley travel to Seoul, staying with her mother’s family and visiting the places her mother longed to return to one last time.

Crying in H Mart is an unflinching, powerful memoir about love and grief, written by a talented young writer and musician. The songs on Zauner’s first CD, Psychopomp, were written during her mother’s illness, and the second CD, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, was created through the lens of grief. Her new CD, Jubilee, was released on June 4. Zauner says it is “a record about fighting to feel” and “recalling the optimism of youth and applying it to adulthood.”

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System which brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County. Visit to place holds on library materials and learn about curbside holds pick up, in-person and other library services.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 16, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s

Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s by Tiffany Midge

Tiffany Midge may be the snarkiest, funniest writer to pass through Whatcom County in recent memory. Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s is a collection of satirical essays, observations and poems that look at the absurdity of contemporary culture, particularly as it pertains to Native Americans.

There’s something so thrilling about reading humor written by a really smart, opinionated and talented author—think David Sedaris or Lindy West—and Midge (pictured) provides a heady blend of laughs, political and social commentary, and poignant moments that cut right to the bone. Midge is a Hunkpapa Lakota enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux, and much of her work explores themes of identity and belonging.

If the book’s irreverent title is not enough of a hint, a quick scan of its table of contents gives a taste of what’s in store: “An Open Letter to White Girls Regarding Pumpkin Spice and Cultural Appropriation” and “Wonder Woman Hits Theaters, Smashes Patriarchy” and “Red Like Me: I Knew Rachel Dolezal Back When She Was Indigenous.” But mixed in with the puns and pop culture references are some pieces that make you go “oof,” like the opener: “My Origin Story is a Cross Between ‘Call Me Ishmael,’ a Few Too Many Whiskey Sours Packed in an Old Thermos at the Drive-In Double Feature, and That Little Voice That Says, ‘You Got This’.” Her reminiscences of her mother’s death also pull you up short with their honesty and humanity.

One of the tricky bits with satire is that its possible that readers won’t get it—which is what happened when Midge published an opinion piece in Indian Country Today titled “Thousands of Jingle Dress Dancers Appear at Standing Rock.” Despite abundant use of exclamation points, capital letters, hyperbole and outright ridiculousness—“Loretta Fast Elk commented, ‘the last time so many jingle dancers came together like this was…at that powwow we had in the gym two weeks ago’”—the story went viral and people from all over took it as fact. The joke’s on you, readers!

Midge ends the collection with some pieces that were written right after Donald Trump became President. For some, these may be old news, and for others they may be “funny, not funny” or even “too soon” to rehash. Midge reminds us that right after Trump was inaugurated, he selected a portrait of notorious “Indian killer” Andrew Jackson to hang in the Oval Office. The symbolism was not lost on her.

Though Midge now lives in Idaho, she taught writing at Northwest Indian College and several of her works have local references, such as Lake Padden and a secondhand clothing store near the Bellingham waterfront. Her writing has been published in McSweeney’sWaxwing, and LitHub, among others, as well as numerous anthologies.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at Hours and services may have changed due to the pandemic, go to or call (360) 305-3600 before you visit for the most up-to-date information. Whatcom County Library System is a separate entity from Bellingham Public Library, although the two systems often partner.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, May 19, 2021.)

Book Buzz: The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee

As the former president of the progressive think tank, Demos, Heather McGhee spent 20 years looking for solutions to economic inequality and other big social problems before realizing she was hitting the same wall. That wall came to be defined by the question, “In America, why can’t we just have nice things?” such as reliable and modern infrastructure, universal healthcare, or well-funded, state-of-the-art schools—all social components that seem like they would be no-brainers in the wealthiest nation in the world.

Her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, grew from this question and the realization that lasting change was more likely to come from shifts in public opinion rather than policy alone, embarking McGhee (pictured) on a personal journey into the hearts of Americans to reveal the falsehoods of the zero-sum game that has limited our collective vision of what we can be to one defined by scarcity.

So where does this perception of scarcity come from? One of the early points made by McGhee is that white Americans began to tend more conservative on political issues after being told that they would likely lose majority status in the near future. She found that white Americans are likely to perceive racial interests as a zero-sum game—if something benefits people of color, it must mean that it will take away from white people.  The Sum of Us sets out to demonstrate the ways that racism hurts all of us.

Using a mixture of in-person interviews, history, economics and scholarly studies, McGhee paints a story of racism’s costs. The conversations she has with ordinary Americans on her cross-country journey from Maine to Mississippi to California illuminate the studies she cites, as white people share stories of economic hardship, thwarted dreams, and vulnerability caused by lack of adequate health care coverage.

She also heard from these white people that many of them believed in the zero-sum game. In Mississippi, McGhee meets Joey, a white factory worker whose white coworkers voted “no” to joining a union that would have given them better wages and working conditions, essentially because “If the Blacks are for it, I’m against it.”

Bridget, a white woman in Kansas City who had spent her whole life trying to make ends meet working in the fast food industry, realized the falsehood of the zero-sum game when, at an organizing meeting to raise the minimum wage, she saw herself in a Latina woman describing the exact same life struggles. Bridget realized that “as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered.”

The key to a better world for all of us, McGhee argues, is the Solidarity Dividend; letting go of our zero-sum game mentality to make gains that will help all Americans—higher wages, cleaner air, better-funded schools. McGhee’s clear and convincing vision is ultimately hopeful as she shows us how we can cash in on the Solidarity Dividend by coming together across race to make life in America better for all of us.

Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, says of The Sum of Us, “This is the book I’ve been waiting for.” Perhaps it is also the book we all should have been waiting for, the catalyst that will show white Americans the path to making diversity our superpower and to fully activating the promise of “We the People.”

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System, which brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County. Visit to place holds on library materials and learn about curbside holds pick up, in-person and other library services.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, May 7, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Interior Chinatown

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Charles Yu’s book Interior Chinatown is a swift kick to the gut—an unexpected, powerful jab at stereotypes and anti-Asian racism that manages to be hilarious as well as heartbreaking.

Told entirely in screenplay format, it stars Willis Wu as GENERIC ASIAN MAN, a bit player in his own life. Willis is an aspiring actor going through the motions, trapped in endless roles like DELIVERY GUY and STRIVING IMMIGRANT. Sometimes he’s GUY WHO RUNS IN AND GETS KICKED IN THE FACE. But what he wants—what he thinks he wants, anyway—is to be KUNG FU GUY, the highest achievement he can imagine.

Willis lives in an SRO (single-room occupancy) apartment above the Golden Palace Restaurant. The SRO is home to multiple generations of immigrants from a variety of East Asian countries, scraping by, waiting in long lines for the bathroom, fighting off hunger and boredom and loneliness. Only OLDER BROTHER seems to have found his way out—he’s the prodigy, the mythical success story, the one with good hair and top-notch martial arts skills, and he’s a National Merit Scholar. Willis wouldn’t even try to measure up, were it not for his mother’s insistence that Willis “be more.”

At times, it’s challenging to tell if Willis is actually an extra in a cheesy cop show called Black and White (because one cop is black, and, get this, the other one is white) or if the show is something he’s imagining. Maybe it’s a metaphor for something else. Yu keeps you guessing, and wincing, such as when Willis is forced to fake a Chinese accent because no one believes he can speak perfect English.

There are lighter moments—like when Willis gets notice that he can’t take another role on the show for 45 days after his character has been killed. After that, people won’t remember where they’ve seen him before. And that’s the crux of the issue: that some people believe “all Asians look alike.” Willis, like so many others, feels invisible—is invisible. Even in his interior monologue he feels inferior.

Yu traces the journey of Willis’s Taiwanese immigrant parents, their hopes and dreams and their sad transition from YOUNG BEAUTIFUL LOTUS FLOWER to DRAGON LADY and from SIFU THE MYSTERIOUS KUNG FU MASTER to WIZENED CHINAMAN.

Willis brings his dad the prescriptions he can’t afford and cringes over the accumulated mess of hoarded soy sauce packets and crusty Kleenex. If this is what happens to a once strong and fearless warrior, what’s ahead for Willis?

Interior Chinatown won the National Book Award in 2020 and is certainly worthy of the acclaim. With the recent dramatic uptick in anti-Asian discrimination and violence across the country, it would be great if more people read this book to learn about and perhaps gain some empathy for the Asian immigrant experience. Readers will also be exposed to a vibrant, creative voice in modern American literature.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at Hours and services may have changed due to the pandemic, go to or call (360) 305-3600 before you visit for the most up-to-date information. Whatcom County Library System is a separate entity from Bellingham Public Library, although the two systems often partner.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, April 21, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Oscars 2021 Read-alikes

The results of a Google keyword search for “watch Academy Award movies” are full of invitations to stream and watch online using various paid-subscription platforms. In past years, the Oscars—a celebration of stories that are considered exceptional, at least by the 8,469 eligible Oscar voters—were accessible to anyone who could afford the price of a movie ticket. Experiencing the Oscar-nominated films this year requires paid subscriptions to several streaming platforms, as well as sufficient data or internet connection to stream the films.

If you are missing your usual Oscar immersion, here are some read-alike suggestions for stories that share the same themes as some of this year’s Best Picture nominees.

Let’s start with Nomadland, nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Based on a book with the same name by Jessica BruderNomadland is a story of a new tribe of houseless temporary workers formed by economic hardship—“vanilies,” as they like to call their family-of-circumstance groups—finding community in campgrounds and at the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Nomadland is the one Best Picture nominee based on a book, which is available in print, large print, audio CD, eBook and eAudiobook formats.

Sound of Metal stars Riz Ahmad as a heavy-metal drummer whose life threatens to self-destruct when he suddenly loses his hearing. The most remarkable thing about the film is how effectively it brings hearing people into the experience of those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Suggested read-alikes for this film are Life After Deaf: My Misadventures in Hearing Loss and Recovery by Noel Holston, who, like the main character in Sound of Metal, also experienced sudden and full hearing loss and had cochlear implant surgery. Also try Sound: A Memoir of Hearing Lost and Found by British novelist Bella Bathurst, her account of losing and regaining her hearing over a period of 12 years.

Following a Korean-American family who move from California to an Arkansas farm, seeking to fulfill their own American Dream, Minari is a tender family drama with hope at its center. The novel Shelter, by Jung Yun, shares story elements with Minari—the son of Korean immigrants who wants to provide a better life for his family, the importance of the church in their family life, anger and violence ultimately leading to hope. For reading that focuses more on the aspect of starting over in rural America, try The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America by Mark Sundeen, which follows three families seeking a better existence through off-the-grid, back-to-the-land lifestyles.

Finally, Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical drama about FBI informant William O’Neal’s infiltration of the Black Panther Party and his betrayal of Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton. Although not specifically about Hampton’s life, the recently published graphic novel The Black Panther Party by David Walker provides a comprehensive, accessible history of both this group’s revolutionary activity and its dedication to community service.

Prior to the 2021 Academy Awards which air starting at 5pm Sun., April 25, if you are able to join an online event, consider registering for the Whatcom County Library System program “Academy Awards 2021” at 7pm Thurs., April 22, where film historian Lance Rhoades shares highlights and controversies from previous ceremonies, discusses the current nominees, and even offers his own Oscars predictions.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System, which brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County. Visit to place holds on library materials and learn about curbside holds pick up, in-person and other library services.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, April 14, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Dear Edward

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

On the surface, the storyline of Dear Edward is simple: a flight from Newark to LAX crashes, killing all passengers save a 12-year-old boy who loses his entire family in the crash. (Note to self: this is definitely not a book to read on your next vacation that requires plane travel.)

But author Ann Napolitano (pictured) is adamant that this is not so much a story about a plane crash, as it is a story about how to make a meaningful life in the face of devastating loss. Author J. Courtney Sullivan describes it as a novel “will break your heart and put it back together again”.

Eddie Adler wakes up in a Denver hospital after the crash with no memory of what happened and stunned mute by the news that his mother, father and older brother, Jordan, have perished. After being discharged from the hospital, he goes to live with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey, whose home becomes a place of their intersecting griefs; Lacey and John, childless, recently suffered a miscarriage.

Chapters alternate between Edward’s life in the aftermath of the crash and the ordinary events that took place on the fatal flight prior to the crash. We come to know the aging business tycoon with incurable cancer; the capable and alluring first-class flight attendant; a veteran soldier returning from Afghanistan; an arrogant Wall Street trader; a free-spirited woman leaving a troubled marriage behind, and her seat partner who is coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy.

Although it is clear from the beginning that none of these people survive, they become more and more real as the novel progresses. The flight storyline is given equal weight with Edward’s survival story, emphasizing that the loss of all these people, not just Edward’s family, is a weight he has to carry for the rest of his life.

The idea for the novel came from Napolitano’s obsession with the 2010 flight from South Africa to London that crashed in Libya, killing all passengers except a 9-year-old boy who was found a half-mile from the crash site still buckled into his seat. Social media use was just cresting at the time, and Napolitano modeled Edward’s elevation to a “celebrity survivor” after this boy’s experience.

The deepest loss for Edward is that of his revered older brother. Napolitano based Edward’s relationship with Jordan on that of her own sons, who were ages 1 and 3 when she began writing Dear Edward, and who she describes as being “connected by a million invisible threads.” The question of how one of them would go on having lost the other was one of the central questions Napolitano explored in the character of Edward.

Dear Edward is full of small kindnesses that help Edward get through the pain of daily life—the school principal who engages Edward to help him take care of his rare fern collection, neighbor Shay and her mother who accept Edward just as he is in all his brokenness, his aunt who watches General Hospital with him every afternoon, and his uncle who dedicates himself to collecting information about the crash and its victims, knowing that Edward will someday be interested, including bags of letters written to Edward by the loved ones of those lost in the crash.

Ultimately, this is a story about transcending horrific lost and creating a meaningful life in its aftermath. It would be not-at-all surprising to learn that film rights to this story have been sold. Read it now, and if you do, I hope you’ll be buoyed as I was by the persistence of hope and Edward’s tenacious journey to wholeness.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System, which brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County. Visit to place holds on library materials and learn about curbside holds pick up, in-person and other library services.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, March 24, 2021.)

Book Buzz: A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings and Honey and Venom

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes and Honey and Venom: Confessions of an Urban Beekeeper by Andrew Coté

While the first hints of spring arouse anticipation in gardeners about seedling starts and turning the soil, as a former beekeeper, springtime still turns my thoughts to bees and this year prompted me to read two delightful books on beekeeping back-to-back to start the year.

If you are thinking about beginning to keep bees, Helen Jukes’ A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings is a great introduction. Documenting her first year of keeping bees in Oxford, England, Jukes talks through practical questions and considerations, from choosing a location and deciding what style of hive best suits that location, to obtaining a colony, to honey production and harvest.

But more than just a primer on beekeeping, Jukes muses about what it means to “keep” wild creatures and whether bees can actually be considered domesticated. A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings is also buzzing with interesting factoids about bees and the history of beekeeping.

The “bee dance” where bees communicate information about a pollen or nectar source is one of the great mysteries of nature. Researchers believe that factors such as body angle and dance duration communicate direction and distance to the source, while the energy of the dance communicates the sweetness of the nectar or presence of obstacles in the path. Jukes notes that, amazingly, this ability is innate, as bees can both dance and interpret the movements even when raised in isolation.

As beekeepers go, while Jukes is quiet and meditative, Andrew Coté (pictured) is like rock ‘n roll with the volume turned up. Coté, a fourth-generation apiarist, is New York City’s premier beekeeper. His curriculum vitae includes Fulbright Scholar, college professor, founder of NYC Beekeeper’s Association, and Executive Director of the nonprofit Bees Without Borders. He also sells his honey in Union Square.

Coté’s recent book, Honey and Venom: Confessions of an Urban Beekeeper, is chock full of fascinating and outrageous stories about beekeeping in an urban environment. He has captured swarms on stoplights hanging over busy New York streets and from a high ledge at One Times Square—where the New Year’s Eve ball drop happens. He regularly assists NYPD in responding to complaints about poorly kept hives and other honeybee problems.

Google “untilled MOMA” to see Coté’s contribution to the Museum of Modern Art outdoor sculpture “Untilled,” where he was commissioned to figure out how to get bees to build their comb to make a living hive head on the sculpture.

But Coté is not just about beekeeping fun in the big city. For their organization Bees Without Borders, Coté and his father travel to faraway places such as rural Uganda, Haiti, Ecuador, and Iraq to teach beekeepers how to increase their honey yield and income.

Although the tone and setting of these two books are as different as can be, the authors agree completely on one thing—that bees, who pollinate 80 percent of our flowering crops (which constitutes about a third of what we eat), are integral to the human food ecosystem and that to ensure the survival of our species, we would do well to treat them like royalty.

As well as being a bee enthusiast—or “beek,” as Andrew Coté would say—Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System. Visit to find these titles and to learn how WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 10, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Who Gets In and Why

Who Gets In and Why: a Year Inside College Admissions by Jeffrey Selingo

First, a warning: If you are a high school senior or parent of a high school senior currently awaiting news of college acceptances, do not read Who Gets In and Why: a Year Inside College Admissions by Jeffrey Selingo. Parents of younger teens—this book is for you, although it is well-researched, fascinating and of interest to anyone who is curious about the sorry state of higher education admissions and how we got there.

Selingo begins his book with the acknowledgement that the high school Class of 2021 faces all the regular challenges of this stressful season, plus the unprecedented difficulties of completing their senior year during a pandemic. They’ve had online classes, SAT and ACT test cancellations, elimination of college tours, a dearth of extra-curricular activities and volunteer opportunities, abbreviated sports seasons and massive uncertainty about how all of this will affect their chances of getting in to the school of their dreams.

Add in extra financial strain on families brought on by pandemic-related layoffs and you have increased anxiety levels exponentially. But even in a “normal” year, it’s no picnic, and Selingo carefully examines how and why the system evolved over time into the horror show it is today.

A longtime journalist reporting on higher education, Selingo secured inside access into the admissions processes at the University of Washington, Davidson College, and Emory University. Though each has its own approach, Selingo shows that large public institutions, tiny liberal arts colleges and urban, private research schools all struggle to select an incoming class. In years past, all three would have been far less choosy than they are today, but larger pools of applicants, rising tuition costs, college rankings and an increased focus on marketing have made them more desirable to prospective students. With class sizes remaining stable, a higher number of applicants means a smaller percentage of acceptances, resulting in increased selectivity. The next crop of students translates low-acceptance rates into exclusivity and prestige, and a vicious cycle is perpetuated.

Selingo explores the ins and outs of early decision and how students can get an edge. Hint—it’s not by photoshopping your face into a crew team photo (that could land you in jail). Sports are also not a ticket to a coveted “free ride” (a tiny percentage of athletes are awarded scholarships each year) although they are most definitely a foot in the door, particularly at elite schools. Apparently tiny Amherst College has more athletes than the University of Alabama and coaches across the country need to fill teams. So spending a fortune on high school club sports may pay off after all, if attending a name-brand college is important.

Selingo repeatedly warns that chasing the same top schools is a fool’s errand, and advises that there are many excellent institutions across the country that are more “buyer” than “seller.” Parents would be smart to pay close attention to net price calculators and take a realistic look at their finances. For families with household incomes nearing $100,000, the chances of need-based scholarships are minimal. Merit scholarships, particularly at elite schools where every student has a 4.0 and dazzling test scores, are equally elusive.

This book is chock full of interesting details and helpful advice for prospective applicants. Selingo also offers his suggestions for completely overhauling the college admissions system—a tall order at odds with the $9 billion industry that profits from and perpetuates it. Readers will be left feeling infuriated at the current system, and grateful for their own college acceptances.

—Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at Hours and services may have changed due to the pandemic, go to or call (360) 305-3600 before you visit for the most up-to-date information. Whatcom County Library System is a separate entity from Bellingham Public Library, although the two systems often partner.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, March 3, 2021.)

Book Buzz: Let My People Go Surfing

Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard

Everywhere you look in Whatcom County, Patagonia clothing is ubiquitous. Maybe it’s because so many of us love to spend time being active in the outdoors. Maybe it’s because the clothes are high quality and last a long time. Maybe owning expensive gear is a status symbol. Or perhaps Patagonia’s long-held environmental values resonate with local consumers.

Whatever the case, the folks at Patagonia don’t care. In 2011, they even took out a full-page ad in the New York Times proclaiming, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” It detailed the environmental costs of buying a new Patagonia fleece and encouraged people to hold on to their old ones instead. This may seem like a strange message for an international retailer. But it’s entirely consistent with the worldview of Patagonia’s founder and owner, Yvon Chouinard (pictured), as explained in his memoir/business primer Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.

Chouinard’s book first came out in 2005, and was updated and re-released in 2016. This book has something for a wide variety of readers—tales of adventure in a bygone era, a who’s who of outdoor sports legends, Chouinard’s comprehensive philosophies on everything from product design, human resources, supply chains and branding, and finally, a case statement for running an environmentally responsible business.

There are fascinating pictures and call-outs from Chouinard’s colleagues—like his ice climbing buddy Tom Brokaw, who relates a story about a time when Chouinard refused to rope up with him while climbing Mt. Rainier. “No way,” Chouinard said. “If you go, then I go, and I don’t want to do that. This is like catching a taxi in New York. It’s every man for himself.”

Chouinard is truly an original. A French-Canadian whose family relocated to California when he was 8 years old, Chouinard didn’t get into rock climbing until high school, when he learned how to rappel down cliffs while seeking out falcon aeries with his falconry club. A summer road trip to Wyoming turned into an annual pilgrimage to the Tetons, spending three months every year climbing, fly fishing and camping with fellow “dirt-bags.” In the off-months, he’d head to Baja to surf.

In 1957, Chouinard had the idea to make his own climbing hardware, so he bought a forge and an anvil and set up shop. First came innovative pitons, followed by carabiners. As his designs increased in sophistication, he hired an engineer. Sales grew, and he added a bookkeeper. By 1970, Chouinard Equipment was the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the United States.

Later, he started selling sturdy rugby shirts that held up well on breezy peaks. Then he designed some climbing shorts, spinning off the clothing line that became Patagonia, designing a logo inspired by the Andes peaks of Mt. Fitzroy. Today, Patagonia clears more than $800 million a year and pledges one percent of its profits to grassroots environmental organizations.

As Chouinard himself attests, “It’s business that has to take the majority of the blame for being the enemy of nature.” While acknowledging that money won’t solve everything, Patagonia has donated more than $100 million to date, including $10 million in 2018 to offset tax cuts delivered to corporations by the Trump administration.

Chouinard has strong opinions about leadership and corporate responsibility. Those interested in entrepreneurship will find much to inspire them. His environmental message is equally compelling. While it would be easy to be cynical about Chouinard’s success (environmental activism is “good for business” with “belief-driven buyers”) on the whole he comes across as sincere, authentic and passionate about saving our home planet. His book is available from your libraries in print our audiobook formats.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at Hours and services may have changed due to the pandemic, go to or call (360) 305-3600 before you visit for the most up-to-date information. Whatcom County Library System is a separate entity from Bellingham Public Library, although the two systems often partner.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 24, 2021.)

Book Buzz: The Cold Millions

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

Among the many excellent fiction writers in Washington state putting out great work these days—Jonathan Evison and Jim Lynch among them—Jess Walter (pictured) stands out for his ability to take on a wide variety of genres and excel in each.

Citizen Vince has a mobster-noir feel; The Zero is political satire; Over Tumbled Graves is a thriller. Perhaps his best-known to date, Beautiful Ruins, is a nostalgic love story. With The Cold Millions, Walter proves himself adept at character-driven historical fiction, delivering a timely lesson about the labor movement in Washington state and chronicling a bygone era where hardworking men could aspire to a comfortable life for themselves and their families.

First-generation Irish brothers Rye and Gig Dolan are just getting by in Spokane, Washington in 1909. Sixteen-year-old Rye dreams of buying a plot of land from his kindly Italian landlord so he can one day build a home of his own. Rye’s handsome older brother Gig is more world-weary and cynical, distracted by his romance with showgirl Ursula the Great and by his affiliation with the local Industrial Workers of the World.

The Wobblies, fed up by unfair labor practices, corrupt employment agencies and industrialists, and a system set up to exploit workers, have planned a series of civil disobedience actions in Spokane. Infamous agitator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the “East Side Joan of Arc” is in town, and Gig aims to join the fight. Rye, more of a pacifist, nevertheless gets sucked in to support his older brother. After a bloody confrontation with police, nearly 400 protestors are beaten and jailed, Rye and Gig among them.

Because union lawyers are quick to negotiate Rye’s release, Rye is pressed into service as a poster child for police brutality and inhumane prison conditions. Gurley Flynn enlists him to stir up support among hardscrabble miners and loggers at camps across the West. Inspired by Gurley Flynn’s charisma and perhaps her pretty face, and intent on doing what he can to free his brother from jail, Rye goes along. What ensues is an adventure tale complete with spies, assassins, scheming capitalists and anarchists, along with a downtrodden collection of vagrants, burlesque dancers, hobos and tramps “living and scraping and fighting and dying… the cold millions with no chance in this world.”

Walter skillfully weaves in historical detail with imaginary characters in plausible situations. The tone and sweeping scope are reminiscent of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, while there are elements that make this feel more like a Western. It’s certainly very grounded in Spokane, which at the time was a boomtown at the “intersection of Frontier and Civilized.”

Walter’s compassion and warmth towards his characters is evident, particularly for Rye, who is after all, still a kid, doing his darnedest to help his brother and eventually live a good life despite the odds against him.

When Walter flashes forward to Rye reading Gurley Flynn’s obituary in 1964, we get a sense for how life has played out for Rye, and that history is cyclical. From the Spokane Free Speech Fight of 1909 to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s to today’s Black Lives Matter movement, what’s old is new again, and the fight continues.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at Hours and services may have changed due to the pandemic, go to or call (360) 305-3600 before you visit for the most up-to-date information. Whatcom County Library System is a separate entity from Bellingham Public Library, although the two systems often partner.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 27, 2021.)

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 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 Hours and services may have changed due to the pandemic, so go to 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 ( 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

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD by Bill Minutaglio

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.
Minutaglio and Davis provide an extensive bibliography and have clearly done their research. They excel at throwing in tantalizing pop culture details. Leary’s popularity with celebrities and his legions of fans makes for interesting escapades. Although this is not a comprehensive biography, but rather an in-depth look at this specific period of Leary’s life, it does give glimpses of this intriguing, contradictory, notorious figure.

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 for branch-specific service details.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, November 11, 2020.)

Book Buzz: Uncharted

Uncharted: A Couple’s Epic Empty-nest Adventure Sailing From One Life to Another by Kim Brown Seely

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 & LeisureNational 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 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 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 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 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 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 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

What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing: What Birds are Doing, and Why by David Allen Sibley

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 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 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 ( 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

The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus by Ryan McMahon Jacobs

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 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,

(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

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, April 8, 2020.)

Book Buzz: The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World

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 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

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, March 11, 2020.)

Book Buzz: Highway of Tears

Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls by Jessica McDiarmid

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

(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 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 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 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.

Cooking, reading, conversing—three of life’s greatest pleasures bundled up in the convenient package of a book. Give the gift of reading this year.

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

In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch by John Zada

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

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

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, November 20, 2019.)

Book Buzz: Climber’s Corner

Book Buzz: If you Liked My Old Man and the Mountain by Leif Whittaker

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

(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

(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

(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

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

(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

(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

(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

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

(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
1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-changing List by James Mustich
How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery

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.
Arranged alphabetically by author to facilitate serendipitous discovery, 1,000 Books invites the reader to open anywhere and fantasize about having endless time to read.

“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 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 SwansCrazy 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 TimesThis American LifeCosmopolitan, 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 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
(DVDs related to this year’s Whatcom READS selection, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist)

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.

If you didn’t attend the marches and demonstrations and can’t even imagine laid-back but law-abiding Seattleites jaywalking—much less disrupting a major economic summit—head straight to your public library to check out one of several videos specifically about that tumultuous week. Having recently binge-watched these four, I can attest that each has a unique angle and message, so you may want to watch more than one.

For a clear, levelheaded explanation of what the World Trade Organization is, why so many people are against it, and what both sides were hoping to accomplish in Seattle in 1999, start with Trade Off: One Town, One Week, One Movement. This film does the best job examining all of the issues, with interviews of activists, interest groups, public officials, protestors and passersby.

Vandava Shiva from the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology is particularly articulate about her perception of the terrible injustices inflicted on all people by multinational corporations.

This is What Democracy Looks Like is louder and presents a collage of video footage shot by dozens of activists with a rock ‘n’ roll feel to it. It includes supporting material by Noam Chomsky, interviews with musician Michael Franti of Spearhead, and a soundtrack by Rage Against the Machine.

For viewers who prefer a strong narrative arc (and perhaps a little eye candy) the fictional drama Battle in Seattle may do the trick. Channing Tatum and Woody Harrelson play Seattle cops suited up like black-clad stormtroopers. Charlize Theron is Harrelson’s pregnant wife, caught up in the violence. Ray Liotta plays the mayor and Michelle Rodriguez is a fierce, experienced demonstrator. While the plot line veers slightly into melodrama, this film gives the strongest impression of what it may have felt like to be in the middle of the protests that week—exhilarating, confusing and terrifying.

Finally, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle is one photojournalist’s take on the demonstrations. Rustin Thompson was a disillusioned television news cameraman who decided to document the week independently, and came away awed and affected by the deep expression of democracy.

There are certain elements that repeat in each video: peaceful protestors in turtle costumes dancing through the streets; activists rappelling down bridges and overpasses to unfurl banners; chants of “the whole world is watching” and a celebration of all the disparate groups who came together to protest—union members, farmworkers, environmentalists, Native Americans, and regular citizens among them.

You see a limited number of anarchists bent on smashing windows and their nonviolent counterparts attempting to stop them. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz makes several appearances lamenting the protests’ impact on holiday sales of coffee. Perhaps the most disturbing images are of dispassionate police officers in head-to-toe riot gear, ripping gas masks off people seated on the ground and spraying tear gas directly into their eyes.

While many of these scenes play out in Yapa’s excellent novel, seeing the real events will enhance your understanding and prepare you to participate fully in Whatcom READS events this month.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 28, 2018.

Book Buzz: The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom

The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe

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

The Water will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell

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.  

Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove centers around a cranky Swedish widower so lonely and lost without his wife that he’s intent on ending his life. When a boisterous young family moves in to the house next door, Ove finds unexpected friendship and purpose. Though the book starts slowly and takes awhile to build, it delivers a story that is heartwarming, but not saccharine. The movie has a similar effect, with the added bonus of subtitles and hearing how to pronounce Ove’s name. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. 

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 (  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

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson

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.
A common mantra for authors is “write what you know” and according to Evison’s website (“First of all, almost everybody calls me Johnny…”) he is a “failure at heart.” Johnny’s had every crappy job there is, just like Ben. He’s also been a professional caregiver, and indeed, this book is dedicated to Case Levenson, a man with Duchenne muscular dystrophy for whom Johnny worked for three years.

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, 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)