Too Shattered for Mending by Peter Brown Hoffmeister

Find in catalogI hesitated to read it. A coming of age story set in the grim poverty of rural Idaho, written from the first person by an abandoned, dyslexic teen who’s in trouble at home, in school, and with the law. I wasn’t sure I wanted to immerse myself in the bleak world of Little McCardell.

But the book got starred recommendations in both Publishers Weekly and the Kirkus Reviews, and Hoffmeister grew up in Eugene and teaches in the Outdoor Program at South Eugene High School. So I thought I’d at least give the book a glance.  I am so glad I did.

From the first page, I was seduced by the lyrical language, the imagery of nature, the very structure of the book, with its extremely short chapters and non-linear timeline. The story is more assembled than narrated, a crazy-quilt of smells and choices and half-understood memories.

There is mystery at the heart of it, not only at the surface with Little’s cautious search for his missing Grandfather, but also the mystery of how our lives twist and sometimes shatter with the unbearable weight of surviving. The title image, from a poem by Robinson Jeffers, describing a hawk with a broken wing, echoes through the book.

There is also hope at the heart of the book, despite the poverty, alcoholism, and drugs. In the different paths chosen by Little, his brother JT, and their friend Rowan, as they try to navigate a world not of their making, we experience both compassion and grace.   As we watch Little protect his young cousin Willa, we reflect on the way our own choices impact others.

Like all the best books, I hated to turn the last page.


How We Became Human, by Joy Harjo

Find in catalogThe National Endowment for the Arts has partnered with Arts Midwest to support over a decade of “Big Read” programs across the nation, in which an entire community reads and explores a single book, together.   Why?  Well, studies show that reading for pleasure reduces stress, heightens empathy, slows the onset of dementia, and makes us more active and aware citizens.   One such opportunity for discovery is poet Joy Harjo, visiting Eugene this weekend to keynote the fourth “Big Read” program with her “How We Became Human.”

The book is a collection of Harjo’s poetry written across a twenty-six year period, providing the reader insight into the evolution of not only a remarkable poetic voice, but also the development of a remarkable person. Her writing is deeply personal, rooted in her individual experience as a woman and Native American, and at the same time, universal in exploring human pain, compassion, and love.

Even if you’re not usually a poetry fan, Harjo’s work is surprisingly accessible. There’s a strong storytelling component and recurring natural imagery such as crows, horses, and the landscapes of the Southwest.  The poems beat with the pulse of myth and music.  “Don’t worry about what a poem means,” Harjo tells us.  “Do you ask what a song means before you listen? Just listen.”

Harjo will be reading her poetry at the UO this afternoon February 2nd and speaking at the Library at 3pm Saturday, February 3rd.

You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Following the death of his mother Lillian, from cancer in 2015, Sherman Alexie has written a raw, amazing, improbable, overwhelming, and difficult-to-read memoir: “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” It’s constructed in an unusual format, part prose, part poetry, and pieced together in 160 quilt-like segments – with lots of white space.  And many of the themes will be already familiar from Alexie’s National Book Award winning young-adult novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

In truth, his new work is such an unedited outpouring of raw grief and guilt that it’s almost an anti-book, at least in the usual sense. Rather than carefully honed prose and a clear narrative arc, we get the repetitive drum beat of unfiltered and anguished emotion, liberally tinged with narcissism.  It’s not so much literature as unprocessed emotion. Each reader is invited to immerse himself, to take the book on its own terms or not at all, all of which makes it difficult to review in the usual way.  And of course we already knew it, but this man can write!  Even at his most repetitive and sentimental, the gush of words that pour out of him amaze me!

In July, Alexie suddenly suspended the book tour. His mother’s ghost was haunting him, he said, and he realized he needed to take a big step back and do most of his grieving in private.

He promises to return. “My memoir is still out there for you to read. And, when I am strong enough, I will return to the road. I will return to the memoir. And I know I will have new stories to tell about my mother and her ghost. I will have more stories to tell about grief. And about forgiveness.” – Connie Bennett, Library Director


My Last Continent by Midge Raymond

Find in catalogA trip to Antarctica usually starts from Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. It’s motto, “fin del mundo, principio de todo” – “end of the world, beginning of everything” – becomes a recurring theme in Oregon author Midge Raymond’s new novel, “My Last Continent.”

Part love story, part wild adventure, the book skips forward and back in time through the events leading up to the irresponsible and harrowing wreck of a large cruise ship in the inhospitable, iceberg infested, waters of Antarctica.

Raymond takes on the challenge of writing from the first person point of view of an extreme introvert with mixed success. The intended story line follows a penguin researcher, Deb, in her rocky romance with fellow Antarctica enthusiast, Keller, which is echoed in the marital breakdown of a tourist couple on board their ship.  But the real protagonist of the story is Antarctica itself.  It’s in her vivid descriptions of the eerie, isolated beauty of the last continent that Raymond’s book really comes alive.  And the scenes elsewhere are dreary and boring in comparison, such as when Deb returns to her off-season job at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Raymond also spends a fair amount of time on the ecological threats of increased tourism. In one memorable scene, Deb tells a passenger, “There are two kinds of people who come to Antarctica. Those who have run out of places to go, and those who have run out of places to hide.” – Connie Bennett, Library Director

Avenging the Owl by Melissa Hart

Find in catalogA couple of years ago, I enjoyed reviewing the memoir “Wild Within,” in which Melissa Hart tells of being transplanted from California to Eugene, then working as a volunteer at Cascade Raptor Center while falling in love and creating her family. Her new offering, “Avenging the Owl,” covers similar territory in a lively, well-crafted book for middle graders.

Our protagonist is seventh grader Solo Hahn. (As he constantly has to explain, his mom was a big time Star Wars fan.) Solo, an aspiring film writer who loved surfing the California waves with his buddies, is now stuck in a stuffy trailer in Oregon. His parents are attempting a life reset due to his father’s mental illness and attempted suicide. Even worse, the one saving grace of his new home – his pet kitten – is killed by a wild owl. Now he’s stuck doing community service at the raptor center.

Hart’s writing, in Solo’s first-person voice, rings true. It’s perfectly paced for this multi-layered coming of age story. The lessor characters – Solo’s parents, the neighboring family, the raptor center staff – are realistically flawed, and generous, and human. Even Solo’s sworn enemy, the owl, has something to teach him. Though the Oregon town is never named, the detailed descriptions of streets, raptor center – and even the public library – will be well familiar to anyone who knows Eugene.

In the end, Hart’s intense and moving tale of redemption and hope satisfies readers with a surprisingly moving conclusion. Or as Solo would say, in one of his screen plays, “Fade Out.” – Connie Bennett, Library Director

Breadcrumbs by Anna Ursu

Find in catalogBreadcrumbs is a hopeful, voice-driven narrative that wraps itself up neatly in a bundle of happy endings. (Thank you Anne Ursu, for saving the little–well, I shouldn’t spoil it, now should I?) Best thing? All the relatable real-life tidbits in fairy tale form. Things like the parents that attempt to keep their “children” safe by turning them into flowers. What could be better? There’s a few words that seem to be thrown in just to boost the vocab level and don’t fit the voice. Plus a large helping of adverbs as well as some similes that detract from rather than add to the image. Still. Those critiques don’t detract from the fact that overall, it’s an uplifting, enjoyable narrative.

Fragile Beasts by Tawni O’Dell

Find in catalogUpon the death of their father, teenage brothers Kyle and Klint face the unhappy prospect of living with a mother who abandoned them years earlier, or staying with Candace Jack, an eccentric elderly woman who breeds bulls for bull fighting. Miss Jack is a stranger, but the boys distrust their mother and they want to stay in their hometown, so they move into the Jack mansion. Miss Jack and her farm hand Luis are steeped in the culture of Spain and the art of bull fighting. This unlikely group of people come to love one another and form a family of sorts. This book is written with a great deal of humor and heart. The audio version is especially enjoyable. It is the best work of fiction I read this summer.

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

Find in catalogSet during the Nazi reign, this story depicts the struggling friendship of two young women taking refuge in a traveling German circus. Astrid is Jewish, and Noa brought a Jewish infant with her, rescued from a boxcar of babies being shipped to a concentration camp. Astrid and Noa both have secrets from their past, but must learn to trust one another, trying to stay safe in the air as they practice their aerialist act, and safe in the circus family. They each have chapters in the book, telling their stories of danger, romance, sadness and hope. I found Kristin Hannah’s novel of this period, “The Nightingale,” more moving emotionally, and perhaps more memorable. This author, Pam Jenoff, is a lawyer, past diplomat, mother, and teacher – very accomplished. The book is well-researched and sometimes engaging, but doesn’t fully convey Jenoff’s passion for her subject material, as described in her notes at the end.

Dancing Rose by Lauren Kessler

Find in catalogA journalist spends some time at a memory care facility in order to research this book. She “works” at her own discretion, giving management her schedule rather than the other way around. She doesn’t work overtime and doesn’t work weekends. She chooses her shifts and is not concerned with earning a living. Real caregivers do not have these luxuries which, in addition to the nature of the work, make it an incredibly stressful job. Since she does not experience the reality of a long-term care facility it is understandable that her assessment is superficial. Disclaimer: I have done this work in real life.

Approaching Winter by Floyd Skloot

Find in catalogSubdued and almost melancholy, this collection of poems feels more like a collection of short stories. Each one of Skloot’s poems opens up a bit of world, character, or memory; or leads us into a future unafraid, but wary. I quite enjoyed reading these poems, even though I’m not regularly a poetry reader. I also liked the fact that the poet was from Oregon. (And his name is pretty neat too!)