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

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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

Wildman by J.C. Geiger

Click to find book in catalogI’ve never been a teenaged boy. Never been in a ’93 Buick. So, it was with a little trepidation that I picked up “Wildman,” Eugene author J.C. Geiger’s debut novel. Though the book has received quite a bit of buzz in the teen market since its colorful “road-trip” launch last spring, I wasn’t sure how accessible – or interesting – it might be to older readers.

The book begins slowly. Our entitled, annoying narrator, Lance, is eager to get home to Bend and the promised delights of the big high school graduation party.  Stranded by a breakdown in rural Washington, he’s quick to call mom to bail him out.

The story picks up when Lance meets a diverse band of locals worthy of a No Shame skit: a roadhouse hustler, a feisty motel clerk, and an assortment of hard-luck teens who crash into his life, tilting it off course – and predictably forcing our young hero to choose his future path.

Several elements raise “Wildman” above the conventional coming of age novel. Lance first becomes interesting when he sees unexpected, hidden beauty, when he hears not-yet-written music.  Use of story becomes a central theme.  Early on: “He rifled through his stories like a deck of old baseball cards. What had he ever done?”  And by the end:  “…it turns out words matter.  Stories matter.  The stories we tell about each other.  The stories you end up telling yourself.”

Last, but not least, there are the three endings, each more delightful than the one before. First, the cinematographic, next the farewell letter, and finally, the creation of a legacy that reveals the true meaning of the book’s cover image.

“Wildman.” Perfect for the teen boys you know.  And for the rest of us, too. – Connie Bennett, Library Director

Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

Click to find in catalogIn her lyrical and compelling new novel, Portland based author Alexis Smith walks the tightrope of multiple genres without falling into any easily stereotyped style.  Is “Marrow Island” a mystery? Science fiction? A commentary on cults, or Catholic education?  A screed against the petroleum industry?  A love story?  Well, yes… and, no.

“Marrow Island” is told in the first person by Lucie Bowen, a troubled young woman who left the San Juan Islands twenty years ago, following a massive earthquake which killed her father.  In beautiful naturalistic detail, the story alternates between the present – a fire lookout in Malheur National Forest in 2016 – and the trip Lucie took two years previously to revisit her past in the San Juans.

The book is experienced as a straightforward novel, and it’s only in retrospect that one begins to wonder exactly where truth blends into fiction.  Smith displays considerable mastery in interweaving both of the two recent timelines with Lucie’s perhaps unreliable memories of her childhood.  She has the reader thinking about how we, as humans and as a culture, survive traumas… and what happens if we find we cannot survive.

The book has been compared to Mandel’s “Station Eleven” – which I reviewed on KLCC a couple of years ago – but I found them very different.  Smith’s “Marrow Island” is more personal, immediate, real. It’s grounded in our own Pacific Northwest experiences – oil refineries and interns from Evergreen, forest fires and mushrooms.

And that very realness makes it the more disquieting. – Connie Bennett, Library Director

The Joy of Swimming by Lisa Congdon

Find in catalogWith summer weather just around the corner, and last week’s announcement of Amazon Pool’s opening, it seems an opportune time to dive into “The Joy of Swimming: a Celebration of Our Love For Getting In the Water,” by Portland author and artist, Lisa Congdon.

The book is handsome, pleasing to the touch with a smooth, cool surface. The gorgeous watercolor illustrations enliven every page. Congdon – a lifelong swimmer herself – has assembled a collage of quotations, timelines, and old photographs that document our fascination with the water. There are pool rules and bathing costumes, including a history of the bikini. There are fascinating comparisons with how other cultures – Iceland, France – approach swimming.

Perhaps the heart of the book is a diverse collection of brief vignettes on the role of swimming in people’s lives. These range from nine-year-old fraternal twins, Caleb and Zion, to the eighty-eight year old woman who credits regular lap swimming with keeping her young at heart. After all, “the water doesn’t know how old you are” according to twelve-time Olympic medalist Dara Torres.

In the end, “The Joy of Swimming” focuses not just on interesting facts and history, but also on the metaphorical aspect of the experience. To quote Emerson, as Congdon does in one stunning two-page spread: “Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.”

Immerse yourself! – Connie Bennett, Library Director

On Trails by Robert Moor

At ten, Robert Moor began dreaming of hiking the Appalachian Trail. By the time he was eighteen, he howled with indignation while reading Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” – not about Bryson’s writing, but the “cheating” by skipping portions of the trail.  A few years ago, he reviewed Bryson, Cheryl Strayed, and Paulo Coelho in a delightful New Yorker piece, “Why the Most Popular Hiking Memoirs Don’t Go the Distance,” exploring how someone can utterly fail as a hiker, while still succeed as a writer.

Some years later, with careful preparation, five-months set aside, and a purist’s attitude, Moor completed his Appalachian Trail thru-hike. And, he’s now written his own book: “On Trails: An Exploration.”  Fortunately, Moor is both an eclectic thinker and a gifted writer, and his meandering rumination on all things trail are absolutely fascinating.

It’s not just the challenge of the thru-hike – his Appalachian Trail adventures become almost a reoccurring footnote to these interconnected essays. Moor reflects on what ants and sheep show us about the origins of trails.  How trails require trust, or at least, a suspension of disbelief.  He dissects the desire lines, those short-cuts off the main path where people’s feet mark dissenting choices.  He traces connections as varied as the fossilized trail of animal life, our interstate highway system, and the origins of the Internet.

Moor argues the case that – far from being passé – we need the wisdom of trails to help us navigate our ever more complex world. And it’s done with grace and charm and elegant sentences like: “To deftly navigate this world, we will need to understand how we make trails, and how trails make us.” – Connie Bennett, Library Director

Thunder Boy Jr by Sherman Alexie and Yuyi Morales

In his first ever picture book, “Thunder Boy Jr,” Seattle author Sherman Alexie finds the perfect artistic enhancement in Caldecott Honor award winning artist, Yuyi Morales. Thunder Boy Jr, the story’s young narrator, hates his name because it is “not even close to normal” and because – like Alexie – it’s not even his own, since he’s named after his father. After Thunder Boy tries out several alternatives, his father “reads his heart” and gives him a name of his own.

Sherman Alexie is a National Book Award winner and New York Times bestselling author for his novels for young adults. Here, he finds a new simplicity of voice in writing for the toddler crowd, lyric, evocative.  Yuyi Morales’ multilayered illustrations burst with life.  Particularly effective are her use of a variety of perspectives and viewpoints to enhance the story line.  A note on the verso facing the title page explains that the background layer of the illustrations are composed from digital scans of the textures and colors of the decaying adobe house in Xalapa, Mexico where she has her studio.

The book can be read simply as an exploration of the bond between a loving father and son. The story can be seen as an exploration of the importance of naming, of the quest to find the balance between the connection of heritage and the celebration of the unique self.  It can be viewed – like Keat’s “Snowy Day” – as another significant contribution to write people of color into our canon of picture books.

Or it can simply be read and enjoyed, preferably with the nearest toddler.  – Connie Bennett, Library Director

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

shoe-dog-smTwo weeks into our federal oligarchy of the ultra-wealthy, I thought it might be timely to review the recent autobiography by Phil Knight. Perhaps immersing myself in the story of the richest person in Oregon would broaden understanding across our socioeconomic divides.

I quickly learned that Phil Knight is an older rich white man from a very different mold – introspective, driven, highly ethical, fascinated by other cultures. And perhaps most importantly, self-made, with strong – and modest – Oregon roots.

While parts of Knight’s story will be familiar to many KLCC listeners, it’s still fascinating reading, particularly the early years. While getting an undergraduate journalism degree from the University of Oregon, Knight ran for legendary track coach, Bill Bowerman.  After getting a Stanford MBA and an enlightening trip around the world, he worked as an accountant while beginning a startup shoe company, Blue Ribbon Sports, with his old coach.

Gradually assembling a quirky inner circle, the company struggled through financial crunches, quality control problems, cross-cultural misunderstandings, and exhaustively rapid growth, eventually morphing into the Nike of today. And the writing is competent.  No ghost writer here!

The memoir begins with a quotation from Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” By the end of his tale, it’s clear that despite his phenomenal success as a shoe dog, Knight still considers himself a beginner in the art of living. – Connie Bennett, Library Director

 

Froelich’s Ladder by Jamie Yourdon

froelich-smBegin with a baker’s dozen of lively characters, sift in two parts magical realism, a pinch of fantasy, and mix in the historical setting of early days in Oregon Country. And you might end up with an entertaining tall tale, not unlike Jamie Yourdon’s debut novel, “Froelich’s Ladder.”

The book begins with a quarrel between two brothers, German immigrants taking land grants in 1851. The little feisty one, Froelich, conceives of a giant ladder as a courting gift to the beautiful Indian maid, Lotsee. He talks his gigantic brother, Harald, who actually likes the Oregon rainy weather, into doing most of the work. When Lotsee seduces Harald, Froelich manipulatively climbs the ladder till he’s out of sight, refusing to come down. In retaliation, Harald insists on holding up the ladder for as long as his brother remains aloft.

What follows is a multigenerational tale of loyalty and betrayal, love and greed, pettiness and nobility, centering primarily on the complex adventures of Gordy and Binx, Harald’s sons. (Lotsee is quite ingenious.) Characters range from Confederate spies, to a cross-dressing young girl, to a canny Scottish entrepreneur, to hungry clouds. Settings include the Logging Camp, a locked tower, an unused bowling alley…but always circle back to that clearing in the woods where the ladder stands, for decades.

There is a haunting, underlying loneliness to the story. Life is fragile on the frontier. Trusting others is risky.  A beautifully crafted, original tall tale for our Pacific Northwest of today. – Connie Bennett, Library Director

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

FindOne place I look for new books by Northwest writers is in awards lists. So I perked up when in this year’s Oregon Book Awards, “The Small Backs of Children” by Lidia Yuknavitch won both the Ken Kesey Award for fiction and the Readers’ Choice Award.

The brief description of the plot doesn’t prepare you. In a village along the Russia/Lithuania border, an American photographer captures the prize-winning image of a young girl silhouetted against the explosion that destroyed her home.  In parallel stories, various interconnected American artists obsess about the girl, now – unbeknownst to them – thriving under the mentorship of a widow.  They attempt a “rescue” that drags us deeply into a cross-cultural exploration of loss, gender, and the meaning of art.

Yukanvitch has stated that the “membrane between fiction and nonfiction is thin as infant’s skin.” This led me to read her memoir, “The Chronology of Water,” as well as to watch her recent TED Talk on the beauty of being a misfit. All her writings seem to resonate for our times.

“Who are we in moments of crisis or despair? Do we become deeper, truer selves, or lift up and away from a self, untethered from regular meanings like moths suddenly drawn toward heat or light? Are we better people when someone might be dying, and if so, why? Are we weaker, or stronger? Are we beautiful, or abject? Serious, or cartoon? Do we secretly long for death to remind us we are alive?”

This is both a tough and an incredibly beautiful book. It takes you to those corners of your soul which you might have preferred to keep unexamined. – Connie Bennett, Library Director