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

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