I could drink a case of this…

I ‘discovered’ Joanne Harris after seeing (and loving) the movie Chocolat (a favorite of mine with an incredible cast: Juliet Binoche, Carrie-Anne Moss, Alfred Molina, Dame Judie Dench and the ever-fabulous Johnny Depp).  Of course I took note of the fact that it was based on a book and went looking for other books by Harris.  I read Five Quarters of an Orange a few years later and was also impressed, so I added Harris to the list in my head.  I was at Powell’s a few weeks ago with $40 in birthday money, and Blackberry Wine was on sale for $5, so it quickly went into the basket – I didn’t even read the back.

Blackberry Wine is the story of a writer who’s drinking his life away after his first book succeeds wildly and he can’t follow it up.  It takes a ghost from the past (both literally and figuratively) to wake him up to his life.  It’s about listening to your conscience and not judging people.  It’s also a book about the pleasures of life in a rural setting, connected to the land and the people who live and work with it.  And all of that without a moment of preachiness or insulin shock.  The other two stories I’ve read featured strong female lead characters, and – while this main character is a man – the book has its share of confident females. Sounds perfect to me.

For those of you that don’t like stories that jump around in time, this book is not for you (and why on earth are you reading this blog?!).  The changes are clearly marked and easy to follow (at least IMHO) but you see Jay as an adult then a child and back again many times but at no time is the story confusing or unclear.  This is not to criticize, merely to comment on the style [there are otherwise intelligent people in my life (Sista) that hate the non-linear style].  Some of the characters in Chocolat appear as minor characters in this book, but you certainly do not need to have seen or read Chocolat to follow the story.

One of the things that impresses me about Harris’s writing is her ability to create atmosphere. She is a master of the ‘show, don’t tell’ theory of writing (which may be why the film of Chocolat works so well – film is all show.  Of course, I should probably read the book before talking about how well the book works as a film, huh?).  She conjures anger, revulsion, joy and promise without a sour note.  You smell and taste her stories as much as you hear them (the three I’ve read/seen have food as an important element of the story – hence their titles).  I like how she gives you the details of plants and gardening/farming (since I know nothing about these things) and doesn’t beat you over the head with her theme (not original, but still well-done) that we reap what we sow – call it karma or quantum physics if you like.  And of course, one of my personal favorite ideals – we are all responsible for our choices, and every day we can chose something new if we want to change our lives.  Simple – yes. Easy – of course not.  All of this wrapped up in a package I didn’t want to put down.  Lucky for me, I was stuck on a plane to Alaska and had three uninterrupted hours to enjoy it.

Blinking is a good thing…

We’ve all had times when we knew something before we had a ‘good’ reason to know it.  You have a funny feeling something is about to happen, or known a person was up to no good before they’ve done anything wrong.   In the book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells us how this happens, as well as why a snap judgment can be as dependable as a well-considered decision, and sometimes better.

Using everything from art forgeries to Pentagon war games to divorce counseling, Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Outliers) builds a convincing case for the snap judgment.  He uses scientific studies and front-page news stories to demonstrate how the brain is not just getting lucky, but processing information (speed dating)  without needing us to be involved.   And how this system – which is calls the adaptive unconscious – can be derailed by stress and other factors to become a liability (cops shooting innocent bystanders).

This book peaked my interest the first time I heard about it.  Psychology has always fascinated me – I want to know why people do the things they do.  This book discusses how a part of the brain can make decisions based on information that people are not even aware they have acquired.  It was a quick read (I read it on the plane from Anchorage to Portland) and well-written.  Gladwell keeps things interesting with tons of real-life examples to illustrate what could be boring scientific research.  You wouldn’t think that orchestral auditions, secluded Amazon tribes and the O.J. Simpson trial to could all be used to illustrate his point – under the right conditions, the brain can be trusted to do amazing things without our well-reasoned (and sometimes interfering) help.

One of the points I found interesting was the fact that – when pressed to come up with an explanation for why they did a particular thing or knew something they didn’t realize they knew, people would make up a story for why they did it. Gladwell calls it the ‘storytelling problem’ (and we all know people with this problem, don’t we?).  We aren’t comfortable with the fact that we don’t consciously know why we do things, so we come up with an explanation.  And in some cases, if we are pressed to explain what we know, we know a lot less (I know that sounds confusing – but read the book and it’ll all make sense).  Of course, when others then take these explanations and run with them… well, it’s the blind leading the blind (New Coke).  My ex-husband was always pushing for explanations for the crazy things our son would do when he was younger (and even now =).  But I have come to realize – and this book only reinforces my conviction – that sometimes there is no ‘why’ for what we do.  “It seemed like a good idea at the time” covers all manner of ills.  And now I have evidence that says that’s not always a bad thing.

Population: fantastic

I have lately become a fan of memoirs – recently popularized by writers such as Augusten Burroughs and David SedarisBarbara Kingsolver wrote a kind of garden memoir in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I loved, and Rebecca Walker wrote a powerful childhood memoir titled Black White Jewish.  So I have been paying more attention to this kind of book, and when I heard about Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, I put in on hold at the library. (I try not to buy every book that looks half-way interesting, keeps me from running out of gas money every week).  I have know a few people who are volunteer fire and rescue folk – and most of them live in small towns – so I thought a writer’s view of the experience might be interesting.  And since the blurb says he had recently moved back to his hometown before joining its volunteer crew, there seemed to be all kinds of potential for great story-telling.  And this book did indeed deliver.

Being a person prone to introspection, the memoir genre allows me to watch others ruminate about their own thoughts and reactions to the events in their lives.  Not all memoirs are created equal, of course, and different lives result in very different books.  Population: 485 is less navel-gazing that the average memoir, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Michael Perry is from Wisconsin and spent some time ‘cowboying’ in Wyoming (says the blurb on the book), so this is not the story of an urban man and his neuroses, but a small-town boy returning to that small town after seeing the world – and happy to be doing so.

Perry does a great job of connecting himself and the folks around him to the landscape – in a way that resonates on a very basic level – and reminds me of my own trips back to the small town I grew up in.  When he goes running, he relives the myriad events of his childhood that occurred on each particular street and corner, overlaid by the fire and rescue calls of adulthood.  So one street may be where he received a scar as a young, rough-playing boy, the next a house where he wasn’t able to save an elderly man after a heart attack.  Each is treated with vivid detail and adept delicacy.  These are not the essays of a hero in his own mind, but a man humbled by the trust placed in him by his community.  And someone who knows that laughing at your own screw-ups is the only way to keep your sanity when life throws you a curve.

As I hurry to finish this book before I need to return it to the library (thinking phrases like ‘the writing isn’t great but is good, author really gives you a sense of what the experience of fire and rescue is like for him’), I had almost decide that it was a decent book but nothing outstanding.  But that was before it made me cry, and then made me bawl like a baby.  I’m sure it won’t have that effect on everyone.  But Perry clearly understand grief and has the chops to make you feel it if you have any inclination towards visceral empathy.

When he describes the quiet grief of a man – a stranger to him – who has lost a child, I teared up.  I have a child, and Perry’s gentle descriptions were heartbreaking without a hint of being over-wrought.  But it was the passages regarding the loss of his young sister-in-law that make it impossible for me to see the words on the page (both his as I read and these as I attempt to write them).

My sister lost her husband to a drunk-driving accident 3 and ½ years ago, and the picture this man paints – of a husband who responds to an accident scene where his new wife has been hit, how his mother is there performing CPR as his brother blows air into his own wife’s injured lungs, how they are surrounded by the friends and family who make up the volunteer crew, and later the professionals arrive and pronounce her dead there on the soil they both spent their lives on – these are some of the most heart-breaking and emotionally charged sentences I’ve ever read. I admit, my situation makes them more personal to me, but this is a book that brings life – and death – remarkably up close and personal.

I would not characterize this book as a tear-jerker (though it made me cry) or a comic story (though it made me laugh).  This book does what the best stories – whether so-called non-fiction or the truly fictitious – do so well, put all the experiences of one life into words that allow us to recognize our own. I wouldn’t call him a favorite author after only one book, but I will certainly be checking out his other books to see if they measure up to this one.

Song of the Turtle – edited by Paula Gunn Allen

I was exposed to some wonderful Native American literature in my undergrad literature courses.  Louise Erdrich is a favorite (I own all of her novels) and I have enjoyed Sherman Alexie (the film Smoke Signals was based on one of his short stories), Leslie Marmon Silko and others whose names escape me at the moment (this is a blog, not a research paper!).  So the short story collection Song of the Turtle was a shoe-in as soon as I laid eyes on it (at the Gresham library).  The fact that it was edited by Paula Gunn Allen meant that I was sure to notice it.

I heard Ms. Allen speak at UAA in 1999 or 2000.  I was taking Feminist Theory (a fabulous class, again taught by Genie) and immersed in the critical theory coming from the feminist movement.  Allen was brought to UAA as a part of Women’s History Month by the Women’s Studies Program (I believe) and I may have gotten class credit for attending – but if I had known how her talk was going to affect me, I would have paid admission. At the time, we were reading some of Catherine Mackinnon’s work in class, and it focused on a lot of negative things – powerful stuff, but not exactly uplifting.  Allen was a completely different kettle of fish. She had a way of describing the world that turned my personal worldview on its head.  This was a well-respected, professional woman who believed in magic and spoke of it like sewing or cooking – a regular part of life that could be practiced by those willing to put in the effort.  And that was exactly what I needed to hear.  There are many different paradigms for understanding the world – and Mackinnon’s is no more or less valid than Allen’s.  And both had something to offer me.

I think it is that different world view that draws me to the stories like those in Song of the Turtle.  The basic assumptions conveyed are not those of the mainstream American culture I find myself living in – and I agree with much of what’s being assumed.  Gratitude for life in all its forms.  A responsibility to others as well as to ourselves.  A quiet appreciation for the ironies of life.  It reminds me to be grateful for all that I have, and to laugh along with the universe at the ridiculous events in my life.

This collection is the cream of the crop of American Indian Literature for the last quarter of the twentieth century, so there’s not a dud in the bunch.   The settings vary from – historical to modern, rural to urban, and some that have no ‘indians’ in them at all – but all are told with that certain flavor that keeps many of us coming back for more.  Some stand-out stories are: Pilgrims by Roxy Gordon, Siobhan La Rue in Color by D. Renville, Compatriots by Emma Lee Warrior and Christianity Comes to the Sioux by Susan Power.

The Darkover series- Marion Zimmer Bradley

I have always been a big reader. I was able to read before I started kindergarten (thanks to an older sister who liked to play school).  I can remember being no more than 8 years old and reading my book in bed after lights out (a book about squirrels, at least that’s the picture in my head).  As far as individual books, I remember reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time sometime in elementary school.  That may have been my first real exposure to what became my favorite type of genre fiction – Science Fiction/Fantasy.

I think every reader has a certain type of book that they read more than any other type. And I know some people will only read a certain kind – like true crime or romance novels.  And some prefer non-fiction to fiction, long to short novels, one-offs to series fiction and so on.  My fall-back has always been sci-fi/fantasy.  When I’m looking for something to read that doesn’t require too much from me, I head to the sci-fi section of the bookstore or library. I have all of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  Up until a few years ago, I had read everything Anne McCaffery ever wrote, (starting in seventh grade when I found Dragonsinger in the library).  I read the first 11 Xanth books as well as Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series.  Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Discworld – all places I’ve visited at one time or another.

Some people (read: snobby literary types) think that genre fiction is junk.  Some people read it but consider it a ‘guilty pleasure’ or get defensive about their love for a good bodice-ripper (read: my sister).  I’ve never felt a moment of guilt about any book I ever read – including the bad ones I never finished.  Anger, disgust, frustration, revulsion maybe – but never guilt.  If you enjoy the book and it hasn’t turned you into an axe murderer or a bad parent, then I say READ IT.  Reading drivel is better than reading nothing at all, and it sure beats television – at least your crappy mystery novel isn’t regularly interrupted by penile dysfunction treatments or (depending on your household) someone telling you your house isn’t clean enough.

But as I’ve gotten older and wiser – and expanded my reading horizons with dozens of literature classes – I read less and less sci-fi and more high-brow stuff. My standards have gotten higher, and I no longer believe that just because I started a book I have to finish it. Life is too short, and there are too many books in the world that I’ve yet to read for me to waste time on some of the crap that passes for ‘a good read.’ I still read sci-fi, I’m just more particular about the sci-fi I chose.  And in the last few years I’ve discovered (not discoverd as in ‘no one else knows about them’ but ‘Bev never read them’) some amazing authors who happened to be considered by the publishing world ‘sci-fi’ authors (Charles de Lint and William Gibson come to mind). Not all sci-fi is created equal.

All of that is by way of saying – after several heavy books, I picked up Thendara House by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Somehow, in my 30 years of sci-fi, I’d never read any of the Darkover series before a few months ago.  I recently moved and needed something to read, so Shane – a fellow sci-fi fan – loaned me Heritage of Hastur, Sharra’s Exile, Hawkmistress! & Stormqueen!, all of which I finished in less than two weeks.  For those of you have not read of Darkover, it is a planet colonized by a Terran ship that crashed and was lost to the larger Terran Empire for thousands of years – so long they forgot they came from anywhere else. They were rediscovered – of course – and now they are trying to retain their feudal traditions in the face of the high-tech outside world.  Oh yeah, and some of the Darkoverans have psychic powers.   It’s not a new idea, but it is well-executed and – as is vitally important – the characters are vivid and believable.  There is much discussion of tradition vs. progress, another common theme in sci-fi.

I had picked up Thendara  House on a trip to Powell’s a few weeks ago and thought it would be the perfect quick read, and it was. In addition to the themes mentioned above, this one focused on the role of women in each society (Terran and Darkoveran) and a group of women who had renounces the traditional Darkoveran female role and formed a society of their own, the Renunciates. Being a sucker for the feminist trope, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  TH turned out to be one of a trilogy (the middle one, of course) so I went on a mission to find the others at local used book stores, Goodwill and, finally, Borders (Powell’s being too far from home to squeeze into my work-related errand-running that day).  I came home with eight novels (though six were in 3-novel omnibus editions I found at Borders, so that’s kind of cheating. I’m fine with it). I quickly read the other two books featured Magda and the Renunciates (The Shattered Chain & City of Sorcery).  I also read The Heirs of Hammerfell.

And now the urge is gone.  The problem (for me) at this stage in my reading life is that I clearly see the formula behind the story.  Most stories follow a general outline, nothing wrong with that. In fact, readers learn these outlines and come to expect them, especially with genre fiction.  But now I am a reader who wants to be challenged and surprised more than comforted by the formula.  So after my initial introduction into the world and its characters and settings, I’m bored.  I know how the story will end after 20 pages.

Having read four books in as many days, I feel the need for something with a little more meat.