If I Could Turn Back Time

counterclockwiseExcuse me for inviting you to buy into our youth-obsessed cultural stereotypes, but have you ever wanted to look, feel, or actually be younger? Turns out all of these are possible, although the last may only happen if you lie about your age. Also, they take a lot of work, maybe more than you’re willing to do. Counter Clockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging by Lauren Kessler will take you along on one woman’s journey to reacquire youthfulness.

The author investigates and personally tries many ways to remain young, some of them expected and some quite surprising or relatively unknown. Of course many of the things she does are behaviors you’ve always been told will keep you healthy: eating unprocessed food, consuming more fruits and vegetables and, of course, exercise. Turns out these will also keep your body young. The goal is to keep your body healthy into old age and then suddenly die quickly, ideally in your sleep (and in bed with your much younger lover). Warning: don’t do it because Madison Avenue tells you to, do it because you want to be healthy.

Kessler learns about many different philosophies of eating with the goal of keeping you young for as long as possible. These include the idea of eating fewer calories than necessary-that is, semi-starving yourself for life. In studies, this practice has been shown to maintain the health and increase the longevity of rodents, but no studies have been done on humans. Guess they can’t find volunteers to be hungry the rest of their lives. No one would want to be around them, they’d always be so crabby.

She speaks with experts about the various food-specific diets that have you eat or avoid certain things. We also visit the big world of supplements. A lot of it seems natural, altruistic (they only want to make you feel better) and kind of hippie-granola-crunchy, but it is a big business with very little oversight.

And we can’t forget detoxification. Apparently we all need to do it, according to the popular press. The scientific community thinks it’s a load of bunk, and questions what it means and whether it is an effective or healthy activity.

Spoiler alert (but not really): Kessler finds that the things that work best to keep you young also keep you healthy and are the things your mother nagged you to do (or she should have). Don’t eat junk food! Get off the couch and get some exercise! Don’t let the TV turn you into a zombie (for real-brain activity and positive thinking can help keep you young and healthy)! Now go call your mom and thank her.

The Quest

With the holiday season already far in the rear-view mirror, and the joys of summer still months off, I’m deep into winter escapist reading. This season I seem to be drawn to books about people on quests. Whether it’s for healing or wild edibles, each writer I’ve engaged with has taken me along on a fascinating journey of discovery. Here are three titles that will set your mind wandering:

The Mushroom Hunters cover imageThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of Secrets, Eccentrics, and the American Dream  (Langdon Cook)This title is a great fit for foodies, hikers, lovers of the Pacific Northwest, and those who appreciate investigative journalism that takes you deep inside the story. I enjoyed traveling off the beaten path, literally and sometimes legally, with Cook and his group of wild food foraging contacts. This is a good book to pick up if you’re the type of consumer who is interested in where your food comes from and why it costs what it does. I found it remarkable that items that you can find at any upscale market reach the selling table as a result of so many moving (and potentially unreliable) parts.

Fairyland cover imageFairyland: A Memoir of My Father  (Alysia Abbott). In some cases, quests can be taken without traveling at all. In Fairyland, author Alysia Abbott journeys back into her unorthodox childhood using her father’s prodigious journal archive. Abbott’s path twists and turns through the complexities of being raised by an openly gay single father at a time when the nation was only first awakening to the gay rights movement. Along the way the author pulls no punches describing her father as loving though aloof and herself as too self-involved to be able to see that he needed her as much as she needed him. Despite these and other hurdles, this small family managed to create a home in improbable places. While readers are often left with a sense of regret for opportunities lost, the overall tone of the memoir is one of grace and acceptance.

Wild cover imageWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed). Part of my own personal quest this January is to finish this book; I’m currently in the middle of it. Like Alysia Abbott, Cheryl Strayed had an unusual upbringing. After her abusive father exited the picture, her mother barely scraped by raising her small family. When she eventually remarried, the family moved to the wilds of northern Minnesota where they built their own tar-paper cabin and lived off the land. Though this lifestyle may sound difficult, the family was happy. Strayed goes on to marry shortly after high school and seems to have things on track until her mother suddenly dies of lung cancer. Unable to cope with her loss, Strayed spirals out of control and moves out on her own. In order to regain focus after her divorce, she picks up a guide to the Pacific Crest Trail and decides to set off on her own. One part travelogue for the curious traveler, and one part memoir for those working through their own loss, this book has a lot to offer to the questing reader.

History Remembers, History Forgets

Throughout history, there have always been moments that define a generation. For my parents’ generation it was always, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”

Wait. Stop. This woman is writing about a topic she never experienced? Well, yes and no.

History Will Prove us RightIt may seem disingenuous for someone not even alive in 1963 to write about the importance of that tragic day in November, whose 50th anniversary we remember this year. But no crime in American history has been as hotly debated as the Kennedy assassination. The idea that the government, or anyone else, could weave an elaborate web to kill someone and then successfully cover it up has always fascinated me.

Luckily for you, public libraries have always prided themselves on being a free resource for information to their citizens. As such we try to collect differing opinions and viewpoints on as many topics as we can. The John F. Kennedy assassination is no different. And since this year marks the 50th anniversary, publishers are flooding the market with books and other materials to feed the need for information of the crime and of the man himself. Here are just a few that caught my attention.

Letters of John F. Kennedy provides a look inside the man who would lead a nation to the moon. No autopsy photographs here, it’s simply JFK’s personal correspondence throughout the years. Beginning with a plea to his parents for a raise in his allowance, the letters are interspersed with historical context to help the reader better understand. Glossy photographs, as well as some facsimile handwritten and typed letters, provide the backdrop for understanding the man who created the Peace Corps and led a nation through the most critical hours of the Cold War.

Kennedy Half CenturyThe Kennedy Half Century by Larry J. Sabato gives a good overview of everything JFK, including the assassination. Again, no graphic autopsy photos, but there are photographs of the funerals of both John and Robert Kennedy. The book also talks about how his not-quite-1,000 day presidency has influenced future generations.

History Will Prove Us Right by Howard P. Willens breaks down the Warren Report and shows that there aren’t as many flaws in it as a conspiracy theorist might hope. Willens is the only living member of the three-person supervisory staff of the Warren Commission and a lot of the source materials are his own journals and notes from his time on the Commission. Included are a plethora of citations and resources that Willens used in researching. If you don’t include the postscript about the staff with whom Willens worked and the notes/index, the book is only 339 pages long. For anyone doubting the conclusions of the Warren Report this shouldn’t be too cumbersome a read.

The Day Kennedy Was Shot by Jim Bishop was originally published in 1968. It’s an uncensored minute-by-minute account of the entirety of November 22, 1963. Part of the reason it’s been such a successful bestseller is that it not only breaks down the time frame, but also gives voice to so many different people’s perspectives on that fateful day. Also worth checking out is When the News Went Live, which illuminates the experience of the press in Dallas that day and the ways they covered the story as it unfolded.

When the News Went LiveThey Killed Our President by Jesse Ventura intrigues me, even though he’s not exactly my favorite person. Ventura has sixty-three reasons to believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy. Told in his signature confrontational style, Ventura does have a significant amount of footnotes backing up his rants, which I love. Remember those missing pieces of evidence and missing witnesses I mentioned? Ventura goes in-depth with each of them, making a pretty strong case for, if not an actual elaborate conspiracy, then a very long trail of coincidences. And who really believes in that many coincidences, anyway?

The Poison Patriarch by Mark Shaw focuses not on why JFK was killed in 1963, but why his brother Robert wasn’t. This book doesn’t hint, but steadily points its accusing finger toward the Mafia, including Jack Ruby’s attorney Melvin Belli and Mafia don Carlos Marcello. Here’s the real reason I selected this book, though:

“Mark Shaw’s book…changed my perspective about the assassination.”
–Bill Alexander, chief prosecutor of Jack Ruby

Still have questions? Stop by the Main Library at 7pm on Wednesday, November 20th where EVCC history professor Jason Ripper will break down the context and significance of the JFK assassination. And the Evergreen Branch Library has a dynamic display at the checkout desk. It features both newly published and perennial favorites on this, one of the most discussed crimes in American history.

JFK Display

There are countless theories of what really happened that day, who was really behind it all, and what might have been done to cover everything up. While I’m not on board with all theories, I am heavily skeptical that so many inconsistencies should be ignored in favor of a preconceived notion that some guy just went crazy and shot the President. But what do I know? I wasn’t even alive then. Thankfully the library can help steer my fevered brain in the right direction.

So, where were you?

Carol

Free Author Talk Featuring Daniel James Brown

indexMark your calendar for 2 PM Sunday, October 13th for a special visit with Daniel James Brown, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics. We have moved this talk from the library auditorium to the Everett Performing Arts Center as there is sure to be a large crowd in attendance. Books will be available for purchase and signing.

This book is a pleasure to read. It tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal. They were a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans.

The book’s focus on the lives of the crew members makes this much more than a sports book. The team members struggles to make money and stay in school tell a compelling history of the depression in Washington state, and the alternating chapters detailing the Nazi’s preparation for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin make the climatic chapters of the big race even more compelling. At times the book reads like a suspense novel, even though we know the ultimate result from the start of the race, the results of key races leading to the 1936 Olympics are unknown until we read them at the end.

The story of the central character, Joe Rantz, and his battle with personal and family demons brought life to the book. Joe’s story is one of resiliency, and is a testament to how individuals can overcome humble and tragic beginnings. The cast of characters is amazing. The coach Al Ulbrickson and boat builder George Pocock are just as important as the other eight in the boat. You will be pulling for them all.

Here is the official book trailer which is a good synopsis of the story with actual footage of the crew and lots of great still photos.

I hope to see you at this great author event on October 13th!

She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Sister

When I was in elementary school I knew a pair of twins, Sarah and Norah. Looking back, I’ve tried to figure out which one was good and which one was bad; which one would go on to have success and which one would become a drug addict living in a cardboard house under a bridge. I never figured it out.

They were both quiet girls; maybe one was quieter than the other. When you saw one, you wondered where the other one was, as if they came as a package deal. They never seemed upset when people couldn’t tell them apart. Then again, we were in the fourth grade and it was a novelty to us-and probably to them as well-to be around twins. I wonder what they would have been like in high school, if they would have rebelled not only against their parents but against each other.

her

In her memoir Her, Christa Parravani writes about her twin sister Cara who overdosed and died at the age of 28. Cara had been spiraling into hell after being brutally raped while on a walk in the woods with her dog. Even before the rape, Cara seemed the more fragile of the twins, the more outspoken twin, the more dramatic sister. Both girls grew up with a single mother who drifted in and out of abusive relationships.

Cara and Christa earned scholarships to prestigious colleges. The twins burned bright intellectually, always reading and furthering their education. Cara wanted to be a writer. Her stories are woven throughout the memoir. Christa wanted to be a photographer. I tracked down some of her photographs on line. The pictures tell their own stories, many of them portraits of Cara and herself. I can’t tell them apart.  They’re beautiful women but there’s something going on in their eyes, defeat, exhaustion. Both of them looked utterly haunted. Both were pursuing their passions in the arts and in everyday life.

I became envious of Cara’s drive to become a writer. From the age of 13 I knew I wanted to be a writer. Well, I wanted to be the lead guitar player for Def Leppard.  I didn’t know I really wanted to write until my eighth grade teacher, Mr. Fenbert , had me write a few stories for him. Somewhere in my 20s I realized I didn’t have the drive or the passion to be a writer. Sure, I’d churn out ten pages of meandering thoughts and then end up writing a journal entry that went like this:

So….found out how lazy I really am.  The TV channel got stuck on C-SPAN and it was too much work to get up and cross the room to turn the channel.

Reading bits of Cara’s writing I could tell she would have gone places with her writing. Her love of it, of putting words onto paper, lit her up bright bright burning bright.

The twins mirrored each other in everyday life. They both married young and had rocky marriages. After the rape, Cara told Christa that her life before the attack meant nothing. All she was was a cold day in the woods, the frozen earth beneath her back, a beaten face turned towards the sky.

Her: A Memoir isn’t just about Cara’s death. It’s about what happens to Christa and who she is without her twin:

This is what she learned: there is one road of control and two choices: take control and kill the body, or live and struggle; ramble in conversations, stop mid-sentence, hide in bathroom stalls and cry.  Cut your hair and dye it; waste yourself.

Amen.

Christa nearly gives in and follows her sister into death and has some close calls. Her mind betrays her and she sinks into a deep depression. To blunt any emotions, Christa depends on drugs and alcohol, her actions mirroring her dead twin’s. There’s a point in the book where Christa is drinking and taking pill after pill and I was trying to do the math in my head: if she took 18 Xanax and drank half a bottle of vodka, how long will it take her to pass out and slip to the other side? I panic when I take 3 ibuprofen. I need to get to a safe place. Math is hard.

I used to think that having a twin would be a life saver. There would be someone who knew exactly what I was feeling and thinking. I could lean on her and without having to say a word, she would know how to comfort me. She would know how to keep me alive.  She would know how to get me through anything. But then I started really thinking about it. Another me? A me with all these nonsensical problems? Another me who, when bored, has the mentality of a 5 year old? Another me prone to outbursts of bleak moodiness?

Oh hell no.

Life’s hard enough when you’re busy getting through the day to day part of it. Throw in the loss of a sibling and getting through each day becomes a monumental task. Along the way there’s boredom and anxiety. There’s tragedy and disbelief at how truly evil humans can be. There’s helplessness. There’s hopelessness. There’s survival. Christa Parravani’s Her is a testament to not only surviving tragedy but coming out the other side…maybe a little roughed up and scarred, but alive and fighting.

Reading Every Day, In Every Way: a Bibliovore’s Dilemma

I have a problem. No, it’s not one you can help me with. If I went to a psychiatrist, they wouldn’t know what to do with me either. Book club? Maybe that’s the ticket—though I have to admit to an avoidance of assigned reading ever since Animal Farm in high school. Regardless of the solution, my problem is this: at any given time I have too many books I want to read. 

I also have too many varying reasons for wanting to read in the first place. Sites like GoodReads are amazingly great for reading and sharing book reviews, as well as discovering new and emerging authors. But sometimes I think maybe as a reading resource it’s almost too good. I also have a cataloging job in a public library. This means that there are days I am literally pulling myself away from my work in order to get it all done.

Me: THIS BOOK SOUNDS AMAZING!
Book: Um, I’m on hold for someone else right now.
Me: Oh.
Book: Yeah, you need to get it together, girl. You don’t have time for this.

Up until now I’ve never been one to read more than one book at once. I have friends who do this, and I would be completely baffled by their behavior. I’d harass them: Won’t you get confused? What if you get the characters mixed up? Who reads a cookbook cover-to-cover anyway? Does your husband (and father of your children) realize how obsessed you are with true crime, the gorier the better?

These ponderings almost landed me on the doorstep of a closed friendship door. Reading, be it method or content, is an innately private matter. But I’m going to take you book by book into my new-found obsession with reading multiple books at once. Why? I’m hoping you won’t make the same mistakes I’ve made: both in not getting through my TBR stack quicker, and in hounding my friends for answers where there are no good responses outside of, “Mind your own business!”

Bad motherFirst up is Bad Mother: a Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Waldman. This is a particularly difficult book for me to read, mainly because I am not a mother so it can be tricky at times to relate to the material. It covers aspects of parenthood and feminism, and includes autobiographical passages to help tie it all together. However, the over-arching point of the book isn’t something you need to be a mother to appreciate. Mothers have been judged, often unfairly, by strangers since the dawn of time. But it’s like anything else really: a stranger observes part of an interaction and makes a snap judgement about the people involved based solely on what they saw (or think they saw).

This is a book I pick up and put down every month or so, due to the deep intellectual aspect of the content. I own the e-book, so it’s pretty easy to find where I left off. This is good, because I can only take so much heavy reading material in one sitting. I really need to be in the right mood to take it all in, ponder the facts and anecdotes, and feel like I’m actually getting something out of the experience.

InvisibilityI’m also reading Invisibility by Andrea Cremer and David Levithan. This is a compelling YA novel about Stephen, a boy who was born invisible—and the one person to ever see him, his new neighbor Elizabeth. Love, magic, friendship and adventure await me every time I crack the spine. I thought I would devour this book exclusively when I checked it out. But it turns out I am becoming a slave to many stories at once, so this one I save for bedtime reading. If nothing else, it makes for very bizarre dreams—one more added bonus of reading such impossible stories.

Dad is FatMany months ago, my favorite comedian Jim Gaffigan announced he was releasing his first-ever book, called Dad is Fat. His publisher announced a pre-order special: if you pre-ordered the book by a certain date, not only would you be guaranteed to receive it on release day, but you would also receive many extra perks, including a signed letter from Jim himself. My husband and I have been huge fans of his for almost a decade, so we were thrilled to hook ourselves up with all of these extras.

Later, I realized that the library was purchasing the audiobook on CD, read by the author. What?! Jim Gaffigan reading Jim Gaffigan? It would be like getting to hear an as-yet-unreleased standup show. The book came out in early May, and after a month of waiting for the CD and a stellar review from Alan, we decided to just take turns reading it out loud to each other. The book, a humorous look at parenting his 5 small children in New York City, is proving to keep us busy in the evenings, laughing our way through it. Sharing the experience is part of the fun. Of course, when the CD comes in, we will undoubtedly listen to it. We know the author will do a better job of reading it than we have. And no one does voices quite like Mr. Gaffigan.

Tao of MarthaTwo days before writing this, I received the audiobook CD for The Tao of Martha: My Year of LIVING; or, Why I’m Never Getting All That Glitter Off of the Dog, read by the author Jen Lancaster. I have read many of her autobiographical—and humorous—books, most fondly Pretty in Plaid, a story of growing up in the 70s and 80s in New Jersey. I’ve even met her in person and had a great time. While her stories always made me laugh, I found myself not really identifying with her experiences in a compelling way: they were just a little off the mark from my own experiences. So I’d laugh, but not have the satisfaction of laughing at myself.

This book changed all of that–I feel like she is describing my disorganized home life! The Tao of Martha is all about Jen making a conscious decision to make her New Year into a great year by actually doing something to bring about the change she wanted. How did she do this? By immersing herself in the words and deeds of one Martha Stewart (you may have heard of her). The hope is that she’ll become organized and crafty, and thereby happier than she had been the previous year. I’m only about halfway through the first disc, but I have high hopes for Jen and her quest for happiness via Martha.

I know that if I sat down and focused on just one book at a time I may be able to finish one book quicker. But my moods are always changing, and I’m discovering that I like keeping my options open. And this way, I’m kind of killing 4 birds with one stone. Take that, TBR stack!

Carol

Questionable Things

Due to my exposure to the Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius at a formative age, I’ve always had a weakness for biographies of historical figures with a healthy amount of scandal. There is an admittedly voyeuristic pleasure at poking around the lives of others. Along with that goes a rather questionable, though undeniable, desire to judge the historical figure by your own standards: Are they guilty or innocent? Good or bad? Sympathetic or villainous?

Two biographies I recently read are great at taking this desire on the part of the reader and turning it on its head. Both introduce you to individuals who may have done “questionable things”. Instead of becoming an indictment or whitewash of their character, however, each author sketches a figure that is complex and hard to define. This ultimately frustrates the reader’s desire to judge, but leads to even more meaningful insights.

Vera GranVera Gran: the Accused by Agata Tuszynska.
We are first introduced to the subject of this biography, Vera Gran, as an elderly and paranoid woman who rarely leaves her small Paris apartment. The author must first interview her in the hallway since, according to Vera, spies are everywhere and the apartment is bugged. Eventually she is allowed inside the cramped and document filled space and Vera begins to tell her story.

And what a story it is. Vera Gran, the stage name she went by the most often, was a torch singer from Poland who established a career before the German occupation of her country during World War II.  It is her activities during the war that, for better or worse, defined her life in her own and many others eyes.  Vera and her family, being Jewish, were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto and in order to survive Vera, as well as many other Jewish entertainers, continued to perform.

Almost the entirety of the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were murdered but Vera was one of the few to survive. The very act of survival, however, brought up questions after the war concerning complicity, culpability and possible collaboration. It is this struggle to defend her actions that becomes the focus of Vera’s life. Her relationship with Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist who also survived the Ghetto and whose life became an Oscar-winning film, eventually becomes the focus of this all-consuming need to clear her name.

Vera Gran: The Accused is a character study that delves into the ideas of guilt, survival and what it actually means to be an “honorable” person during horrific times. As a reader you start to question your own actions and begin to see society’s intense need to judge the past as inherently flawed.

Faithful ExecutionerThe Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel Harrington
Based on a personal journal from Renaissance Germany, this book is the story of Meister Franz Schmidt who was the executioner of Nuremberg from 1573 to 1618. As you can imagine, there are some pretty gruesome details involved in the telling of this story, execution by “the wheel” is not a pretty sight, but the author endeavors to fill out a full sketch of the man and his times and reserve judgment.

Franz Schmidt was actually born into a family of executioners, the odious profession was forced upon his father by an unscrupulous aristocrat, and he had few options to pursue other careers since the profession was considered unclean and inherited. In fact, his whole life’s goal was to ensure that his own family could somehow get out from under the social stigma and transition into a more respectable profession.

In addition to the personal drama of Schmidt’s life, the author paints a vivid portrait of his times describing how the executioner and the citizens of Nuremberg lived day-to-day. While death was all around, in the form of a high infant mortality rate and periodic deadly disease outbreaks, crime and punishment were considered issues of the utmost importance. In the end, the author finds more similarities than are comfortable to admit between our ideas and the attitudes of those who walked the streets of Meister Schmidt’s Nuremberg.

His final conclusion rings true as an assessment of the figures in both books:

Perhaps, in a cruel and capricious world, there is hope to be found in one man defying his fate, overcoming universal hostility, and simply persevering amid a series of personal tragedies.

Richard

Timothy Egan and Nancy Pearl at the Library!

EganPearl

I hope you know that you’re invited to a free public literary event with Timothy Egan and Nancy Pearl on Saturday, April 6th at 7 PM at the Everett Performing Arts Center. This should be a great evening for lovers of both history and literature. Timothy Egan will read from his latest book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, and then will be interviewed by legendary librarian Nancy Pearl, who is herself the author of Book Lust and its sequels and is a regular NPR commentator on books. There will be books and also wine available for purchase.  Sounds perfect!

Timothy Egan writes for the New York Times and we are lucky to have him in our backyard and yes, I do consider Seattle to be Everett’s backyard. In addition to his journalism, he has written a slew of non-fiction books which are mostly set in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s a quick rundown.

indexLet’s go chronologically through Egan’s books and start with The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest.  Atop Mount Rainier, Egan checked the map to see which glacier would best feed his grandfather’s ashes down into streams where the man loved to fish. A minor glacier called Winthrop looked best, and that’s where the ashes went. Egan’s research led to the writings of Theodore Winthrop who spent three months exploring Oregon and Washington in 1853. Egan retraced Winthrop’s route and we get fascinating comparisons between what the two men saw roughly 150 years apart. It is a great travel history of the Pacific Northwest and I highly recommend it as fascinating reading.

index

Breaking Blue is the true-crime story of a Sheriff who worked through 54 years of police cover-ups and solved the oldest open murder case in the country. It is the chilling story of the abuses of the Spokane police department during the Great Depression. Egan unravels the story in engrossing detail, illuminating a host of horrible acts committed by the cops in that city, including robbery, murder and extorting sex from Dust Bowl refugees.

index

Wild Seattle: A Celebration of the Natural Areas In and Around the City is a celebration of the wild lands, parks, preserves, and wildlife of the greater Seattle area and features more than 130 superb color images by renowned nature photographers. Egan wrote the engaging text for this beautiful coffee table book.

indexLasso the Wind is a look at the eleven states “on the sunset side of the 100th meridian” that Egan regards as the true West. Fishing rod and notebook in hand, he travels by car and foot, horseback and raft, through a region struggling to find its future direction under both the weight of the “Old West” and the commercial threats of the present. He covers the story of what he calls the New West in essays that choose a localized story. The stories are often about a controversy or a change that is happening in the area. Skip around and read an essay or two as time allows and you’ll be rewarded with funny and incisive writing.

indexMy first introduction to Egan’s writing came when I read the popular The Worst Hard Time which chronicles the hardships of those who endured the horrible dust storms of the Great Plains during the depression. Egan follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region as they went from sod huts to new framed houses to huddling in basements with the windows sealed by damp sheets in a futile effort to keep the dust out. Read this book to understand the devestation that these massive dust storms had on the high plains.

index

We actually listened to The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America while we were driving to Idaho, the site of the largest forest fire in America. It is an outstanding, highly readable history of the Great Fire of 1910 that burned 3.2 million acres in and around the Bitterroot National Forest in Idaho and Montana. Egan moves deftly between the immediacy of the fire and the experiences of people caught up in it, and the powerful business and political interests whose actions both contributed to, and were affected by, the disaster. In the end this book serves as a history not only of the biggest U.S. fire of the 20th century, but also as an examination of the national politics of the first dozen years of the century, and of the origins of the U.S. Forest Service.

And now we come to Egan’s most recent book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. This biography of the famous photographer starts in Seattle and follows him through his obsessive quest to document all of the tribes of North America that were still intact. Curtis’ 20 volume The North American Indian was published between 1907 and 1930. We are all familiar with Curtis’ famous photographs. This book chronicles all of the sacrifices that Curtis made for his obsession. He was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave up his marriage, family and successful career in Seattle to pursue his great project. At once an incredible adventure and a fascinating biographical portrait, Egan’s book tells the remarkable untold story behind Curtis’ photographs, following him throughout Indian country from desert to rainforest as he struggled to document the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes.

index

Even with the backing of Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, it took tremendous effort (six years alone to convince the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony). The undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. He would die penniless and unknown in Hollywood just a few years after publishing the last of his twenty volumes. But the charming rogue with the grade-school education had fulfilled his promise—his great adventure succeeded in creating one of America’s most stunning cultural achievements. I downloaded this book from the library and listened to it while painting our basement over the course of a rainy week-end. I always think of Curtis when passing through the basement. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to hang a few (reproduced) Curtis photos there?

I hope to see you April 6th when the Everett Public Library brings this accomplished author to town!

Leslie

Voices in Your Head

Not to cast aspersions on your sanity, dear reader, but in all likelihood you often hear a voice in your head. I’m not talking about a sinister whisper suggesting unspeakable acts, like eating that jelly-filled donut or calling in sick to watch every cut of Blade Runner back-to-back. No, I’m thinking of the voice you hear when you read a book. The words are on the page, but you have to provide the inflection, tone and, occasionally, sound effects.

When you listen to an audiobook, however, all of that narration is provided for you. And therein lies the rub. No matter how good a book is, if you can’t stand the narrator’s voice or presentation, the experience is not going to be a pleasant one. In order to avoid bad narrators, one of the rules I’ve learned is to always be wary of audiobooks that are read by the author. Good writing doesn’t always translate into good narration alas.

There is one case, though, when you absolutely want the writer to be the narrator: comedic books. To prove my point here are a few titles where it is essential that the author reads his or her work. In fact, even if you have read the book already, you might want to check out the audio version for an enhanced “reading” experience.

americaagainAmerica Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert
This irony drenched reaffirmation, or is that affirmation, of all things America is best heard rather than read. The material is tailor-made for the author and he deftly delivers. If you were to read the book you would just insert the star of the Colbert Report’s voice anyway so why not give it a listen? Enjoy all the truthiness.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
bossypantsWhile this book is technically a memoir, it reads, or listens as the case may be, like a series of comic vignettes from Fey’s life. Her delivery while telling these stories is spot on and her many impersonations are all here including, of course, Sarah Palin. Also included are plenty of anecdotes from her Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock days for TV fans and those just wanting to know what working with Alec Baldwin is like.

I Drink for a Reason by David Cross
idrinkforareasonFirst of all, great title. Secondly this is a great series of riffs on a myriad of topics that enter David Cross’ wonderfully deviant brain starting with his observations on seeing the bumper sticker “Don’t Abandon Your Baby.” Cross proves the point of this blog piece by having another narrator attempt to start reading the book and failing miserably. Clearly you need Cross’ narration to get the full impact of the material, though I must admit it was hard not to imagine Tobias Fünke while listening.

whenyouareengulfedinflames

When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
I just chose one representative title, maybe because of the gruesome cover art, but any of Sedaris’ audiobooks are excellent. Don’t get me wrong, he is a great writer, but once you have heard him read his material you will demand to listen to his books from then on. Luckily we have a great selection of his work on audio from which to choose, so you can get your fix.

God, No! by Penn Jillette
godnoWhat fun would it be to simply read a rant by Penn Jillette? You need to hear the slow buildup in his voice and then the eventual thundering denunciation of one hypocrisy after another. The topic here is religion, or lack thereof, so be prepared to be offended. But really, what else would you expect from one half of Penn & Teller, a duo dedicated to demystifying and debunking everyone’s sacred cows in a raucous way?

So there you have it. Just a few examples to whet your appetite. Now go out there and listen!

Richard

Dwarf: A Memoir

DwarfI’m so short that at the age of 35 I still have to hop up on the kitchen counter if I want to get something from a high shelf. Sure, I could get the step stool but I’ll hop up there while I’m still able to. And I’m lazy. I don’t want to go the ten feet to get the stool.

Dwarf: A Memoir tells the story of Tiffanie DiDonato who was born with dwarfism. She decided to undergo a grueling series of operations to make her taller. The surgeon broke her arms and legs (at separate times) and set them with screws that Tiffanie had to twist twice a day to get the bones to stretch. She missed huge chunks of middle school and high school.

Her one true friend Mike was angry with her for having the operations because he thought she should accept herself the way she is. She explained to him that she wants to be able to do all the things most of us take for granted like walking up the stairs, walking across a street (she isn’t able to cross streets with enough confidence that she’s being quick enough) and being able to reach the coffee pot on the counter. Before her surgeries her arms were so short she couldn’t reach her own ears. Can you imagine not being able to give your ear a good scratch?

Kids can be cruel. We all know that. But adults can be worse. Tiffanie’s gym teacher gave her the stink eye one day and said “Look, I don’t know what kind of disease you have but you’re obviously a dwarf. Why don’t you tell me what you can and cannot do?” During one of Tiffanie’s long recoveries she plotted revenge on the teacher. It was something pretty diabolically clever but she didn’t go through with it because she realized she’s better than that. I wish I could learn that lesson. My brain still zooms to revenge when I get mad.

What we think of as basic dreams and needs are monumental achievements to Tiffanie.  She gets into college and spends her first six months squirreled away in her single room eating microwave dinners while listening to the kids in her dorm storm the hallways on their way to parties (or coming back very drunk from parties). Lonely and homesick, Tiffanie nearly quits college to return to the safety of home.

And then she begins to make friends with girls she’d nod shyly at in the hallways. She bites the bullet and joins a sorority. Not one of those “My daddy bought me a BMW and a diamond bracelet for my birthday so I thanked him by throwing up in the backseat and hocking the bracelet for Grey Goose money” sororities though. This is a sorority where everyone is welcome, fat girls, skinny girls, shy girls, and girls who spent the better part of their teenage years stretching their bones so they wouldn’t be identified as a dwarf.

Even though at times it is a little too “rah rah rah never give up!” for me, Dwarf: A Memoir nonetheless blew me away. Tiffanie’s determination to lead as normal a life as possible made me look at my own problems and realize how stupid and small they are. I was kind of hoping she’d do something most of us would do while spending months recovering: indulging in a good old-fashioned nervous breakdown. She only breaks down once and allows herself to cry over her pain and her struggle to get to where she wants to be. Her rock, her biggest supporter and best friend is her mother who at times can seem almost cold in telling Tiffanie not to waste any tears.

Without her mother her story might have turned out differently. On the other side of the coin is Tiffanie’s father who is in constant fear for his daughter’s health and safety. One day Tiffanie looks at her father’s car and idly wonders if she’ll ever be able to drive. Her mom orders her into the car against her husband’s worried protests. Tiffanie can’t quite reach the gas pedal. She doesn’t want to get a specialized car with the gas and brake on the steering wheel. She wants to drive a real car. She tries each week. And one day she does it, her foot reaches the gas pedal.

As Tiffanie’s life unfolds, we see a brave human who gives us just a glimpse of the kind of determination (and plain old stubbornness) that humans are capable of when conquering their struggles, and the pure joy of coming out of the other side of years of surgeries and pain.

I’d still indulge in a nervous breakdown. But I’d blame it on the pain medication.

Jennifer