A History of Things

Historical nonfiction comes in all shapes and sizes. There is the grand sweeping kind that tries to tell the story of a whole era or a monumental event. Then there are the social histories that see history from the perspective of a particular class or group of people. Another popular type is the historical biography that illustrates the life of an important individual. I’m an indiscriminate lover of all these varieties but I must admit I hold a special place in my heart for a historical work that zeros in on a specific object and tells its story through time. In addition to having a pleasingly quirky and often obsessive focus, these books also provide the service of telling history from a different perspective. At their best, they can help us to rethink assumptions about what is truly important and give us the rare gift of learning something new.  Here at the library, we have many of these histories of things. Listed below are a few of the standouts.

Concrete Planet by Robert Courland
concreteplanetWe take it for granted every day. The house you live in, the sidewalk you walk on, the countless bits of infrastructure that make civilization possible: they all rely on concrete. But where did it come from? Courland guides the reader through the fascinating tale of a substance that was created long ago, but only recently rediscovered after centuries of being lost. In addition to many interesting facts, the author also reveals a few disturbing ones. Chief among them is the fact that the concrete of today is not as strong as that of our ancestors despite many modern manufacturers’ claims. It turns out that those Roman ‘ruins’ have a much longer shelf life than a modern office building.

Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt
airstreamThis book is many things. It is a biography of Wally Byam the inventor of the Airstream. It is a cultural history of the Airstream, documenting its effect on the idea of recreation in America. Interestingly, it is also a history of the 1959 Cape Town to Cairo Airstream caravan. All of these parts are skillfully told with a dazzling array of archival images that make this book quite beautiful. If you want to learn more about the trend of mobile living in America definitely take a look at Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America by Roger White for a wider angle view of this phenomenon.

cellphoneThe Cellphone: The History and Technology of the Gadget That Changed the World by Guy Klemens
It is now a cliché to have a film demonstrate to the audience that it is ‘from the 80s’ by having a character whip out a cellphone the size of a loaf of bread. But this book goes way beyond that image to tell the history of the cellphone, which actually dates back to the 1940s. While a fun book, this title is definitely heavy on the technology of the cellphone with detailed discussions of concepts such as bandwidth and analog vs. digital so don’t feel guilty about skimming a chapter or two.

Digital Retrodigitalretro by Gordon Laing
This book tells the story of the formative years of the personal computer, 1975-1988, through the machines themselves. Each model is lovingly documented, photographed and provided with a detailed backstory. This was a frenetic period for the personal computer, with big corporations going head to head with eccentric professors, amateur inventors and kids working out of their garages. Definitely check this book out and visit the thrilling days of yesteryear when we were bowled over by the fact that the Commodore 64 had 64KB of RAM and BASIC was considered the programming language of the future.

theyugoThe Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic
You tend to think of history as a record of the ‘winners’ but as this book points out, epic failure can be instructive as well. Hailing from the former Yugoslavia, and riding a very brief wave of popularity in the mid1980s primarily due to a price tag under $4000, the Yugo turned out to be one of the most flawed cars ever built. The tale of how it even got to the commercial market in the first place, with the help of an overeager U.S. State Department and a Detroit auto industry reluctant to build cheap subcompact cars, is fascinating and instructive stuff.

jetpackdreamsJetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (but Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was by Mac Montandon
This is the story of one man’s quest to answer the burning, to some, question: Why can’t we all have our own working Jetpack? Popular culture, think Buck Rogers or Boba Fett, has been promising us one for a long time now. It turns out that prototypes were actually developed in the 1960s but funding quickly dried up so the Jetpack is now the province of a dedicated band of aficionados. The author travels the country to seek out these dedicated few to see if any of us will be able to commute to work via Jetpack in our lifetimes.

So if you are planning a foray into historical nonfiction, why not avoid the big picture and focus on the small stuff? The Devil is in the details after all.

Farewell to the Bookmobile

 

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Everett has had a long history of taking the library out into the community. Bookmobile service began in May 1924 when the prohibitive expense of operating branch outlets in the community caused the library to invest in a Ford Model T truck modified to serve as a “book wagon”, a traveling mini-library. Named Pegasus after the flying horse of mythology, it was the first bookmobile in Washington State.

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By the time this photo was taken in 1945, Pegasus was showing her age. After many years of service Pegasus was retired in 1950.

kidsbookmobileThe current bookmobile was purchased in 2004 and has served Everett preschools ever since. I have been the bookmobile librarian for the last two school years and would see about 700 children each month at area ECEAPS, Headstarts, daycares and private preschools. The typical visit would include a full storytime followed by a visit to the bookmobile where each child had the library experience of selecting and checking out a book which they would read and care for that month. These were children who often did not have the opportunity to visit the library on their own because of busy work and family schedules. These current photos were taken at a children’s concert at Silver Lake last summer.

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Sadly, this long history of Bookmobile Service in Everett is coming to an end this month. Due to the City reducing the library’s budget by $200,000, the Library Board had to make the very difficult decision of cutting Outreach Services.

-af770c83da9e5b82I am inspired by this librarian who was an Outreach Librarian in New York City. When her job was cut because of the budget, she moved to New Orleans and started up a bicycle mobile service to the children of the Lower 9th Ward.  She received the first ever Lemony Snicket Award for her service and she gets some good exercise also.

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We do have some bookmobile themed books in the library which may be of interest to you. The children’s book Wild About Books by Judy Sierra is a fun read about librarian Molly McGrew who drives the bookmobile to the zoo where the enthusiastic animals literally and figuratively devour the books. This is a great rhyming story which is perfect for reading aloud over and over again.

index (1)The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton is a novel about Brooklyn librarian Fiona Sweeney who wants to do something that matters, and she chooses to make her mark in the arid bush of northeastern Kenya. By helping to start a traveling library she hopes to bring literature to far-flung tiny communities where people live daily with drought, hunger and disease. Her intentions are honorable, and her rules are firm: Due to the limited number of donated books, if any one of them is not returned the bookmobile will not return. But, encumbered by her Western values, Fi does not understand the people she seeks to help. And in the impoverished small community of Mididima, she finds herself caught in the middle of a volatile local struggle when the bookmobile’s presence sparks a dangerous feud between the proponents of modernization and those who fear the loss of traditional ways.

I will now be working full-time inside the library at both the Evergreen Branch Library and the Main Library. Come see me in the library!

Must Reads for Summer 2014

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There are good and bad things about working in a library. The good: all of the great books that you discover and get to read. The bad: all of the great books that you don’t have time to read. We all have excuses and these are mine: full-time work and a toddler who just turned two years old and a baby who is ten months old. Oh yeah, and a house and garden and that guy I married 33 years ago. So, I often feel like that funny old bird the pelican whose beak holds more than his belly can. I have a beak full of great reads these days which may interest you if you’re participating in the summer reading program at the Everett Public Library or if you’re lucky enough to be planning a vacation and need a good book to take along. This list has a little bit of everything so there may be just the right book for you. Let’s start with non-fiction.

indexCA1ADCTLFlash Boys: a Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis is on my list since I read Boomerang and I thought that it was the bomb. This guy also wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side and other excellent books. It reads like a John Grisham novel, but it’s a true story about stock exchanges, high frequency traders, and dark pools. The author is great at explaining complicated technical subjects and telling a good story around them. I want to read it!

indexCA63IMS4Leonardo and the Last Supper has been by my bedside for a few weeks now. It’s excellent! I was an art history major in college and I’ve learned so much more from this book about the creation of this Renaissance masterpiece. Mr. King has managed to focus on a particular theme and give the reader as much information as needed to really understand it. Another of his earlier books accomplished the same thing, Brunelleschi’s Dome, which I can also recommend.

indexCAAEEVC8The President and the Assassin: McKinley, terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century is a great book (obvious from the first chapter) by Seattle author, Scott Miller. He creates a portrait of turn of the century America going back and forth between an under-appreciated president, William McKinley and his anarchist assassin, Leon Czolgosz. This was a time when the powerful were growing more powerful and desperate men turned to terrorism. Sound familiar?

And now for some fiction:

index (16)I have to read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because my daughter heard her give a talk recently in Copenhagen and apparently it’s wonderful. The author takes on immigration, race, and what it means to leave home and to return, all wrapped up in a love story. Adichie has also written Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus. The first chapter alone is marvelous. Let’s all get with it and read this one.

indexCAZNZBA7The Care of Wooden Floors by Will WIles was recommended to me by two co-workers so I checked it out and my husband read it while we were on vacation. Even though I couldn’t read it, he confirmed that it is funny and interesting and a good book.  It’s an odd couple story of a fellow who house sits for a composer friend. He accidentally spills wine on the apartment’s priceless wooden floor and endures a disastrous week of perfectionist repair and maintenance.

index (1)Delicious! is by Ruth Reichl. I’ve read all of her memoirs from Garlic and Sapphires to Tender at the Bone. This is her first attempt at fiction and she certainly writes about what she knows: the heroine is a woman who works for a venerable food magazine that suddenly ceases publication. It looks like a pretty fun and fast read, and if you’re looking for a souffle-type novel, you could do worse! Plus, the cover is lovely.

indexBroken Harbor is Tana French’s new ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ crime novel and it’s supposed to be every bit as brilliant as her three earlier books featuring that tough cop, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy. This is a murder story which seems easy to solve at first until the details don’t add up. Read this one to get the atmosphere of an Ireland hit hard by the recession, an idea of police procedure and to become engrossed in a well written who dunnit.

index (1)The Possibilities is written by Kaui Hart Hemmings who also wrote The Descendants. You’ll remember that movie with George Clooney. This new book follows a similar theme of family and loss and is set in the paradise of Breckenridge, Colorado. A single mom is grieving the loss of her son, Cully, in an avalanche when a strange girl shows up with a secret from Cully’s past.

indexThe Vacationers by Emma Straub  will take you all the way to the beaches of Spain, where a family’s dramas are set against the beautiful background of a lush vacation. It will leave you feeling like you were just on a family trip — laughing, exhausted and filled with love.

So, check out one of these books to take on your next vacation or simply read one for a great ‘staycation’. Either way, enjoy!

Books to Read before the Movie Premieres

I’d like to augment Alan’s series on books which have been made into movies with this list of 2014 movies which are based on books. This is going to be an awesome year at the movies and you’ll enjoy the them even more if you check out these books from the library and read them before viewing the films. Here they are in order of release date.

index (34)1. The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter. The book: The true story of art historians who joined the armed forces during World War II to try to track down and save as much fine art as possible before and after Hitler got his hands on it. The movie: Will be released February 7th and stars a fantastic cast including: George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray.

index2. Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. The book: Takes readers on a journey to New York of the Belle Époque, where Peter Lake attempts to rob a Manhattan mansion only to find the daughter of the house at home. Thus begins the love between the middle-aged Irishman and Beverly Penn, a young girl who is dying. The movie: This romantic fantasy comes out February 14th and stars Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and Jessica Brown Findlay.

index (1)3. Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. The book: Try to read at least the first book in this series. There are way too many sexy vampire books out there, but with a mythology different from your typical vampire story, a novel this dark is definitely worth your time. The movie: Will also be released February 14th and stars Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, and Sarah Hyland.  It was made by the directors of Mean Girls.

index (2)4. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. The book: Tells the story of four people who encounter one another on the roof of Topper’s House, a London destination famous as the last stop for those ready to end their lives. It is told in four distinct voices and manages to be humorous and somber at the same time. The movie: Stars Aaron Paul, Rosamund Pike, Imogen Poots and Pierce Brosnan and will be released March 7th.

index (3)5. Divergent by Veronica Roth. The book: Set in a world where you’re placed in neat little categories called factions, it’s dangerous to be someone like Tris — someone who is Divergent. Being Divergent means you don’t just belong in one category, and it also means you can’t be controlled. This is a frightening world, but a must-read book. The movie: Stars Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley and Theo James and will be in theaters March 21st.  Scary!

index (4)6. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. The book: Will have you laughing and crying and then crying some more since it is a beautifully written romance between two terminally ill young people. It is a beautiful story about life and death. The movie: Also stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort and will be out June 6th. Remove your mascara and take tissue with you to this emotional movie based on the book.

index (5)7. The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais. The book: The story starts with a tragedy in Mumbai, India and follows the family around the world until they land in Lumiere, France where they open an Indian restaurant one hundred feet from a fancy french restaurant. The movie: Helen Mirren will play Madame Mallory who is initially infuriated when the new restaurant is such a success, but then softens and takes the young man under her wing. Release date is August 8th.

index (6)8. The Giver by Lois Lowry. The book: The Giver,  the 1994 Newbery Medal winner, follows the story of a boy who is given the responsibility of remembering the history of the world that existed before the establishment of the Utopian society in which he now lives. Profound and full of important messages, this is definitely a novel that should be on your ‘To Be Read’ list. The movie: Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep make this a highly anticipated movie and Taylor Swift tries acting. The release date is August 15th.

index (7)9. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. The book: This is a dark twisted tale with despicable characters and a sometimes harrowing, but well developed, plot which some readers may find just too uncomfortable to read. It’s not a happy story or a feel good book. On the other hand, if you like a little of the above, then Dark Places will keep you turning the pages and have you sitting up and reading long into the night. The movie: To be released September 1st with Charlize Theron.

index (8)10. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. The book: Simultaneously mourning the death of his father and the end of his marriage, Judd joins the rest of the Foxmans as they reluctantly submit to their patriarch’s dying request to spend the seven days following the funeral together. In the same house. Like a family. The book is hilarious. The movie: With Jason Bateman and Tina Fey. Enough said. To be released September 12th.

index (9)11. The Maze Runner by James Dashner. The book: The Maze Runner is the first book in the trilogy of the same name by James Dashner. It is the story of Thomas, who wakes up in a strange place and can remember nothing more than his name. Set in a mysterious place surrounded by a maze that changes every night and contains hideous monsters within its walls, this is a sci-fi thriller that’s a little bit Lord of the Flies and a little bit The Hunger Games.The movie: With the release date of September 19th, features Dylan O’Brien and Kaya Scodelario.

index (10)12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The book: Amy mysteriously disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary and it’s looking more and more like her husband Nick was involved. This thrilling book will translate into a great suspenseful movie. The movie: With Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, it will be out on October 3rd just in time for the Halloween season.

index (11)13. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The book: the true story of Louis Zamperini, a track star from the 1930’s who participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then became an airman in WWII.  His plane went down in the Pacific Ocean and the story is fascinating. The movie: To be released on Christmas day, directed by Angelina Jolie, and starring Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, and Domhnall Gleeson.

index (12)14. Wild by Cheryl Strand. The book: Chreyl lost both her mother and her marriage in quick succession, so with nothing left to lose, she decided to hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.  It is a story of wilderness salvation and survival, both internally and externally. The movie: Will be released sometime in 2014 and will star Reese Witherspoon.

index (13)15. Serena by Ron Rash. The book: The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena learns that she will never bear a child, and sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. The movie: A must-see since it stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. To be released sometime this year.

Well, there you have it. Read the book first so the movie will be all the better. Enjoy! Go Seahawks!

Not Just a Pretty Face

The Magicians coverLike a literary magpie, I am drawn to pretty, shiny, exciting things. I often enter the library without a clue about what I want to read. I wander and browse until something jumps out at me – a cool spine design, a flashy cover, a witty title. It doesn’t take much.

I judge books by their covers.

Sometimes this approach backfires, but more often than not, I find that I like the book if I like the way the author has chosen to decorate it. It could be dumb luck, or perhaps the author and I agree on some deep, mystical, aesthetic level. Either way, I’ve been happy with my track record, and I’d like to share some of my favorite ‘window shopping’ finds:

Dreams and Shadows coverDreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill. This book will appeal to anyone who is into folklore, mythical creatures, and generally wizardy stuff. Cargill’s style of writing was right up my alley – a little bit edgy, but sprinkled with humor and an occasional academic interlude to fill in more information about some of the supernatural beings that are involved in his story. I feel this book was left open-ended enough that it could be turned into the first of a series, or it could remain as a good stand-alone work. Those who liked American Gods may be into this.

Utopian Man coverUtopian Man by Lisa Lang. This was a really lovely read from start to finish. I enjoyed getting lost in the world that Edward William Cole, our Utopian Man, was trying to create with his glorious Arcade. Setting the story in 19th-Century Melbourne made the book all the more fascinating, as it’s a time and place that is very unknown and exotic to me. I think the author brings this feeling of newness and excitement across very well to the reader. This is a light read full of beautiful imagery, a little bit of conflict, and a lot of imagination.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. I’ve already raved about this book in another post, so I’ll get to the important part. This book jacket GLOWS IN THE DARK! Aside from it being a great book, what more do you need to know?

Deathless coverDeathless by Catherynne Valente. 2/3 Russian fairy tale, 1/3 history of Russia from the death of the Tsar through the Siege of Leningrad. It took me a couple of chapters to warm up to this book, mainly because I didn’t know what it was I was getting into: fantasy, a dream sequence, a paranoid delusion, or allegory. Once I figured out how I related to the book, I was drawn in. Deathless reads primarily like a folktale, punctuated with passages full of beauty, mystery, hardship, poetry, mythology, joy, and melancholy. While the library doesn’t own Deathless, I was able to get it through Interlibrary Loan. EPL does have many of Valente’s other titles on shelf.

Age of Wonder coverThe Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. I picked this one up shortly after I finished grad school. I found a note I’d written about it on GoodReads while I was reading the book that made me chuckle: “Interesting subject matter, but perhaps a bit more dense than my poor brain wants to deal with so soon after graduating. Recovery is a long, hard road. I’m sticking it out though, for the greater good.” I am happy to report that it was worth it, and that I learned a lot about science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As grueling as I made it sound, the book was quite a pleasure to read.

Super Sad True Love Story coverSuper Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. SSTLS is kind of an odd book for me. Generally when I love a book, I love it from the beginning. With this story, my feelings sometimes bordered on hate, and for the most part, hovered in the area of disinterest. Then a funny thing happened: I finished the story and let it marinate in my brain for a while. Soon enough, ideas from SSTLS started popping up in conversations with friends and they would immediately jump in saying that they’d read the same book and completely agreed. Similar to the movie Idiocracy, SSTLS delivers a darkly humorous appraisal of the future of mankind that occasionally seems prophetic when watching the news.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Kind of like Harry Potter, but for grown folks. I went on to read the sequel, The Magician King, and enjoyed it just as much. I would recommend Grossman for anyone who likes a little humor and sarcasm to go along with their fantasy reads.

Travels in Siberia coverTravels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. Before I knew that Ian Frazier was awesome, I stumbled upon his cover for Travels in Siberia. I thought it was lovely and that combined with my odd fascination with all things Russian was enough to get me to put it on hold. I was not disappointed. I think those who enjoy the kind of travel writing one gets from Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson would really connect with this author.

Lisa

Grilled Salmon and DEET

Lisa with apple in front of mountains

Demonstrating advanced trail food preparation

When my husband and I moved here from Chicago, I thought that I was finally coming into my element. Mountains, ocean – all the things the Midwest couldn’t provide. We had mastered what the flatland could offer us in regards to camping, so we were ready to up our game. For those of you lucky enough to have been born and raised in this lovely region, you know that my attitude was like thinking I was ready to play in the MLB because I batted cleanup in t-ball. Thankfully my husband was more experienced in these matters, and managed to keep up safe, dry, happy, and entertained in the wild. He’s since joined the Mountaineers and has been scrambling on the tops of mountains, while I have contented myself with scrambling eggs at camp and taking photos of mountains from the relative safety of familiar flat land.

Needless to say, I have some learning to do. I think I’m finally over the hump of thinking I’m always on the verge of being eaten by bears. Seeing a bear retreat in horror from my loud approach last weekend helped me realize that they don’t want to deal with me either. Now I’m going through the enjoyable process of checking out the library’s resources on all things outdoors. I know this isn’t a shock, but there is a lot here to get through.

Scout's Backpacking Cookbook

Not surprisingly, my first foray into outdoor ed. was the cooking section. It looks like I may be able to salvage that ill-conceived food dehydrator purchase from the kitchen gadget bone-yard after all. There are a ton of books in this area, so I quickly eliminated anything to do with RV or car camping (we’ve got that down). My favorite was The Scout’s Backpacking Cookbook, by Tim and Christine Conners. This book was packed with useful information about equipment, cooking techniques, meal planning, safety, ‘Leave No Trace’ cooking and camping, and recipes. There were also wonderful appendices that provided measurement advice, additional reading, and helpful websites.

Other picks:

The Trailside Cookbook by Don Philpott

Camp Cooking in the Wild by Mark Scriver

Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Washington CascadesWith the food taken care of, choosing a destination was my next priority. When we camp, we choose our destination based on a few different things. Weather is the most obvious determining factor; last weekend we went over the mountains to find the sun. On other trips we’ve selected sites because they were off pleasant drives, or offered a selection of excellent hikes. The Mountaineers Books has a fantastic series of Day Hiking titles that cover different regions of Washington and Oregon. My favorite book that I found about exploring Washignton was the Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Washington Cascades, by Allan May. May created a guide to geography, history (human and natural), and recreation in the Washington Cascades, all wrapped into a very enjoyable read.

Note: Sometimes published info about campgrounds, trails, and roads can be outdated. To be certain that you can actually get to where you’d like to go, call ahead to the ranger station in the area you’re planning to visit to make sure that everything is open.

The Backpacker's ManualLast, and certainly not least, I looked into info on safety and preparation. This is perhaps the largest section of outdoor materials we have because there is much to be said on the topic. For a beginner’s overview to all things backpacking, The Smart Guide to Hiking and Backpacking is a good place to start. More advanced advice on trip planning, cooking equipment, and more can be found in The Backpacker’s Field Manual, by Rick Curtis. I found some really helpful illustrations and ‘how to’s’ in Basic Illustrated Wilderness First Aid, but I strongly recommend attending some courses on the topic if you are serious about venturing into remote areas. If not, be sure to trek with someone who has.

Other titles that I found helpful tips in:

Hiking with Dogs by Linda B. Mullally

Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips by Mike Clelland

Making Camp: A Complete Guide for Hikers, Mountain Bikers, Paddlers & Skiers by Steve Howe, et al.

So there you have it – my newbie backpacker reading list. Come in and browse the shelves; there’s a lot more here for those who are more advanced than I am. As for me? I have a date with the food dehydrator – who doesn’t want to try powdered cheese?

Lisa

Timothy Egan and Nancy Pearl at the Library!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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