Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Feathers by Thor Hanson

The Nature of Words is a great literary event that happens in Bend every November. This year I was lucky enough to go to a workshop by Thor Hanson. At that point I’d only read his memoir about being in the Peace Corps: The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda. Definitely an engaging story and one to read if you’re thinking of being in the Peace Corps or wishing you had been. 

Feathers is a completely different book. It’s exactly what it sounds like – all about feathers. Some main sections are about the evolution of feathers, their use in flight, in attracting mates, and their use by humans. I wouldn’t have thought this would be so interesting, but the material is rather fascinating and the author’s trips are pretty neat. His visits include Las Vegas to see feathers used in showgirl outfits, the Pacific Coast Feather Company and the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. He includes interesting tidbits such as the most valuable cargo on the Titanic was 40 cases of feathers and does some of his own experiments like making a quill pen and fossils. 

By far the most interesting part of the book to me was the discussion of a fossil Archaeopteryx lithographica, a fossil with the skeleton of a reptile and the feathers of a bird. Hanson goes into much discussion of later fossil finds including those of  theropod  dinosaurs with feathers and what impact this has on understanding the development of feathers over time. It’s summarized by evolutionary biologist Kevin Padian in simple language, “ ‘The earth is round, the sun doesn’t go around it, the continents move, and birds evolved from dinosaurs.’ ”

Hanson has a chapter devoted to the Birds of Paradise, which are found only on New Guinea. The December 2012 issue of National Geographic has an article where 39 of the different species have been photographed. I would have loved to have looked at this article again after reading this book, but my kids had already cut out many of the pictures.

This is a surprisingly fun read and makes me think of feathers in a new way. I have a tenuous connection to the author in that I went on a trip to Florida with his brother and other swimmers in high school. In fact I think he might be around the same age as another former swimmer turned writer from the same area – Ryan Boudinot, whose book of short stories I reviewed previously.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

I grew up on the rainy side of the Cascades. I moved away for awhile and was freaked out by a year of blue skies in Northern California as they went through a drought, but then got pretty used to it. Dry skies and actual seasons for a few years in Colorado seemed pretty neat and we moved back to that on the dry East side of the Cascades. I talked with someone in Salem before our move who commented on it being the 99th day of straight rain; it seemed like he was bragging! All this to explain why I do feel somewhat nostalgic about books set in Seattle, or points north, that bring up rain and blackberries (one thing I do miss about the rainy side). Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins is an example of this somewhat limited genre as is Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette has a whacky contemporary feel to it. Bernadette is trying to adjust to life in Seattle after moving from LA – it’s been more than 10 years since they moved. She’s married and has an 8th grader at a nearby private school. She calls all the other parents at the school “gnats.” That gives you an idea of how well she’s adjusting. Her husband is a big shot at Microsoft and there’s even a depiction of him giving a TED talk in the book. If you haven’t listened to any TED talks before, here’s a good one to start with: The author also likes it.

The action starts to really pick up when Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, requests a trip to Antarctica. Bernadette doesn’t really leave the house so this entails her hiring a virtual assistant from India. The story is partly told via the e-mails between Bernadette and this assistant. It’s also told from the point-of-view of her daughter after Bernadette’s gone missing and Bee is trying to find any information about her at all. Bernadette’s back story as an architect is pretty interesting. 

This is a fun book. I think PNW’s will appreciate it as well as any of those exiled from these parts and missing it. If anyone knows of other fiction books that fit into this genre, I’d love to hear about them.

Friday, November 23, 2012

When the Killing's Done by T. C. Boyle

I have one of T. C. Boyle’s books, The Tortilla Curtain, in my top ten favorite fiction list. I was happy to see he had a new novel come out recently. After reading it, I think I might like it even more than The Tortilla Curtain. Boyle has an interesting way of taking current controversial topics and forcing you to see the craziness on both sides.

The title refers to the removal, by the National Park Service, of non-native invasive species from the Northern Channel Islands near Santa Barbara. Headed by biologist Alma Boyd Takesue they plan to remove first rats from one island and then pigs from another. These plans are fiercely opposed by Dave LaJoy, who is against the killing of any creature. There are some interesting back stories as well. Alma’s grandmother was shipwrecked on one of the islands and Dave’s girlfriend spent time living on another one.

The book has a crazy scene on Santa Cruz Island with Dave and his crew trying to sabotage the pig hunt while Alma is with the pig hunters. It’s a disaster in the way that only Boyle’s books can pull off plausibly.

I highly recommend this book, although it’s not a feel good type of book. It did make me want to visit these islands though.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin

This novel is based on the diary (and other material) of an American in Nanjing when the Japanese invaded in 1937. Minnie Vautrin is the temporary head of a small Christian college funded by donations from the US. Most of the faculty and students as well as the president have gone elsewhere as it becomes more and more evident Nanjing is going to be attacked.

The story is told from the point-of-view of Anling, who helps Minnie run the school. They make elaborate plans so that the school can be a place for women and children refugees and figure out where they may be able to put 2000 people. The actual invasion is, of course, more chaotic and they end up with more than 10,000 refugees.

This novel is almost like two different stories. The horrors of the attack of Nanjing are detailed. It is a fiction book, but obviously based on historical events. Minnie has to make some terrible decisions and fights to keep the refugees on campus safe. After the fighting is over and the occupation of Nanjing continues, the action slows down dramatically.

It is still challenging as many of the refugees stay. Minnie open a school for them to learn crafts, but a former president, Mrs. Dennison, arrives and wants to return the college to the way it was without really understanding all that happened over the past year. Anling also faces her own problems with a son who was studying in Japan at the time the war broke out and a husband being pressured to join a puppet government.

Here Minnie goes on a short vacation about a year and a half after the initial attack. She’s suffering from depression and the stress of dealing with Mrs. Dennison who wants to get of the rest of the refugees. She comes back to find many gone.

“Minnie rebuked herself for caring too much about her personal feelings and about losing face. How could she let petty personal disputes stand in the way of more important matters, such as saving a woman’s life and protecting the two schools? … She couldn’t escape feeling small-minded. How could she make amends? The more she thought about her faults, the more disappointed she was in herself. ”

Nanjing Requiem is a worthwhile, but difficult, book to read. It is difficult because of the depictions of war and war crimes committed on civilians. It would be really interesting to read Minnie Vautrin’s actual diary, but I don’t think that’s very accessible.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Straight Man is one of my favorite books. I find it laugh out loud funny and I don’t say that about many books. The main character and narrator, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., aka Hank, is the chairman of an English department at a college in Pennsylvania.

Here’s how one committee meeting ends:

“The spiral notebook caught me full in the face with enough force to bring tears to my eyes. Everyone, including Finny, who brought to meetings he chaired the emotional equilibrium of a cork in high seas, looked on, bug-eyed. But what confused me was the fact that the notebook Gracie used remained, unaccountably, right in front of my face. For an irrational moment I actually thought she had written something on the cover that she was inviting me to read. Cross-eyed, I tried to examine what was before my nose. Only when I realized that Gracie was in fact trying to retrieve her notebook, and that each tentative tug sent a sharp pain all the way up into my forehead, only then did I realize that the barbed end of the spiral ring had hooked and punctured my right nostril, that I was gigged like a frog and leaning across the table toward Gracie like a bumbling suitor begging a kiss.”

It’s a tense time at the college with rumors of massive cuts in state funding and, therefore, potential faculty cuts. Hank is also dealing with turning 50, his professor father coming to town after leaving him and his mother 40 years ago, his daughter’s troubled marriage, and animal rights activists protesting his threats against a goose.

It’s a fun read. You’ll especially appreciate if you’ve ever sat through endless committee meetings. I also learned about scrapple – a common listing at breakfast restaurants in Pennsylvania, yet I could never get a straight answer about exactly what it was.

“It turns out that scrapple is like a lot of food that’s conceptually challenging. That is, better than you might expect. We chew our intestines in silence until Mr. Purty sees me grinning and reads my thought. ‘I’d never ask your mother to eat scrapple,’ he assures me.”