More than 100 years separate the flood of characters in Jonathan Evison’s bracing epic novel, and yet as different as their lives are, some truths remain solid despite the passage of time. Men will attempt to forge into the unknown whether they’re mapping dangerous uncharted territory or trying to prove the existence of Bigfoot. Women will strain against the uncomfortable limits of domesticity, and visionaries will eventually run smack into harsh reality. And mountains, well, mountains will always work nicely as metaphors for the greatness we might achieve even if we never will.
West of Here is a sprawling tragicomic novel about identity — national and personal — that’s as entertaining as it is insightful into the human need to make a mark on the landscape. The land in question here is Port Bonita on Washington State’s Olympic peninsula, at the mouth of the mighty Elwha River, where Evison’s parallel stories dovetail the town of 1890 (prostitutes, Shakers, adventurers, entrepreneurs) with its present (Walmart, casinos, KFC, Sasquatch hunters). The original citizens are a mix of rough-and-tumble opportunists, doomed Native Americans and motivated dreamers who envision Port Bonita’s future as a rival to Seattle (which has conveniently just burned to the ground). Their modern descendants desire things, too: companionship, better jobs, a loosely defined freedom. They are slowly realizing, however, that a big payment is coming due for all of their ancestors’ miscalculations.
Click here to read the rest of my review of West of Here.
The question is familiar to runners around the world: "Why does my foot hurt?" They ask and almost never like the most common reply: "Because running is bad for you."
When Christopher McDougall asked, though, the answers led him to write Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, which is the best nonfiction book I've read in a long, long time. Funny, thrilling and endlessly fascinating, the book follows McDougall as he heads off into the wilds of Mexico's Copper Canyons in search of the reclusive Tarahumara Indians, a tribe of little-known superathletes, to whom running is as natural as breathing. There he meets the "gringo indio" Caballo Blanco, a mysterious runner with the dream of bringing the best marathoners to Mexico for a race with the Tarahumara.
The journey introduces McDougall to the world of ultra running and its quirky, driven stars (none of whom would fall under the conventional description of "normal"); doctors and researchers who believe mankind evolved as a running people; and the Tarahumara, who run with astonishing passion and freedom. The conclusions McDougall comes to - that Nike did more damage to runners than rocky trails; that with gear, less is more; that we were indeed born to run - are well-thought out and plausible, and his wryly humorous tone propels the action and, after the book has wandered far and wide, neatly ties everything together.
I'm not a runner and probably never will be; you will never see my name on a list of participants in the diabolical 100-mile race through the mountains of Leadville, Colo. I probably won't even jog around the block anytime soon. But you don't have to log in 20 miles a day to appreciate McDougall's riveting tale. Actor Fred Sanders reads the audio version wonderfully, reeling out tension during the races and reflecting McDougall's laid-back humor and sense of wonder about all he was learning.
McDougall, who appeared last fall at Miami Book Fair International, was one of the highlights of the event. If you didn't get to see him, fear not. Reading Born to Run is every bit as entertaining as the man himself. Do not miss it.
“Ron Rash’s Burning Bright is the best short collection I’ve read in years. It’s the perfect follow-up to his masterful Serena. These stories, like Rash himself, emerge from a land steeped in toil and washed in blood, where the people of southern Appalachia wrestle with hardships that they know will either destroy them or save them. These days few authors care about the hard lives of poor people, but Rash understands and writes about them as no one else does.”
RON COOPER, author of Purple Jesus
“I recommend Chelsea Cain’s Heartsick to anyone who will listen. It’s about Portland detective Archie Sheridan, a man obsessed with the female serial killer who held him captive and tortured him for days before inexplicably deciding to let him live. Now back on the job and addicted to painkillers, Sheridan is a shattered version of who he once was. His dysfunctional relationship with his now imprisoned, former captor is entrancing – especially as he needs her help in tracking down another killer.’’
Leslie Tentler, author of Midnight Caller
"We wear our names heavily,” admits the narrator of Eleanor Brown’s delightful debut novel about three adult sisters raised in a Shakespeare-obsessed household. How easily can one adjust to and cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with such names as Rosalind (who dresses like a boy in As You Like It), Bianca (not even the most interesting woman in The Taming of the Shrew) and Cordelia (favorite but doomed daughter of King Lear)? Especially in an academically proficient family that chooses reading over watching TV and “has always communicated its deepest feelings through the words of a man who has been dead for almost four hundred years.”
No, adjusting to change is not easy for Rose, Bean and Cordy, who find themselves firmly lodged in the roles they’ve played all their lives: Rose the capable helper who stays at home with her parents in their small Ohio college town; Bean the bad girl with exquisite taste who lives large in New York City; Cordy the wanderer who hasn’t had a home since she left home. But change they must when their mother is diagnosed with breast cancer and a series of other events (a financial scandal, an unexpected pregnancy, a surprising job offer) throws them into a tailspin, sending Bean and Cordy home and Rose into a tizzy over how to share responsibility.
Named for MacBeth’s witches, The Weird Sisters is essentially a domestic comedy/drama that follows the sisters as they come to terms with their new living arrangement, their mother’s illness, their fears for their father, their individual torments. But Brown doesn’t make things easy on herself. She bestows distinct traces of prickliness, self-obsession and irresponsibility on her women. They’re not storybook heroines but as susceptible to bad behavior as any of us. And she uses a first-person plural narrator — a collective we that speaks for every sister yet not any specific one — with a scope wide enough to view their inner turmoils and outer mistakes with wry understanding. The trick could have failed, yet it somehow doesn’t and pulls us into the heart of the family circle.
The constant quoting of Shakespeare by one and all seems a bit much at times: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much,’’ would be fairly easy to work into a normal conversation, but “No, no, I am as ugly as a bear; for beasts that meet me run for fear” or “And what remains will hardly stop the mouth of present dues; the future comes apace; what shall defend the interim” is a stretch even from a scholar’s lips. Still, I want to hope people could talk that way. That’s Brown’s great gift: She draws you in and makes you believe her weird sisters aren’t so weird after all.
"Willie Geist’s American Freak Show; I just read it and loved it. Also I love cookbooks, so I loved Double Delicious! by Jessica Seinfeld. And I got this for Christmas, a huge coffee table book that’s very intense, Edith Head: The 50 Year Career of the Greatest Costume Designer by Jay Jorgensen. I’m always looking for the offbeat things.”
Adriana Trigiani, author of Brava, Valentine
“Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt, a great thinker who just died of a terrible illness last year. He was a public intellectual, and this book is his dying testament . . . . He was a great historian, and he talks about the last few decades, the economic crash, the trends toward self interest and selfishness and unbridled free marketeering and a return to the idea of the public good and shared values. I found it very stimulating.’’
Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists
I understand if you missed it in hardback when it was released last January. You're a busy person. And there are just so many books to read. But now that it's out in paperback, allow me to remind you: Amy Bloom's story collection Where the God of Love Hangs Out was one of the best books of 2010. Somehow it escaped our best-of-the-year list, probably because I read it so long ago and/or am an increasingly addled person.
In any case, Random House has published a paperback edition, and if you're searching for a book club selection, Bloom offers plenty to talk about. Some of the stories are linked; others aren't. Either way, you can't quite shake their lingering effects.
Here's what I wrote in my review last year:
"Where the God of Love Hangs Out is Bloom's third collection of stories, and one is tempted to say it's her best. But such assessments are difficult. Author of the highly praised novels Love Invents Us and Away, Bloom also gave us the terrific National Book Award finalist Come to Me and the evocatively titled A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Say, then, that Where the God of Love Hangs Out is compelling, moving, shocking, written with compasion and understanding and generously reflective of the fragility of our lives."
"Two books that at first glance seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum: Richard Wright’s Black Boy and David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp. Then you read them, and realize they both deal with identity of the self in different – and brilliant – ways.”
Micah Nathan,author of Losing Graceland