Mosley & Woodrell

 

As I was packing for my recent trip to London, I wondered if I should even bother bringing along a novel unrelated to my teaching. My mind was focused on the loose ends that still needed tying up before the class began and I didn’t think I’d have time anyway.

Well, I was wrong about that. Turns out I read not one, but two delicious crime novels on the way to and from England.

I’d picked up “Devil in a Blue Dress” by Walter Mosley several months ago. I knew of Mosley’s reputation as a crime noir author and also was aware it had been made into a movie starring Denzel Washington in the role of Easy Rawlins.

It’s 1948 in Los Angeles and Rawlins has just been laid off from his job when he stops in for a drink at a friend’s bar in Watts and lays eyes upon a stranger.

“I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar. It’s not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk stocks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. one lick of strawberry-blond fair escaped the band on his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not a color I’d ever seen in a man’s eyes. When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.”

With that as the opening paragraph, I was hooked.

devil in a blue dress coverEasy agrees to do the white man a favor for a nice chunk of change. Of course, that leads to another favor and then another, with increasing reward and increasing risk. Soon enough, Easy is in deeper than he’d like. But the white man, Mr. Albright, seems to have all the leverage.

The plot revolves around Easy’s search for a blonde, blue-eyed beauty, someone whose whereabouts matter greatly to Mr. Albright’s client. It’s a captivating story, made all the more interesting because the woman, like Albright, sticks out in L.A.’s black community.

Mosley is a first-rate storyteller. His characters run the gamut of the working class and the dialogue crackles in a way that’s reminiscent of Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler, yet uniquely his own.

I’ll be reading more of Mosley, for sure. He’s written more than 40 books, including a bestselling series featuring Easy Rawlins. Two thumbs up for “Devil in a Blue Dress.”

***

On a whim, I stopped into a used bookstore in the Notting Hill section of London. I emerged with “Winter’s Bone,” a novel I’d read years earlier. The author is Daniel Woodrell and it’s the book that helped propel him to fame, along with Jennifer Lawrence, who starred in the lead role of teenager Ree Dolly when the novel was made into a movie.

Woodrell has long been one of my favorite authors. I wrote about him several years ago on the original Rough and Rede blog (“The best of Daniel Woodrell”) and had the pleasure of meeting him at Portland’s Wordstock festival.

winters boneI don’t re-read novels, and I can’t explain why I picked up this book again, but I’m glad I did. The story was familiar, but enough years had passed that I’d forgotten some of the details and the brilliance of Woodrell’s prose.

Ree lives in the Missouri Ozarks, part of a multi-generation clan of brawling, feuding, Dollys who are zealously tribal in their distrust of the law and outsiders and prone to keep their loyalties and secrets to themselves. Most of the men have been in and out of prison, and their hardened women marry young, resigned to lives of making babies, and physical and verbal abuse. Oh, and just about every Dolly is doing meth.

With an absent dad, Ree is raising two younger brothers and caring for her mentally ill mother when a sheriff’s deputy stops by one day to let her know they’re about to lose their family home. Seems that Dad put the house up for collateral in order to get out of jail for his latest crime. If he doesn’t show up at his court hearing, the house will be forfeited.

Panicked, Ree has to somehow find her dad — or proof that he’s dead — in order to keep the house. In a family that doesn’t take too kindly too snitches, she turns to her father’s older brother for help.

“Uncle Teardrop was Jessup’s elder and had been a crank chef longer but he’d had a lab go wrong and it had eaten the left ear off his head and burned a savage melted scar down the neck to the middle of his back. There wasn’t enough ear nub remaining to hang sunglasses on. The hair around the ear was gone, too, and the scar on his neck showed above his collar. Three blue teardrops done in jailhouse ink fell in a row from the corner of the eye on his scarred side. Folks said the teardrops meant he’ three times done grisly prison deeds that needed doing but didn’t need to be gabbed about. They said the teardrops told you everything you had to know about the man and the lost ear just repeated it. He generally tried to sit with his melted side to the wall.”

This is the kind of sinister character that populates the novel. And Ree has to hope one of them will gab? Fat chance.

Two thumbs up for “Winter’s Bone.” Loved the book the second time around. Reminded me of why I admire Woodrell’s work.

Photograph of Walter Mosley: huffingtonpost

Photograph of Daniel Woodrell: Little Brown/Bruce Carr 

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“Slide!”

On this Fourth of July, I’ll pass on the fireworks and the patriotic fervor that has flipped our country upside down and cleaved a great divide among red- and blue-state Americans.

Instead, I’ll celebrate a delightful book about baseball, a boy’s adolescence, and a universal story of hope.  (And, boy, could we use some of that now.)

The book is “Slide!” and the author is Carl Wolfson, a neighbor of mine who was host of “Carl in the Morning” on two of Portland’s progressive talk radio stations from 2007 to 2016.

slide coverSlide has two meanings. One, the physical act of a runner sliding into a base. Two, the figurative act of a gradual decline.

In this case, Carl writes about his boyhood idols, the Philadelphia Phillies, and their historic collapse in the waning days of the 1964 season, when they suffered through an inexplicable losing streak (or slide) and squandered a chance to play in the World Series.

Several weeks ago, I attended an event at our neighborhood bookstore where Carl read from the book, took questions, and autographed copies for one and all. I’d just come off reading two books with pretty grim content, so I welcomed the respite offered by “Slide!”

I wasn’t disappointed. This coming-of-age memoir is fun, light reading, crafted with skill and wit by a guy who knows a thing or two about writing (he was a Communications major in college) and humor (he was a professional comedian before going into radio) and baseball. The subtitle hints at Carl’s tongue-in-cheek approach: “The Baseball Tragicomedy That Defined Me, My Family, and the City of Philadelphia — And How It All Could Have Been Avoided Had Someone Just Listened to My Lesbian Great Aunt.”

***

Though the event at Broadway Books was in mid-May and I read the book in June, it’s no accident that I’m writing about the book now. I’ve always associated the Fourth with baseball, the sport that truly was our national pastime when I was growing up. Inthe years since, Major League Baseball has been eclipsed by the NFL and the NBA, particularly among younger fans.

But in 1964, Carl and I would both turn 12 years old, cheering for teams on opposite sides of the country. Despite living near San Francisco, I was a Los Angeles Dodgers fan then. Carl was living in southern New Jersey, rooting for the underachieving Phillies. With just 12 games to play, the Phils had a seemingly insurmountable lead on their closest rivals in the National League and felt confident enough to print World Series tickets.

All of a sudden, they couldn’t win. They lost 10 of their last 12 games and finished in a second-place tie, one win short of the league championship. The St. Louis Cardinals, not the Phillies, would go on to play the New York Yankees in the ’64 Series.

Adult Carl writes about Young Carl and how the season unfolded for him against a backdrop of national tumult and change, amid a family filled with memorable characters, including his bickering parents, his staunchly Republican grandmother (who refused to carry a Roosevelt dime), and his mouthy lesbian great aunt, whose deep knowledge of baseball and strong opinions about the Phillies prompted her to write many a letter to the team’s front office about what they should do about this player or that one.

Though the book is undeniably about baseball, it’s also a broader look back at the early Sixties, when Young Carl is coming of age at a time of the Kennedy assassination, the Johnson-Goldwater campaign, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement. Race riots flared in several cities and Communist paranoia caused schoolchildren to dive under their desks during air raid drills.

Growing up with three sisters and as the new kid in town following a move from northern Virginia, Carl didn’t find much success on the playing field (his Little League nickname was “Lead Bottom”). But he did find in the Phillies a team to root for and bond with along with his parents and other family members.

In 1964, the Phillies were a newly and fully integrated team, with black and Latino players like Richie Allen, Cookie Rojas and Ruben Amaro taking their place in the lineup and on the bench alongside whites. That made a big impression on Carl.

“As a kid, my heroes were the Phillies — of all races,” he said at the May reading. “That was a very important lesson for a kid.”

The other lesson was one of hope, of holding onto optimism even as the defeats piled up. The Phillies had enjoyed a remarkable season, with star pitcher Jim Bunning throwing a no-hitter and outfielder Johnny Callison crushing a home run to win the All-Star Game. But they fell short, depriving Carl and his dad a chance to see the World Series, and breaking a city’s heart.

“The 1964 Phillies, though, had forever won my heart,” Carl writes. “If they finished in second place, they also gave me enough thrills for a lifetime. They were the team of my youth.”

You don’t have to be a Phillies fan or even a baseball fan to enjoy this book. It’s a refreshing take on the role sports can play in bringing people together, on the worldview of a suburban adolescent, and on the life lessons one can take away from disappointment and loyalty.

Well done, Carl.

Postscript: For me, this book was like a time machine. I remember my confusion trying to make sense of national politics and race relations at the same time, like Carl, that I found refuge in the sports section of the newspaper. I also vividly remember many of the ballplayers whose names are sprinkled throughout this book: Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson. They were the luminous stars of the early ’60s, when I played Little League, and fantasized about succeeding Maury Wills as the Dodgers shortstop.

A dazzling, discomforting novel

Small Backs cover

“The Small Backs of Children” is like nothing I’ve ever read. It is a mesmerizing novel about art, war, love, sex, violence and devastating emotional loss that earned Portland author Lidia Yuknavitch double honors at the 2016 Oregon Book Awards — the Ken Kesey Award For Fiction and the Readers Choice Award.

I’d heard of Yuknavitch from a couple of writer friends, but I had no inkling of what I was in for when I settled down to read the novel during a recent vacation. It’s been several weeks now since I devoured the book and still I find it difficult to find the right words to describe it.

Haunting? Disturbing? Provocative? Yes, it’s all of those.

It’s also bold, ingenious and riveting, with a plot that revolves around a young girl, scenes that bounce between Europe and the United States, dialogue that crackles, and a cast of characters who remain nameless throughout the book. Instead, they are referred to simply by their roles as artists — The Poet, The Filmmaker, The Writer, The Photographer, The Playwright, The Painter, The Performance Artist.

The story begins one winter night in Eastern Europe, when a young girl, a war orphan, comes upon a wolf caught in a metal trap. By the light of the moon, the animal chews its leg off to free itself and runs away. Without thinking, the girl squats over the severed limb and urinates on the blood and snow, a steam cloud rising as the relief of rising heat warms her skin.

“This is how the sexuality of a girl is formed — an image at a time — against white; taboo, thoughtless, corporeal,” Yuknavitch writes.

“She thinks: I do not want to die, but my life will always be like this — wounded and animal, lurching against white.”

Wow. With an opening like that, I was hooked.

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Lidia Yuknavitch’s latest book is “The Misfit’s Manifesto,” which grew out of her 2016 TED Talk “The Beauty of Being a Misfit.”

The girl is central to the narrative, but hardly a singular figure, as the plot pulls in the community of artists, one-by-one, to her story.

The Photographer, on assignment in a war zone in a nameless Eastern European country, happens upon the girl and her family running from a house when a blast obliterates the mother, father and brother and propels the child toward the camera, her hair lifting, her arms lifted up and out, her face glowing from the explosion. The Photographer captures the shot and wins prizes and international fame, but feels a void.

“What about her?” The Writer asks her best friend. “What became of her? How could you leave her to fate?”

It is a question that gets at the moral conflict between professional detachment and personal compassion, and The Writer, having delivered a stillborn daughter herself and now battling depression, becomes obsessed with learning what happened to the girl.

Worried by her fragile health, The Writer’s friends hatch a wild plot. They vow to find the girl — despite not knowing her name or where she lives — and bring her to the United States.

With each chapter, Yuknavitch introduces us to a member of that artistic community, including The Writer’s filmmaker husband, her playwright brother, a bisexual dominatrix poet, a performance artist, and her ex-husband, an egotistical painter who is known for excess when it comes to drugs, alcohol and sex.

The author holds back nothing with language or plot, creating vivid scenes around sex and violence that leap off the page and burn into your memory. Yuknavitch experiments with form and voice, and even writes five endings to the novel. It’s an amazing piece of work that leaves me wanting to know more about this Portland writer.

A self-proclaimed misfit, Yuknavitch grew up in an abusive home, won a college scholarship to swim for the University of Texas, got caught up in drugs and alcohol and lost the scholarship. She’s had three marriages, lost a daughter at birth, dropped out of college twice and spent some time homeless. Somehow she found her voice, followed her own path, re-enrolled in school and eventually earned a Ph.D in English Literature from the University of Oregon. She now teaches in the Portland area.

Yuknavitch delivered a  2016 TED Talk on her journey from misfit to writer that has garnered nearly 2.5 million views. No doubt I’ll be reading more of her work.

 

Read two excellent reviews of “The Small Backs of Children” by writers for The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times.

 

Walidah Imarisha and a call to action

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Walidah Imarisha was the keynote speaker at Portland State University’s annual MLK Jr. Tribute on Jan. 22, 2018.

Last summer I got the chance to meet Walidah Imarisha, a Black Studies scholar and author, at the 2017 Oregon Book Awards.

A friend invited me to attend the event and we chatted with Walidah in the lobby as she received congratulations from well-wishers. I left with an autographed copy of the book, “Angels with Dirty Faces,” and the hope that I would have a chance to run into her again.

That opportunity came Monday night at Portland State University. Walidah was the keynote speaker at the university’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture, an event that filled a ballroom on Jan. 22, one week after the holiday commemorating King’s birthday.

Walidah did not disappoint.

During an hourlong speech titled “Afrofuturism & Possibilities for Oregon,” Walidah mixed elements of history, science fiction, humor and seriousness. Along with references to civil rights icons Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and Dr. King, there was a mention of Ursula LeGuin, the celebrated author of socially conscious fantasy and science fiction novels. (Oddly, LeGuin died at her Portland home on the same day of the speech. She was 88, the same age Dr. King would be today had he had not been assassinated 50 years earlier.)

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Walidah Imarisha weaved several references to science fiction into her Jan. 22 speech at Portland State.

With an elegant Afro reminiscent of Angela Davis, Walidah alternated between the language of academia (“postcolonialism”) and everyday expressions (“nerding out” and “y’all”).  Mix everything together and the product was an entertaining, informative speech that made me glad I had read her book beforehand.

***

“Angels with Dirty Faces” is an eloquent critique of the U.S. criminal justice system. Ten years in the making, it’s a nonfiction book that begins with an array of statistics that paint a depressing picture – that of a country that incarcerates its citizens, particularly its black and brown ones, at a rate far greater than any other nation.

  • 70 percent of those incarcerated are people of color.
  • The majority of people in prison are there for nonviolent offenses.
  • The vast majority were never tried in front of a judge.
  • Over 90 percent of people in prison took a plea bargain.

But the book doesn’t dwell on policy recommendations or offer a magic bullet. Rather, its aim is to get readers to begin to see “those people who do harm” as human. “Flawed, damaged, and culpable, but still human.”

angels with dirty facesAnd so the book is presented as “three stories of crime, punishment and redemption,” with chapters devoted to a black inmate, a white inmate and the author herself.

One inmate, Kakamia, is Walidah’s adopted brother, serving a 15 years-to-life sentence for being involved in a murder when he was 15.  The other is Mac, an aging Irish mobster who worked as a hit man for the Gambino family in New York. Turns out the two men befriended each other while doing time together in a California prison.

Walidah tells their stories with empathy, not to excuse their criminal acts, but within the context of a bureaucratic system that dehumanizes the men and women who populate our nation’s prisons while also needlessly erecting petty barriers that make it next to impossible for visiting family members to connect meaningfully with their incarcerated spouses, children, parents and siblings.

It’s not a pretty picture. Walidah attacks the institutional racism that drives incarceration at starkly different rates for white and black Americans.

In telling her own story, Walidah recounts her childhood as the daughter of a black father and white mother, growing up on military bases overseas and eventually, at age 13, settling in Springfield, a conservative blue-collar town adjacent to liberal Eugene, home of the University of Oregon.

The overall approach – to put three faces on the criminal justice system – works well in driving the narrative. What could have been another academic treatise on a broken system instead becomes a compelling tale of two men – one black, one white – and a woman who is at once a scholar, an activist and a prisoner’s family member.

It helps that Walidah is a talented writer. She concludes:

“The pieces of the larger whole I hope to bring are the stories of angels with dirty faces. The capriciousness of fate. The idea that every person has the capacity to salvage their tattered humanity even in the moment before they take their last breath.”

***

Knowing Walidah’s personal story and worldview ahead of time made it easier to ponder the provocative questions that she raised in her MLK speech: What is the kind of world we want to live in? How do we go about building that kind of world?

The questions, she said, arose from an appreciation of Ursula LeGuin’s body of work in creating fictional worlds that turn convention on its head. Imarisha, in fact, is co-editor of the anthology “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.”

“Science fiction is not about escapism,” Walidah said. It is about envisioning a world of new possibilities free of militarism, capitalism and racism, she said. As I am not a fan of the fantasy genre, I had never thought of science fiction as a way to frame the idea of imagining a different, better world, especially when it comes to race relations.

walidah-leguin

Walidah Imarisha invoked the words of the late fantasy fiction author Ursula LeGuin in challenging her audience to envision a more just world.

Walidah pointed out that the United States was founded as something of a utopia in the sense of ordinary people rebelling against an oppressive system in England. In turn, the Oregon Territory, encompassing the entire Pacific Northwest, was settled as a “racist white utopia.” Oregon, she pointed out, entered the Union in 1857 as a free state but also with a state constitution that excluded blacks.

The state’s racist beginnings led, perhaps predictably, to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and any number of policies and practices intended to perpetuate economic, social and political inequalities.

More than 160 years later, the question remains of how to build a more just society.

walidah2

Last fall, the Portland African American Leadership Forum unveiled the People’s Plan, a 130-page document that addresses the needs of the city’s African American population.

***

Walidah is an impressive figure, and not just because of her tall stature. As a public speaker, she seems comfortable in her own body and totally in command of her subject.

I wish I’d started teaching at Portland State when Walidah was still there herself in the Black Studies Department. More recently, she has been teaching at Stanford University while immersing herself in a variety of writing and research projects.

walidah4

Walidah Imarisha’s image is projected on a screen in an overflow room at the Smith Memorial Union Ballroom at Portland State University.

Putting a nice cap on the evening, I took my daughter out for drinks and appetizers after the speech. Simone is as socially conscious as they come and over the years she has gifted me several books that have exposed me to different authors and perspectives.

What better way to close out the night than with mi hija, recalling different parts of the speech and catching up in general?

We’re all dreamers, aren’t we?

More than a week after I finished my first novel of 2018, I’m sitting down to gather my thoughts. There is so much good to say about “Behold the Dreamers,” the debut novel by Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian immigrant with some serious writing chops. And there are so many ways to begin this post.

Do I reference President Trump’s ugly remarks last week about people from “shithole countries”?

Do I reference the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech? (After all, I am writing this on the national holiday named for him.)

Or do I frame this in the context of the universal American Dream, the one to which generations of native-born and foreign-born Americans have aspired?

Maybe it’s best to keep all three in mind, for Mbue’s novel touches on the sentiments of all of them — from crass ignorance and resentment of outsiders to the amazing work ethic and striving for a better life embodied by so many newcomers to the United States.

***

Let’s start with the author. Imbolo Mbue is in her mid-30s. She hails from Limbe, a beach town of about 85,000 residents (a little smaller than Salem, Oregon) in southwestern Cameroon, a California-sized country in central Africa that borders Nigeria, and a former colony of Germany, France and England.

cameroon-location-on-the-africa-mapMbue has degrees from Rutgers University in New Jersey and Columbia University in New York City, where she now lives. She became a U.S. citizen in 2014.

“Behold the Dreamers,” published in 2016, won the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian and several other news outlets.

The awards are richly deserved. Mbue has written a book rich with insight into both American and Cameroonian culture, laced it with diction from her native country (a place where more than 200 languages are spoken, by the way), and delved into the minds and attitudes of people at both extremes of the socioeconomic scale.

***

The story is a familiar one. Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant, has come to New York City with his wife Neni and their 6-year-old son, hoping to provide a better life for his family. Jende lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a workaholic executive at Lehman Brothers, but he also has the responsibility of driving Clark’s wife, Cindy, and their two sons on assorted trips across the city. Cindy at one point offers Neni temporary employment at the couple’s summer home in the Hamptons.

With these dual sources of income, and with Neni taking community college classes in hopes of becoming a pharmacist, the young immigrants make do in a tiny, cockroach-infested apartment in Harlem but are nevertheless optimistic about their future in America.

But there are two complications: Jende lied to Cameroonian authorities about his intentions in the U.S., so now he must rely on a sketchy legal adviser to help him gain permanent resident status or risk deportation, along with his wife and son. The other issue is that the story begins in the fall of 2007, a year before Barack Obama was elected president and the country was relatively stable. And timing is everything.

behold the dreamersAs the story progresses, the Great Recession takes hold and Mbue presents the perspectives of both couples.

From Cindy and Clark, we get the view from Wall Street and Manhattan; their affluence is beyond imaginable and the privileges that money brings seem to have no end.

From Jende and Neni, we get the view of constant struggle; nothing comes easily, whether it’s navigating the immigration system, trying to understand the ways of their new country, or conducting themselves in ways that will impress white Americans, or at least not threaten them.

With an extraordinary display of empathy, Mbue does not pass judgment on any of the four characters, She depicts their contrasting worlds — of the 1 percenters and of the newly arrived immigrants — not just through descriptive detail but also, more tellingly, through interactions and conversations between the husbands and the wives.

The lives of all four characters are inevitably affected by the tanking economy, and that’s when things get interesting.

Will Clark lose his job at Lehman Brothers? Will Jende lose his? How can Cindy maintain the appearance of a perfect life marked by material possessions and social outings with her equally rich friends? How can Neni stay on track toward her academic and career goals?

***

The beauty of the book is that it raises fundamental questions about the American Dream for both couples. Just what defines happiness? Is it money? Is it a feeling of belonging? Does professional success guarantee contentment? Does making a new life in America mean forsaking the previous one you had in the country when you were born?

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The writer Imbolo Mbue.

To her credit, Mbue presents the humanity in all her characters, as well as the path of upward mobility traveled by both couples. But it is in portraying the multiple pressures on the Jongas and the excruciating decisions they must face about family, finances and their future that she really shines.

I couldn’t help but read this book with a sense of appreciation for what immigrants have given this country along with a feeling of disgust toward those racist elements of our society that would gleefully slam the door shut on today’s immigrants — and even give the boot to DACA Dreamers.

All of us who are here in the United States aspire to some version of the American Dream, the idea that each generation strives to create a better future for our children. We may differ in the value we place on various material, social and familial markers, but I think it’s fair to say we are all dreamers, aren’t we?

Read more about Imbolo Mbue here.

Map: ontheworldmap.com

2017: A year of transitions

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In a year of transitions, Lori and George celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary in September.

This year has felt like no other.

Seeing the White House change hands from the most inspiring president of my lifetime to the least qualified and least compassionate was bad enough. Watching that train wreck of a human being proceed to drive even deeper wedges into an already splintered populace — well, that was even worse.

But I’m not here to dwell on politics.

No, not even Trump can take the luster off a year that produced plenty of memorable moments for the extended Rede family.

Yes, there was sadness with the passing of my dad, Catarino Allala Rede, just six days after he turned 91 in March.

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The scene at the funeral home in Silver City, New Mexico.

But even then, there was a silver lining to his passing. I got to do a mini-road trip with daughter Simone to and from the Phoenix airport to Dad’s home in southwestern New Mexico. There, we were reunited with my stepmother, my two sisters, a niece, a nephew, and assorted cousins that I hadn’t seen for several years.

It’s funny how life’s milestones — births, weddings and deaths — are those that bring families together from near and far. But when your siblings and other relatives are spread out all along the West Coast — from Alaska to Southern California — that’s the way it is.

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With my sisters Cathy (from Dillingham, Alaska) and Rosemary (from Oceanside, California).

Aside from Dad’s death, this year of transitions was dominated by our youngest son’s graduation from college, followed just days later by his move to Middle America.

In May, Jordan graduated with a degree in biology from St. Martin’s College, a small Benedictine school outside Olympia, Washington, where he had commuted for four years from his home in Spanaway, near Tacoma. It was a remarkable accomplishment for someone who began college just months after completing a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Army, including a one-year posting in Afghanistan, and who became a father during his junior year.

 

We had barely had time to celebrate before Lori and I returned to Spanaway to help Jordan and Jamie pack up their house for a 2,000-mile move to the University of Missouri. There in Columbia, Jordan would do science research in a fellowship program designed to help students prepare for the rigors of graduate school.

Father and son embarked on a four-day road trip, with me driving a 20-foot U-Haul truck and Jordan driving the family’s Honda Fit, packed to the gills and including their two dogs and one cat. I had envisioned the trip as an upbeat adventure, but it quickly took a dark turn when the U-Haul truck got a flat tire on the first day and again on the second day in remote areas of Idaho and Montana.

We made it on schedule, but only after pounding through really long third and fourth days where sightseeing took a back seat to the urgency of sticking to our schedule. We arrived late on a Friday, unloaded the truck’s contents on Saturday, and I flew home early Sunday.

 

How I wish Dad had lived to see his youngest grandchild graduate from college and become a father, as well.

As for the rest of 2017, well, it’s no wonder it feels like these 12 months flew by. Lots of memories and two end-of-year milestones.

Travel: We stuck close to home with three trips to our quiet cabin on Orcas Island. We always look forward to the week-long respite from urban life. The trips entails a 250-mile drive to Anacortes, where we board the ferry for a one-hour sailing to the island, and then an additional 45-minute drive to our place above Eagle Lake.

Pictures are worth a thousand words.

 

In early December, Lori and I returned to Missouri for a quick pre-Christmas visit. It was a joy to spend time with our sweet granddaughter, Emalyn, and her loving parents.

Books: Literature is a passport of its own, with talented authors opening doors to unfamiliar places, people and experiences. Among those I enjoyed this year were: “Among the Living and the Dead,” a memoir by my Latvian-American friend and former colleague, Inara Verzemnieks; “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” the last in the trilogy of Swedish crime thrillers churned out by the late Stieg Larsson; “Hillbilly Elegy,” a window into the Appalachian hillbilly culture written by one who escaped, J.D. Vance;  “Lab Girl,” a peek into the world of Hope Jahren, a pioneering research scientist; and “Evicted,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of American poverty through the  racist practice of eviction. (Racist? Read the book and you’ll see what I mean.)

 

Music: I like to think I have broad tastes, though family members would disagree.  But, what the heck. I think I did pretty well catching a handful of concerts featuring artists ranging from Janet Jackson and Coldplay to Lady Antebellum, Michelle Branch, Tuxedo, Liz Longley and ZZ Ward.

Movies: No links this year because I wasn’t as diligent as usual. But I did enjoy “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “Detroit” and, most recently, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Visitors: We had a surprise visit in early May from Chiho Hayamizu, a lovely young lady from Japan who was just 20 when she came to live with our family during a year of study at Portland State University. Our oldest child, Nathan, was just 13 when Chiho moved in with us in the spring of 1993.

Chiho, now 44 but still looking 20 (and even 30) years younger, was back in town for an unofficial reunion with friends who’d also been exchange students in Portland.

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Lori and Chiho: Radiant smiles, no matter the location or the year.

In October, my best friend, Al Rodriguez, came up from Santa Barbara to spend a few days timed to coincide with the annual Voices of August writers meetup. It was great hanging out with my longtime buddy, whether it was grabbing lunch from the downtown food carts or attending opening night of the Trail Blazers’ 2017-18 season. (They actually won!)

 

In November, two of Lori’s best friends, Terry (Long) Mullaney and Lin Dillon, came up from San Francisco for a long weekend of sightseeing and hanging out. Lori and Terry grew up on the same city block, and the two of them met Lin at the all-girls high school they attended. Nice to see such an enduring friendship.

Voices: For the seventh consecutive year, I curated a month of guest blog posts during the month of August. It’s become something that I look forward to every year, the opportunity to be informed, inspired and entertained by a changing cast of friends, relatives and online acquaintances, with ages ranging from 14 to 65-plus. Each person writes on a topic of their choice and does so in a way that brings variety and texture to the whole.

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This year’s VOA peeps gathered Oct. 20 at McMenamin’s on Broadway. Front row, from left: Gosia Wozniacka, Elizabeth Gomez, Jennifer Brennock, Lynn St. Georges, Lori Rede, Lakshmi Jagannathan. Back row, from left: George Rede, John Killen, Bob Ehlers, Al Rodriguez, Keith Cantrell. Not pictured: Eric Wilcox.

This look back at 2017 wouldn’t be complete without two final notes:

— This is the year both Lori and I moved into a new age bracket: 65. She’s still rockin’ it as the owner of her personal training business and I’m enjoying my work as well, as an adjunct college instructor and part-time communications coordinator for a local education nonprofit.

— Chalk up another year with our two pets: Mabel, the mellowest of cats, and Charlotte, the energetic mutt who’s won our heart with her antics and underbite.

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Up to no good. Again.

 

 

Daring to be real in a world of perfection

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Kate Carroll de Gutes reads from “The Authenticity Experiment” during a promotional event at Northeast Portland’s Fremont Theater.

We are curators. Each and every one of us who writes a blog, shares Instagram photos or posts to our Facebook wall is choosing what and when to publish. Nothing appears there by chance.

We control the content — every word, every image, every YouTube video, every comment that we allow on our social media sites.

And the result? More often than not, it’s an endless stream of feel-good moments and milestones.  We celebrate births and birthdays, weddings, graduations and milestones.

We share photos of where we’ve been, whom we were with, where we ate and what we ate.

Less often, we interrupt the bliss to write about a death of a family member or beloved pet, about the loss of a job or other personal setback.

Soon we’re back at it, posting images of sunsets and mountains, cocktails and casseroles.

So what?

So what if the curated version of our lives represents a selective scraping and molding of those experiences?

So what if that version offers a distorted representation of our daily lives, untethered to reality?

***

In a new and wise book, Portland writer Kate Carroll de Gutes cuts through the facade and delivers a bracing alternative to the happy-face fantasy.

the authenticity experimentThe result is a compelling, entertaining, inspiring collection of short pieces presented under the title “The Authenticity Experiment.”

It’s a slim volume of 166 pages of 47 posts, essays and blog entries — essentially the product of a 30-day challenge she gave herself during what she calls “the best and worst year of my life.”

Could she be more honest on social media following the deaths of her mother, her best friend and her editor-mentor, all occurring within a few months of each other? Could she share the duality of her life — both the light and the dark — in celebrating the praise lavished on her first book (“Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appears’) as well as mourning the loss of loved ones?

Yes, she could be and, yes, she was. Each page crackles with the authenticity of someone who has laid aside pretense and ego in favor of honesty and heartache. The essays undulate from sad to humorous, self-deprecating to self-reflective.

The chapters are organized by the season — essays published during the summer, fall, winter and spring — and the entries draw you in with such titles as “Dear Mom” and “Death Is Like This” and “Wiping Clean Regret.”

In a prologue to the book, Kate says:

“The essays you’ll find in this book are raw and filtered through my lens as I think on the page and try to understand the journey I’m on and how my own privilege and power plays a role in what I think about death, class, self-worth, perfectionism, and other topics we usually keep to ourselves.

“I don’t offer any answers, and I don’t always find my ways to conclusions, or to better thinking. It’s like hacking a path through the forest: you can’t always see where you’re doing, and you can’t always see how far you’ve come, but you know you’re on your way to somewhere.”

***

I loved the idea of the book and admired its execution. It felt especially real having just met the author just three weeks earlier.

I didn’t know of Kate or her work until a friend invited Lori and me to a book launch event in Northeast Portland.

Read the blog post New space, new author here.

Kate was charming and witty, and stuck around to autograph the many books she sold that night, including one to Lori. They connected over the fact that Kate had spent several years living in the North Beach neighborhood of Lori’s hometown, San Francisco.

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Kate Carroll de Gutes is a Portland writer whose debut memoir, “Objects Closer in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” won the 2016 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and a 2016 Lambda Literary Award in Memoir.

I picked up the book on a quiet weekend at the Oregon Coast in early October, but didn’t finish it until sometime in November. I’ve mulled about it since then, wondering when to write about it and what to say.

Read the blog post NaBloPoMo here

As a fellow blogger who once also challenged myself to write daily for a month, I tip my hat to Kate. She’s done a wonderful job demonstrating how we can fully share our whole selves in this era of the “digital back fence.”

B/W photograph: katecarrolldegutes.com/

The Snapper

Sometimes all you want from a book is a little relief. Work can suck up a lot of energy, even if you like it. And life itself can be full of commitments and surprises.

With finals week at Portland State all done and a long-distance plane ride ahead of me, I was more than ready to pick up a lighthearted novel. Roddy Doyle’s “The Snapper” filled the bill.

the snapperEn route to and from Missouri, I enjoyed this breezy little book (216 pages) as if Doyle himself were reading it aloud and sharing pints with me at a Dublin pub. Unlike most novels, which are heavy on narrative and character development, this one feels like it’s nearly all dialogue. Make that effin’ funny, sometimes crass, but always honest, dialogue.

The story centers on a working-class Irish family and the recently announced pregnancy of the eldest daughter, 20-year-old Sharon. She’s unmarried and living at home, working at a retail job that bores her, and she’s decided to keep the identity of the father a secret.

Jimmy Sr., the Rabbitte family patriarch, struggles at first to accept the news. Ireland, after all, is a Catholic country and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy is hardly something he’d celebrate with his drinking buddies. (Keep in mind, the novel was published in 1991, so many a real-life Irish family would have reacted in the same way.)

Friends and neighbors join the Rabbittes in speculating about the father’s identity. When Jimmy Sr. hears nasty things being said about Sharon, he gets into a fight at the local pub and comes home with a bloody nose, perceiving it as a badge of honor for defending his daughter’s reputation.

But instead of saying thanks, Sharon scolds her father, telling him to mind his own business because she’s an adult who can fight her own battles.

Jimmy Sr. shuts down in resentment, ignoring Sharon for weeks until she calls him on it. Chastened once again, he admits to himself that he’s embarrassed by Sharon’s situation. From then on, he adopts an entirely different attitude, coming to realize that his role to is support his daughter and love her baby, no matter who the father is.

It’s a sweet story with tender moments between father and daughter. The dialogue is wonderfully authentic, with more F-bombs than you can count — coming from Jimmy Sr. and his pals, as well as Sharon and her friends — and repeated references to Jaysis! (Jesus!)

***

Here’s one scene where Sharon and her friends are out drinking (yes, pregnant Sharon) and one of them, Jackie, is telling the group about breaking up with her boyfriend Greg at a cafe, after he’d accused her of stealing the cream out of his chocolate eclair.

“He stuck his tongue in me ear once,”  Jackie told them when they’d settled down again. “An’, I’m not jokin’ yis, I think he was trying’ to get it out the other one. I don’t know what he f***in’ thought I had in there.”

She laughed with them.

“He licked half me brains ou’. Like a big dog, yeh know.”

They roared.

Jackie waited.

“His sense o’ direction wasn’t the best either, d’yis know what I mean?”

They roared again.

“Jesus!”

“Jackie O’Keefe! You’re f****in’ disgustin’ ‘!”

 ***

Roddy Doyle is an accomplished writer with several novels, screenplays, film adaptations, TV scripts, children’s books and freelance articles to his credit.

I’d read Doyle once before, so I had a good idea of what to expect. Lots of sharp dialogue. Characters who are rough around the edges. Themes of love, loyalty and honesty.

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The Irish writer Roddy Doyle

It wasn’t until after I’d finished the novel that I realized I had no idea what the characters looked like. That is, Doyle made no effort to describe anyone’s physical attributes — hair color, body shape, etc. — and instead invested all his effort into creating conversational dialogue that captivated me from the opening sentence to the final page.

Who cares what Jimmy Sr. or Sharon looked like? What’s more important is how they navigated the stages of her surprise pregnancy while dealing with the ups and downs of their own relationship.

That is what really matters. And that is the sign of one helluva writer.

Photograph of Roddy Doyle: rte.ie

The staggering genius of Stieg Larsson

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Rooney Mara starred as Lisbeth Salander in the American film adaptation of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” released in 2011. (Merrick Morton / Associated Press)

I just finished the last of the three novels in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of crime thriller novels — and it only took me three years to do it!

It’s true.

I read the first novel in the fall of 2014, when Lori and I were vacationing on Orcas Island. I bought “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” at a used bookstore in Eastsound and was blown away. Larsson delivered a masterful narrative that was chilling and creepy, and built it around two intriguing characters — an investigative journalist named Mikael Blomkvist and a reclusive genius hacker named Lisbeth Salander, the heavily tattooed girl referenced in the title.

It took me 18 months to get to the next one, “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” Same characters as in the first book, picking up right where they left off after the murders of two journalists at Blomkvist’s crusading magazine and the fingerprints on the murder weapon belonging to none other than Salander.

It took me another 18 months to get around to the third and final novel, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Fittingly, I read it during our most recent vacation to Orcas. With a week of free time to burn in mid-September, I vowed to plow through the 563 pages.

“Plow” is hardly what happened. More like “got sucked into and couldn’t put it down.” Just like the first two, Larsson pulled me in fast and deep.

girl who kicked the hornets nestAs with the preceding installment, the third novel resumed where the second broke off, this time with Salander lying in critical condition in a hospital, with a bullet wound to her head, and fighting for her life. If and when she recovers, she’ll be put on trial for the murders of three men she killed in self-defense.

But the authorities don’t know the true circumstances of those deaths and prosecutors are busy preparing a case against her that looks airtight. It’s up to Blomkvist, who is going through personal turmoil and is under surveillance by some bad guys, to help prove Salander’s innocence. To do that, he needs to penetrate the dark world of Swedish intelligence agencies and unravel the connections between the trio of murders involving Salander and other killings that occur along the way.

This is high praise, but let me say each and every book is superb. They average just under 600 pages each. Taken together, they are extraordinary.

***

Who is Stieg Larsson?

I’d call him a genius.

Larsson was an investigative journalist in Sweden who died of a heart attack in 2004. He was only 50 years old and had just delivered the manuscripts for all three novels, intending that they published as a series.

Imagine that. Creating compelling characters, intriguing story lines, dozens of plot twists and harrowing cliffhangers. Stitching everything together in a total of 1,783 pages and doing it all at an incredibly high level of writing.

It’s a staggering accomplishment.

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The prodigiously talented Stieg Larsson. (Photo credit: The Australian)

As of March 2015, the Larsson novels had sold 80 million copies worldwide and 25 million in the U.S. alone since 2005, according to TIME magazine.

Larsson’s journalistic background shows in the muscular sentences, precise wording and descriptive detail found in each novel. The newsroom scenes at Millennium magazine, where Blomqvist works, were totally on the mark. His knowledge of police investigations, courtroom procedures and computer technology was impressive. And he possessed a vivid imagination that drove the intricate master plot.

In addition to being a first-rate journalist and novelist, Larsson was considered a leading expert on antidemocratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations.

The world lost a great writer when Larsson died. You’d think the series would have ended with his passing 13 years ago, but no. Interestingly, Lisbeth Salander lives on in two more novels — one published in 2015 and the other released just last month —  both written by David Lagercrantz, a Swedish journalist recruited by Larsson’s publisher.

I did a double take when I saw the newest one displayed at a grocery store. Absorbed as I was in the original trilogy, I hadn’t realized that the series continued with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” (2015) and “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye.” (2017).

I’m not sure how I feel about that. It was so satisfying to read the original series, even if it did take three years. I can’t imagine the next two novels being as good, but I could be wrong.

All I know is that each of the Larsson novels was incredibly satisfying despite sometimes gory content. The late author has given us an unforgetable anti-heroine in Lisbeth Salander, a pixie-sized woman with a photographic memory, a fierce will to live, and an indelible dragon tattoo.

New space, new author

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Kate Carroll de Gutes welcomes the crowd to her Sept. 14 book launch at the Fremont Theater.

Last Thursday was one of those nights that captures the essence of what it’s like to live in this city: a melding of books, bites, music and friends, all done without leaving our zip code.

Our friend Molly Holsapple invited Lori and me to join her and others at a book launch featuring local author Kate Carroll de Gutes at the Fremont Theater. And, oh, could we meet beforehand for drinks and a light dinner at the Italian restaurant across the street?

Well, sure.

I hadn’t heard of de Gutes and I didn’t even realize the Fremont Theater existed. Unbeknownst to me, it opened as part of a new building that went up about two years ago at the corner of Northeast Fremont Street and 24th Avenue, about a mile from our home,

Going to this free event would be a good way to get acquainted with both author and venue. Turns out both were eye-openers.

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Kate Carroll de Gutes reads from “The Authenticity Experiment.”

Kate Carroll de Gutes is a Portland writer who was promoting a new book, “The Authenticity Experiment,” a collection of essays that began as a 30-day blogging challenge to be more honest about her life. Her first collection of essays, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” had won an Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction and a Literary Lambda Award for memoir/biography.

On Thursday, de Gutes was finishing a three-city tour of Bend, Seattle and Portland with a book reading that felt like we were in someone’s living room.

The Fremont Theater seats about 120 people in an intimate space with a small stage at one end and a bar at the other. The building has a 22-foot-tall ceiling and two levels. Little did I know this place has been hosting live music, theater and other events for some time.

In fact, the evening began with a short set performed by local folk musicians Steve Einhorn and Kate Power, a married couple who are also former owners of Artichoke Music in Southeast Portland. The duo set a warm, welcoming tone with four songs featuring vocals, acoustic guitars and Steve’s ukelele.

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Kate Power and Steve Einhorn performed four songs as a warm-up for the book reading.

de Gutes was charming and relaxed, with a large number of friends in the audience. Hip from head to toe, came out in a bow tie and polka dot shirt, Levi’s and a pair of black Converse. Her essays were beautifully written — concise, compelling, humorous, sad and, above all, authentic — in tackling topics of death, friendship, family and grief. Within a single year, she said, her mother, best friend and editor-mentor all died. Blogging was a way to cope.

“I kept writing because it kept me sane,” she said.

We bought the new book and Kate signed it. Lori’s already read it and pronounced it a winner. I’m still pounding through a 500-pages-plus novel but plan to dive into Kate’s book next.

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Kate Carroll de Gutes signs her new book for a new fan, Lori.

Thanks all around …

— To Molly for introducing us to a new author here in our city.

— To Broadway Books, our neighborhood independent bookstore, for supporting writers like this one and promoting literacy in our city.

— To Kate Carroll de Gutes, for doing what nonfiction writers do best — reveal something of themselves in order to address common themes that bring us together as human beings.