Brian Doyle: A writer like no other

I had a respite from grading papers and exams last weekend, and the break allowed me to finish reading a book that I can only describe as exquisite.

It was Brian Doyle’s “One Long River of Song,” a collection of short essays published posthumously last year.

Brian died in 2017 from brain cancer at age 60, leaving behind a widow and three adult children, along with a city full of brokenhearted fans of his unique literary voice. He was an Oregon Book Award winner and a virtual writing machine.

Over the years, Brian wrote eight novels, six books of poetry, several nonfiction books, and dozens of essays and op-eds that appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The Oregonian and other publications, all while serving as editor of the University of Portland’s award-winning magazine. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting him and working with him on a submission or two to The Oregonian’s Sunday Opinion section, in the days when it was still a free-standing, broadsheet section of the newspaper.

Brian was a gentleman — smart, funny and self-effacing. And he was beloved by the community of writers and readers in Portland and beyond.

“One Long River of Song” presents this gifted writer at his finest. Fellow author David James Duncan collaborated with Brian’s wife, Mary Miller Doyle, to compile 81 essays and poems in a 241-page volume that captured his sense of awe at the natural world and his musings about love and grace and wonder and kindness.

Brian was born in New York and attended the University of Notre Dame. He had an extraordinary ability to see and appreciate the simple things in life — a simple word or gesture or emotion — and present them in a spiritual framework for a secular audience. Thought he was a devout Irish Catholic, he didn’t push his faith on his readers as much as he invited them to ponder the presence of the divine in the small, ordinary moments of our daily lives.

Those who’ve read Doyle know well that he made the English language his own, with a one-of-a-kind approach toward syntax and punctuation, often turning nouns into verbs or adjectives, or sometimes writing ridiculously long sentences that somehow always held together.

From an essay about his sons, “What Were Once Pebbles Are Now Cliffs.”

“I am standing in the middle pew, far left side, at Mass. We choose this pew when possible for the light pouring and puddling through the stained-glasss windows. The late-morning Mass is best because the sun finally made it over the castlements of the vast hospital up the bill and the sun has a direct irresistable shot at the windows and as my twin sons used to say the sun loooves jumping through the windows and does so with the headlong pleasure of a child.”

From an essay about an eccentric friend, “His Weirdness.”

“A friend of mine is dying in the fast lane, he says, smiling at the image, for no man ever loved as much as he did zooming those long stretches of highway in the West, where there are no speed limits or curves or cops and nothing to kill you but sudden antelopes. But now he can see his exit up ahead, he says, and he has slowed down to enjoy the ride. He’s been pondering the sparrows, who do not sow and neither do they reap, he says, shuffling into his yard armed with fistfuls of seed.”

And this, from an essay about how he, a self-described “meathead,” once laughed at gay people. “Mea Culpa.”

“The first time I saw the quilt I wept. The quilt is the biggest quilt you ever saw. It is more than a million square feet big. It is haunting and beautiful and terrible and lovely and bright and awful. Every panel is someone who died young. Every panel has tears in it. There are more tears in the quilt than there are threads. I started paying attention. I started listening. I stopped sneering and snickering. I began to hear the pummel of blows rained down on people for merely being who they are.”

This book was a year-end gift from my friend Molly Holsapple. I thank her fot it and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet read Brian Doyle.

George’s 2020 book giveaway

Now here’s a cool idea worth repeating.

A year ago at this time, my daughter-in-law Jamie made a pitch on Facebook designed to encourage reading while also lessening the load on her bookshelf. I liked it so much that I stole the idea — and here I am doing it again.

The first five people to respond to this post — down below with an actual comment/request — will receive a book from me sometime this year.

Each book will be chosen specially for the person that will receive it. And I will decide how and when the book is delivered. Perhaps I will invite you out for coffee; perhaps I will send it via postal mail.

The only criteria is that you post this challenge to your wall, offering five books to five people. They don’t have to be new books or your favorite books. Just books selected with care and thought for each individual.

Let me be clear about one thing, however. This is a one-way giveaway. You don’t need to send me a book — in fact, please don’t. I have plenty, believe me, to keep me going all year long.

I’d much prefer to see your generosity channeled into giving away your own books.

Now, who’s down with this?

Our parents, our selves

Everywhere I turn, it seems, there’s someone sharing a list of the best books of 2019.

My list would be awfully short — I’ve read only 5 books so far this year. But one of them was especially memorable, and even writing about it now several months later, I’m still struggling to find the right words for my takeaways.

But if I were to recommend a single book to my friends, it would be this one: “Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents.”

It’s not a novel with a single narrative. Rather, it’s a collection of essays, knitted together from 25 diverse writers across the country, and focused on the idea that each of us carries a trait we’ve inherited from a parent. You know the old adage, right? “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Think about it. Are you a planner or a procrastinator? A heart-on-your-sleeve sentimentalist? Or a reserved introvert? Someone driven by ambition? Or someone perpetually lacking self-esteem? In what way, like it or not, are you like your mother or father?

In this collection, each of the writers reflects on how an inherited characteristic or quality of a parent has affected the lives they lead today and how, in many cases, it has shifted their relationship to that parent. In some instances, it’s caused them to rethink their sense of self.

The variety of viewpoints makes for fascinating reading. Each essayist tackles a different topic — such as race, dementia, personal independence, unrealized hopes — from an individual perspective that reflects differences in age, gender, sexual orientation and geography.

Several of the essayists reside in places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., while others live in the Midwest and the South. Three, I’m happy to say, are from Oregon. (More on them later.)

***

“Apple, Tree” was conceived of and edited by Lise Funderburg, a writer, editor and lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. In the introduction, she reflects on the influence of her father, a black man, born in 1926, who grew up in rural Georgia, where his own father was known as “the town’s nigger doctor” and their neighborhood was called Colored Folks Hill.

Lise Funderburg

It was early September when I heard Funderburg speak at a promotional event at Broadway Books, my neighborhood bookstore. The book had just come out and she was ecstatic about “what we can learn from thoughtful people who are beautiful writers.”

Three of the writers, all from Portland, were there to read from their essays:

Kate Carroll de Gutes, author of two memoirs, winner of an Oregon Book Award, and generous contibutor to my 2019 Voices of August guest blog project.

Mat Johnson, a professor at the University of Oregon who is a novelist and a recipient of the American Book Award.

Sallie Tisdale, author of nine books, winner of a Pushcart Prize, and an instructor in the writing program at Portland State University.

Each of their pieces is outstanding. Kate’s, in particular, resonated with me in her description of her ailing mother as someone who was inclined to live in the past. (Just like my mother, I thought.)

Inevitably, some essays shine brighter than others. But as a whole, the book is both engaging and provocative. One of the criteria I weigh most heavily in judging a book is whether it enriches my thinking, either by teaching me something about a culture or way of life or presenting me with a new way of looking at something I thought I already knew.

“Apple, Tree” does all that. And the best thing of all? As a reader, you’re left to contemplate the influences of your own parents and try to puzzle out if the way you are is based partly — or largely — on the way they were.

More than three months later, I’m still wrestling with that.

My mom, who died in 2013 just a day short of her 86th birthday, was an outspoken woman who could be the life of the party but also quick to anger. As I wrote after her death: “She was feisty, strong-minded, stubborn, resourceful, independent and fiercely devoted to her three kids and extended family. “

My dad, who died in 2017 at age 91, was more reserved. You might call him the strong, silent type — a blue-collar guy who dealt with life on an even keel, keeping his thoughts and emotions to himself. “He was a man of few words but a man of strong words,” a fellow veteran said at his burial. “He was always concerned about others. He was a man of his word. If he said he’d be there, he was there.”

I suppose I would compare myself to my dad more than my mom. I’ve always felt more comfortable in the role of observer than participant. But in recent years I think I’ve evolved into something of an “extroverted introvert” — someone who can speak with confidence in public settings, but yet who also needs solitude and quiet time to reflect and contemplate.

I wish I weren’t quick to anger, but I recognize that tendency and hope to do something about it in the new year. Seems pretty certain to land on my list of new year’s resolutions.

Best to cut things off right here, but with a nod of thanks to Lise Funderburg and her stable of writers for taking a great idea and executing at a high level. Reading that collection of essays was truly one of the year’s highlights for me.

Life’s big dramas: Fact and fiction

Q. What does a white lesbian essayist in Portland, Oregon, have in common with a Mexican American novelist born in Tijuana and now writing from Chicago?

A. Talent, for one. And an ability to burrow down deep into the complexities of family and relationships, with humor, pathos and wisdom.

Kate Carroll de Gutes is the author of “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” Her debut collection of essays won the 2016 Oregon Book Award for creative nonfiction and the Lambda Literary Award for memoir.

Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of “The House of Broken Angels.” He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for an earlier book and his latest was just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

On my recent trip to London, I got ambitious and took both books with me. Thanks to a head start here at home, I finished de Gutes’ book on the flight over there and completed Urrea’s book on the return flight. Both were satisfying reads, different on the surface but similar in less obvious ways.

***

I was already familiar with Kate’s work. I dove into her second book, “The Authenticity Experiment,” after hearing her read from it during a book launch event a couple years ago. I loved that she took a 30-day challenge she gave herself to be authentic on social media and turned the collection of blogs into a book.

Read my blog post: “Daring to be real in a world of perfection

In her first book, she writes about a spectrum of big issues — self-identity and coming out; love and loss; marriage and divorce; quarreling parents dealing with failing health in their old age.

Kate is brutally, beautifully honest in writing about all of it. The inner turmoil and the out-in-the-open tensions as she embraced her sexual identity. The thrill of being able to marry a woman, followed by the despair of divorce. Coping with her mother’s failing memory while dealing with her angry father’s resentment that his wife’s heart bypass operation is taking away attention from his own cardiac surgery years earlier.

Kate Carroll de Gutes

In each of those situations, Kate opens up in a way that draws us into those relationships, where we feel the anticipation, the joy, the disappointment, disgust and resignation associated with life’s peaks and valleys.

Reflecting on her marriage that lasted 23 years, she calls it a success when compared to the statistic that most first marriages last 7 to 8 years and 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. In light of that, she says, she and her ex-wife Judy should be held up as role models.

“It took such a long time for our relationship to be recognized as legitimate by our families and society,” she writes. “Judy’s family, in particular, believed our relationship was ’empty and loveless,’ and I think they had been expecting its demise all along, as if we didn’t have, couldn’t have what it took to go the distance and make marriage work.”

But looking back on that marriage, she also sees what it gave her:

“This woman helped make me who I am. I am from her. We grew up together. Came out together. Figured out roommate, spousal equivalent, partner, and wife together. And I have removed myself from her, as well, expurgating my history as well as my heart.”

***

Urrea is someone I should have known about long ago but only became familiar with recently. A friend invited me to a talk he was giving in Portland and loaned me the book when I couldn’t make the event. How is it that I was in the dark about an accomplished Latino author who teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago and who’s written more than a dozen fiction and non-fiction books plus three volumes of poetry?

Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother. His newest book is infused with references to both sides of the border, though it is squarely set in the San Diego home of one Miguel Angel de la Cruz, affectionately known to his family as Big Angel.

Big Angel is the ailing patriarch of a sprawling clan that includes siblings, several children and too many grandkids to count, plus aunts, uncles, cousins and his own dying mother.

There’s a Little Angel in the story, too. It’s Big Angel’s half brother, born to an American woman who had a fling with their Mexican father. Little Angel lives in Seattle, where he teaches literature and is viewed as something of a puzzle if not an outcast by everyone else in the family who has remained in San Diego.

Luis Alberto Urrea

The story is built around the preparations for one last birthday party for Big Angel. But as the date nears, his own mother, nearly 100 years old, dies herself, meaning the family must bury her on the same weekend they’ve come together to celebrate Big Angel and thank him for all he’s done to create opportunities for them as first- and second-generation immigrants in a country that would just as soon rather not have them here.

Interestingly, the book stems from a real-life situation in the author’s family. Urrea says his eldest brother, Juan, was in the last month of a terminal disease when he had to bury his mother and the funeral landed on the day before his 74th birthday.

Like Big Angel, Juan sat in his wheelchair and accepted thanks for good deeds done during his life — think of an army of relatives paying their respects as if he were Don Corleone in “The Godfather.”

A reviewer in TIME magazine calls Urrea’s book “a celebration of the Mexican-American family.”

Read the review here: “The House of Broken Angels Is a Love Song to the Mexican-American Family.”

Reading it as a third-generation Mexican American myself, I had no problem recognizing the archetypal characters in the book and appreciating the many cultural references and food products referenced throughout. My mom, too, loved her instant coffee with Carnation canned milk to lighten it up.

Urrea’s characters drop a lot of Spanish and Spanglish into their conversations, which lends an obvious authenticity to the dialogue, but I have to wonder how many readers were left scratching their heads and missing out on the linguistic nuances.

It’s an entertaining book, though I have to confess I had trouble at times keeping some of the characters straight because of their sheer number. There are tensions and rivalries among some, teasing and flirting between others, constant judging of each other, and a lifetime of memories and their meanings for Big Angel to sort through in his final days.

Mexican families are known as big and boisterous and close-knit. While there’s a lot of truth to that stereotype, I also know the image doesn’t always hold up as true. In Urrea’s telling, Big Angel is at once the backbone and the beating heart of the de la Cruz family — and he writes with tenderness in a scene toward the end of the book where Little Angel and Big Angel have just finished fighting. Literally.

Little Angel took a deep breath. “I know you hated me for leaving. I know you thought I looked down on all of you. Well, maybe I did. All my life I thought I had to escape to survive. Maybe even to escape you. And now you are leaving me, and I can’t imagine the world without you. I always thought I didn’t really have the father I wanted. And all this time it was you.

“To be here now, to see what you have made, humbles me. The good parts and the bad. It doesn’t matter. I thought I was going to save the world, and here you were all along, changing the world day by day. minute by minute.”

Big Angel was going to say something but decided against it.

Beautiful.

Shot in the Heart: A Portland story

People of a certain age might remember Gary Gilmore as one of America’s most notorious criminals. Sentenced to death after murdering two innocent men in Utah, he was executed by firing squad on January 17, 1977, just a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court had reinstated the death penalty.

I was living in Bend, Oregon, at the time and, as an opponent of capital punishment, I still remember being shocked when I learned from a radio news report that he’d been put to death.

These days, I have another reason to remember Gilmore and, frankly, it’s hard to shake. Turns out that Gilmore not only grew up in Portland, but one of his crimes was committed about a mile away from where I live. As a teenager, he raped a 14-year-old girl in an apartment on a street that I drive on virtually every week.

Creepy? To say the least.

I learned of that sordid crime and much, much more from reading “Shot in the Heart,” a sad but beautifully written memoir by Mikal Gilmore about his brother Gary and their dysfunctional family. I read the book last year and found myself drawn into it despite the dark subject matter, but I’ve never written about it until now.

Picking it up again, I was startled to realize it was published in 1994 — some 25 years ago. And thumbing through it, I am reminded of the powerful, honest writing that propelled me through 400 pages of a book that one reviewer called “mesmerizing…riveting and immensely moving.”

“You were Gary Gilmore’s younger brother, weren’t you? What did it feel like, having him die like that?” he was often asked.

“I was never really sure how to answer that question,” he wrote. “But I hated it every time the questions were asked. I tried for years to be polite or thick-skinned about it….I felt that nobody would ever forget or forgive me just for being that dead f—— killer’s brother. I learned a bit of what it’s like to live on in the aftermath of the punishment: as a living relative, you have to take on some of the burden and legacy of the punishment. People can no longer insult or hurt Gary Gilmore, but because you are his brother — even if you’re not much like him — they can aim it at you.

“It’s as if anybody who has emerged from a family that yielded a murderer must also be formed by the same causes, the same evil, must in some way also be responsible for the violence that resulted, must also bear the mark of a frightening and shameful heritage. It’s as if there is guilt in the simple fact of the bloodline itself.”

Gary Gilmore in Portland Police Bureau mug shots.

Gary Gilmore’s death ended a virtual moratorium on capital punishment that had lasted nearly 10 years in the United States, and it spawned a novel and a movie that both won critical acclaim.

Norman Mailer wrote a fact-based novel (The Executioner’s Song, 1979) about Gilmore that won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Mailer then adapted the book into a movie (1982) that starred Tommy Lee Jones as Gilmore and won the actor an Emmy Award.

Twelve years later, Mikal Gilmore wrote his memoir.

I already knew Mikal was an accomplished journalist as a music writer for Rolling Stone. What I didn’t know was that he was born here and grew up with his family in Southeast Portland (in the same impoverished neighborhood where Lori and I first lived when we first moved here) and in suburban Milwaukie (where I got my first reporting job in Oregon). Mikal attended Milwaukie High School and later graduated from Portland State University, where I now teach.

Author Mikal Gilmore (rollingstone.com)

But “Shot in the Heart” is not about Mikal. It is about his mom and dad and three older brothers, all of whom were scarred by the violence that defined their everyday life. The father, Frank Gilmore, was a petty criminal who beat his young wife, Bessie, and did the same to his sons, Frank Jr., Gary and Gaylen. Mikal, the youngest by seven years and born when his dad was 61, escaped that treatment.

Gary suffered the worst of those beatings, and he rebelled. As a young teen, he began ditching school and staying out late, drinking and smoking weed. Soon enough, he turned to the criminal life, stealing cars and robbing stores. To my astonishment, I found the book riddled with references to streets and places I know: 82nd Avenue, 52nd and Division, Johnson Creek Boulevard, Northeast Weidler Street (where the rape occurred).

Gary did time at MacLaren’s Reform School for Boys in Woodburn, the Rocky Butte Jail in east Portland, the Oregon State Correctional Institution and Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. He was arrested in Washington, Idaho, California and Texas before making his way to Utah, where he fatally shot a gas station attendant and a motel manager while on parole. He was 36 when he was executed — shot in the heart by a firing squad.

Nothing can excuse Gary Gilmore’s life of crime, culminating in the murders in Provo, Utah. But it’s also obvious that his father’s brutish, violent behavior helped set him on that path and, likewise, contributed to the death of his brother Gaylen, at age 27, from complications from a stabbing.

Sad to say, hope for any semblance of normal life was snuffed out at an early age for young Gary.

“My family’s ruin did not end with Gary, because it had not started with him,” Mikal, now 68, concludes. “…I realized I had grown up in a family that would not continue. There were four sons, and none of us went on to have our own families. We did not go on to spread any legacy or dynasty, to extend or fulfill any of our needs, kind or cruel, damaged or conscientious, through children. We didn’t even have kids in order to beat or ruin them as we had one been beaten or ruined…

“It’s as if what had happened to in our family was so awful that it had to end with us, it had to stop, and that to have children was to risk the perpetuation of that ruin.”

“Shot in the Heart” is hardly uplifting reading. But it is searingly honest and infused with empathy and insight. It truly is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.

Coming of age in a poor Texas border town

You know those little free libraries that you find on city streets? The ones that people stock with books to encourage passers-by to take one or leave one?

I helped myself to one earlier this year in my neighborhood and it turned out to be a gem.

“The Boy Kings of Texas” is a memoir by Domingo Martinez. It was a 2012 National Book Award finalist and I can see why. He is a gifted storyteller.

I recognized the author’s name, having come upon it two years ago when he wrote an essay about Brownsville, titled “How Scared Should People on the Border Be?” It’s the same south Texas city that would burst into the international spotlight a year later as immigrant families were separated at the border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

With sardonic humor, brutal honesty and luminous prose, Martinez writes of growing up poor with his Mexican American family in Brownsville, a place he describes as miserably hot and humid and devoid of any redeeming qualities.

Bored, uninspired in school, at odds with his womanizing, macho father, and feeling left behind when his older brother enlists in the military, Domingo despairs of being stuck in his hometown hugging the Rio Grande River.

He escapes eventually as a young college dropout and moves to Seattle, where he welcomes the rain and marvels at the “sincere and institutionalized absence of racial prejudice” in the Pacific Northwest city. It’s a far cry from what he knew in Brownsville: small minds, dead-end jobs, racial prejudice.

In 33 chapters spilling across more than 400 pages in this gently worn book, Martinez writes with a range of emotions — love, hate, hope, resentment, heartbreak and angst — as he describes growing up between two cultures in a house too often filled with violence, family drama and put-downs.

I could relate to a certain degree as Martinez reminisced about his barrio childhood, referring to curanderas (folk healers), Catholicism and his domineering Gramma, a pistol-packing, take-no-crap character that reminded me of my late mother. I could see myself in the same uncomfortable position as him, someone who stood out among the Mexican kids in grade school as someone who was bright and spoke fluent English.

But our experiences diverged wildly as we reached our teenage years. Whereas Domingo drank, used drugs and rebelled against his perceived lot in life, I walked a straight and narrow path to a four-year degree and after graduation moved to Oregon from my native California. Though I grew up in a Chicano neighborhood in a blue-collar town, I came of age in a middle-class, predominantly white suburb of San Francisco at a time when assimilation was the order of the day. No reckless behavior for me during my teen years.

Domingo Martinez with his grandmother Virginia Campos Rubio, a central figure in his “Boy Kings of Texas,” a National Book Award nominee. (Photograph by Brad Doherty)

Not so for Martinez. At one point in the book, he rages: “Seventeen years I’ve lived my life in this outpost, alone, isolated and with an eroding sense of wonder about America at large. I can dream of nothing but getting out of here and exploring the rest of the country, watching leaves turn color and following the winter; I want out of this shit hole of a border down at the bottom of Texas, out of this racist, ignorant, locus-eating, lower Texas toxic hell pit. I’ve endured my father, my grandmother, years of pathetic education, beatings, berations, concentrations of shame, and this heat most hellish. All I have to do is graduate high school in a few weeks and I can leave, I’ve been told. And I have listened. I don’t care what the means are. The military, a bus ticket, this “college” thing other people talked about, stowing away — I just want out. Out of here.”


The current border fence between the United States and Mexico runs along the road directly across from a residential area in Brownsville. (Photograph by Daniel Borris for The New York Times)

I sense that my praise for Martinez’s work falls short, so let me share a couple of quotes about this “lyrical and gritty” book from others.

“Martinez has a gift for storytelling, with alternately good-natured and sardonic wit, and quirky pop culture reference points.” — The Seattle Times.

“His stories are as eye-poppingly and bruisingly painful as they are funny.” — The Washington Post.

And then there is this, from author Carlos Eire, a National Book Award winner himself: “Domingo Martinez writes like an angel — an avenging angel who instead of bringing wrath to a fallen world redeems it by using beautiful prose to turn the most awful and gritty realities into transcendent gems. This is also a significant historical-document, a first-person account that reveals one corner of America as it has seldom been seen. What a voice, what a story, what a testament to the transforming power of self-knowledge and the right choice of words.”

Damn. Wish I’d written that. At least I had the good sense to pick this memoir out of the free little library a few blocks from my home.

August & Anthony

Anthony Bourdain and August Wilson: a pair of authors forever combined in my mind.

If you were to tell me that the famed playwright August Wilson and the chef-author-TV personality Anthony Bourdain had virtually nothing in common, I would say you’re right.

Wilson was born and raised in Pittsburgh and won two Pulitzer Prizes just three years apart for “Fences” (1987) and “The Piano Lesson” (1990). He died of liver cancer at age 60 in Seattle.

Bourdain was born in New York City and grew up in an affluent New Jersey suburb. He was the executive chef at a prestigious Manhattan restaurant, then became a best-selling author, and later the world-traveling host of two television programs centered on his culinary adventures. He died of suicide last year.

But as different as these two men were, they are likely to be linked in my mind for time eternal.

Why? Because I read their literary works back-to-back during the recent winter break from school. That alone wouldn’t be enough to seal them together in my memory. But the fact that I purchased Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” and Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” at the same time. thanks to a gift card from a friend, is what did it. (Thank you, Lydia Ramos!)

Both were enjoyable reads, for very different reasons, and I only regret that I didn’t get to them sooner.

I had wanted to read Wilson’s work ever since seeing the big-screen version of “Fences” (2016) with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the leading roles as Troy and Rose Maxson. The feeling intensified after having gained some familiarity with Wilson’s hometown as a result of three visits to Pittsburgh in recent years, including a brief stop at the August Wilson Cultural Center.


August Wilson discusses his play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn., in May 1985. (Bob Child | Associated Press file 1985)

“The Piano Lesson” did not disappoint. The play centers on the fate of an ornately carved upright piano that has been gathering dust in the Pittsburgh home of a woman named Berniece Charles.

Her brother, Boy Willie, comes up from the South bursting with restless energy and a plan to sell the antique piano that has been in the family for generations, dating back to when his and Berniece’s grandparents were slaves. The way he sees it, his share of the cash from selling the piano will give him the money he needs to stake his future.

But his sister refuses to sell, seeing the piano as a tangible link to the history of their family. In her mind, the piano is priceless, a stark reminder of what their ancestors endured.

The dialogue crackles. Boy Willie declares that as a black man, he has got to make this mark.

“That’s all I’m trying to do with that piano. Trying to put my mark on the road. Like my daddy done. My heart say for me to sell that piano and get me some land so I can make a life for myself to live in my own way.”

***

Likewise, I had been meaning to read “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” for some time.

Like millions of others, I was a big fan of Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” series on CNN. To me, it seemed that Bourdain had the coolest job on the planet, traveling all over the globe to sample the native cuisine while dining with local residents and chatting it up with the chefs.

Bourdain was insatiably curious about food — its origins and textures and tastes — and, in his weekly travelogue, he conveyed his sense of adventure, generous spirit, and appreciation for the men and women who prepared what he ate.

It was in 1997 that The New Yorker published an article by Bourdain that provided “a scathingly honest look at the inner workings of restaurants, specifically their kitchens.” The article led to the book “Kitchen Confidential” (2000) and sent his career on a different path focused on writing and television.


Anthony Bourdain films in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2015. (David Scott Holloway | CNN)

He found great success with both. One thing I enjoyed most about “Kitchen Confidential” is that Bourdain writes just as he sounds on TV — well, absent the frequent F-bombs and other crass terms found throughout the book. In other words, he tells stories in a fluid style that captures his unique voice, alternating between the elegant and the profane, and with descriptive detail that puts you there on scene.

For example, recalling his early days as a line cook in NBC’s famed Rainbow Room, he said he made an interesting discovery one day as he moved through the halls, back stairways, offices, dining and storage areas of the building.

“There was, in an unused area, a narrow passage through stacked tables, where employees could actually crawl out an open window. On my union-mandated fifteen-minute breaks, I would sit out on a narrow precipice, sixty-four flights up, my legs dangling over the edge, one arm wrapped around a hash, smoking weed with the dishwashers. Central Park and upper Manhattan splayed out before me. The observation deck on the roof was open as well, for a little mid-shift sunbathing.”

I had two “family” reasons for wanting to read the book, as well:

— Our oldest son is a line cook at a Northwest Portland restaurant. From listening to his stories over the years, I knew there was a special camaraderie among the cooks and kitchen staff he’s worked with, and I figured (correctly) Bourdain’s book would shed some light on that. though with nowhere near the level of shenanigans as described in the places where Bourdain worked his way up from dishwasher and fry cook to esteemed French chef.

— Our daughter attended Vassar College in New York, and Lori and I took her to the nearby Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park for a fancy graduation dinner. Bourdain had attended Vassar, too, though he flunked out in his freshman year in a haze of drugs. Years later, after he discovered the cooking life, he gained a foundation for his skills at the internationally-known C.I.A.

So, two authors, two books. One fiction, one non-fiction. One by a biracial, working-class playwright. One by a debonair media celebrity of French-American heritage. Both books a delight to read.

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 

“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.

lidia-yuknavitch-11

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.