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Eugene Weekly : Books : 10.19.06

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Long Ago and Up Close

A rich weave of Northwest lives


OWL ISLAND, fiction by Randy Sue Coburn. Ballantine Books, 2006. Hardcover, $23.95.

Seattle author Randy Sue Coburn's second novel is a wonderful read for a damp, mellow Oregon fall. Its Puget Sound setting is lushly depicted, familiar in the way that the Pacific Northwest can all feel familiar, but strange and new from the viewpoint of Phoebe Allen, a fiftyish single mother (of a 22-year-old programmer) whose past catches up to her over the course of a year. As Phoebe revisits her counterculture teenage years and the dissolution of what she thought was her one great love, Coburn traces a line of secrets and love, of uncertain communication and the slight but distinct influence of fairy tales.

But though Phoebe carries Owl Island's central narrative, the people in her orbit are drawn with equal care. The depth of research required to paint each person with such clarity is deftly handled; from writing screenplays (which Coburn has written herself) to netmaking to being a young hippie in Eugene to computer programming to astrology, Coburn's characters live rich, full lives.

These characters' threads weave in and out of Phoebe's story as she drifts back to the time when she fell in love with a DJ named Whit and acted as his muse. In the present, Whit's reappearance on the titular island has thrown Phoebe's comfortable, community-focused life into interior upheaval. Phoebe's trek through the past fills in her story, as well as that of her mother and daughter, but remembering mostly serves to bring her present into sharp clarity. Coburn is a smart, observant chronicler of human behavior, attuned to the flaws of well-intentioned people and well aware of how mistakes are rarely easy to learn from, even when the learning is vital for one's mental well-being. Owl Island meanders through decades in a way that ties together each person's then and now, creating complete, complex people whose rainy, lovely territory, interior and exterior, becomes a place you won't want to leave; this is a book for dark mornings with warm coffee, as comforting and sharp as cold sand under your toes.

Randy Sue Coburn reads at 7 pm Oct. 26 at the UO Bookstore.


BOOK NOTES: Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) and Kate Lynn Hibbard (Sleeping Upside Down) read, 8 pm 10/19, Knight Library, UO … Eugene Poetry Slam season kick-off event, 7:30 pm 10/21, Fenario Gallery, 881 Willamette . $5 … David James Duncan delivers the 2006-2007 Clark Lecture, "Why the American West Needs the Asian East," 7:30 pm 10/24, 180 PLC, UO … Poet Judith H. Montgomery and novelist Michael Strelow read, 7 pm 10/24, Downtown Library … Cheryl Strayed and Randy Sue Coburn read, 7 pm 10/26, UO Bookstore … Contributors read from Ghosts at the Coast: The Best of Ghost Story Weekend Vol. II, 7 pm 10/30, UO Bookstore … Jim Lynch (The Highest Tide) speaks on "How My 'Overnight Success' Took Fifteen Years," 6:30 pm 11/2, Baker Downtown Center. $10; Willamette Writers members free … Bob Welch reads from My Seasons: A Literary Celebration of Sports and Life, 7 pm 11/2, Knight Library, UO.


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