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Winter Reading 2016 - Nonfiction Reviews



Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. Hachette Books, $29.95.

Seattleite Lindy West is the feminist du jour, and I’m glad she’s here. Former writer for The Stranger, West is not only a “loud” woman but a whip-smart, hilarious and incredibly resilient human, which has made her a primo target for internet and real-life trolls alike in the age of alt-right white nationalism. (Just listen to her “Ask Not For Whom The Bell Trolls; It Trolls for Thee” segment on This American Life and, after wiping away tears, be relieved that no one can take down this badass bitch). 

Not only that, but West is an independent thinker who doesn’t just preach to the choir but takes shots at them, just as ready to put on blast her former boss Dan Savage for fat-shaming and the comedy world for rape jokes as she is the conservative right’s more traditional bigotry. 

That being said, I was disappointed with how this book opened. It felt slapdash and somewhat forced, like trying to be funny on a deadline, in the same vein as the half-baked, loosely organized memoirs of female comedians that are de rigueur these days — books that read like a collection of emails copy-pasted and bound merely to cash in (I’m looking at you Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham).

Thankfully, that mush dissolves quickly, as soon as West becomes focused on meatier targets — her wit, logic and compassion dismantling patriarchy like it’s her job, which it kind of is. — Alex V. Cipolle


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. HarperCollins, $27.95.

 J. D. Vance and his Hillbilly Elegy are everywhere: near the top of The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, carefully reviewed in The New Yorker, interviewed by Terry Gross and so much more. Subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” this book was written well before the election of Donald Trump, but it does resonate with reasons for his win. It also reminds us of the fraud that Trump has played on this strata of America.

Vance writes of his dysfunctional family’s move from the despair of Appalachian Kentucky to the despair of rust-belt Ohio, and the unconditional love from his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw — a love that certainly propelled his climb from hillbilly to Yale Law School graduate, that old American dream, with a four-year stint in the Marines and undergraduate work at Ohio State. He served in Iraq, although that period receives almost no attention except that it prepared him to succeed in college.

If you grew up during the Great Depression, as some of us did, you saw dads without jobs drinking too much, fighting in bars, embarrassed to bring home cornmeal, oleo or beans issued by the government, finally getting some kind of a work with Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. Heroin and other drugs were not the trap that they were in Vance’s growing up, and the economy didn’t really improve until preparations for World War II, but we remember a sense of hope that seems absent today.

Vance does not write about it, but a carefully strategized campaign has turned Americans against government and the hope that it can bring. Remember the famous Grover Norquist line about shrinking government until it will fit into the bathtub? Trump ran with that strategy, “drain the swamp,” and he continues to also attack the press, even the Constitution.

This is where we part from J.D. Vance and his fascinating book. He says, “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us … we created them and only we can fix them.” Certainly, we all must try to fix these problems, though enlightened public policy must be a player. — Anita Johnson


My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir by Chris Offutt. Atria Books, $26.

In terms of psychic warfare, one of the greatest battles of a man’s life is coming to grips with the influence of his father, and Chris Offutt certainly has a battle on his hands here. “My father was a brilliant man, a true iconoclast, fiercely self-reliant, a dark genius, cruel, selfish and eternally optimistic,” Offutt writes. His father, who died in rural Kentucky in 2012, was also one of the leading writers of pre-internet porn throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and in this memoir Offutt digs, literally and figuratively, through the 18,000 pounds of pornographic fiction left behind in Andrew Offutt’s cramped archives. In clear, concise prose that cuts right to the bone, Offutt plays emotional archeologist, peering ever deeper into the secret life of his father while at the same time detailing the devastating story of a family ruled by an emotional tyrant. The results are profound. Not only does Offutt achieve a kind of hard reckoning with his father’s legacy, but he also creates a vulnerable and moving portrait of his own development as an artist, a husband and a father. — Rick Levin


Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey. Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95.

Full disclosure: I’m a pit bull fan. My rescue pittie, Biggie, brings joy to my life and greets all and sundry with a wiggle butt and a demand for love. That said, a lot of people look at Bigs and his cropped ears and blocky head and retreat in horror. Bronwen Dickey traces the history of pit bulls and just how they came to be so maligned (and mistreated). Dickey pulls out the usual points that pit-lovers use — Pete the Pup of The Little Rascals was a pit bull, Helen Keller had a pit and Teddy Roosevelt was a pit-bull person. Dickey also meticulously debunks dubious theories that have been spread about pit bulls — that they bite extra hard, that their jaws lock. She links some of the hate for pits to racism and a hate for the poor — dog fighting, with which pits are long associated, historically comes from the lower classes and pits are scorned as a poor person’s dog, associated with the urban poor. Cities will over-police African-American neighborhoods using the excuse that they are enforcing breed bans, and she says language used to describe pit bulls and those who own them is often racially charged, such as “thug.” Dickey hits home with well-researched facts and the idea that we humans shape the lives of our dogs. — Camilla Mortensen


The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life by Raymond Tallis. Yale University Press, $30.

More a celebration of life than a brooding exploration of morbidity, I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It is more-or-less a 344-page prose-poem, cataloguing the inescapable reality that the author himself will die, exploring the process, people, spaces and ways that living and dying are woven into each other in a fashion that cannot be untangled. 

Tallis always addresses himself in the third person as RT, which took some adjusting to. 

Tallis’ resume makes him an interesting candidate for writing a book on mortality. He is described as a poet, novelist, philosopher, former professor of geriatric medicine and consultant physician. There is a scientific rigor to some of the writing, complemented by philosophical depth, poetic freedom and playfulness. Much of it reads like a list of the minutiae of everyday life that will be left behind, from the most mundane and mechanical to the transcendent and emotional. It is rather areligious, but not vapid or nihilistic, honoring the mysterious qualities of life and death. Through the use of poetic language there is a fragmentary dissolution of the terrestrial and concrete. This element makes it a book that will read a little differently each time it is picked up. — Paul Quillen


Your Favorite Band is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life by Steven Hyden. Back Bay Books, $16.99.

Strangely, Steven Hyden’s music-obsessed flight of fancy Your Favorite Band is Killing Me is one of the most engaging memoirs I’ve read about a boring, middle-aged white guy in years. In it, Hyden closely examines history’s best-known pop-music feuds and mostly succeeds at sounding out their underlying significance, be it broadly philosophical or narrowly personal.

Along the way the author’s ADD pulls in a lot of context and scenery, which in turn reveal a lot about the Hyden’s life and times. 

It’s amusing to track Hyden as he flits hither and yon from topic to unexpected tangent. One minute he defends his unbending commitment to Saturday Night Live, the next Hyden relives the terrible 1987 NFL players strike. The author then flows naturally to the bitter dissolution of self-abnegating psychedelic art-rock heroes Pink Floyd, all the while freely shifting focus from micro to macro at every turn.

Whether or not the reader agrees that beef between the White Stripes and The Black Keys is a modern parable about how tough it can be for grown men to make friends, the journey is fun and scenic. — Ben Ricker


k Dog Gone: A Lost Pet’s Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home by Pauls Toutonghi. Alfred A. Knopf, $25.

While Dog Gone is more than just a lost dog book, it’s one that will have a distinct appeal for those of us who see our pups as members of the family. Six-year-old Gonker, a golden-retriever mix, gets lost on a day hike on the Appalachian Trail and time is running out — Gonker has a hormone deficiency and can’t survive without regular medication. Toutonghi takes the tale of a lost dog and uses it to explore a family and its complexities as Gonker’s people frantically search for their beloved pet. — Camilla Mortensen


k Rivers of Oregon by Tim Palmer. Oregon State University Press, $40.

For the perfect coffee table book, check out Tim Palmer’s collection of images depicting scenic Oregon rivers. It’s a must-see for every Oregon nature-lover. Split into geographical sections, the book’s pages offer splashes of vivid green, peaceful blue and stormy gray on glossy, colorful pages. 

Palmer describes Oregon’s rivers with the tone of a river guide, providing geological and historical details. He takes on the role of narrator in a mossy journey down windy waterways and surging rapids. Only a few minutes into the book, I felt myself pulled into its misty atmosphere, that magical fairyland feeling you get when standing in the mystical silence of the Oregon wilderness. 

While nothing compares to the real thing, Palmer’s book and his magnificent pictures are a close second. — Amy Klarup


The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. Picador, $26.

Everyone should have to grapple with true loneliness at least once. Not for an afternoon, not because you weren’t invited to a party, not because you can’t go home for the holidays, but real, aching loneliness. There is something sublime about its specific kind of pain and sadness. And, coming out the other end, you will never see the world, or strangers, the same. Author Olivia Laing knows this and she explores it so beautifully, so honestly, so tenderly in The Lonely City, a piece of nonfiction that is part memoir, part art history and part biography of New York City. 

On the eve of relocating from London for her fiancé, Laing finds herself dumped, but moves anyway, stringing together a solitary existence among sad little apartments in a city where she is literally surrounded by millions and millions of people. It’s the soul’s plight of the post-Industrial Age: How can people be lonely when they’re stacked on top of each other in gleaming metropolises? 

Laing finds company in the work of artists who themselves wrestled with loneliness, self-imposed as well as thrown down by society — the likes of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Klaus Nomi, David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger. Her descriptions of Hopper’s suffocating walls of glass (à la his 1942 oil painting “Nighthawks,” and more) raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

 And while there are no glossy art images in the book, she describes artworks with such care, such heightened attention to detail and to each artist’s set of codes, that seeing them through her eyes is almost better than seeing for yourself. 

Laing finds that loneliness is “a city in itself,” and it’s populated by many. — Alex V. Cipolle


The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of  a Better Life by Anu Partanen. Harper, $27.99.

Nothing in U.S. politics surprises me more than a seeming universal lack of imagination in exploring potential alternatives to how we do business and government. This likely has some correlation with the widespread negative resignation and fatalistic resolve that seem to have rotted the core of our meager political culture. Are there alternatives? Why not explore? Nordic Theory is a perfect book to inspire consideration for how nations that are more developed and modern than the U.S. manage their resources. Written by a Finn who has immigrated here, the book is full of interesting comparisons between Nordic countries and the United States. It offers perspectives and statistics that are fascinating and telling in their revelation of how the Nordic countries became more egalitarian, progressive and stable than the United States, partly through adopting some practices borrowed from us in the first place. An expanded theme is how providing citizens with the basic requirements for life, like education and health care, actually creates more individual liberty and autonomy, rather than dependency. Partanen grapples with some of the most common generalizations Americans make when claiming we cannot utilize Nordic approaches and maintains a realistic critique of some issues the Nordic countries currently face. — Paul Quillen


A Week in Yellowstone’s Throrofare: A Journey through the Remotest Place by Michael J. Yochim. Oregon State University Press, $19.95.

Park ranger Michael J. Yochim’s account of a 2014 kayaking trip through the wilderness of Yellowstone’s Thorofare takes on a sobering new meaning when, fairly early in the book, he reveals that he’s been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Having spent a lifetime exploring nature, hiking thousands of miles over wild terrain, Yochim documents a final journey through his beloved Yellowstone with a group of friends who help him make the journey despite his rapidly failing body.

By turns poetic, musing, historical and descriptive, A Week in Yellowstone’s Thorofare communicates Yochim’s deep love for nature and his concern for its future in the face of climate change. He recounts historical details from Yellowstone’s past, explaining how one of Yellowstone’s most wild areas was protected from development over the years. The book bears black-and-white photos from this breathtaking area of Wyoming, with sweeping valleys and snow-clad peaks that stun even without color.

“Writing this book was a way for me to cope with the isolation forced upon me by ALS: not only isolation from the landscape I have always found so invigorating, but also isolation from those that I love, as my speech grew increasingly slurred and unintelligible,” Yochim writes. “The 12 months that I spent writing and revising this book were the longest time period in a quarter-century that I did not set foot in Yellowstone, and I have no realistic hope of ever getting there again.”

Though replete with elegant prose about Yellowstone’s wild forests and waters, perhaps the most touching and emotional passages of the book emerge in Yochim’s reflections on his condition, the inevitability of his disease and his bittersweet gratefulness to see the wonders of Yellowstone one last time.

While heartbreaking, Yochim’s story strikes deep in that profoundly human part of the soul that connects us with nature and our own fleeting mortality. — Amy Klarup


k Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta by Michael Copperman. University of Mississippi Press, $25.

Before local writer Michael Copperman began to teach writing to low-income, first-generation college students of diverse backgrounds at the University of Oregon, he spent two years in the Mississippi Delta having his illusions shattered.His memoir Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta chronicles the joys, but mainly the heartbreaks, of being sent to teach fourth graders by Teach for America with all the hope in the world but very few of the tools he needed for success. Copperman’s writing is wryly personal and brutally honest, and his goals, failures and successes of Teach for America are worth pondering. — Camilla Mortensen


Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman. Penguin Random House, $30.

While reading Claire Harmon’s excellent biography of Charlotte Brontë — famed author of Jane Eyre — I found myself wondering how the Brontës would have fared in the 21st century. Harmon intimately describes the siblings’ faults and talents, creating a tangible portrait of the Brontë family in all its oddball charm. Would Branwell Brontë have sought help for his opium addiction and alcoholism, I wonder? Would Charlotte Brontë have found true love on eHarmony, crafting her image through writing to supplement her abysmally absent social graces? Would all four siblings have lived to a ripe old age, producing mountains of literary genius, instead of dying tragically young from tuberculosis?

I have always been intrigued by the Brontës and their churning creativity, so this glimpse into their world proved fascinating. Harmon depicts Charlotte Brontë with warmth and fondness, while keeping honest about the darker sides of her nature. Brontë’s blatant obsession with her professor is cringe-worthy, an unrequited infatuation that clung to her for years. But Harmon’s descriptions of Brontë’s sensitivity, her bluntness, her ability to craft fantasy worlds to which she mentally escaped, truly shed light on the complexity and deep intelligence that characterized the life of this great novelist. With every success Brontë encounters, I felt cheered, and with every obstacle, I despaired for her. As a woman and author in the 19th century, she faced difficulties at every turn, and Harmon’s biography portrays the full contextual magnitude of Brontë’s accomplishments.

If you’re looking for a book that makes you want to reach back through time and hug its subject, Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart fulfills every wish. — Amy Klarup


Tesla for Beginners by Robert I. Sutherland-Cohen, illustrations by Owen Brozman. For Beginners, $15.95.

I knew the name Nikola Tesla, but it was my love of grammar comics that led me to discover the story of the genius inventor. I avidly read “The Oatmeal” online (and its grammar, dog and other comics) and Oatmeal author/artist Matthew Inman is such a Tesla fan that he wrote a song (“Nikola Tesla Dood”) about him, has drawn several comics and helped raise the money to build a Tesla museum. Why does Tesla deserve a museum? That’s what Tesla for Beginners will teach you. Thomas Edison might get all the credit, but Tesla either invented, contributed to or predicted everything, from the remote control, to neon and fluorescent lights, wireless transmission, computers, smartphones, laser beams, x-rays and robotics. Tesla was all about alternating current (AC), the basis of our present-day electrical system, while Edison was pro-DC, or direct current. Tesla for Beginners isn’t going to win a Pulitzer Prize, but it’s a nice little introduction to a figure who should be better known. — Camilla Mortensen


kA Naturalist’s Guide to the Hidden World of Pacific Northwest Dunes by George Poinar Jr. Oregon State University Press, $24.95.

Charming if slightly pedantic, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Hidden World of Pacific Northwest Dunes delivers on its title promise as a colorful guide to the sand dunes and their hundreds of bizarre flora and fauna. I imagine this book would be perfectly suited for a young naturalist spending a vacation away at the Oregon coast — someone inclined to carry around a magnifying glass and take samples back to the beach house for further study.

Poinar writes his guide with the loving attentiveness of a devoted naturalist, introducing the reader to various kinds of coastal plants and the animals that depend on them. Glossy pages pop in full color with amazingly comprehensive photos and descriptions for each kind of plant or critter, predominantly of the six- and eight-legged kind. Highlights for devoted mammal fans such as myself include the brush rabbit, the California ground squirrel and the adorable, fluffy-tailed chickaree.

If you’re insect-averse, this book might not be a great choice. But if there’s a budding entomologist in your family, or a beachcomber with a love for bugs, put this book on your gift list right away. — Amy Klarup


kThe End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution by Micah White. Knopf Canada, $20.

Before moving to Oregon, founding the Boutique Activist Consultancy (“We win lost causes”) and unsuccessfully running for mayor of the small coastal town of Nehalem, Micah White was one of the progenitors of Occupy Wall Street. Reading his book The End of Protest, I can’t help but think that most Occupiers I know might not be all that into it — they are too busy changing the world to muse and wax eloquent about changing the world. White, who as part of Adbusters was a co-creator of the idea to #OccupyWallStreet, chronicles the events of Occupy and ponders why, in his view, it didn’t work. I look at Eugene’s Occupy Medical and the rise of Bernie Sanders and wonder if it takes longer to have a revolution than White might think? Maybe I’m just hopeful in the face of Donald Trump’s recent election, but I still see the tendrils of hope and revolution that Occupy put forth. White focuses on “the people,” which has an appeal but is also frightening — Trump calls out to “the people” as well. In the book, White lays out his “unified theory of revolution,” which he sees as made up of voluntarism, subjectivism, structuralism and finally, theurgism — that idea that divine intervention is part of revolution. With that I have to admit, he kind of loses me. — Camilla Mortensen



Trump by Ted Rall. Seven Stories Press, $16.99.  
My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency
by Doug Henwood. Seven Stories Press, $16.99.

There seems to persist even now a strong sense among those who detest President-elect Donald Trump that a major piece of the puzzle is missing and if it could only be found and brought to light, Trump’s support would dry up and America’s ugly carnie Hitler would immediately vanish. In that spirit, journalist-illustrator Ted Rall set out to do in comic book form what no author has yet achieved in prose: Nail that slippery orange snake to the wall. 

Too bad Rall’s Trump follows the same script outlined by those who came before him and falls short at all the same turns, begging the questions: If the ever-growing mountain of dirt and ridicule can’t bury The Donald, did Rall’s rehash ever stand a chance? And was it even meant to?

A rich kid, skilled at exploiting loopholes; a New York real-estate shark who twisted arms and cozied up to mafia types; a Teflon womanizer (Rall’s book debuted before the Pussygate scandal broke): Candidate Trump spent the past year testing America’s gag reflex and proved that it may no longer be functioning.

But so what?

Reading Rall’s Trump, I felt like a guest at a stale Democratic Party fundraiser: Have you heard the one about how Trump is worse than — whichever is your least favorite histrionic Eastern European fascist mass murderer of yore?

“Trump can seem likeable,” Rall writes. “Funny. Hilarious, even. Mussolini had remarkable charisma too. Hitler could be funny, even droll.”

Rall submits to talking-point temptations again and again, as though repeating such lazy parallels for the nth time might finally move the needle. Is he clueless to the fact that the Oval Office has played roost to a long and crooked line of megalomaniacal bigots, hilarious incompetents, would-be goodfellas and genocidal perverts?

While the presidential race was in full TV ratings slop-trough mode, I switched back and forth between the pages of Rall’s impotent Trump and Doug Henwood’s merciless onslaught My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency.

Though Henwood dismantles the progressive mythology Clinton spent a lifetime cultivating, his book is not partisan; Henwood isn’t so much lashing one crooked candidate but strapping a bomb to the load-bearing pillars holding up our purest political ideals.

The system is rotten, mouth to anus, and the author sketches for us a caricature of the type of individual who wants a piece of that action. It becomes clear almost right off the bat why revolutionary change has never come from the top.

With Clinton off licking her wounds in the woods somewhere, it’s hard to imagine there exists much appetite for a book like Henwood’s, but My Turn could become an American classic if the nation holds together with Trump at the wheel. — Ben Ricker


Winter Reading 2016 - Fiction Reviews

Winter Reading 2016 - Even More Reviews

Winter Reading 2016 - Top Ten Lists

Read Local: A Roundup

Misfit. A Q&A with Lidia Yuknavitch

Read Electronically with the Eugene Public Library