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Winter Reading 2017 - Nonfiction & Essays

 

Nonfiction

 

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Knopf, $15.

Though slim, this manifesto is a masterpiece. Each suggestion is thoughtful, meditating on the problems of patriarchy. Adichie is passionate, but her anger is not biting. When she criticizes the patriarchy, she seems amused by the poor logic behind society’s failings. This book is deeply rooted in the Nigerian female experience, but the trappings of that culture are easily mirrored in this one. Her writing is deeply personal: The book is written as a letter to her close friend, who has just birthed a daughter. Here’s an example from the sixth suggestion: “Teach her to question language. Language is the repository of all our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions. But to teach her that, you will have to question your own language.” But Adichie’s suggestions always extend toward a clearheaded analysis of society at large: “Teach her to question men who can have empathy for women only if they see them as relational rather than as individual equal humans.” Dear Ijeawele is an excellent candidate for your coffee table, and the lessons in it are, unfortunately, pretty timeless. — Kelly Kenoyer

 

Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell. Indiana University Press, $55 (paper).

Perhaps the most influential Oregon native you’ve never actually heard of was the avant-garde musical pioneer Lou Harrison, who managed to be born in Portland in 1917 and then almost immediately depart for places he was more likely to make an artistic mark, such as San Francisco, where he learned about Chinese opera and enjoyed the 1930s gay community, and North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, where he took part in “happenings” with the likes of John Cage and Merce Cunningham. In this hefty (583 pages) but readable biography, Southern California composer Bill Alves joins forces with Eugene Weekly’s own classical music writer Brett Campbell (OK, Brett also writes for such lesser-known publications as the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle and Oregon ArtsWatch) to illuminate the life of the man they call “the godfather of world music.” The result is a detailed account that combines serious music history with dishy gossip in just the right proportion to keep non-musical readers awake while offering them a substantial account of 20th-century American culture. — Bob Keefer

 

No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein. Haymarket Books, $16.95.

If you’re familiar with Naomi Klein’s work, you know what to expect: incisive investigative reporting and an impassioned voice for social, economic and environmental justice. On all these fronts, No is Not Enough delivers and adds to Klein’s stature as a leading writer and thinker for progressive ideals. For those unfamiliar with Klein’s work, go pick up this book I doubt you’ll be able to put it down. Part election post-mortem and part roadmap for resistance, her book chronicles the rise of Donald Trump and focuses on how to defend against his assault on the commons for the sake of his businessman cronies. Unlike Klein’s previous books critiquing consumer culture, predatory disaster capitalism and inadequate responses to climate change, which are heavily footnoted and at times stall out amidst the dirty details, No is Not Enough is nimble as it moves from problems to solutions. Klein’s ability to pair a hard look at the problems we face as a society with a message of hope for the future will leave you with a stiff lip and a tight jaw as you carry on in the fight against Trump’s agenda. — Carl Segerstrom

 

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin. Melvin House, $12.79.

Jessa Crispin offers a biting critique of modern feminism in her new book, but her criticisms are not followed by actionable ideas. Feminism, she says, has become a marketing campaign instead of a movement. And I agree. I don’t think mugs that say “male tears” do anything to achieve gender equality or justice — those mugs just give money to the capitalists who make them. Crispin argues vehemently against this mass media version of feminism, a feminism of leaning in and busting ass to make it in a man’s world. But, Crispin says, feminism should be about justice for all women, not justice for individuals. “We have the power to do good, but that will not come to much as long as we define ‘what is good’ as ‘what is good for me.’” The question is, how do we make these massive changes? Where Crispin falls flat is in the answer to that question. This is a good read for any feminist looking for an opportunity for self-reflection, or any person who questions the consumerist bent that modern feminism has taken. But if you’re seeking solutions, look elsewhere. 

Kelly Kenoyer

 

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28.

In the rarified realm of theological meditations and religious memoirs — ranging from Augustine’s Confessions to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity — French writer Emmanuel Carrere’s The Kingdom is absolutely unique: A lifelong non-believer, Carrere at mid-life converted full-bore to Christianity, becoming obsessed with the gnostic writings of John, and then, after a few years, he fell once again un-beguiled, returning to skepticism, though now haunted by the specter of belief he’d briefly acquired. “I forsake you, Lord,” he writes at one point. “Please do not forsake me.” That’s one hell of a perspective from which to dive headlong into the Gospels, eking out the truth, fiction, supposition and mythology (and plagiarism) of writers like Paul, Luke and Mark. Vulnerable, gutsy, smart and exhaustively researched, Carrere’s book is a challenging, baffling and always fascinating examination of first-century Christianity — what happened, how it took hold and why a small cult of fervid, messianic Jews and Greeks (among innumerable such cults) is at the roots of Western Civilization. The book doubles as a deeply personal confession of one man’s struggles with faith — its rigors, its goads to betterment, its inherent contradictions, its struggles and rewards — making it essential reading for anyone concerned about the hesitant, ecstatic and anguished fluctuations of human spirituality. — Rick Levin 

 

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle. Zero Books, $16.95.

Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies is exceedingly relevant for its time. The short book chronicles how internet sites trenched in sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc., have not only served as communities for the alt-right, but have started seeping into the mainstream through memes like Pepe the Frog and situations like Gamergate. Nagle states in the intro that Kill All Normies is an attempt to “place contemporary culture wars in some historical context and attempt to untangle the real from the performance, the material from the abstract and the ironic from the faux-ironic, if such a thing is any longer possible.” 

Nagle dives deep into sub-reddits and 4chan threads, and a bit into the psyche of their users, to reveal just how nihilistic, emotionless and seemingly hopeless the alt-right internet troll persona is. Her writing is not one-sided, though. She also tackles the left’s participation in this reactionary cyber war and how its own liberal bubbles of cyberspace have formed. Kill All Normies focuses on what’s going on in this very specific point in time, but also connects these distinct ideas back to larger motifs — surrealism, philosophers like Nietzsche, and the “punk rock” aspects of counterculture and rebellion, to state a few. Nagle lays out just how much of a culture war modern politics has become and how the access to communicative technology has not necessarily aided that fact. Equal parts grim and bleak, this one is definitely not a beach read — but it is definitely important. 

Meerah Powell

 

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Simon & Schuster. $30.

How many men are reading this book? I would guess not many, but Jeremy Nissel at J. Michaels said men have been buying the book, and it has been on the best-seller list for weeks. My push to read it was both political and feminist, although after the election I wished the Clintons would just go away. Her book is important for what it says about the Russian impact on November 2016, about Hillary Clinton’s fears for our democracy, what we should do now and why Donald Trump is president even though she received more popular votes than he did. It is a ponderous but fascinating read, and although she says she takes full credit for her loss, she never convinces me that she truly understands why from her perch of wealth and amassed power. She repeatedly blames James Comey’s late email charges and the Russian influence for her defeat, but this is an insightful paragraph:

“Moreover, I have come to terms with the fact that a lot of people — millions and millions of people — decided they just didn’t like me. Imagine what that feels like. It hurts. And it’s a hard thing to accept, but there’s no getting around it.” Now that we are nearly a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, this book is important for telling us what might have been. Even if you didn’t like her, Hillary Clinton would have been a good president, so much superior to what we have. Her book convinced me. — Anita Johnson

 

Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West by Nick Johnson. Oregon State University Press, $19.95.

Pot is hot and, as Nick Johnson points out, it has been in the West for more than 100 years. Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West isn’t the most colorful tale of cannabis connoisseurs, but Johnson’s extensive research and immaculate blend of scholarly research and short character sketches overcome this singular shortcoming. While he touches on the countercultural icon that cannabis has been and the campaigns that the federal government has waged on the plant, he doesn’t dwell on these well-covered facts. Instead, Johnson has set out to give readers the first history of cannabis from an agricultural perspective. Johnson doesn’t shy away from firing back at cannabis growers’ high-and-mighty view of themselves, pointing out the numerous ways that the cannabis industry in the West is doing harm to the environment while touting itself as a green industry. Despite the damage that indoor farms and large-scale illegal grows are doing, Johnson presents a compelling case that it is federal prohibition that is doing the most harm. — Max Thornberry

 

The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals by Joel Sartore. National Geographic, $35.

Ever since the day Noah invited all those couples to step aboard his ark, we’ve been fascinated with collecting — and preserving — the animal kingdom. Veteran National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore follows in that grand tradition with The Photo Ark, a beautiful coffee-table book that records his mission to photograph every species of the world’s animals that exist in captivity. We’re not talking simple snapshots here; instead Sartore has managed to pose his subjects, great or small, in stark studio-like settings against plain black or white backgrounds, focusing our attention on the exquisite form and color of everything from bright-hued katydids to a baby aquatic box turtle emerging, a bit tentatively, from its newly hatched egg. Sartore has been traveling the world on this project for just over a decade; as of last year he’d photographed more than half the 12,000 species in captivity. It’s hard to miss with animal pictures, and The Photo Ark doesn’t shy away from melt-your-heart cute, as in an inseparable pair of orphaned young gray-tailed moustached monkeys. But Sartore brings a sophisticated eye to his subject, finding wonderful common visual ground in pairing photos of, say, a snowy owl and a small cat called an oncilla, or a common garden snail and a cheetah. Sartore is continuing the project, and I’m already looking forward to seeing volume two. — Bob Keefer

 

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder. Tim Duggan Books. $8.99.

This is an elegant and terrifying little book, only 126 pages, by the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. An expert on the Holocaust, Snyder was described by The New York Times as “a rising public intellectual unafraid to make bold connections between past and present.” He writes 20 short chapters, little essays, around this theme: “The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” — Anita Johnson

 

 

Essays

 

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell.
Penguin Random House, $28.

Comedian W. Kamau Bell is a lot of things — African-American, heterosexual, cisgender, left-leaning, asthmatic, a blerd (black nerd), a dad … and those are just half the descriptors he offers on the cover of his memoir, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. Bell’s identity is a mishmash, and that’s a big theme in his book — the intersectionality of identity that makes us, us. Bell isn’t just a black comedian; he’s a multi-faceted person with a whole load of other things going on. Awkward Thoughts is a collection of essays in which Bell explores different personal topics such as his love of superheroes and comic books, his parents and struggling to kick-start a stand-up comedy career. The book functions as a memoir, and yet Bell finds ways to relate his own stories back to the world-at-large — politics, race relations, parenthood, etc. Although he has lived a life specifically his own, Bell’s storytelling is so layered and genuine that it becomes universal. In that way, this collection of essays offers a little something for everyone, and you’ll definitely be laughing along the way.
Meerah Powell

 

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris. Little, Brown, $28

If you’ve never picked up a David Sedaris book, Theft by Finding is the perfect place to start. The phenomenal essayist and humorist offers fans and newcomers a look into his most personal writings in this first of a two-volume release. This collection of diary entries whisks readers through the life and times of one of the world’s funniest and most perceptive writers. Sedaris isn’t for the faint of heart, so if heart-wrenching and tear-jerking stories about sex, death, drugs and frozen animals isn’t for you, beware that the author pulls no punches. Sedaris has the uncanny ability to find humor in everyday life unfolding around him. At times, it’s hard to believe that he isn’t making these stories up. It helps when you spend every evening in the local IHOP — be it in Raleigh or Chicago. Sedaris is a talented writer who has spent years perfecting his craft by recording the day-to-day happenings around him. If nothing else, Theft by Finding leaves readers with a sense of adventure that is as easy to find as opening their eyes. — Max Thornberry

 

Double Bind: Women on Ambition edited by Robin Romm. Liveright, $19.50.

The wonderfully bold, strikingly vulnerable and immensely wise collection of essays in Double Bind work together to explore the challenges and realities of being a woman with ambition in the world today. Honest, insightful stories from college professors, artists, best-selling authors, stay-at-home moms, psychiatrists, actresses and everything in between fill the pages, each sharing a different, valuable meaning of the word ambition. The stories echo moments of honest failure and glorious success, challenging guilt and beautiful aspirations — each one containing a powerful look at being an ambitious woman. Robin Romm, Portland-based editor and the author of three books, writes: “It’s a way to ignite conversation, to inspire women of all ages and walks of life to consider the role of ambition in their lives, to embrace it with more confidence, to define it and own it and understand why it feels uncomfortable.” It’s a book made to inspire, and it does. — Morgan Theophil

 

 

Winter Reading 2017 - Fiction, Poetry & Young Adult Reviews

Tell Me The Old Story - The Odyssey rendered by a woman

Failsafe - Eugene author Howard Libes debuts sci-fi novel When All Else Fails

Doing It Yourself - The year in local self-published literature

A Thousand Words - A roundup of the best photography books of the year

By Design - A selection of books on graphic art