Category: Reviews

Books That Make Me Go Sort Of “Meh’ But That Other People Raved About

Books That Make Me Go Sort Of "Meh' But That Other People Raved About

A few weeks ago, Jacob Silverman wrote a piece called “Against Enthusiasm” for Slate. His thesis? Social media and the blogosphere have made book critics & reviewers afraid of writing critical reviews.

Responses have been coming thick and fast—Roxane Gay’s piece in Salon is perhaps my favorite for her clear-eyed takedown not only of Silverman’s sexist attack on Emma Straub but his inability to contend with the actual literary work at hand. (This two-sentence takedown pretty much sums it up: “Silverman has a valid argument, but he did not treat Emma Straub like a professional. (He did, however, manage to mention who her father is and what her husband does.)”

Another note: Online culture is not “actually” very nice, as Gay notes. Authors have been known to attack reviewers in pretty nasty ways recently, including on GoodReads (one reason I don’t even visit my account there anymore—it’s become a place of total ick) and on their own blogs. Writer Justine Larbalestier has a fantastic suggestion for reviewers attacked on blogs—stop reviewing the author’s work, take down the review, and leave a note explaining why—on her own blog.

Still, I’ve been thinking about my usual reviews for the Literary Duck blog. Actually, they’re hardly ever “reviews” as such—I used to write longer ones for my former employer, a local newspaper, but that job is gone—and often, I only choose things I enjoyed to one extent or another. But I want to address a few recent books that received rave reviews from all [...]
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Kate Hopper: Using her Words to Champion Mom-Writers

Kate Hopper: Using her Words to Champion Mom-Writers

When one of my classmates in graduate school got pregnant right after she sold her first book, our faculty advisers flew into a rage. “You can’t have children!” they told her. “You’ll never write again.”

Pursuing a literary life and a family can seem, at times, impossible. Trying to write about your children can prove even more complex and challenging. First, you’ve got to consider their feelings; while you may think their penchant for collecting pillbugs in the same threadbare princess dress every day is cute, an adolescent seeing her eccentricities immortalized in print may be mortified. If you’ve made your peace with writing about the parenting experience, then you find yourself contending with critics who sneer about “Mommy Lit” and ask whether you’ve got anything better to write about.

Author and teacher Kate Hopper contests that criticism. In Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers (Viva Editions, 2012), she argues for the power and viability of what she terms “motherhood literature.” “Through my blog and teaching,” she writes, “I discovered exactly what I expected: women—mothers—crafting memoirs and essays dealing with issues of identity, loss and longing, neurosis and fear, ambivalence and joy. I found stories about transformation and how the authors see themselves in relation to the world in which they live. Last time I checked, this was the stuff of which real literature was made.”

Hopper has packed her book full of excerpts both heart-warming and painful, by well-published [...]
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Human Transit

Human Transit

If everyone in Eugene could read Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, I’d be happy. I didn’t find a single page—or even a single sentence, basically—that doesn’t apply to our current, rancorous transportation discussions.

Author Jarrett Walker grew up in Portland, and he fell in love with the public transportation system of Portland early—but he fell in love with the nerdy side of things, and when he called TriMet to ask questions starting when he was about 10, he got answers. Eventually, he turned into a transportation consultant—helping cities consider their public transit systems, analyze patterns, listen to different constituencies, and make some decisions.

He’s refreshingly thoughtful about the balance between the public—people who both use and do not use public transit systems—and the “experts”—people who have a background in transportation, but who sometimes don’t exactly know how to work with a large number of constituencies. And he’s refreshingly calm and clear about the various needs of pretty much everyone, from frequent drivers, to disabled transit users, to business owners concerned about noise, to homeowners concerned about fumes and litter.

The farther I got in the book, the more I confirmed both my own transit nerdiness—What’s better than considering Denseville, Sparseville, peak transit riding times, when bikes should be allowed into transit, spider-web grids, boulevards, and more transit questions? Very little! #nerdalert—and the need for all sides of the EmX blow-up to read this [...]
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iZombie, uEntertained

iZombie, uEntertained

There’s an uptick in supernatural activity in Eugene, Oregon. Gwen Dylan might seem like your average Eugene hipster hanging around Jameson’s downtown with her two best friends Ellie and Scott. But Gwen and her friends are hiding some pretty big secrets. Namely, Gwen and Ellie are dead.

Gwen is a zombie – who can pass for normal as long as she eats a brain once a month. And what better job for someone in that situation than gravedigger? (In an eco-friendly graveyard – this is Eugene after all). Ellie is a ghost from the swingin’ `60s—doomed to haunt the streets of Eugene in a cute mini-skirt that would make Daphne from Scooby-Doo jealous. And then there’s Scott—an affable, scruffy kid who just so happens to turn into a wolf, well—a “were-terrier” really—every once and awhile.

The plot thickens when we learn that a nasty side effect of Gwen’s compulsion to eat brains (besides the taste) is she’s possessed with the memories of the recently departed soul. After eating the brains of a poor fellow whose death seems to involve foul play, Gwen and her motley crew of friends are on the case.

The investigation leads them to a devastatingly handsome and ancient mummy who lives in the Shelton-McMurphey-Johnson House and a paintball course outside of Eugene operated by a bunch of seductive vampires (at this point would you expect anything else?). And when handsome and mysterious strangers who work for a covert international monster-hunting agency show up in Eugene, a love story isn’t far behind [...]
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We the Animals

We the Animals

We the Animals

By: Justin Torres

Fiction writers — and, heck, nonfiction writers — can debate for hours the merits of first-person vs. third-person (and the rare, though less so now than it used to be, use of second-person) in telling a tale. Joshua Ferris’ stunning Then We Came to the End made an end run around this talk by using the first-person plural for most of the book. We did this. We made up the term “walked Spanish down the hall” for getting laid off. We. Whoever we was.

Let’s hope this doesn’t become too much of a trend; like continual present tense, something suddenly popular in young adult fiction, it could be annoying. We? Who is this we, author?

But in the case of Justin Torres’ first novel, We the Animals, the “we” feels absolutely right, at least for the first half to three-quarters of the book, told in mini-chapters theoretically by that “we.” The three brothers, fight, flee their parents, love their parents, are hurt by their parents, starve when their Puerto Rican dad leaves their white mom for a while, live wildly on the land in upstate New York where their Brooklyn-born parents landed.

Torres’ language in most of these sections sings like a dangerous, rich potion, an arrow of joy and pain aimed directly at the most vulnerable parts of the body. The boys watch their world fall apart; they try to be tough; when they turn [...]
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Books That Irritated Me in 2011

Books That Irritated Me in 2011

It’s the time of year when everyone puts out the “best” booklists—Best Fiction 2011, Best Children’s Books, Best Sellers, Best Dog Books, Best Spiritual Books, Best Books with a Blue Cover, etc. Yes, well, I’m feeling out of sorts and, frankly, I don’t want to talk about the best books. I want to rant about books that irritated me this year. Please note the verb: irritated. I didn’t necessarily hate them, they weren’t without value or merit, but … well, you’ll see what I mean. We’ll call this: Two Things I Have No Patience For.


Things I have no patience for #1: NOVELS WITH NO LIKABLE CHARACTERS.

It’s not a spoiler to say that the main character in Skippy Dies is dead before the end of the prologue. The whole point of this award-winning tragicomedy by Paul Murray is to explore Skippy’s death and what becomes of his friends because of his sudden demise. 14-year-old Skippy is a boarder at a Catholic boys’ school in Dublin. As you might expect, there is a Catholic girls’ school next door. Teenage angst and pubescent emotions run amuck, exacerbated by modern-day eating disorders and alarming, rampant drug use. These are not likable young characters; they are angry, sad, self-absorbed and appear to be heading toward personal ruin.

Unfortunately for these young people, they are the offspring of monsters. The parents, teachers and school administrators are wrapped up in their own dreary lives/marital affairs/scrambles for power and [...]
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Cutie Pies: 40 Sweet, Savory and Adorable Recipes


Cutie PiesCutie Pies: 40 Sweet, Savory and Adorable Recipes

By: Dani Cone

Why does pie make us happy? I believe that pie ignites a mysterious quality of nostalgia in each of us. It could have been that perfect summer with a peach pie, or a cold night sitting by the fire with a slice of Sheppard’s pie. Through pie we can relieve some of our favorite memories over and over again. No time speaks more truth to this idea than the winter holidays.

With the holidays upon us, I decided to experiment with some festive pies that everyone would enjoy. I looked to a wonderful book called Cutie Pies, by Dani Cone, for ideas. This delightful cookbook provides forty delicious recipes. They range from the sweet and decadent, to satisfyingly savory. The recipes are easy to follow—the hardest part is deciding what baking method you will use.

I started with a “Pear-Cranberry-Ginger Cutie Pie,” followed by a full sized “Sweet Potato Pie,” and I finalized this pie party with “Salmon, Cream cheese and Dill Petit-5s.” Each pie was unique in its own way and none of them disappointed, even with my minor tweaks to the recipes.

To begin with, the Pear-Cranberry-Ginger pie was to die for. The crispness of the pears mixed beautifully with the sweet tang of the cranberries, followed by a subtle pop of ginger. The basic ingredients for this recipe weren’t difficult to find, except I was baking these before [...]
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Everything Might Turn Out Kind Of OK, If Smaller And Maybe Pretty Different – Paul Gilding’s “The Great Disruption”

Paul Gilding's The Great Disruption

Great DisruptionTeaching environmental journalism last spring was both one of the best and worst experiences of my teaching career. The students? Marvelous. Their work? Fantastic (you can read Elisabeth Kramer’s fascinating “Fast-Forwarding Mendel” about two-thirds of the way down this Oregon Quarterly link). But the stories we read, about ocean extinction and water shortages and the ills of dams (big ones cause earthquakes—did you know that?) and cancer and nuclear waste and environmental racism and poverty, didn’t exactly spur us to feel hope for the future.

If only we’d read Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption. Sure, the former head of Greenpeace who founded his own consulting firm and worked with a lot (a lot, and he’s not afraid to name-drop like mad) of CEOs who claimed to want to green up their companies might glide right on over things like the actual great disruption and how many people will die when climate change hits harder. But he does talk about how depressed he often was working as an environmental activist, and how that hasn’t helped one single bit.

Sometimes he seems a little more impressed with CEOs (they’re good people, he assures us, mostly trying to do the right thing, with the exception of anyone associated with Exxon Mobil) than your usual environmentalist or even your usual skeptical right-wing commentator would be. That’s disconcerting—but if one pushes on past all of that, the book’s got some good points, and it’s rather [...]
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Wordstock 2011: A Short Recap


The big red chair in the Oregon Convention Center should have been my guide. Though the soul-sucking nature of the Convention Center makes almost anything less fun than it would otherwise be, the Wordstock Festival still had a big red beating heart — the chair of literary engagement, or some such thing.

My time at Wordstock began with a workshop. Wordstock offers not only the opportunity to see favorite authors (Michael Ondaatje! Jennifer Egan! Barry Lopez!); not only panels that can be superb (Move Over, Holden Caulfield) or way less good than one had hoped (stay away from anything with “death of print” in the title; dang, that was painful); not only exhibitors who have books to sell, magazines to give away, MFA programs to entice unwary young and not-so-young ones into, small presses to fun; but also workshops with actual working writers such as Steve Almond (who apparently made playwright Claire Willett‘s day, according to Facebook posts after the workshop).

Literary detour: Yes, the name is a literary joke on the name Woodstock, which ironically confused the hell out of my Tri-Met bus driver on Sunday – “You want to go to Woodstock? You’ll want a different bus!”

Anyway, so I heard panels and authors and some more panels, but I started out attending the workshop by science writer David Wolman. Wolman writes books [...]
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Hardwired to Prevaricate?


Euphemania: Our Love Affair With Euphemisms by Ralph Keyes

“I prefer not to say we are killing other people,” an American artillery captain said during the Gulf War. “I prefer to say we are “servicing the target.’”

Ah yes, servicing the target. Once you’ve read Ralph Keyes’—at first kind of cutesy, then rapidly increasing in intensity—little book on euphemisms, you might think servicing the target could range in meaning from dropping some big dogs to playing hide the poker to something more blunt, say, taking revenge on a co-worker or terrible boss in some unmentionable way.

Speaking of unmentionables, that’s the whole point of his book Euphemania. What we can’t mention, like bodily functions, er, I mean urinating and defecating, or rather peeing and pooping, or certain other bodily functions like, say, sex—or politically problematic unmentionables, like killing, or maybe even murdering, hundreds of civilians in a bloody and unclear war—that’s what Keyes writes about in this piece that surveys the euphemistic ground and ends up with the theory that humans might desperately need euphemisms in order to converse.

After all, where’s the joy in marking insider/outsider status if, say, a sixth-grade girl can’t say to her female friends that “Cousin Freddie’s here for a visit again” without having the boys in her class suddenly squealing “Period panties!” and running away. (A boy in my seventh grade class who would humiliate the girls by coming up to us, sniffing hard and then declaring, [...]
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