When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris 2008 (323 pgs)
In Sedaris’s newest collection of essays, even the dust jacket is funny. In fact, get it just for that. Sedaris touches on why you should never take your parents to an art gallery, the perils of talking to your neighbors, the angst of being the worst student in your language class, and how quiting smoking can kill you, among other topics.
Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff by Rosemary Mahoney 2007 (273 pgs)
Enjoyable travelogue of a woman’s frustrated efforts to row solo from Aswan to Luxor. She wants to experience the Nile they way ordinary people have for milennia: by self-powered rowboat. It’s an interesting shift in focus; she’s not preoccupied with the architecture and historical sites. She’s looking to connect with the everyday people who make their livings within reach of the Nile as well as make her own connection to the river. Along her journey, she ruminates on the epic force of this life-enabling river throughout history and touches on historical travellers experiences, which makes for an interesting read.
The Brides of March: A Memoir of Same-Sex Marriage by Beren DeMotier (149 pgs) 2007
I followed the news avidly four years ago when Multnomah County announced that they would begin offering marriage licenses for same-sex couples. I felt proud that I lived in a community that was making such a strong statement about equal rights.
This slim narrative tells the experience of one family’s personal travels through the same-sex marriage rollercoaster. DeMotier and her partner shared a house, three kids, and 17 years of commitment when the announcement came that they could be legally married. They were among the first of the 3000 couples who rushed to the Multnomah County Courthouse for licenses that month. Surrounded by their children, friends, and their friends’ children in one raucous group they joyously claimed their license and that same afternoon married and witnessed their friends’ marriages.
They were thrilled by the outpouring of support from their community as friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances, and even strangers shared in their happiness. Their excitement and feeling of validation is all the more heartbreaking in the circumstances that followed. Multnomah County eventually rescinded the licenses, declaring all same-sex marriages void at the time of issue, even returning the checks for the license fees. Along with many states, the Oregon State Legislature also later enacted legislature declaring marriage “between one man and one woman.” The Oregon domestic partnership bill that eventually passed in 2007/08 doesn’t make up for the fact that gays are still treated as second-class citizens by our government. But at least it’s a step in a more equal direction, with hopefully more to come.
Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy by Lindsay Moran 2005 (295 pgs)
A humorous recounting of Moran’s experience joining the CIA. It’s not so much a “fish out of water” tale as it is a “fish thrown in the deep end of a lake with 100-pound backpack and told to swim for shore.” With sly observation and an appreciation of the absurd, Moran relates what it’s actually like to interview for the CIA and train to become a spy. From a stern psychologist who convinces her she’s a sexual deviant to insanely realistic POW training, every step along the way has her simultaneously questioning what she’s doing with her life and strengthening her resolve.
Books I didn’t finish:
The Last Season by Eric Blehm (335 pgs/read 60) 2006
Well written chronicle of an experienced back-country ranger who goes missing. Blehm aptly captures both the Sequoia/Kings Canyon country and the ranger Jim Morgenson to the point that you feel you’ve know both for years.
Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science by Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson 2007 (282 pgs/read 135)
A second case study book from one of my personal heroes. Bill Bass pioneered post-mortem decomposition analysis when he founded the Forensic Anthropology Research Center or “Body Farm” at the University of Tennesee in 1971. Not quite as riveting as the first book, Bass seems to be reaching deeper into his historical grab-bag than previously. There are still some interesting cases, and Bass’s personable, down-home tone is always enjoyable.
Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand 2006 (240 pgs/read 2 stories)
It’s the rare writer who can use “chiaroscuro” in a sentence (twice!) and not come off pretentious. Hand is an apt and enjoyable author and her $50 words never distract from the narrative, but seem to fit with an almost unnoticeable ease. And “strange stories” is right. The writing is intense, compelling and vaguely unsettling- like trying to meditate while caffeine-jittery to the point of nausea.
Let Me Go by Helga Schneider (166 pgs) 2004
Helga was four and her brother eighteen months old when their mother abandoned them. Bad enough on it’s own. But she abandoned them to join the SS and become a guard in concentration camps. Helga only saw her mother twice after that. Once 30 years later, and once 27 years after that, shortly before her mother died. This is the stream-of-consciousness flash-back interspersed chronicle of that last visit. Her mother remained unrepentant and unapologetic, seeing nothing wrong with her decision to leave her children or her work in the concentration camps. Interesting focus for a holocaust book- simultaneously an insight into a guard’s justification and a daughter’s appalled questioning.
Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart (258 pgs) 2007
Another NPR gem, this slender bio was penned by a 83-yr-old remembering the best summer of her life. Bursting with wide-eyed exuberance, small-town Marjorie recalls the summer of 1945 that she and a college friend spent in New York City. To their amazement they gained employ as pages at Tiffany & Co, becoming the first women ever on the sales floor.
Marjorie takes as much joy from the simple pleasures as she does from her brushes with history. She sparkles with wonder as she recounts glimpses of the stars and social elite who graced the doors of Tiffany. And she blissfully recalls heading downtown to get a glimpse of the small plane that struck the Empire State Building, and joining 50,000 other celebrants in Times Square on V-day. Yet even simple anecdotes like going for desert at a prestigious restuarant or dropping a box of pearls in the elevator become grand adventures through Marjorie’s eyes.