Book Reviews

Ann Patchett
Harper Collins

The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived. That is how one respects indigenous people. If you pay any attention at all you’ll realize that you could never convert them to your way of life anyway… The point, then, is to observe the life they themselves have put in place and learn from it.

from  State of Wonder


“It is a tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness,” trumpets the blurb on the book cover.

I suppose the comparison to Heart of Darkness was inevitable. Any story that has the hero go up a jungle river and encounter an eccentric character living among the natives must, almost by edict, be compared to Conrad’s masterpiece.

But although Ann Patchett, author of the bestselling Bel Canto, uses a similar jungle setting, her story has a different heart and suggests a different darkness.

When Dr. Marina Singh receives news of the death of her research colleague, last heard from in the depths of the Amazon, the pharmaceutical company they work for sends her to find out what happened to him, and to complete his mission: locating the reclusive and elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, whose research project the company has been bankrolling for a number of years.

Dr. Swenson is working on a wonder drug that will allow women to bear children even into their sixties (For some reason this is seen as a good thing.)

The book momentarily lags when Marina is stuck for several weeks in a Brazilian outpost, waiting for Dr. Swenson to return from upriver, and we feel stuck with her. But the story finds its pace once she at last meets Dr. Swenson, a truly memorable character—brilliant, imperious, almost monomaniacal in her dedication to the project, and who has little regard for society and social conventions (“Society is nothing but a long, dull dinner party conversation in which one was forced to speak to one’s partner on both the left and the right.”)

Unlike Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz and the horror his madness created, Marina discovers a world of incredible beauty as well as danger, an indigenous people who both intrigue and bewilder her, and humor and tenderness in a twelve-year old deaf orphan who becomes a guide into her own heart.

And finally, very much unlike Conrad’s work, State of Wonder’s ending leaves the reader not with a sense of horror at our humanity, but with a strange mix of joy and sadness, for what has been found, and for what has been lost; much like life.







Dan Simmons
Little, Brown & Co.


Paha Sapa pulls his hand back sharply but not before he feels the rattlesnake-shock of the dying Wasicun’s ghost leaping into his fingers and flowing up his arm and into his chest. The boy lurches back in horror as the ghost burns its way up through his veins and bones like so much surging venom. The Wasicun’s spirit scalds a painful path through the nerves of Paha Sapa’s shoulder and then pours out into his chest and throat … Paha Sapa can taste it. And it tastes like death.

from  Black Hills



Like the Titanic, the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Custer’s Last Stand) continues to fascinate and maintain a hold on the popular imagination. New books keep coming out about it—most recently Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand and James Donovan's A Terrible Glory—until we wonder what else is there to say that hasn’t already been said.

However, novels are another matter. As E. L. Doctorow (Ragtime) noted, “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”

Dan Simmons' latest novel, Black Hills, tells us what it felt like at the Little Bighorn ... for a Lakota Sioux. On that hot June day in 1876, Paha Sapa, a youth out to prove his bravery, rushes in amid the clutch of blue coats firing at the surrounding Indians to “count coup”—touch one without harming him. But just as he touches a soldier, the man is killed by a bullet to his temple. And in that touch, the dying soldier’s spirit transfers to the Indian boy. The dead soldier is George Armstrong Custer.

Whoa! What a premise for a novel! I just had to see what Simmons did with that.

Well respected for his science fiction (Hyperion Cantos), Simmons charted new ground in 2007 by mixing actual history, Eskimo mythology, and horror in his novel, The Terror, about Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition that disappeared in the arctic. Here again Simmons mixes history with his formidable imagination (In the epilogue, we learn that Paha Sapa was a real person.)

The book unfolds like the wandering memory of an old man—in the first chapter he's an eleven year old boy at the Little Bighorn; in the second chapter, he's a 69 year old man working on the Mt. Rushmore project—and we begin to piece together his life, finally seeing it whole.

Playing key roles in that life are Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Wild Bill Cody, and Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of the Mt. Rushmore giants, who like his creations was larger than life.

From time to time, Custer’s spirit breaks in, often with impassioned—even graphic—love letters to his adored wife, Libbie, belying the common belief that no one had sex during the Victorian age.

Although Simmons’ intriguing premise was not as developed as I’d hoped, the novel tells the compelling story of a man who lived through a significant period in American history, and what it felt like.






Jennifer Egan
Anchor Books

“Come on, Rolphus,” Charlie says. “Dance with me.”

She takes hold of his hands. As they move together, Rolph feels his self-consciousness miraculously fade, as if he is growing up right there on the dance floor, becoming a boy who dances with girls like his sister. Charlie feels it, too. In fact, this particular memory is one she’ll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty-eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, shyly learning to dance.

from  A Visit from the Goon Squad


One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I think titles are fair game. So, based on its title, I probably would never have read A Visit from the Goon Squad if it hadn’t won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

But then, based on their original titles, I probably would never have read a number of favorite books: The Red Badge of Courage (“Private Fleming, His Various Battles”), Pride and Prejudice (“First Impressions”), The Great Gatsby (“Trimalchio in West Egg” —What was F. Scott Fitzgerald thinking!), and I remind myself that Egan did not receive the Pulitzer Prize for Titles.

This is one of those books that one remembers less for the story it tells than how it is told. And the telling is a virtuoso performance.

[Woodward and Bernstein’s title, “At This Point in Time,” was changed to All the President’s Men.]

Egan’s inventive, shifting narrative styles are dazzling, with an ensemble cast of characters whose stories link together as in a Robert Altman film: Bennie, a former punk rocker turned middle aged record producer; Lou, an almost-celebrity and one-time lady’s man gone to seed; Dolly, a down-on-her-luck PR agent, who has a genocidal dictator for a client (how does one make a monster presentable?); and others.

[Alex Haley’s title, “Before This Anger,” was changed to the simpler—and more powerful— Roots.]

Less a story than a web of interwoven stories, people’s lives flow back and forth across time, as fluid as memory. Each of the main characters has a different narrative style, some written in present tense, some in past tense; and some shuttle you into the future, looking back. One chapter is presented as a series of Powerpoint slides, which will strike some readers as daring and unconventional, while others may find it gimmicky.

[The title for Margaret Mitchell’s novel was changed to Gone With The Wind. Good call. It’s hard to imagine Max Steiner’s sweeping musical score opening that Civil War epic … “Pansy”?]

I enjoyed this book, but still don’t care for the title. It sounds like something a marketing committee came up with and, except for one reference to time as a “goon,” I still can’t figure out how it relates. So what would I have suggested to that merry band of Madison Avenue Marketeers? I don’t know—Maybe Trimalchio in East Egg?




Willy Vlautin
Harper Perennial

We heard coyotes whine and it seemed like an ocean of them surrounding us … In the middle of the night Pete pulled away from me and the rope around my ankle tugged and I woke up. I untied the rope and went to him and pet him and we stood in the darkness and you could tell he was worried. I told him what a good horse he was, and how fast he was. I told him we’d find a place where both of us could stay for a long time. A place where his feet would get fixed, a place where there was a lot of food.

--from Lean on Pete



From the first chapter, you know you’re in Steinbeck country, and I don’t mean the Salinas Valley.

Charley Thompson is a lonely and alone fifteen-year old who, traveling around with his father, never stays anywhere long enough to finish a school year. When they show up in Portland, Charley hangs out at the nearby Portland Meadows racetrack and begins working for Del Montgomery.

Through Charley’s eyes, we are introduced to the seamy, underside of horse racing, of drugged horses, and owners like Del who runs them into the ground until they can’t run anymore, then sells them for dog food. One of his horses, Lean on Pete, becomes Charley’s only friend.

When his dad is badly beaten and taken to the hospital, Charley is truly on his own, and,  stealing Pete, he sets out for Wyoming to find his only aunt.

This is a bleak, gritty novel, deeply moving, at times heartbreaking. One longs for a grace note of humor, a glimmer of hope, a touch of kindness, something to redeem humanity. Like Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, or McCarthy Cormac’s The Road, such bleak, cheerless tales deepen us and touch us to the core. This, too, is life, they seem to say.

Vlautin, a Scappoose singer and songwriter as well as author of three books, has a lean, spare prose style reminiscent of Raymond Carver, which is not an accident. He describes the impact on him of discovering Carver: “I started writing as hard as I could from that moment on. The stories just started pouring out. I had all this sadness and darkness on my back, and I didn’t know what it was. I was just a kid. But Carver opened it all up.”

Charley’s seeking a home could be a metaphor for the journey each of us is on: crossing a desert, essentially alone, where hope remains forever a faint figure—possibly a mirage—on the horizon.

It may sound like an odd recommendation (You got to read this book! It’s really bleak!) but when we read writers like Steinbeck, Carver, Cormac, and Vlautin, they open us up to the sadness and darkness on our own backs. And perhaps that’s why we read them.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15-June 14, 2011). Reprinted with permission.


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Willy Vlautin

Harper Perennial


Brian Doyle
Oregon State University Press

…he had been in the river a long time and was nearly completely drowned. I’d say he was about ninety percent drowned. He was awfully full of river…She knelt down and looked into Cedar’s face, and he had just opened his eyes and seen me and realized that he wasn’t drowned, and when he saw her face he smiled, and she smiled, and he said I like your face better than his, and we all laughed, although then I decided to throw him back in the river.

-- from Mink River


Listening to most writers tell it, writing is three parts agony to one part ecstasy (still, it’s the ecstasy that keeps us writing.) Reading Brian Doyle’s novel, Mink River, one gets the impression that for him writing is play—sheer, simple, joyful play. He uses words like children use Legos to create worlds from their imaginations.

Editor of Portland Magazine, Doyle is an award-winning essayist and the author of ten books of nonfiction. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Orion, and the annual Best American Essays anthologies. This is his first novel.

One senses this playfulness from the first page, as he introduces the fictional town of Neawanka on the Oregon coast where there are—“No houses crying out to be the cover of a magazine that no one actually reads anyway and the magazine ends up in the bathroom and then is cut to ribbons for a fourth-grade collage project …”

One can almost hear him chuckling, entertaining no one more so than himself, as he describes its “long relaxed streets that arrive eventually where they are headed but don’t get all fascist and linear and anal like highways do.”

At times loopy, at times lyrical, this is writing for the sheer joy of playing with words, as when describing an eagle—“As he sails over the grocery store he whirls and snatches a whirling piece of cardboard, and he flapflopflaps down the street triumphantly, big as a tent, you can almost hear him thinking I am one bad-ass flying machine …”—or when describing the “little frenetic testy chittering skittering cheeky testy chickaree squirrels.”

As in true play, adult rules of grammar and punctuation are suspended during recess. Sentences run on and on without ever stopping to take a breath, as if commas, semi-colons and periods were being rationed and hadn’t been available that particular day he was writing. But in this punctuation-challenged text one begins to hear the cadence and rhythm of the storyteller’s voice.

The characters start as types in folktales—the man with thirteen days to live, the old nun and her crow who recites the Psalms, the man who beats his son—names are almost incidental. We learn who these people are by the stories they tell.

As a novel, Mink River isn’t so much a story as a testament to storytelling, and its power to enchant and enthrall and project us into other worlds.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15-April 14, 2011). Reprinted with permission.

Mark Twain
University of California Press

I recall Mary Miller. She was not my first sweetheart, but I think she was the first one that furnished me a broken heart. I fell in love with her when she was eighteen and I was nine, but she scorned me, and I recognized that this was a cold world … I soon transferred my worship to Artimisia Briggs, who was a year older than Mary Miller. When I revealed my passion to her she did not scoff. She did not make fun of me. She was very kind and gentle about it. But she was also firm, and said she did not want to be pestered by children. 
-- from Autobiography of Mark Twain


Mark Twain is Americans’ most beloved writer, whether they have read him or not. Ernest Hemingway famously pronounced The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be the Great American Novel, and there have been few other contenders for the title. Huck has become an icon of American culture.

Mark Twain, the pen name and alter ego of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, has himself become an icon, personifying America: humorous, bitter, wise, naïve, idealistic and mercenary, and shrewd. One senses Huck in his heart.

On the centenary of his death (1910), the University of California Press released Autobiography of Mark Twain, a mammoth 736-page book, and the first of three volumes.

The work sprawls as he talks about whatever interests him that moment, and we float along on his stream of consciousness in memory-mode. Here is the Twain who wrote the lyrical Tom Sawyer, full of boyhood adventures and promise; and here is the Twain who wrote the bitter Letters from the Earth, despairing of the human experiment which was “probably a matter of surprise and regret to the Creator.”

This is not for those who want an introduction to his life (See Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain or Ron Power’s Mark Twain: A Life for excellent biographies.) This is for admirers of this most American of American writers, those who are already familiar with his life and experience a quiver seeing drafts in his own handwriting. This “autobiography” fills in gaps and provides nuance and texture to the man’s life.

One is also struck how Twain speaks to our times, whether railing against Jay Gould and the other greed-meisters (“The people had desired money before his day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it”), or arguing against American imperialism. He finds it brings out the worst in us as a people. He opposed the Spanish-American War which had largely been orchestrated by the Administration and the press (sound familiar?), and he is outraged at the brutal atrocities and massacres committed by U.S. soldiers against the Filipinos in their fight for independence (“The enemy numbered six hundred, including women and children—and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother.”) One suspects that he would not have been shocked by My Lai or Abu Ghraib—but still outraged.

Perhaps it’s not that Twain speaks to our times; perhaps the times don’t really change all that much.



This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15-April 14, 2011). Reprinted with permission.


Hilary Mantel
Picador USA

He kneels before him. Wolsey raises his hand, and then, as if he has forgotten what he’s doing, lets it hover in midair. He says, “Thomas, I am not ready to meet God.”

He looks up, smiling. “Perhaps God is not ready to meet you.”

from Wolf Hall


As Mark Twain noted, all history is written in prejudiced ink. It just depends on who is telling the story.

Wolf Hall, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, England’s top literary award, takes the well-known story of King Henry VIII’s attempt to get an heir (read: son) to succeed him on the throne and secure the Tudor reign.

But author Hilary Mantel gives the story a fresh slant by telling it from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, one of the great bad guys in English history, he who was responsible for beheading the “man for all seasons,” the saintly Sir Thomas More (consecrated by the Church in 1935.)

In Mantel’s telling, there are no saints. It is a brutal, ruthless world where king and pope are battling for the soul of England.

This rich historical novel assumes the reader’s familiarity with the politics and the players of the time—the king, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Cranmer—and the court intrigue, plotting and scheming by the different parties.

Perhaps not surprising, coming from Cromwell’s perspective, the book provides an unflattering portrait of More, who is seen here as a merciless and intolerant burner of heretics—“I always forget, he thinks, how More neither pities himself nor takes pity on others.” (Recommended reading: The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd offers a more balanced view that shows the man to be neither saint nor villain but a product of his time.)

Cromwell himself is portrayed as a fixer. His job is to do the bidding of his master of the moment—first, Cardinal Wolsey, then the king. Eminently practical, he seems to be a man without any principles—except loyalty—at a time when other men were willing to die, or more preferably, to kill and torture for their religious principles. In the company of such fanatics, a man without principles seems almost sane and humane by comparison.

And torture there certainly was. One wonders at the mind that could design such hideous means of bringing a sinner back to God. It makes Dick Cheney’s waterboarding look like child’s play (granted, an evil child but still…)

Finally, we are left with history’s love of irony: all this fuss and bother, burnings and beheadings, to get a male heir, only to end up with a daughter on the throne—Elizabeth I—who became the greatest of the English monarchs.


Greg Mortenson
Penguin Books

“Look here. Look at these hills,” [Sadhar Khan] said as he pointed toward the mountains looming over the town, whose lower slopes were strewn with countless rocks and boulders. “There has been far too much dying in these hills. Every rock, every boulder that you see before you is one of my mujahadeen, shahids, martyrs, who sacrificed their lives fighting the Russians and the Taliban. Now we must make their sacrifice worthwhile.”

He turned to me with a look of fierce determination. “We must turn these stones into schools.”

from Stones into Schools



H. G. Wells summed up history as “a race between education and catastrophe.” This is nowhere more evident than in the developing world today.

In his bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson relates how, in an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2 in 1993, he became lost and would have died had he not been found and cared for by villagers. In gratitude for saving his life, he promised to return someday and build the village a school.

Since that time, with only his quiet, respectful manner and the Islamic invocation, As-Salaam Alaaikum (“May peace be upon you”), he has built over 140 schools and 60 temporary refugee schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As he says in his new book, Stones into Schools, his story has always struck him as “the chronicle of an ordinary man who inadvertently bumbled into an extraordinary place.” It is the story of a man who found his calling.

His work testifies to the “ripple effects of female literacy:” Where women are educated, the quality of health increases, infant mortality drops significantly, and girls tend to marry later and have fewer children. (For the fathers, there is an economic incentive: “Her bride-price, thanks to her education, has now shot from five to fifty adult rams.”)

Also, not unimportant, educated Muslim women are more likely to withhold their blessing of their sons who wish to join a militant jihad. Three Cups is now mandatory reading for all military commanders in Afghanistan.

Mortenson concludes, “Simply put, young women are the single biggest potential agents of change in the developing world—a phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as the Girl Effect and that echoes an African proverb … ‘If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community’.”

Stones is the stronger of the two books—certainly more dramatic, including descriptions of life under the Taliban’s harsh theocracy, the attack on the World Trade Center, and the horrific 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

But I also found it more inspiring as it tells the stories of “ordinary people,” living on the edge of subsistence who seek education as the key to their children’s future. It is these people who daily inspire Mortenson. He writes, “When ordinary human beings perform extraordinary acts of generosity, endurance, or compassion, we are all made richer by their example.”

Indeed we are, Greg.


As-Salaam Alaaikum.

Spike Walker
St. Martin’s Press

The rogue wave plowed into the bow [of the grounded freighter] and erupted skyward, producing a spectacular wall of ocean spray. The prevailing direction of the wind carried the curtainlike veil of leaden spray over the comparatively tiny, embattled figure of the H-60 rising before them, enveloping the sixty-five-foot-long helicopter, rotor blades, cockpit, rear cabin, tail section, tail rotor and all, essentially swallowing the aircraft whole … the helicopter seemed to falter in midair. Then it began its descent.

from On the Edge of Survival


If there is a male counterpart to Chick Lit, it must be this kind of book. A guy’s book.

Northwest writer Spike Walker, author of Nights of Ice, Coming Back Alive, and Working on the Edge, has crafted another harrowing real-life thriller about man (there are no women in this story) against nature.

On December 8, 2004, the 738-foot freighter, Selendang Ayu, lost its engines in the midst of a raging storm off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Without power, the giant ship began drifting toward the treacherous coast, certain to be broken up by the gale-force winds and mountainous, 35 to 50 foot waves.

Two H-60 Jayhawk helicopters from the Coast Guard station at Dutch Harbor set out to rescue the ship’s twenty-six sailors. Dropping rescue baskets from 100-200 feet above the freighter, the helicopter crew began pulling up the men one at a time.

When one of the Jayhawks has to return to its base due to mechanical problems, the remaining helicopter continues removing the last nine sailors. Then, in the midst of a perfect rescue operation, nature throws them a curve.

A giant wave suddenly comes out of the night, slamming into the freighter, and shooting a wall of water several hundred feet into the air, totally swallowing the helicopter, and washing it from the sky.

A second smaller H-65 Dolphin helicopter makes a dangerous launch from a nearby Coast Guard cutter, setting out to rescue the rescuers.

Walker has once again written a breath-taking, heart-pounding, white-knuckled (let’s see, what other clichés can I throw in here?) gripping adventure. It’s not surprising his books inspired the hit television show, The Deadliest Catch.

He writes with a you-are-there immediacy, often times replaying the same critical moment from different points of view: of the commander of the Coast Guard cutter, watching the helicopter falling from the sky; the pilot as his copter stalls and begins to drop toward the churning sea; the young rescue swimmer on the doomed ship, watching the helicopter plunging down toward him.

This is stirring stuff, a guy’s book, about raw courage, endurance, sacrifice, and, too, about male bonds that go as deep as love.

Robert Michael Pyle
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

[At Stonehenge in the Columbia Gorge]

Sam Hill, Quaker pacifist road builder and booster, built this version of concrete and pebbles and dedicated it to thirteen young Klickitat County men killed in World War I. The standing stones bore brass plaques for each. When Sam saw Stonehenge in his teens, he was told it was for human sacrifice. He said, “After all our civilization, the flower of humanity is still being sacrificed to the god of war on fields of battle,” and he dedicated his henge to peace.

from Mariposa Road


Bob Pyle’s most recent book is about a lot more than butterflies.

In 2008, he set out “to travel the continent and see as many North American butterflies…as I possibly could in one calendar year.” He set the goal for himself of 500 species.

During that year he crisscrossed the United States in Powdermilk, his 1982 Honda Civic hatchback, as well as hopping up to Alaska and over to Hawaii on his quest.

As with any significant journey, there is the ostensible purpose—for example, leaving home (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), or returning home (The Odyssey)—and then there is the journey itself, which is the real story.

On his road trip, he writes about the people and places he visits—a cabin in the Big Sur area where Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti once gathered, and Graceland where he pays silent homage at Elvis’s grave. Along the way, he meets colleagues who share his passion (“This is my religion, this butterfly,” says a friend, Koji Shiraiwa) and everywhere he rejoices in nature and natural things. The reader might want a naturalist’s handbook alongside Pyle’s to picture the flora and fauna that he’s seeing (cinquefoil, starflowers, horsetail and hermit thrush.)

The author of fourteen books, including Chasing Monarchs, Where Bigfoot Walks, and Wintergreen, this Yale-trained naturalist and Guggenheim fellow is a thoughtful observer of what he is witnessing— “Many’s the time when I wished I could go back and see these creatures through a child’s eyes. Or, as Bob Seger put it, ‘Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.’”

In the end, he tallies 478 species, and returns to his Grays River home where he reflects on his year’s journey—“Most of my trials were fun, some funny, and always survivable …(O)ne naturally asks, What did I learn?  How am I changed?”

That’s a very personal discovery, one that often can’t be put down on paper, for somewhere along the way one has become the journey.