Laurie Lewis

 

 

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It seems like a favorite reviewers' question is often "What are you reading right now?" To which I answer, "Nothing. I'm devoting my entire attention to you at this moment." Well, actually, I'm never quick enough to come up with a snappy comeback, and in fact, I usually draw a blank as soon as anyone asks that question. So I decided that I'd make a little list of some of the books I have read over the past years, and here it is:

 

The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

by Sherman Alexie (Harper Perennial)

This collection of short stories, bound together by characters who live on the Spokane Indian reservation, is funny, sad, and told in a unique voice well worth hearing and mulling over. One of the stories is the basis for the film Smoke Signals (also highly recommended by me). It is unfortunate that it is so easy to read the stories through so quickly, because they deserve to be sat with for a time.

 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

by Dave Eggers (Vintage)

This is a beautiful and original memoir of family tragedy and filial affection, by a young writer. The title is meant to be funny, but it truly IS heartbreaking, humorous, and loving. Maybe not genius, but certainly with flashes of it. In addition, much of this takes place in Berkeley and environs, so it holds special local interest for me.

 

Life of Pi

by Yann Martel (Harcourt)

Now, this is a GREAT book. I have revisited the ending in my mind over and over again. You gotta read it.

 

Cadillac Desert

by Marc Reisner

Everyone should read this book, for an understanding of politics and water development in the West. And a little insight into what is in store for the future. Yes, it's depressing. But in order to strive for the best future, we have to know the facts of the past.

 

In The Spirit of Crazy Horse

by Peter Matthiessen (Penguin Books)

 

This is the meticulously researched and annotated story of the systematic destruction of the American Indian Movement of the 1970's by the FBI. When this book was first published, the FBI and the then-governor of South Dakota filed lawsuits to block it, citing libel charges. The publisher knuckled under to the pressure and pulled the book from the shelves. After years of fighting Government lawyers, Peter Matthiessen won in the courts, and his book was again made available. Leonard Peltier still remains in jail for a murder that he did not commit, and AIM has never regained its strength as a movement. As a sad note, I saw in the papers last year that Robert Hugh Wilson, "Standing Deer", was finally released from prison, and only a few weeks later was murdered in his home in Houston, TX. Standing Deer claimed in the book that he was approached by Federal agents to kill Peltier in prison. Instead, he became his friend and protector, and fully expected that he would himself be murdered for speaking out. In July of 2003, we visited the Pine Ridge reservation and Wounded Knee while we were in South Dakota. Wounded Knee is the poorest part of the poorest county in the wealthiest country in the world.

 

Lies (And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them)

by Al Franken (Dutton)

 

Another meticulously researched and annotated book. Funny and angry and well worth a read.

 

Waiting

by Ha Jin

 

I loved this novel of culture clash, politics, romance and responsibility. It takes place in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution, a place and a time I know next to nothing about. I still know next to nothing, but was highly entertained.

 

The God of Small Things

by Arundhati Roy (Harper Perennial)

 

This novel, set in India, is very beautiful and mysterious. If you ever get the chance to hear Roy speak, don't pass it up.

 

Into The Forest

by Jean Hegland (Bantam Books)

 

I couldn't put it down. It's a quick read, set in Northern California, and the story seems quite timely. It could happen...

 

My Century

by Gunther Grass (A Harvest Book, Harcourt)

 

This book goes through the 20th century one year at a time, from a distinctly German perspective, or I should say many German perspectives. I probably only really understood about half of the historic references, but it was fascinating nonetheless. I picked up the next three books at the Fishtrap Summer Writing Workshop, the theme of which was "The Legacy of Vietnam":

 

Vietnam, A Traveler's Literary Companion

edited by John Balaban and Nguyen Qui Duc (Whereabouts Press, SF)

 

This is a collection of short stories written by Vietnamese writers. In the preface, the editors state that they deliberately chose not to include war stories, but the experience of war is palpable in some of the writing. The stories focus on customs, family, interpersonal relationships, the ocean, mountains, and jungle landscape.

 

Catfish And Mandala

by Andrew X. Pham (Picador USA)

 

The cover describes it as "A two-wheeled voyage through the landscape and memory of Vietnam". Well, ok, I like bicycles and I like travel. What could be better? It's an intense voyage of personal discovery.

 

The Sorrow Of War

by Bao Ninh (Riverhead Books)

 

Wow. Written by a North Vietnamese soldier about a former North Vietnamese soldier, this book is banned in Vietnam (it paints the war in less-than-glorious light). Everyone should read it.

 

Interpreter Of Maladies

by Jhumpa Lahiri (Mariner Books)

 

This is a truly delightful collection of short stories, set in the US and India. What is it with these great Indian women?

 

The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial)

 

Kingsolver has written her best book to date. Set in Africa, it tells the stories of a missionary family as it falls apart along with the infrastructure of the country. I loved it!

 

Prodigal Summer

by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial)

 

After the Poisonwood Bible, I couldn't wait for Kingsolver's next book. I loved it for its social/political/ecological/romantic themes. These are people I would like to hang out with. In fact, I think I pretty much know who they are.

 

Snow In The Kingdom: My Storm Years On Everest

by Ed Webster (Mountain Imagery)

 

OK. The thought of mountain climbing makes my blood run cold. I can't understand why anyone would want to do it. I'm happy to scramble to a high point for a good view, but ropes, snow, frostbite, death? No thank you. I read this book because it was written by my cousin. And I really ended up getting into it. The book is pretty massive, only available cloth bound, and full of an enormous quantity of beautiful and interesting color and black and white photos. It didn't make me want to go out and climb a mountain. Far from it. But I think I have a better understanding of you crazy people out there who do that sort of thing. And I know a whole lot more about the history of Mt. Everest, its hold on the souls of climbers, and what they are willing to undergo to get to the roof of the world.

 

Killing Mr. Watson Lost Man's River Bone By Bone

by Peter Matthiessen (Vintage Books)

 

Whew! This trilogy about E. J. Watson, his times, and his impact on his families and communities in which he lived is in turns breath-takingly beautiful and bone-chillingly brutal. The brilliant evocation of place (the last 100 years of American impact on Florida's land- and seascape) alone is worth the read. I recently got a chance to hear Matthiessen in conversation (with poet Gary Snyder and facilitator Peter Coyote), and it only served to deepen my respect and admiration for this great writer of conscience and consciousness.

 

Jayber Crow; The Life Story of Jayber Crow

Barber of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself,by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint Books)

 

That just about says it all. I thoroughly enjoyed this quiet story that takes place over the course of a lifetime in an area of about twenty square miles (or less) in Kentucky. Berry finds ample voice for his views on modern farming practices (see the spring '02 issue of Sierra Magazine for a good essay by Berry) and the slow choking death of small towns in the musings of Jayber Crow. I knew (or, rather, guessed) some of what was going to happen in the book, but was not prepared for how strongly the redemption at the end hit me.

 

River of Earth

by James Still, University Press of Kentucky

First published in 1940, this beautifully-written little book is in journal style, from the point of view of one boy growing up in Appalachia in the 1930's. Over the course of three years, he talks about his family, his community, and their way of life. The hardships, and the dissolution of their mostly-agrarian way of life as it gave way to working for a wage in the coal mining towns, is related simply, lovingly, and realistically (or so it seems to me, a person whose life is very far away). With mountaintop removal, this boy's descendants would be having a more difficult time than ever. I don't know if this book is still in print, but it's well worth hunting for.

Where I was From Joan Didion 2003, Alfred A. Knopf, NY This is a beautiful and rather sad little book about growing up in a changing California. There is lots of interesting history about the origins of many of the Los Angeles-area factory towns and the changing economic and social climate there. The Lemon Tree An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East Sandy Tolan 2006, Bloomsbury Sandy Tolan is a journalist whose name may be familiar to those of you who listen to NPR. This in-depth report of two people's interwoven history and relationship spans the tumultuous last half-century of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Exhaustively researched and meticulously reported, the book manages at the same time to put a very human face on both sides of a most difficult situation. The account of one house, with lemon tree, and the two families that share its history is compelling and moving, and well worth reading.

 

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie, Anchor

 

This is a gem of a little book. it takes place in China, and has entertaining commentary on the government. I can't tell you anything about it, because you have to read it, but I CAN tell you that the ending is really wonderful and a small testament to the power of great literature to teach and inspire. And a reminder that not everyone receives the same lesson.