Frank Bures was part of the late twentieth century Minnesota-Oregon Migration. As his father told him, "Oregon is just Minnesota without lakes and weather. Now git." But "Pappy," who by this time regretted agreeing to that fancy education, neglected to tell little Frank that Oregon already has its share of writers, thank you very much ever hear of Jean Auel? For ever since arriving in Portland, Frank's been working, without a hint of chagrin, to gain entry into the exclusive local community of Paid Writers. Oh, he hasn't exactly let Pappy down. Yet. So far Frank has seen his articles published in such publications as Salon, The Oregonian, and Poets and Writers (the cover story, no less). Frank has lived in Africa, Italy, and New Zealand, so his articles and stories tend to be set in exotic locales. But don't go thinking he's terribly cosmopolitan. Frank is, after all, from Minnesota. That's practically Canada!
African Adventures (and Misadventures)
When Shiva Naipaul (younger brother of V.S.
Naipaul) went to East Africa in the 1970s to investigate the inflated rhetoric
of the newly independent nations to see whether the promises of the new
leaders had been kept what he found was both disheartening and very funny.
It is the younger Naipaul's special gift to make the tragic so comic, and North
of South is one of the best travel books out there.
Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of the greatest journalists alive and one of the greatest
writers, too. The titles don't always fit together easily, but what Kapuscinski
does is far more than just journalism. His writing has been part of what he calls
the "New Literature," of which Kapuscinski was one of the first and is still one
of the best. The Soccer War is by far his best book, made up of dispatches
from his years as a foreign correspondent in the Third World, with real-life adventures
like you'll find in few journalists' writing today.
the Flowers of Paradise
For some reason, when this book came out a few years ago, it was almost
completely ignored. But with the glut of bad travel books (and of even worse
books on Africa) I can't figure out why. Rushby's account of his travels through
Ethiopia and Yemen tracing the story of the enigmatic drug called "qat" is so
vivid and engaging and enlightening that it should have gotten far more attention.
Or at least it should have gotten some. Rushby recounts amazing tales and fascinating
history while also following the paths of other writers who traveled in the
region before him, like Sir
Richard Burton and Arthur
The world in Junot Diaz's short story collection Drown is gritty,
sad, and hilarious, and the pictures he paints of life in the Dominican Republic,
and of Dominican immigrants in America, is rich with pathos. When Drown
came out in 1996, Diaz was hailed as one of the "new voices" and already,
the highest praise for a young writer is to be called the "next Junot Diaz."
From the other side of the island comes Edwidge Danticat (pronounced
"Dan-ti-cah"), another young writer who has been dubbed (and who resents being
dubbed) the voice of her country (Haiti) and generation (early 30's, like Diaz).
In 1996 she was named one of Granta's best American novelists, and in 1995 her
short story collection Krik? Krak! was nominated for the National
Book Award. Danticat's writing is as spare as Diaz's, and a little more
lyrical. And she gives a no less moving portrait of life in her new and old
countries, which is always hard and beautiful, devastating and uplifting, all
at the same time.
Isay (Photos by Harvey Wang)
I've bought Holding On for at least five people, one of whom
read a chapter each night before she went to bed. She called it a book of common
prayer, which it is. It's a collection of short pieces by David Isay (of Sound
Portraits Productions, www.soundportraits.org) on people across the country
who are holding on to old ways of life, crazy dreams, and dying traditions.
It isn't sad, but it is deeply moving. There is no way to explain the cumulative
effect these stories have, but you will miss these people dearly when you finish.
Shorts I Like
When Elizabeth Gilbert published the title story of this collection
in Esquire at age 24, it was a good indicator of things to come. In the
next few years, she won several awards with the stories that make up Pilgrims
stories with characters so real, and painted with such compassion and
complexity, that you really do feel you know them. As a writer for GQ,
Gilbert traffics in the stories of odd characters across the country. But she
makes these characters her own creations, gives them a palpable reality, as
much through what she doesn't say as through what she does.
Five came out in 1969, Kurt Vonnegut entered a long period of depression and
swore he would never write another novel. Fortunately he was lying, and in 1973,
out came Breakfast of Champions; or, Goodbye Blue Monday (the subtitle
alluding to his fog lifting). Four years of pent-up Vonnegut humor spilled out
onto the page. Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut's scathing satire and
brilliant doodling at their peak. (If you've ever wondered what an asshole looks
like up close, this is the book for you.) It is, as the author notes, in no way
intended to disparage General Mills or its fine products.
A Little Something to Help Reconnect
in Plain English
If you can't go on a walk without your cell phone; if being away from
your desk causes serious e-mail anxiety; if you can't go more than a few hours
without checking your messages, then you might need this book. Despite the marvels
of technology, being constantly connected with others means being less connected
with yourself. We are often overwhelmed with so much data about how to live
life that we forget we're living it right now. This is a book about how to remember
and internalize that. The information age has made the "monkey mind" an 800
lb. gorilla, and Henepola Gunaratana offers the key to its cage. It is a book
to help you cut the ties pulling you in all directions, so you can just be where
your are and remember that you're alive, something that's oddly easy to forget.