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Jill's Picks

 

Jill Owens fled gratefully to Portland from the Northeast last spring and came to work at Powell's almost immediately. She had been hearing legends of it all her life. She has an M.F.A. in poetry, which explains a good deal about her selections. She works in the Catacombs warehouse, a part of Powell's with plenty of gothic nomenclature — The Tower, The Tunnel, and The Elevator (well, the elevator's just a bit medieval) — and generally enjoys the solitude. Though originally from the South and prone to occasional bouts of nostalgia for kudzu and grits, she's thinking about staying in Portland for a while.
I Could Tell You Stories
I Could Tell You Stories
by Patricia Hampl

This book of essays, focusing on the idea of memoir and memory, fell into my hands rather by accident; I started reading somewhat casually and was very happily drawn in. Hampl's voice is lovely: elegant and clear, she works through the concepts of identity and memory in intelligent, honest, and subtle ways. Examining past great memoirists and poets, like Sylvia Plath, Edith Stein and Walt Whitman, she offers balanced readings that look at the effects of memoir on our culture and the documentation of memory. She also discusses events and people in her own life as she conducts her own search for a defining identity both personal and political, with a poet's grace and a philosopher's sense of logic. I'm not usually a big fan of memoir; I rarely read biography at all. But Hampl makes a strong case for the necessity and relevance of memoir, claiming that "there may be no more pressing intellectual need in our culture than for people to become sophisticated about the function of memory." After reading the essays in I Could Tell You Stories, I am inclined to agree.
Madness and CivilizationMadness and Civilization
by Michel Foucault

When I was immersed in a sea of literary criticism a few years ago, Foucault, more than anyone else, caught my attention. Looking deeply at the roots of our behavior and our cultural attitudes, his examination of different kinds of power and control is more than just fascinating — it's extremely important in understanding how we might move our society forward. Madness and Civilization focuses, as the title implies, on the ways that insanity is constructed by culture, but it might not be what you'd expect. It is primarily a history and an exploration, rich in imagery and metaphor, and as such, it is intense, beautiful, and engaging. (I lent this book to a friend of mine, a medical student who reads very little nonfiction outside of class. He couldn't put it down.) From the original connection of madness to divinity, through the centuries of tighter and tighter control of the poor and eccentric as well as the catatonic, Foucault traces our reactions to madness and the impulses that guide them up until very recent times. Madness and Civilization provides an invaluable examination of our reactions to abnormality.
Fountains of NeptuneFountains of Neptune
by Rikki Ducornet

I was introduced to Rikki Ducornet by a fellow Powell's employee — now I'm passing my good fortune along. Ducornet's voice varies quite a bit throughout her work, but one word that might consistently describe it is rich. It is, at times, hard to believe that she's a contemporary American writer; her sentences sound almost translated from some other, denser, more colorful and nuanced world. She garners frequent comparisons to Borges, which are certainly justified, but hers is a truly unique voice in recent fiction. The Fountains of Neptune is a magical, mesmerizing fairy tale, with characters that resemble dream-figures. It involves the childhood and reawakening of a man whose relationships with his family, his doctor, and the tenuous nature of reality lead him to create his own worlds, beautifully described and detailed. The other characters are also wonderful performers, and Ducornet weaves stories together as well as she does sentences. Honestly, she leaves me a little tongue-tied. This book reverses — or reinvents — the generally accepted formula; read this novel first for the language, and then become seduced by the story.
Assembling the ShepherdAssembling the Shepherd
by Tessa Rumsey

I discovered this book in grad school, during an assignment to find a strong first collection by a fairly young (under 40) poet. Tessa Rumsey certainly fit the bill. She's a Conjunctions/Colorado Review/Denver Quarterly poet; a student of Jorie Graham's, her work tightens and plays with form for a different and more precise vision. Her first book casts stark light on subjects like exile, faith, and reconstruction, and intelligently charts the interior spaces of geography and nature. She uses cycles, multi-layered voices, fragments; some examples of recurring images are the sundial, the river, the bomb. These poems are sharp. They are not narrative poems, and they are not, sometimes, easy poems, but they are well worth the time for a first, second, or tenth reading. Rumsey is thinking in these poems, along with the reader, and her words create the possibility of thoughtful hope. Assembling the Shepherd is one of my overall favorite books of poetry; I am waiting eagerly for her second collection.
As She Climbed Across the TableAs She Climbed Across the Table
by Jonathan Lethem

After deciding to recommend this book, I recently reread it, and it's absolutely as funny, sweet, and unique as I remembered it. As She Climbed Across the Table takes place in the world of the academy; the main character researches the academy itself — the relationships between departments, the textuality of peer reviews. This setting, particularly in the latter half of the book, creates dialogue that, for me, hearkens back to White Noise and The Verificationist — extraordinarily funny, half-satire and half-revelation. Lethem is dealing with many subjects here, including physics, deconstruction, and "blindsight," but the theme of conversation and communication, spoken or not, moves throughout the book tying character to character to — well, universe. Jonathan Lethem is known for writing in a variety of genres — detective stories in the future, Westerns on other planets — but this book is primarily a love story. The characters, sometimes despite themselves, become real and urgent to the reader, yet the clean and playful prose gives the book a welcome lightheartedness. If you've only read Motherless Brooklyn, or have somehow missed Lethem altogether, this book is a great place to start.
Vegetarian Cooking for EveryoneVegetarian Cooking for Everyone
by Deborah Madison

Working at Catacombs warehouse, I run across many, many cookbooks, and more often than not take them home to try them out. This cookbook has quickly become one of my favorites. Every recipe — really, every one! — that I've tried so far has been excellent — not just good or successful, but above and beyond what I expected. There's no shortage of material, either; this cookbook is huge, sturdy, and will last a lifetime. Most recipes are very easy, and I love Madison's clarity (at the beginning she tells you what size carrot, onion, or garlic she assumes). The introduction is thorough and relevant for cooks at any level, bringing cooking back to its essence: experimentation, fresh ingredients, and pleasure. And, as Madison states on the cover, you don't have to be a vegetarian to enjoy these recipes; you could add meat to many, and the book is worth keeping for its extensive section on vegetables and side dishes alone. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone covers most everything you could imagine, including breads, desserts, sauces, soy. If I had a kitchen fire, this is the cookbook I'd rescue.
Laugh at the End of the WorldLaugh at the End of the World
by Bill Knott

Mentioning Bill Knott elicits blank looks from most people — even poetry readers — but those who've read him will grin somewhat maniacally while trying to describe the twisted pleasure of his work. Knott's first book was chosen as the first volume in the Big Table Series of Younger Poets many years ago; his work since is no less electric. Laugh at the End of the World is a great introduction to Knott's work, spanning thirty years of wry, bleak, and often hilarious poetry. Knott's intense wordplay and use of sound are the best rewards of this collection. His multilayered language includes a conglomeration of slang, omission of words and half-words, with dense internal rhyme; it is as though language had imploded and spread inward, thick with surprising grace. Knott's poetry — particularly in this book — is great fun to read, even in his bleaker moments; although the syntax and alliteration can sometimes make it difficult, you'll end up reading it out loud. Knott's "punchlines" are perfect, and though his own work is one of his most frequent targets, he also turns his fierce intelligence and humor on sex, ecology, and the movies, among other subjects. From poems that read like good one-liners ("Just hope that when you lie down your toes are a firing squad") or inverted epigrams to the longer, more ironic and political poems, Laugh at the End of the World is an impressive and exhilarating collection.
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