Archive for books

Interviewing Ursula Le Guin

The death of Ursula Le Guin on January 22 made me sad over our loss of the doyenne of Portland writers, but also put me in a nostalgic mood for the day in 1991 that I interviewed her for a People magazine profile. My story ran on November 18 of that year.

She invited me to her home on Northwest Thurman Street, where we sat outside and talked about her childhood. Raised by anthropologists who were particularly interested in nearly extinct Native American tribes, Ursula remembered a home that was full of activity from her three brothers and from a constant stream of Indians, one of whom, Ishi, was the subject of her mother’s famous book, Ishi in Two Worlds.

She showed me where she usually sat to write, on her porch overlooking the Willamette River. She wrote longhand on tablets and later entered her writing onto her computer in her office, which was on the top floor of the sprawling house.

As we parted, I asked if there was someone from whom she would like me to request a quote. She answered, “Joyce Carol Oates.” I gulped, said, “No problem,” and later panicked. I had no idea how to reach her. Fortunately, at the same time that I was a People correspondent, I was also a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Leisure & Arts Page. I called my editor there, Ray Sokolov.

No problem, he said. He and Joyce were currently both on a Pulitzer Prize judging panel and he could give me her home number. “Don’t tell her where you got the number,” he said.

Later I called Ursula to tell her how enthusiastic Ms. Oates had been about her. She was very pleased, but confessed, “I haven’t read a single thing by her!” As an afterthought, she said, “Don’t tell anybody!”

Shortly before the article was to be published, I got a frantic call from a People magazine copy editor. The photographer hadn’t provided much information about where he had photographed Ursula, and they were wondering the name of the “huge mountain” Ursula was sitting near. I knew that she had taken the photographer to her cabin at Cannon Beach, but nobody had said anything to me about going to the mountains for photos.

That was before the Internet, however, so the editor couldn’t share the photo with me electronically. I had to wait until the magazine hit the stands. I hurried to Rich’s Cigar Store, opened a copy and saw Ursula sitting in front of . . . Haystack Rock.

As Ursula would have said, with a sad shake of her head, “Those Easterners!”

“Hyperbole and a Half” — a Bill Gates pick

I just finished a book that was recommended by Bill Gates. Yeah, that Bill Gates. TheBillGates Microsoft guy.

I never imagined that I would ever be following book recommendations by Bill Gates, but after I stumbled upon an article about his book blog, I found the subject intriguing enough (I mean, if I can never find time to blog, how does a hugely powerful and busy business leader manage to write a book blog?!) that I not only read the whole article, but I made a Hyperbolebooknote of one of the books mentioned in the article, “Hyperbole and a Half.” The article said Gates had found this graphic memoir laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The article also mentioned that the author, Allie Brosh, is a young woman living in my home state, in the city of Bend, Oregon, where she writes her blog of the same name, Hyperbole and a Half. Bill Gates + laugh-out-loud + Oregon was enough to send me to the library.

It was a strange sensation to be reading Brosh’s book and enjoying her crude but clever illustrations, and all of a sudden to laugh out loud. Every time that happened, I felt a special kinship with Bill and I wondered if the scenes that had tickled me were the same ones that had made him explode in an appreciative laugh.

First of all, Brosh’s own character, which she drew with Paintbrush, amused me every time it appeared. At first I thought she was depicting herself as a fish with a pink body and cakeyellow dorsal fin. But no, I read that the drawing was of a girl with a blonde ponytail and a pink dress. Her odd looks add to the humor of her stories, particularly “The God of Cake.”

I also loved her dog drawings. She has two dogs: the simple dog and the helper dog. The Allie's dogsfluidity of her drawings make the dogs look like they’re made from Silly Putty. But at the same time, these goofy creatures are uncannily realistic. I recognized my own dog’s behavior in their odd antics. I also recognized my own behavior and some of my own secret demented thoughts in Brosh’s character. She is excellent at pinpointing human foibles.

Brosch also tackles quite serious topics, namely her own battle with depression. But what better therapy for her than to bring cheer to others with her hilarious illustrated memoir and to gain recognition and respect for her delightful creativity.

Thanks for the book recommendation, Bill Gates! Keep ’em coming!

“We Were Liars” and “Hamlet”

My daughter is an eclectic and adventurous reader. She offers me recommendations for books of all sorts: children’s picture books, young adult (YA) novels, fantasy, literary fiction and even an occasional non-fiction book.

I’m glad I followed her recommendation to give John Green a try and I loved “The Fault in Our Stars,” which was later made into a successful film. So I didn’t hesitate to try another recommended YA novel, “We Were Liars,” by E. Lockhart.

The style changed partway through, I suppose to reflect the change in the narrator of the story after she suffers amnesia from a traumatic incident. But what I liked most about the writing in the first third of the book was the way the narrator described her emotions and physical responses to “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” to quote “Hamlet.”

“Hamlet” came to my mind because the writer’s innovative and creative ways of describing teenage emotion took me back to my teenage years, when I was such a failure at self-expression that I borrowed words from another, more articulate person: Shakespeare. His words for Hamlet became a second language for me.

Hamlet, emoting

Hamlet, emoting

I then described myself as the world’s foremost teenage authority on “Hamlet.” I was introduced to the play at 13 when my grandmother took me to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After that, I read and re-read “Hamlet” and memorized all his soliloquies. When I was faced with frustrations and agonies typical of a teenage life, I turned to Hamlet’s words to express my feelings.

In “We Were Liars,” the teenage girl who is the narrator used words and images that brought back the familiar words of Hamlet’s soliloquies. She reacts to the death of her grandmother this way:

My head and shoulders melted first, followed by my hips and knees. Before long I was a puddle, soaking into the pretty cotton prints. I drenched the quilt she never finished, rusted the metal parts of her sewing machine. I was pure liquid loss, then, for an hour or two.

That passage and similar ones, where she describes the transformation of her physical body into puddles of



tears or blood, made me think of Hamlet’s words.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God! How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!

According to Shakespeare, Hamlet was no teenager, but a 30-year-old man. Still, emotion-filled words like these resonated for me during my difficult teenage years when I failed to find the words to adequately express my wish to just melt, thaw and resolve myself into a dew.