Warm words for wet days

Here's a list of great reads that'll keep you cozy this winter

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Days are colder. Nights are longer. TV is dumber, ever dumber.

But not you. You're a reader. An increasingly rare breed. But we know you are. You're doing it now, aren't you?

If so, you're probably up for more than this gray lady -- crucial though she is. You might just be hoping that somebody gifts you, this holiday season, with something substantial to read -- something that'll hurt your foot if you drop it, but enrich your heart and mind if you absorb it.

Here's The Columbian's eclectic guide to some choice tomes you might consider buying for someone, or asking someone to buy for you. Some are new or standout works by regional authors; some are respected works by famous names; and some are this reporter's personal favorites -- included here just in case you have a taste for top-quality writing that doesn't necessarily rise up the best-seller list. Read on.

Magical town

Spritz the sunlit magical realism that burns in Latin American writers like Marquez and Allende with some damp Pacific Northwest -- the trees and mountains, the beaches and beer -- and you've got "Mink River," a strange and charming first novel by Brian Doyle.

Doyle, a Portland essayist and editor, weaves a rustic Oregon story as rich, complicated and contradictory as life itself. It's a challenging read but rewarding too, as Doyle's lyrical prose probes the passions and problems, the myths and even the magic lurking in the sandy streets of a fictitious fishing village somewhere along the central Oregon coast.

Our protagonists -- two among many -- are town employees whose efforts for the Public Works department go beyond streets and buildings and deeply into local lives. We follow a cop and a doctor, a teenager and a nun, a magical crow and a pilgrimage, of sorts, to find the meaning of life at the peak of Mount Hood.

Sample: "On a clear day the Oregon coast is the most beautiful place on earth -- clear and crisp and clean, a rich green in the land and a bright blue in the sky, the air fat and salty and bracing, the ocean spreading like a grin."

"Mink River" was published in 2010 by Oregon State University Press.

Autism rocks

If your children -- or, admit it, you -- still mourn the passage of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson into the drab world of adulthood, take a look at "Secret of the Songshell," a first novel by Vancouver's own Brian Tashima.

This is young adult fantasy with multiple modern twists. Our protagonist, Joel Suzuki, is an aspiring teenage rock guitarist who wants to be a star -- and who has a form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome. But that's no problem. When Joel travels to an alternate universe, his "disability" is revealed as a great gift. His Asperger brain waves combine with musical sound waves to make genuine magic and ultimately (spoiler alert!) defeat the villain.

"I've read other books where the character has Asperger or autism, and it's always a problem that has to be overcome," said Tashima. "I wanted to make a world where the character with Asperger uses his special qualities to save the day."

Sample: "Joel heard the familiar basic chord, and then saw a thin bolt of green light burst forth from Marshall's instrument. The bolt grabbed the fruit and lifted it about a foot in the air, where it remained."

"Secret of the Songshell" is self-published by Tashima's Prism Valley Press. It's been noted as a quality book by Grub Street Reads, an indie-publishing standard bearer. To purchase a copy, visit http://www.thespectralandsaga.com/. But be forewarned: As with the super-durable Potter, Tashima plans a seven-book series.

Deadly dust

From fanciful fiction let's move to down-and-dirty facts. Seattle-based, Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Timothy Egan recently published "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher," a study of photographer Edward Curtis and his work documenting the vanishing life of American Indians; but we're going to take a second look at Egan's 2006 National Book Award winner "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl."

Down and dirty is right: "The Worst Hard Time" is a chronicle of what was pretty much the end of the world -- and the Texas and Oklahoma families who stayed put despite it. The storms of dirt and grasshoppers were biblical; people and livestock alike choked to death, their lungs packed with dust; and while many fled west -- as immortalized by John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" -- Egan focuses on the ones who didn't. He also explores the politics and science that led into and out of the emergency,

as President Franklin Roosevelt and soil expert Hugh Bennett created Operation Dust Bowl and the Soil Conservation Service.

Sample: "The dust arrived in mysterious ways. It could penetrate like a spirit, cascading down the walls or slithering across the ceiling until it found an opening."

"The Worst Hard Time" was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2006.

Drama queen

Here's a different human drama: life in middle school. And just in case you missed the point of the title, the cover of "Drama" features our hero, Callie, marching across the school stage with a hopeful smile on her face and a cartoon heart floating over her head.

"Drama," by Raina Telgemeier, is a smart, fun graphic novel that follows tween Callie as she negotiates all the backstage churning during the run-up to a middle school musical. That means crushes and competitors, terrifying auditions and onstage disasters, annoying little brothers and unexpected friendships. Callie wishes she could sing well enough to rule the stage, but as set designer she turns out to be queen of the scene.

"Drama" was published by Scholastic in 2012.

Predicting the future

Smart nail-biters who couldn't resist polls before the 2012 elections found their way to Nate Silver, poll-and-statistics guru at The New York Times, who famously offered a $1,000 bet that his election predictions were right on the money -- and couldn't find a taker. Guess what? Silver's predictions were right on the money. It was only the latest Silver gold; he'd already built a name for himself forecasting baseball futures and writing several books with names like "Baseball Between the Numbers."

In his new book, "The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- But Some Don't," Silver steps back and analyzes his own world -- the world of data and data overload, probability and self-deception -- for that's the flaw in so many pollsters' and pundits' pronouncements: failing to understand their own blind spots and biases. While it's definitely a read for math and logic geeks, Silver steers past tedium by always providing lively, engaging, human-sized examples -- like this analysis of a partygoer who has never been in a car accident and therefore concludes, after many drinks, that driving home will be just fine:

"The problem … is that of these 20,000 car trips, none occurred when you were anywhere near this drunk. Your sample size for drunk driving is not 20,000 but zero, and you have no way to use your past experience to forecast your accident risk."

"The Signal and the Noise" was published by Penguin in 2012.

Guarding the past

The Civil War is a gift that never stops giving to people interested in American history; just witness the new "Lincoln" movie and the never-ending stream of books that approach the war from every conceivable angle, from military strategy to cultural anthropology.

Now add personal poetry to that collection. Natasha Tretheway, the current poet laureate of the United States, won the Pulitzer Prize for her slim volume "Native Guard," which covers everything from Tretheway's own confusion as a mixed-race kid growing up in Mississippi to the career of the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first black regiments called into service for the Union during the war. The poems draw a direct connection between the biggest themes in American history and the smallest, most intimate observations -- and it's nice to report that this is highly readable poetry, accessible even to the non-English-majors among us.

Sample: "They have arrived on the back / of the swollen river, the barge / dividing it, their few belongings / clustered about their feet. Above them / the National Guard hunkers on the levee; rifles tight in their fists, / they block the path to high ground."

"Native Guard" was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2006.

Glamourous times

If you loved the recent seizure of Jane Austen's quiet drawing room comedies by zombies, sea monsters and mayhem in general -- or if you found all that gore a bit, well, gross -- you might fall for "Shades of Milk and Honey," an even stranger, subtler mashup of Victorian manners, mating rituals and magic. Mary Robinette Kowal's novel is a perfectly executed Austen knockoff in nearly every respect: Jane and Melody are the older/wiser and younger/cuter daughters of a sensible father and a silly mother who'd like to marry them off; crossing their paths are various alluring or irritating officers and artists, picnics and balls.

What's different than Austen is the presence of a magical substance called glamour, which some characters can pull from nowhere and manipulate to enhance reality -- or fool their rivals.

Sample: "She worked a small glamour on herself. It was a tiny thing, but she was suddenly struck by a curiosity as to what her face would look like if her nose were not quite so long. By twists and turns, she gave her nose an appearance more suited to her face."

"Shades of Milk and Honey" was published by Tor Books in 2010.

Young at heart

It's not exactly straightforward. It kind of spins around and around, bouncing off this topic and that. Neil Young's mind, after all, is pretty famously overstimulated. But that's all over now, he announces in the first sentence of "Waging Heavy Peace," the aging, sober hippie's description of his restless journey thus far.

If you're not a Young fan, this autobiography may not be the book for you. But if you admire the way Young has always dodged complacency in order to keep surprising his audience -- and himself -- then this very readable autobiography will keep you entertained and even touched. Young devotes lots of space to his deeply felt friendships with fellow rockers, past and gone, and even fesses up about his health issues, past and potential. It's not as dense as Keith Richards' "Life" and not quite as literary as Bob Dylan's "Chronicles, Volume 1," but it's an illuminating read by a serious-minded artist.

Sample: "(David) Crosby was forever the catalyst, always intense, drawing us further and further. Just looking in those eyes made me want to deliver from the heart. Graham (Nash) was the consummate professional, always there with his parts, cheering us on as we jammed, writing the songs we became best known for. Stephen (Stills), my brother, always the soulful, conflicted one, was battling unseen demons and many-colored beasts through the days and nights, contributing an edge that was unmistakable."

"Waging Heavy Peace" was published by Blue Rider Press in 2012.