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Catching up with three good books


The reader’s paradox is that there are far too many books — far too many good books — to read in a lifetime. This problem is exacerbated for a book critic when deadlines and copy space dictate what books you are able to read and review.

With the reader’s paradox in mind, I must admit that I’ve cheated a bit on this book review. I am partway through three very different and very good books by Portland authors. Here is a synopsis from the books and my thoughts and impressions of the trifecta of literature currently sitting on my nightstand:

• “Crooked River” by Valerie Geary ($25.99, William Morrow, 323 pages):

Valerie Geary's 'Crooked River.'After their mother dies, Sam McAlister and her younger sister Ollie — who has not spoken since their mother’s death — move from Eugene to rural Oregon to live in a teepee with their father Bear, a reclusive beekeeper. Not long after they arrive a young woman is found dead floating in Crooked River. The evidence points to Bear as the killer, but Sam is not convinced. Sam sets out to prove Bear’s innocence.

“Crooked” is the first novel by Geary, a fulltime writer who lives in Portland. Her stories have been published in The Rumpus and Day One. Geary’s style is pleasant and easy to read. The book rotates chapters with Sam and Ollie as viewpoint characters. Both girls have a distinct voice and the rotating viewpoints is done well. One of the most enjoyable parts of the book is that “Crooked” features elements of the mystic — Ollie sees the Shimmering, a super natural entity. It is a novel made for reading during dreary Oregon fall days, cuddled up in blankets.

It is interesting how rivers seem to be so prevalent in tales of murder and mystery (“Mystic River” by Dennis Lehane, for example). There is something about the movement and the rhythm of a river’s current that adds drama and suspense to a story.

• “Unreal Gods” by SP Clarke ($19.95, Buko Publications 567 pages):

Clarke is a writer and musician who has chronicled the Portland music scene for more than 35 years, writing hundreds of columns in Two Louies Magazine. Clarke’s “History of Portland Rock” is considered by many to be a definitive source of local music from the 1980s and ‘90s.

The most important page of “Gods” is one many people skip over when opening the book, a note reminding readers that events of the book are products of the author’s imagination. This is an important distinction as the story of the band Billy and the Gods is based on a real story. The book was written as a promise by Clarke to Billy that he would one day tell Billy’s

story. However, while the book uses many anecdotes that one would imagine are true, it is a work of fiction.

As a rule, rock books can tend to be formulaic. Musicians with God complexes, excess to an unbelievable degree, highs and lows, etc. And yet there is still something that draws a reader into the story. Even at their lowest point, rock stars live the lives we all want.

The book is long, but Clarke’s style (for instance, using a dash in lieu of quotation marks) keeps it edgy and fun, much like a good rock song. It is a book made for reading with a straight shot of Jack Daniels in hand before a night out on the town.

• “The Brightwood Stillness” by Mark Pomeroy ($18.95, Oregon State University Press, 279 pages):

“Stillness” follows the journey of Hieu Nguyen and Nate Davis, men dealing with traumatic altercations with the high school students they teach. Nguyen is accused of sexual misconduct by two of his students. His close friend, Davis, tries to lend his support while dealing with the ramifications of being assaulted by a former student in the school parking lot. These events are only part of the story, though. “Stillness” delves into the legacy of Vietnam. Davis begins exploring what happened to his uncle, a drifter and Vietnam veteran. Nguyen’s backstory is an account of a man who fled war and arrived in the U.S. to father three children.

Pomeroy is a Portland-based author who has received an Oregon Literary Fellowship for fiction. He is a former classroom teacher whose short stories, poems and essays have been published in numerous literary publications.

Far too often, literature that examines cultures foreign to a reader can make it difficult to cut through the facts of that culture and enjoy the story. I have tried half a dozen times to read Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” only to quit after being bogged down by the detailed descriptions of Judaism. Unable to pronounce many of the Vietnamese names throughout “Stillness” posed some challenges. Yet, the story does not suffer from the minutiae of cultural detail. It is a book meant to be read as a precursor to examining your own family, friends and history.