Matt's Staff Favorites
I read widely. While I rarely read straight through a work of nonfiction, I search ceaselessly through many so that I can get at the heart of things, but I also love the unlikely details. Works of fiction, on the other hand, are books that I start and finish. I don't read quickly, so I don't continue any books that lose their appeal, if only for a few pages.
Have you ever wondered about the idea of progress, about whether life is better today than it was a generation ago, or fifty generations ago, or five hundred generations ago? Christopher Ryan explores these themes in depth. Civilized to Death challenges the Narrative of Perpetual Progress (NPP) in its many iterations. The civilized define themselves over and against the non-civilized, even giving the word "civilized" entirely positive denotative and connotative powers. "It would be hard to overstate how much the dual demonization of the natural world and of human nature have shaped the modern sensibility. Politics, economics, foreign policy, criminal justice, our beliefs about the nobility of work, questions of how and whom we love, how we choose to give birth and opt to die--virtually everything we think and do rests on the conviction that the untamed and uncivilized are dangerous, merciless, evil and 'other.'" Ryan also gives examples of how civilization's cheerleaders ignore its many detriments: "the greatest bait-and-switch that ever was...as it convinces us to destroy the free things we need so an overpriced inferior copy can be sold to us later--often financed with the money we've earned hastening the destruction of the free version." Exploring pro-civilization thinkers such as Hobbes, Malthus, and Dawkins, Ryan carefully debunks some of their major claims. Especially given the devastation to the world's ecologies and the accelerating damaging effects of climate change, questioning the Narrative of Perpetual Progress that civilization preaches is highly necessary. With a blend of anthropology, psychology, history, and storytelling, this book gives us an engaging and evocative read.
Did you know that the world's heaviest known organism is a stand of Quaking Aspen that has been sending up new trunks for 80,000 years? Or that the wood of choice for rifle stocks in the nineteenth century US spawned the phrase "shouldering walnut" for military service? Or that goats enjoy climbing and eating from Argan trees in Morocco? Or that the cashew tree's cousin is poison ivy? Drawing from his connection to London's Kew Gardens and experience as a producer of science documentaries, and teaming with illustrator Lucille Clerc, Drori brings us a lovely book in which we can savor a page or two at a time about the wonder of some of the world's many fascinating trees. Moving through eleven regions of the world, these brief portraits capture all sorts of historical, botanical, cultural and quirky notes. And, if you read my favorite novel of the year, Richard Powers's The Overstory, this book makes an excellent companion.
Rarely have I read a book which immersed me so convincingly in so many different people's lives. Part of the convincing-ness has to do with the details--often unlikely--which paint each scene. It begins with a seemingly-random attack on a political candidate and continues with an uninspired college professor who distracts himself by playing an immersive video game. The novel examines the tenuous connection between these two events. From there, the story opens up widely into an inter-generational saga that delves into particular periods of recent American history. I loved this book and I was sad to say goodbye when I finished the last page.
The setting is present day America with a twist: slavery is still practiced in four states in the south. Victor, who is black, works--for reasons we discover--for the U.S. Marshalls tracking down escaped slaves. He's extremely good at the job, even as the intricacies of the situation create dissonances in him. This is a thriller, with literary flavors, set atop social commentary with resonance and reference to Invisible Man, which I read directly after finishing this fine novel.
Infectious Madness is an exploration of an emerging area of medical inquiry: the connections between pathogens and mental illness. We've known that some cases of schizophrenia are connected to toxoplasma gondii, which is why pregnant women are told to not scoop cat litter. We're starting to learn of some connections between strep throat and ADHD and OCD. And we've been exploring the connections between what happens in our intestines (where more neurons reside than in our heads) and what happens in our brains. With several relevant detours to explore elements of science culture such as paradigm shifts and metaphors, this book is rich with fascinating information.
Our narrator is aid to a South Vietnamese general in the spring of 1975. U.S. troops are evacuating, and South Vietnamese troops and civilians are scrambling to figure out what to do next. However, our narrator is also a spy for communist Vietnam. But this spy is "a man of two minds," able to sympathize with both his boss and his real superiors. The world we see through his eyes is both tragic and comic. The writing is rich with unusual descriptions ("prickly rolls of barbed wire sagged with middle-aged disappointment") of the sights and sounds and smells of end-of-war Saigon and post-war Los Angeles.
Amazing on several levels. I particularly enjoyed the Run Lola Run moments.. --Matt
The finest sort of satire, with both biting humor and uncynical sweetness, often on the same page. -Matt
Yuvi's life is an open book. He is smart and neurotic and witty and has lots of baggage and a lovely memory and fascinating parents and an ailing brother-in-law and a wife who tolerates his eccentricities. And his editor is hounding him for a novel which he can't seem to get off the ground. Welcome to the headspace of Yuvi as he grants us an intimate peek into his unique problematic self. I can't wait until Yuvi Zalkow comes to the bookstore to do a reading and I can ask him more about the Yuvi in his book.
Nice twists and turns here. Inventive stories. Sometimes funny, usually provocative. --Matt
Solomon goes deep. In Far from the Tree he pursues understanding of how we conceptualize and perceive differences--particularly those labeled disabilities--between us. Then he gives us ten examples complete with fascinating stories of individuals who suffer and/or celebrate illness/identity. As with Noonday Demon, the prodigious research Solomon has done is supplemented sweetly by his own life; the bookmarks on these ten case studies are Solomon's own experience as a son and as a father. No reader will leave this book without having learned a ton.
This is a collection of sermons given by this powerful writer over a lifetime of incisive reflection and powerful feeling. Great for people within a religious tradition and also great for those who are not. His memoirs beginning with The Sacred Journey and continuing with Now & Then (the first book I purchased at Annie Bloom's...20 years ago!)and Telling Secrets were life-giving to me as I struggled with my inherited faith. --Matt
A speedy romp from the big bang until yesterday. With his usual story-telling charm, and as the learner and teacher he is, Bryson teaches us much about natural history. --Matt
I fell in love with Jim Krusoe's writing with Iceland, a quirky but compelling and occasionally charming story. Erased is even weirder, but possibly even more magical. Try imagining Cleveland the way he does, and your brain might hurt nicely for a while. --Matt
A nicely written and accessible introduction to a bit of brain physiology as well as recognition of the power of our limbic brains both inside us and between us. --Matt
What a great exploration of history and natural history and folklore and biology and philosophy, all thru four plants: apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato. --Matt
We are lucky to live in the same town as Matthew Dickman. Talented poet and reader. Funny and insightful and sometimes tangenting strangely. I loved most of these poems. --Matt
I loved the combination of sweetness and grimness and humor. A fast-moving story with great characters. --Matt
This is the first of a trilogy. Quite powerful and a bit too much for some of my friends. But wow it worked for me. --Matt
I read The River Why at a perfect point in my life. So, I was primed for this next novel of Duncan's. A great epic quality to these diverse and wonderful characters. And very funny too. --Matt
Such evocative poetry. --Matt
Among my favorite "quirky" books. --Matt
These essays/memoir/story range widely, but fit beautifully together. --Matt
Though I read this book years ago, it's one I think about on occasion as one of my all-time favorites. --Matt
What a fantastic writer, and what a fantastic book. There are enuf mediocre books about American's experience in Vietnam, this is not one of those. Such insight and depth and "beauty" of writing. This is well worth the time. --Matt
I wish she would write more fiction, because this was beautiful and heart-breaking and strange, in such a finely-crafted way that I had to start it four times before I got into it... --Matt
I'm a sucker for coming-of-age novels and this is one of my favorite. Wonder at the natural world, marine biology, Rachel Carson, family and friend drama, media, a cult and more. Miles is one of my favorite literary characters. --Matt
This is a standard-bearer for quality teen fiction. This 10th anniversary edition attests to that. The voice true and distinct. An excellent read for teens and adults alike. --Matt
This has been a steady companion to me for several years. Poetic, mystical, some deep stuff in here. --Matt
A wonderful coming-of-age story by an aware and reflective author. --Matt
This was my first Donald Harington novel. Since then, I've read three others and plan to read the other dozen. Funny, unpredictable storytelling, zany and clever narration...all of his books are set near the Ozark town of Stay More where the inhabitants are called Stay Morons. I don't know how to sell this book, but I loved it and I've got a lot of friends who loved it too. --Matt
What fun. And what a fun window into Blake's life. Written by a Portlander, and with a distinct voice of a teen being forced to grow up quickly, and with plenty of fun and funniness; this book is well worth the read. --Matt
Set in a bizarre future with similarities to our own time, Feed forces us to ask good questions about how we live. And it has one of my favorite opening sentences. "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck." --Matt
Alexie's knack for juxtaposing the ugly and the beautiful, or the raw and the refined, or the gritty and the triumphant is amazing. These nine (haha) stories travel some pretty fascinating territory. --Matt
Set in the north of Alaska during a time of familial change for the narrator and a time of cultural change for the people who live in the nearest village, there's plenty to explore here. --Matt
These are clever poems, but not too clever. They are just right. Try "America" on page 7. --Matt
Each chapter gives a small window into the elements of the natural world that we live with here in the Northwest. Informative and fun to read. --Matt
This was hilarious. Full of great social commentary. Start on p.148 with "The idea of cubicles..." and read a couple of pages and see what you think. --Matt
Part mystery, part relationship conundrums, part meditation on neurology, part lyrical description of Platte River beauty. --Matt
Some of these are the weirdest stories I've read so far. But they sure worked their magic on me. --Matt
Kohn has written much regarding education, it's nice to see his take on parenting. I've had lots of good discussions with parents based on Kohn's provocative ideas. --Matt