Monday, June 18, 2012

Summer Book Report: Two for Two!

A recent week at the beach gave me the opportunity to get off the computer and away from the "to-do's" at home and actually sit down with a book. Not an electronic device with a glowing screen, but an actual, real live book. Pages and everything!

My first task was to finish a book I'd barely started on my last out-of-town trip, a nonfiction travelogue by Portland journalist, photographer and Fulbright grant recipient Judy Blankenship, about a year that she and her husband Michael spent in the highlands of Ecuador.

Part memoir, part cultural study, Cañar: A Year in the Highlands of Ecuador documents the lives and rituals of the people of Cañar as Blankenship records them in words and in her startlingly intimate photographs. From the foods they eat, to childbirth, to healing ceremonies, weddings and funerals, she writes with compassion about the people she gradually comes to call friends.

Not just some rich Westerner who drops in, takes some pretty pictures of colorful natives and then drops out again, she conducts photography workshops for the local people, especially the Cañari women, so that they can preserve their own visions of their culture as they struggle to merge ancient traditions with new technologies. In one scene, she's scheduled to teach photography to several cloistered nuns:

"Over the centuries, the cloister has grown to encompass an entire city block. all of which is enclosed by a twenty-foot wall, except for the beautiful church on one corner. As I stand waiting, an ancient woman who works in a stall nearby selling the herbal drinks and pastries made by the nuns hobbles down the street toward me, holding an enormous key on a metal ring. How old is that key? It is her job to open the outer doors of the convent twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday, for one hour, when outsiders can have limited contact with the cloister.

"Inside the dark, stone-floored anteroom, I pull the thick rope hanging from the ceiling that rings a brass bell announcing a visitor. I have a few delicious minutes to sit quietly on the stone bench built into one wall, and I try to imagine what it would be like to pass through this entry as a young novice, knowing you will never see the outside world again."

This is a terrific book for armchair travelers and seasoned globe-trotters alike, or anyone who wants a good book to curl up with on a long flight,  while looking out at a rainy beach or even in your own favorite chair.

* * *

I have to confess that this second book, HugoSF, was written by a friend. Fortunately he's a terrific writer, which I knew already from reading his blog, A Gentle Iconoclast in Paradise.

In this self-published first novel, author Jeffrey Hannan introduces us to Hugo Storm, a somewhat hapless denizen of the dot-com bubble that held millions of cubicle-dwelling Americans in its thrall. The bursting of that bubble, as might be expected, swamped him in its wake, but being the surviving sort he jumped into the booming real estate business.


Hannan's way with words paints Hugo's world in deft and humorous strokes, the story never taking itself too seriously as it explores its hero's world: the post-millennial worker bees, queens, queers and movers that inhabited Bagdad by the Bay at the turn of the 21st century. It reminded me of other books that draw portraits of time and place and people, like John Berendt's dark poem to Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

"The Internet leveled the playing field among everyone—at least that was the theory. Standing on the deck of the Industry Standard bulding at the corner of Battery and Pacific, the ambient buzz was intoxicating and real. The social air was ripe with the smell of equal economic opportunity. You could see it condensing like spittle in the smiles of nouveau hipsters sipping wine and swilling beer."

Or this:

"In Silicon Valley there were myriad characters of varying means and intellect, but none that was as revered, feared, envied, loved or despised as much as the VC. The Venture Capitalist. They scoured the region for ideas and when they found what seemed like a good one they stuffed the underneath of it with cash as if it were kindling and set the whole thing on fire. They recruited a management team then took over the Board and stoked the flames to their ultimate end, which sometimes included walking away to let the fire burn out on its own."

This is a fun read and one that makes a perfect vacation book…an enjoyable trip to take on your next trip.

Photo at top by Judy Blankenship.

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