WA-List » WA-Books: Issue 2

WA-Books: Issue 2

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Review
Issue 2
In this issue we share 3 reviews and mention 8 other books.

WA-Books is WA-List’s glimpse at books — recently published or coming soon — about Washington State and the Northwest spirit it embodies.

26SongsIn30Days_978157061970026 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs and the Planned Promised Land in the Pacific Northwest by Greg Vandy with Daniel Person.

Sasquatch Books. Published: April, 2016. 208 pages. ISBN: 9781570619700

Woody Guthrie was one of the giants of folk music.  His songs — from “This Land is Your Land” to “Pastures of Plenty” — have been sung for more than half a century. Passed from singer to singer, they were widely-known even before they were published or recorded.  “Roll On, Columbia” was even enshrined as Washington’s official state folk song in 1987.  But how that song came about was never entirely clear.  Although Guthrie hailed from Oklahoma, his repertoire had many songs relating to the Columbia River and the Northwest. He once said that he had written 26 songs in a month there.  Which ones?  And why?

Those are the questions Greg Vandy’s new book sets out to answer.

Most of the book’s first half is background. Vandy devotes several chapters to establish the mood and motivations of the 1930s. This was the era of the Great Depression and high unemployment.  Dust Bowl conditions in the Midwest further disrupted things, displacing farmers and workers westward. Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie was a refugee of the Dust Bowl.  He related to the severe hardships it wrought. His family suffered additional tragedies (from dementia to death by fire) that only added to his pain.  In response to the national issues, President Roosevelt launched a series of programs in the hope of creating jobs and building what later generations would call infrastructure.  The Columbia Basin Project’s dam-building and irrigation projects in Washington fit these objectives.  Guthrie responded to the nation’s woes (and his own) by exploring socialist political thought, writing lyrics expressing the era’s sorrow, and imagining hope for better times.

The two worlds — that of the dam-building projects and the socialist Dust Bowl folksinger — came together in 1941, when the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) floated the idea of producing a film promoting the benefits of hydroelectricity and irrigation.  Guthrie, out of work and barely supporting his family in California, responded to the prospect of a job.

What happened next was a fast-paced 30 days in which the BPA gave the folksinger ample reading material and drove him from Portland to Grand Coulee and to places in between.  His job was to compose music for the film.  This decades-old story wasn’t completely understood until the 1980s.  A worker in Portland discovered a work record for Guthrie in the BPA file archives.  More documents turned up.  BPA veterans filled in some blanks.  Reels of film and sound recordings were found.  Even folksinger Pete Seeger helped out when lyrics turned up without music.  One researcher rescued a Guthrie file from a conveyor belt moments before it would feed into a government records shredder. Vandy was not on hand for any of those initial discoveries, but he tells the story well.  The last chapters of his book pays fair tribute to the researchers who sought to collect and preserve Guthrie’s legacy.

Although the first half of the book may have spent a few too many pages building to Guthrie’s arrival in the Northwest (compared to the pages describing him actually being here), 26 Songs in 30 Days is a quick and enjoyable read.  Vandy’s storytelling is effortless and uncomplicated.  Like the river, it rolls on.  You need not be familiar with Guthrie’s music beforehand to understand the story.  Recordings of many songs can be found online.  We suggest listening to several as Vandy discusses them; two in particular: “Roll on, Columbia” and “Pastures of Plenty”.  (It’s astounding that Guthrie composed the “Roll On, Columbia” in the BPA’s Portland office on the very first afternoon!)  Many details are still missing for a complete accounting of the songwriter’s 30 days in the Northwest, but Vandy’s narrative collects the recent research and gives us a much better understanding of it.

Shelf Appeal: This book contributes to the once-vague story of Woody Guthrie in the Northwest.  It should be a must-read for anyone interested in the history of American folk music or one of its iconic figures.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

HungerMakesMe_9781594486630Riverhead Books. Published: October, 2015. 256 pages. ISBN: 9781594486630

Carrie Brownstein has earned two sets of fans: those who danced wildly to her Sleater-Kinney music in the 1990s, and those who adore Portlandia, the sketch comedy show she shares with costar Fred Armisen.  It’s been our experience that many fans of the show don’t realize she was in a rock band.  Once told, their initial disbelief ebbs into an awed appreciation.  She had become a success in music and comedy, rising from nowhere both times.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a memoir that recalls Brownstein’s first career: music. She grew up in suburban Redmond where she found an early enthusiasm for performance art, whether that involved singing for herself or staging elaborate costumed, murder mystery evenings for friends. As she enthusiastically presented a stage persona to the world, she was always looking inward in search of herself and exploring where she might fit in.  She found herself in music, easily relating to the emotions it evoked.  She saw Nirvana in an unannounced concert appearance at Western Washington University and followed Heavens to Betsy, a local band fronted by Corin Tucker. These bands spoke to her; they roused something inside. The deeper she fell into the music, the more it pointed her toward Olympia.  She hadn’t been to Olympia yet, but she imagined it a bit like Paris in the 1920s: artistic, cultured, and the place to be. It had a vibe and an edgy sound she could hear from 150 miles away.

It was in Olympia that Brownstein got involved in a band of her own with moderate local success.  The success was expressive, not financial.  She wrote, sang, and played guitar. She poured out her emotions on stage. When she and Tucker got together they formed another band (which Tucker one day named Sleater-Kinney for a street in Lacey) and debuted it on a loosely-planned Australian tour. They were not an overnight (or an overyear) sensation by any means. They played for small crowds on three continents, packed and hauled their own gear, drove themselves from place to place, and slept on the couches of fans who put them up for the night. At the end of a tour “it’s almost like waking up in the hospital after an accident: slowly you take stock of the damage.” The life was not glamorous, but it was raw and fulfilling. Recording their first three albums “felt like purges: we’d just go into the studio and bang out the songs; it was all about capturing a feeling, a crude aural bloodletting.” Such themes of hurt, sorrow, jealousy, and anger — some focused, some not — appear in her story always near the surface.

Even with success Brownstein continued to struggle with identity.  As the tours (and the book) progressed, she learned more about herself and what she wanted, but also struggled with relationships in and out of the band, and bristled with how others perceived Sleater-Kinney.  Even amid intended praise, the press repeatedly labeled them as “a girl band” or “female rockers.” Such descriptions made them sound like a novelty.  Even “indie” was more label than they wanted attached to them.  She (and her two band mates) wanted everyone to drop the modifiers and just treat them like a rock band.  The irritation fueled some performances. Rather than being objectified, though, Brownstein tried to turn the experiences into something empowering.  She wanted the “guitar to be an appendage, not a novelty.”  In the end, they “would go out on the road and play these songs and people could interpret them however the hell they wanted.”

That may be a description of her writing style as well. Brownstein simply lays everything out for the reader, take it or leave it. Her writing throughout Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is that of a well-educated songwriter. It’s lyrical and full of metaphor. She’s capable of pulling words from an enormous vocabulary warehouse. The emotive descriptions stay with you. Our favorite example: “Nirvana’s music dragged you across the floor, you felt every crack, every speck of dirt. Their songs helped you locate the places where you ached, and in that awareness of your hurting you suddenly knew that the bleakness was collective, not merely your own.”

She describes the end of Sleater-Kinney. She pins almost all the blame for the demise on herself, her self-described thorny disposition, her painful spine, her shingles, and one pre-concert “tantrum” in Brussels that “knocked [the band’s] light out.”  She writes with an honest, no-excuses delivery and a what’s-done-is-done acceptance.  The final part of the book adds a mostly tranquil coda.  Her life between Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia was one of continued self-discovery, reconciliation, making a new home in Portland, and helping a few dogs.

Shelf Appeal: Fans of Sleater-Kinney and the Olympia music scene will love the deeply introspective look into Carrie Brownstein and the band on tour and off stage. Fans of Portlandia might enjoy finding another side to the comedian, even though the TV show is mentioned only once (and in passing).

We know this isn’t Washington, but it caught our eyes…

Portlandness: A Cultural Atlas by David Banis and Hunter Shobe.

Portlandness_9781632170002Sasquatch Books. Published: October, 2015. 192 pages. ISBN: 9781632170002

A quirky city needs a quirky atlas.  This one suits Portland, Oregon.  If you’re hoping to get from Point A to Point B, this book will not be much help.  (For that matter, we’re not sure Portland has a Point B.)

The maps in this book — designed by the students and faculty of Portland State University’s Department of Geography — don’t offer traditional gas station cartography.  These maps interpret Portland.  How much of the world is represented by Portland’s food truck collective? What is the best way to cross town with minimal security camera surveillance? Which streets have the best sidewalks?  How do third graders visualize Portland?  Where are the pubs supporting your favorite NFL team? These are the maps you never thought to look for, but answer questions you may have asked.

There are maps for the sounds of the city, the smells of the city, the economics of musicians, the proliferation of nutria (large rodents), the locations of graffiti-altered stop signs, and the invisible traces of downtown streams now covered by the modern urban landscape. Some maps are fascinating. Some are — this is Portland, after all — weird.

In addition to the book’s creative content, the presentation is worth its own shout out. Each map delivers its data in unique two-page spreads. Some are visual duds, but most are incredibly clever. You’ll find a map of geeky Portland presented as a graphic novel, a craft store map sewn onto fabric canvas within a sewing circle, a PDX Tube diagram (in the style of London’s), and a map of ethnic diversity “islands” in the style of a topographic map with actual islands.

It’s an engaging book to visit, even if you don’t want to live there.

Shelf Appeal: This book will appeal to Portlandians who are proud of their city and to Washingtonians who venture into Oregon now and then. Fans of creative visual design will also enjoy the interesting ways the book graphically represents a city.

Other recent and upcoming book titles:

Home Game: Big-League Stories from My Life in Baseball’s First Family by Bret Boone.

Crown Archetype. Published: May, 2016. 272 pages. ISBN: 9781101904909

Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St Helens by Steve Olson.

W. W. Norton & Company. Published: March, 2016. 320 pages. ISBN: 978-0393242799

The Creaky Knees Guide Pacific Northwest National Parks and Monuments: The 75 Best Easy Hikes by Seabury Blair Jr.

Sasquatch Books. Published: March, 2016. 320 pages. ISBN: 9781632170118

Fort Lewis: Cold War to the War on Terror by By Alan H. Archambault

Arcadia Publishing. Images of Modern America. Published: February, 2016. 96 pages; ISBN: 9781467115568

The Orphan Tsunami of 1700: Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America by Brian F. Atwater, Satoko Musumi-Rokkaku, Kenji Satake, Yoshinobu Tsuji, Kazue Ueda, and David K. Yamaguchi.

University of Washington Press. Published: January, 2016. 144 pages. ISBN: 9780295998084

The Manhattan Project at Hanford Site by Elizabeth Toomey.

 Arcadia Publishing. Images of America. Published: December, 2015. 128 pages. ISBN: 9781467134446

Encounters with the People: Written and Oral Accounts of Nez Perce Life to 1858 by Dennis Baird and Diane Mallickan

Washington State University Press. Published: August, 2015. 522 pages. ISBN: 978-0874223309

Hiking the Wonderland Trail: The Complete Guide to Mount Rainier’s Premier Trail by Tami Asars.

Mountaineers Books. Published: August, 2012. 256 pages. ISBN: 9781594856549


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