This year, local nonprofit Literary Arts (who acquired Portland’s big literature festival Wordstock in 2014) renamed Wordstock with the more homogenous title of Portland Book Festival. Though this made the festival impossible to search for online, the fest itself appears to be retaining the originality, talent draw, and excellent curation of literary voices that made it such a crowded (!) but rewarding event in years past. Looking at the lineup of speakers and panels on deck, the Mercury’s Extremely Literate Strike Force™ has recommendations of authors you cannot miss. In general, forget the big names. Tom Hanks and Abbi Jacobson are actors and actors get way too much attention already. This is a literary festival. Celebrate authors.
In the future, men are no longer feared. They are instead a curiosity. Because there are no more men. Canadian cartoonist Aminder Dhaliwal began serializing her comic Woman World on Instagram in the spring of 2017 to wide acclaim. She’s tapped into a Charlie Brown level of humor and philosophical pondering with her cast of cartoon characters, living in the village of Beyoncé’s Thighs (the town’s name was chosen to “inspire strength,” “evoke empathy,” and “scream endurance”). The women adventure on quests to abandoned malls, try to score with their friends, and occasionally wonder what men were like. The town elder Ulaana is the last surviving person who lived among men. One of the very first jokes Dhaliwal posted was Ulaana’s granddaughter, Emiko, holding up a DVD box of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, asking, “Is this what men were like?” Apply Woman World like a salve to your shredded feminist heart and await the further wonders Dhaliwal is bound to create. SUZETTE SMITH (w/Lidia Yuknavitch, Leni Zumas, Ling Ma, “Survivor: Women at the End of the World,” Sat Nov 10, 3:15 pm, Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park)
In her glistening debut, All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung delves into the knotty question of how to define what family means. She offers no easy answers. Instead she empathetically presents the full humanity of the parents who raised her, as well as the parents who put her up for adoption (and the sister and half-sister who believed she had died at birth). Chung skillfully interweaves recollections from her lonely childhood in a predominantly white town in southern Oregon, where she faced racism invisible to her white adoptive parents, with the book’s central story: her decision to reach out to her Korean immigrant birth parents while pregnant with her first child. What she learns upends the tidy story she grew up hearing about her adoption, but Chung, a truth-seeker, does not shy away from the messier reality she finds. All You Can Ever Know holds special resonance for fellow adoptees, especially those navigating transracial adoptions. Yet Chung achieves the goal of many memoirists: She renders the specifics of her story so precisely that it becomes universal. SOPHIE OUELLETTE-HOWITZ (w/Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Ingrid Rojas Contreras, “This is America: Race and Family,” Sat Nov 10, 11:45 pm, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Joan Cirillo & Roger Cooke Stage, 1126 SW Park)
The release of Berlin, a hardcover book that compiles all 22 issues of Jason Lutes’ masterful comic series of the same name into one weighty volume, comes at the best and possibly worst time. This deeply researched and sharply rendered story looks into Germany’s post-World War I years, a period responsible for some incredible advances in art, fashion, and literature, as well as the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the birth of the Nazi Party. I found myself easily wrapped up in the intertwining narratives that Lutes, a former art director for our sister paper the Stranger, brought to life here, especially the fate of Marthe Müller, an art student who experiences a sexual and creative awakening in the city, and Kurt Severing, an idealist journalist trying to stem the rising tide of fascism. But I was never able to shake the frightening parallels that this story had with our current political climate, particularly following the recent killing of 11 worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Lutes may not have intended Berlin to be a cautionary tale when he embarked on this story in 2000. Nearly two decades later, it feels like a dire warning that we should all heed. ROBERT HAM (w/ Ali Fitzgerald, and Jonathan Hill, “On Im/migration with The Believer,” Sat Nov 10, 4:50 pm, Portland Art Museum, Crumpacker Library, 1119 SW Park)
Even if all he had to offer were his fancy-pants novels like The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem would be one of our best writers—but dude’s got so much more going on. In 2007, he teamed up with Portland comics genius Farel Dalrymple for the excellent, heartfelt Marvel comic Omega the Unknown; in 2011, he co-edited The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (merely one salvo in his long, hard-won campaign to convince the stuffy literary establishment of the value of that inimitable author’s work); with smart essays like “The Ecstasy of Influence,” he’s found sharp, unexpected realizations; in 2010, he put out They Live, an obsessively passionate deep-dive into the 1988 John Carpenter film in which the late “Rowdy” Roddy Piper showed up to chew bubblegum and kick ass but then ran out of bubblegum. Hell, in just the past few weeks, Lethem’s released a new detective novel, The Feral Detective, and contributed an essay to Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz’s Beastie Boys Book. Lethem’s brilliant, singular, and thrillingly unpredictable work veers and spins—he’s as adept at crafting fictions as he is at casting an eye across cultural touchstones that others, to their loss, ignore. At the Portland Book Festival, he’ll be part of the “Gone Girls: Murder and Mystery” panel with Joseph Fink (Welcome to Night Vale) and Rene Denfeld (The Child Finder); it’s safe to expect a conversation as insightful and wide-ranging as Lethem’s work. ERIK HENRIKSEN (w/Joseph Fink, Rene Denfeld, “Gone Girls: Murder and Mystery,” Sat Nov 10, 10 am, Winningstad Theatre, Poetry Foundation Stage, 1111 SW Broadway)