"BE A LITERARY OMNIVORE," this year's Wordstock advertising campaign instructs. The campaign, with ads cooked up by Wieden + Kennedy's School for Gifted Youngsters (er, the Wieden + Kennedy 12), has been ubiquitous: Red Wordstock ads appear on the shelves at Powell's, on your grocery checkout divider at New Seasons, on baguette bags from Grand Central. In a town of militant vegans, the wisdom of marketing your event by promoting the values of an omnivorous diet is debatable, but never mind—the point is that once again Wordstock's programming emphasizes a diversity of genres over highfalutin literary fiction (although there's some of that, too).
"We're a longtime literature and poetry organization, which we love," Wordstock Director Greg Netzer says, "but we also know that there are a lot of people who read things that we don't traditionally cover. So last year we just started asking people what they'd like to see." And what did people want to see? Food writing, young adult fiction, and memoir, this year's featured genres.
Highlighting genres serves as an effective way of organizing and enlivening the festival-going experience, but even that's not enough to offset the fact that the Oregon Convention Center is a pretty unfortunate location for any event that isn't a job fair or a marketing seminar. So once again, Netzer and the 30-plus volunteers without which the festival would not occur (Wordstock has a paid staff of two, down from four—thanks, economy) have looked toward the broader community to pad Wordstock's roster with events outside the festival's traditional purview, from art shows to cooking demonstrations to live storytelling events. As always, though—unfortunate location be damned—it's the two days of readings from authors around the country that form the backbone of the festival.
Keep reading for some of our genre picks. Also check out "Reading Rainbow" on for more of our festival picks, and see wordstockfestival.org for a complete schedule of author appearances and other events.
The much-maligned genre of memoir holds steady even as author after author (James Frey, Margaret Seltzer, JT LeRoy, and counting) demonstrates the inadvisability of investing too deeply in anyone else's version of the truth. Faddishness, too, often mars the genre, cramming the shelves with trashy tell-alls, throwaway confessionals, and the deformed bastard offspring of new and old media that results when bloggers get book deals. When done right, though, a good memoir serves as a kind of reassuring communion, an entry point into other people's messy, funny, and occasionally inspiring lives.
Live Through This
by Debra Gwartney
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Reading at the University of Oregon Nonfiction Stage, Sat Oct 10, noon
I did not expect to fall for Debra Gwartney's Live Through This. Honestly (and in retrospect, somewhat misogynistically), I thought it sounded like self-pitying mom lit, and I only picked it up because Gwartney is married to Barry Lopez, a wonderfully sensible author and environmentalist I sincerely wish was my uncle. (If Gwartney got Lopez, I reasoned, maybe her book won't be all bad.) Live Through This describes how, after Gwartney divorced the father of her four children and moved with her kids from Arizona to Oregon, her two oldest girls abandoned their family for a life on the streets. It seems a little sensationalist, right? Suburban! Teens! On the streets! And yet that's exactly where, and how, Gwartney's book succeeds: There's nothing unusual in the story of her divorce, nothing particularly exceptional in the anger and resentment she feels toward her ex-husband, or the subsequent strain placed on children caught between two warring parents. The only thing that's unusual here is that at ages 13 and 15, two of Gwartney's daughters shrugged off any obligation to their family, turning away from their Eugene home to a life of clothing stolen from dumpsters, drugs bought on street corners, and unrelenting hostility toward their mother.
The book takes its rueful title from a Hole album, Courtney Love being one of the musicians Gwartney's daughters began listening to right around the time they started drinking and smoking, and stopped coming home at night. Stephanie and Amanda listened to Hole and Bikini Kill, dyed their hair and painted anarchy symbols on their walls, skipped school and mouthed off to their mom—typical acts of suburban-girl rebellion that, while exhilarating to any teen, are also utterly conventional and generally harmless. Except that in the case of Gwartney's daughters, they weren't harmless at all.
Gwartney's background is in reporting—she's worked for the Oregonian and Newsweek—and her account is accordingly straightforward. What indulgence she does allow herself is chronological, as the narrative frequently skips backward and then darts to catch up with itself again, a three-steps-forward, two-back progression that mirrors Gwartney's own struggles with her children.
Gwartney's matter-of-fact retelling of her story only emphasizes how, well, normal the whole thing is. A conventional divorce, a conventional Eugene home, and a teenage rebellion that's conventional until it isn't. This book will hit home with anyone who's ever ignored the teenagers downtown asking for change, as well as anyone who's ever felt righteous for helping out a street kid—Gwartney struggles with the knowledge that maybe her daughters would've come home sooner, had well-meaning strangers not provided them with drug money. There are no right answers, and no wrong ones, either—things just happen, Gwartney tells us, and we do the best we can, and sometimes it just isn't enough.
Giulia Melucci—There's a depressing preponderance of memoirs about middle-aged women and their romantic failures, but I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti promises to be among the most spirited of the bunch. Powell's Books Stage, Sun Oct 11, noon
Ronault L.S. "Polo" Catalani—An Indonesian-born lawyer writes of his experiences working with Portland's immigrant community in Counter Culture: Immigrant Stories from Portland Café Counters. McMenamins Stage, Sun Oct 11, 4 pm
"Truth and Story"—Memoir is such a conflicted genre that it requires its own panel discussion, about capital-T Truth. University of Oregon Nonfiction Stage, Sat Oct 10, 3 pm
Like graphic novels, young adult books will always be snubbed by a certain portion of the adult population. And that's fine—such genre litmus tests are a quick 'n' easy way of immediately determining who likes fun and who is dead inside. You don't need us to namedrop any of the young adult titles that've crept into the mainstream in recent years, so we won't.
Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck
by Dale E. Basye
Reading at the Target Children's Stage, Sun Oct 11, 3 pm
Rapacia is the second book in the Heck series, a "middle reader" series in the vein of Lemony Snickett: arch, macabre, and full of winks for any grownup who might be reading along at home. As the title of the first book in the series informs us, Heck is "where the bad kids go," an "otherworldly reform school" that functions as a sort of Hell-lite for (dead) underage miscreants, until they turn 18 and can be subject to due heavenly process. Rapacia is, of course, the second circle of Heck, falling right after Limbo (Next up? The sensitively titled Blimpo, about the circle of hell reserved for gluttons). Children who find themselves in Rapacia are forever taunted by the specter of "Mallvana" hovering just overhead, a sort of über-mall where all sorts of earthly delights hover just out of reach, inspiring a persistent and insatiable longing.
The series' protagonists are Milton and Marlo Fauster, a brother and sister duo who first experienced the perils of Heck in Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go, when a shoplifting scheme went horribly awry, resulting in their deaths and subsequent banishment. Marlo, who orchestrated the scheme, belongs in Heck, but her younger brother Milton was an unwitting accomplice who ended up in there as the result of some sort of bureaucratic oversight (Heck is managed just like an elementary school; there's even an overworked principal, named—of course—Bea "Elsa" Bubb). In book two, Milton has managed to escape from Heck, returning to his recently vacated earthly vessel only to find his soul doesn't fit inside his body quite as well as it once did. Meanwhile, in Heck, Marlo is contending with mean girls and giant talking rabbits as she tries to make it out of Rapacia in one piece.
The book's content isn't quite commensurate with its excellent concept—it's hard to imagine any but the most precocious kid catching all the references here (there's a stylish "devil's advocate" named Anna Couture and a three-headed Pomeranian named Cerberus; Eleanor Roosevelt drops in from heaven to provide an inspirational lecture during a school assembly). And for all the book's furious winking, making it clear that adults as well as kids are encouraged to partake, it's hard to imagine even the most gung-ho adult staying chipper in the face of Basye's relentless punning. But with seven more circles of hell to explore, it's clear that Basye's books are going to be here for a while, so we might as well make a little room on the shelf, somewhere between Lemony Snickett, Terry Pratchett, and Philip Pullman.
MORE YOUNG ADULT
Scott Westerfeld—The author of the popular Uglies books, about a world in which the government makes everyone pretty (and stupid) at the age of 16. His newest, Leviathan, goes steam punk. Powell's Books Stage, Sat Oct 10, noon
Blake Nelson—You're not really a Portlander until you've read Blake Nelson's seminal Girl. And after that, consider picking up his sharp, witty sendup of teenage rebellion, Destroy All Cars. Target Children's Stage, Sat Oct 10, 2 pm
Mandy Hubbard—While Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is more our speed, we can see how Hubbard's Prada and Prejudice might have its appeal. Target Children's Stage, Sat Oct 10, 4 pm
Though history is dotted with food-writing luminaries like M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, and Julia Child (all of whom have been tragically relegated to the realm of "cookbook authors" at one point or another), it seems they've been few and far between. While the last decade or two has seen a precipitous rise in the popularity of food television and celebrity chefs, it's only been in the past several years that our growing obsession with what, and who, feeds us has begun flood bookstores.
People have been writing about food since we first scrawled pictographs on cave walls. Those line drawings of hunched bison in the Cave of Lascaux could be considered the first spark of what we now know as food memoir: Eat Prey, Hunt! The only thing humans seem to enjoy more than eating is talking about what they eat—now more than ever.
The Ramen King and I
by Andy Raskin
Reading at the Powell's Books Stage, Sun Oct 11, noon
After years of failed relationships marked by an inability to remain monogamous or truthful with his partners, Andy Raskin finds himself nearly 40 years old, alone, and banished from his favorite sushi restaurant. Finding some comfort in obsessive dating through Craigslist, the string of random women he dines with, sleeps with, and eventually cheats on does nothing to solve his central question: "What's wrong with you?"
But a fateful bowl of ramen, a gall bladder removal, and a magazine article lead Raskin to the one man who may be able to help him discover himself and find redemption: Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen noodles.
Raskin, a contributor to the New York Times, NPR, and This American Life, has imbued his brutally honest memoir with the dreamlike sparkle of science fiction, the lonely watchfulness of travel writing, the pacing and structure of creative modern fiction, and the sensory wallop of good food writing.
On his journey to find guidance from the man he's chosen as his god, Raskin reveals to us the sights and sounds of Japan. We are witness to the flash, noise, and flavors of food courts, markets, and restaurants. We are given an intimate glimpse into the desires of a culture whose history of brutal losses and precipitous gains shaped the man who would give the world instant ramen, without which the bellies of college students would be forever rumbling.
We are also given an intimate look into Raskin's own history of desire, laid out in intensely open and humorous letters written to the aging chairman of Nissin Food Products. It's a series of unflattering confessions that lead Raskin to the understanding of what Momofuku Ando called the "Fundamental Misunderstanding of Humanity." The problem is trying to overcome that misunderstanding.
The Ramen King and I is really the perfect book to represent all that is good about Wordstock: It's humorous, entertaining, and ultimately enlightening, leaving you hungry, if not for a bowl ramen, then at least another filling read. PATRICK ALAN COLEMAN
Piper Davis—The Grand Central head baker shares trade secrets in The Grand Central Baking Book. Columbia Sportswear Stage, Sat Oct 10, 4 pm
Isa Chandra Moskowitz—It'd be presumptuous to call Moskowitz Portland's favorite vegan chef, but we're tempted to do so anyway—Vegan Brunch: Homestyle Recipes Worth Waking Up For, anyone? Wieden + Kennedy Stage, Sun Oct 11, 4 pm
Kate Hopkins—Also known as "The Accidental Hedonist," handily one of the best food bloggers on the whole wide internet. McMenamins Stage, Sun Oct 11, 11 am
OUTSIDE THE BOX
Sure, food, memoir, and YA fiction are getting highlighted this year, but not every writer's work is so easily categorized. Here are a few more great authors you won't want to miss.
James Ellroy—One of the finest crime writers in America, The Black Dahlia author James Ellroy concludes his Underworld USA trilogy with his newest, Blood's a Rover. Powell's Books Stage, Sat Oct 10, 2 pm
Richard Dawkins—The author of The God Delusion returns with The Greatest Show on Earth, in case you still don't believe in evolution. Ticketed event at Special Events Stage, Sat Oct 10, 3 pm, $22 (includes copy of book)
Sherman Alexie—Sherman Alexie is prolific, powerful, and just about to come out with yet another book: War Dances, a collection of short stories. Ticketed event at Special Events Stage, Sun Oct 11, 2 pm, $18 (includes copy of book)
Ethan Canin—Let it not be said that Wordstock has abandoned literary fiction. The author of For Kings and Planets and America America has unimpeachable literary bona fides, including a position on the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Columbia Sportswear Stage, Sun Oct 11, 4 pm