Cascade Observations: Read any good books?

Steve Duin, a columnist for The Oregonian/Oregon Live, wants his readers to read. And read. And read. Several years ago he challenged his loyal readers to keep track of the books (or more precisely the number of pages) they read in a calendar year. I watched from the sidelines for the first few years, but took the contest bait in 2013. I didn’t win any of the challenges, but I found that keeping an annual book list not only chronicled my reading, but also served as a retraceable path through my year, the titles like tasty morsels Hansel and Gretel left to ensure they could remember from where they had begun.

In 2015 I didn’t notice any announcement in the Oregonian newspaper of a contest, but I decided to keep a list nonetheless. Today, I took stock of my accomplishments. I read 36 books for a total of 12,800 pages, besting my last year’s quantity by 3,149 pages. I could attribute this gain in volume to my recent retirement, but I’ve deliberately tried to limit my reading to “non-work” hours. I fear that relaxing into a book at mid-day may bring with it the urge to stay in one’s pajamas all day, devouring books and bonbons. I do, however, indulge in early morning reading time under the covers rather than rushing to ready myself for work outside the home.

In perusing my list, one might find that I have an unnatural fear and fascination with starvation. This year I read Hampton Side’s “In the Kingdom of Ice,” Hector Tobar’s “Deep Down Dark” about the trapped Chilean miners, Carine McCandless’s “The Wild Truth” about her brother Chris, who starved to death in the Alaskan outback, “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick, and “The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party” by Daniel James Brown, author of “Boys In the Boat.”

I read “The Lost Tribe of Coney Island” by Claire Prentice, the true story of a tribe of Filipino natives who, in the early 20th century, were plucked from their life in the jungle (where they occasionally practiced cannibalism). At Coney Island and other amusement parks in the United States, they were forced to wear their loincloths and to eat dogs (but not humans) on a daily basis. Finally, after several years, they were allowed to return home, though none the richer.

In between harrowing tales of want, I also read deliciously indulgent books about food and cooking: “The Town That Food Saved” by Ben Hewitt, J. Ryan’s delightful novel “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” Ruth Reichl’s “My Kitchen Year” which chronicles a year of cooking that followed the cessation of Gourmet magazine, where Reichl was editor-in-chief, and Carla Nicoletti’s “Voracious,” an entertaining book that marries a love of reading with the love of good food.

I reconnected with some favorite books and authors this year. After traveling with Rinker Buck on “The Oregon Trail,” I stopped and read “On the Banks of Plum Creek” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was just as riveting a read as the first time I read it over 50 years ago. Familiar and favorite authors Eric Larson, Timothy Eagan, Lee Smith, John Krakauer, Hampton Sides, Frances Mayes, Luis Alberto Urrea, T.C. Boyle and Tom Robbins captivated me, startled me, and made me laugh once again. In the future, I’ll watch and wait for other titles by new favorites Anthony Doerr and Jeffry Eugenides.

The most memorable book I read this year wasn’t the best crafted, and it probably won’t win any literary prizes. Still, it found a place in my heart that it has not yet vacated. The book is “Spare Parts” by Joshua Davis. It’s the true story of some Latino high school students growing up in an impoverished part of Phoenix, Ariz. Their teacher forms a robotics club, and together the kids learn about, and then begin designing, robots. Soon, they find themselves competing on a national level with the likes of MIT and other college powerhouses. It’s a feel good story with a sobering ending. The American Dream comes, and then goes, for these remarkable young students. It enlightens all who read it about the realities of poverty and immigration.

What book did you read in 2015 that’s found a place in your heart? Write a short essay (not more than 200 words; the more succinct the better) about this book. Send it to or drop off a hard copy at the Hood River News office by Jan. 27. The winner will receive a $25 gift certificate to Waucoma Bookstore.

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