Cascade Observations: The pleasing puzzle

The “after Christmas season” always means one thing to me — it’s jigsaw puzzle time. We drag the rickety card table from a dark closet, open the box, and dump 1,000 pieces of colored cardboard onto the table’s ancient surface.

The first few minutes are daunting — the chaotic heap intimidates. Soon, though, my fellow puzzlers and I begin the grand sort. We search for the trusty edge pieces first. As we snap them together, a reassuring rectangle forms. Soon we are engaged in mini-sorts. Pieces are arranged by color, texture and shape. A face appears here, a building there. Together, we make order out of chaos.

The jigsaw puzzle is a good metaphor for life as the old year leaves us and the new year beckons. The chaos of the holidays begins to fade as the last cookie crumbs are dumped, ornaments are taken off the tree and sorted by color, texture, and shape, and a semblance of order returns to the kitchen and the dinner table.

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In addition to organizing the house, now is the time I begin an attempt to order the other pieces of my life. Central to this is reflecting back on the year just passed. I look at accomplishments, disappointments, relationships nurtured and relationships abandoned. And thanks to Steve Duin, I look back at another year of reading.

Duin, a columnist for The Oregonian newspaper, challenges his readers to keep track of their annual reading. The reader with the most pages read in a year wins a prize. Last year’s grand-prize winner read a staggering 223,357 pages; my total is a mere 7,200 pages. But what I lack in quantity I make up for in an eclectic mix of books. At first glance, my list looks like the jigsaw puzzle just dumped on the table. Fiction and nonfiction lay in a mixed up jumble, and subjects ranges from Teddy Roosevelt to Chinese courtesans, monarch butterflies to the Ku Klux Klan.

In reviewing my list of books, I’ve tried to find the links in my reading puzzle. There are the books I reread every year or so — “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “A Christmas Memory.” These two are linked in several ways. Not only are they favorites of mine, but also Harper Lee, author of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” fashioned the character Dill after Truman Capote, a childhood friend of Lee’s.

Our 49th state is another link in my list. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I was transported there several times this year via books. Heather Lende’s delightful memoir “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name” chronicles her life in small-town Alaska. “Pilgrims’ Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier” by Tom Kizzia is the true story of a fanatic who moved his family to small-town Alaska, and wreaked havoc on his kin and his community.

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From the fields of Alaska I traveled to the exotic world of courtesans, both foreign and domestic. Amy Tan’s “The Valley of Amazement” is a novel set in China about a Chinese American girl growing up and growing old in the courtesan world; the main character in Lee Smith’s “Guests on Earth” begins life in the brothels of New Orleans, and moves on to an asylum where she meets Zelda Fitzgerald. (A warning: Don’t read Tan’s book if you are uncomfortable reading graphic descriptions of sexual encounters.)

Multiple Teddy Roosevelt pieces kept appearing in 2013. “The Big Burn,” first recommended to me two years ago by my friend Kate, is the gripping story of a huge forest fire that devastated Washington, Idaho and Montana in 1910. “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” examines the fascinating life of Edward Curtis, known primarily for his photographs of Native Americans. In both books, Roosevelt is a prominent character.

Timothy Eagan, a Washington author and favorite of mine, wrote both of the Roosevelt books. In fact, 2013 was a year of reading many books by favorite authors. They include (in addition to Eagan, Lee and Capote) Robin Cody (“Ricochet River”), Barbara Kingsolver (“Flight Behavior”), Michael Pollan (“Cooked”), Lee Smith (“Guests on Earth” and “The Christmas Letters”), Amy Tan and Luis Alberto Urrea (“Queen of America”).

Of that illustrious list, only Barbara Kingsolver disappointed. I’ve loved Kingsolver’s novels and nonfiction since I first read “The Bean Trees” in 1988. In her newest book, Kingsolver’s desire to address global warming and species degradation overwhelms her craftsmanship as a novelist. I thought the characters were two-dimensional and the message delivered with a much-too-heavy hand.

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Finally, there are those books that may never fit into my 2013 puzzle, but which informed, inflamed and inspired me this past year. Susan Spencer-Wendel isn’t a great writer, but her autobiography “Until I Say Goodbye,” concerning her life with ALS, is so compelling it doesn’t matter. (Spencer-Wendel wrote much of her 384-page book on an iPhone, as she only has use of one thumb).

“Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King retells the harrowing story of Thurgood Marshall and the four young African-American men he defended in a rape case in Florida during a time of abject racism. “Brother One Cell” is the memoir of Cullen Thomas, who as a young man seeking adventure did something stupid and landed in the Korean prison system for over three years. Rachel Joyce’s lovely novel “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” affirms why we sometimes do crazy things in the name of friendship.

Lastly, there is “Whiplash: When the Vietnam War Rolled a Hand Grenade into the Animal House,” by Dennis R. O’Neill. The book, described as both nonfiction and fiction, is O’Neill’s somewhat autobiographical tale of how the Vietnam War affected a group of college students in the late 1960s.

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We finished the jigsaw puzzle yesterday, broke up the pieces and returned the box to the dark closet. Perhaps we’ll pull that same puzzle off the shelf next year, as I most certainly will pull “A Christmas Memory” from my bookshelf during 2014’s holiday season. In the meantime, there are many more books to discover, and a new list to write.

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