In an atmosphere of increasingly dire predictions for the future of the printed book, Ashland Creek Press, a small publishing house based in Oregon, offers a flag not of surrender but of vigorous synergy and growth, with ten books of fiction and non-fiction on their current publication list, along with a number of digital shorts, including an essay by an archeologist discovering ancient artifacts while piecing together the shards of her own family, and the short stories of Midge Raymond, an award-winning author and co-founder of the press.
Two of Ashland Creek Press' latest releases, The Names of Things by John Colman Wood and Falling Into Green by Cher Fischer, are among the best books I've read this year. The publishers are not only devoted to their authors, as evidenced by the loving care of editing, cover design, and publicity, but are equally committed to the happiness of their readers, providing great works of stunning diversity (one a meditative examination of sorrow and self-understanding set in Northern Africa, the other a rousing mystery bursting out of southern California) to thrill book readers everywhere. I cannot wait to get to the other books on Ashland Creek's roster, including Mad as the Mist and Snow by Johan Mathiesen, a travel book about the cemeteries of Oregon; Balance of Fragile Things by Olivia Chadha, a novel about a Latvian/Sikh family in upstate New York; and The Ghost Runner by Blair Richmond, young adult fiction that combines paranormal experiences with Shakespeare, and environmental concerns with adventure.
The Names of Things by John Colman Wood tells the story of a man who journeys to Africa to find again the groups of nomads with whom he traveled years ago, as an anthropologist working in northern Kenya. The man's wife has just died, and as the story unfolds we discover that his journey back to Africa is a quest, a deeply anguished inquisition of himself, through which he hopes to understand the relationships he had so misunderstood in his years as an observer: "I can be here or I can think about being here. But I can't be both -- the one is a remove from the other." As an anthropologist, he was always looking for the names of things, as a way to define their meaning to the culture he studied and its connection to his own. As a man trying to deal with overwhelming sorrow, he finds that the names of things is only the place to start understanding the substance of experience, and that it is, in the end, the substance that might sustain him, while the names twist away.
The writing in The Names of Things is beautiful, hypnotic, and exacting; this is a book to be read slowly, to be savored and absorbed as each piece of the story falls into place. The man's evolution, from observing to living to accepting death, takes place in chapters interspersed with brief explanations of the burial rituals of the Gambra nomads of northeast Africa. The links between the age-old rituals and the man's journey are subtle and powerful, and in the end, profoundly moving.
Falling into Green by Cher Fischer is something completely different from The Names of Things. It is an eco-mystery set at a fast pace, punched through with staccato sentences, twisting plot, shifting landscape, and a mighty heroine for the 21st century. Esmeralda Green is a vegan eco-psychologist, non-apologist, quick-witted, horse-loving, tree-hugging, and a deeply lovable defender of all things vulnerable. When the niece of her best friend from high school apparently jumps to her death, in much the same way the best friend did twenty years ago, Esmeralda smells a rat -- or rather, the stink of corruption, pollution, and manipulation. It takes all of Esmeralda's intelligence, guts, and heart to figure out who and what is rotten in her lovely corner of Southern California. My only hope is that more rottenness occurs there on Majorca Point so that Cher Fischer can write more books about Esmeralda Green. She is my new best friend (Esme, not Cher -- I don't even know Cher) and I want to read many more mysteries featuring the loose-jeaned, organic T-shirted, lusty and lofty Green.
The Names of Things and Falling Into Green have absolutely nothing in common, other than being thoroughly engaging works of writing. That both books, so different in style and tone and flavor, were found and cared for and published by Ashland Creek Press is proof of the vibrancy of small presses, and of their vital integration in the book reading experience. Book lovers everywhere, applaud and support the small presses, and find for yourselves the treasure of books just waiting to be discovered and loved and shared.