Cheston Knapp's essays show sharp humor, keen eye; Deborah Reed's 'The Days When Birds Come Back' is about restoring innocence

COURTESY PHOTO - CHESTON KNAPPAs you may expect from the editor of Tin House magazine, Cheston Knapp's essays are highly literary.

At first I couldn't warm up to them. That changed after I read the slyly funny "Neighborhood Watch" essay in "Up, Up, Down, Down" ($25, Scribner), set in his North Portland neighborhood. I had to send it to my relatives who live near Irving Park, whose lively pick-up tennis scene is also explored here.

When a neighbor and sometime friend named Peter is killed for no particular real reason, Knapp is turned from a paralyzed Hamlet lounging on the couch into a highly self-conscious man of action. He's not crafting stories in his head anymore; he's in the story, a part of the action. But, as he comforts a stunned neighbor who found Peter, Knapp can't quiet the nagging sensation that this probably isn't altogether true — he's filing it all away for later, for the story.

COURTESY IMAGE - 'Up Up, Down Down'With great humor, Knapp constantly questions his own honesty and reactions, weighing experiences and asking, "Is this story-worthy?" This stance, he fears, keeps him from fully experiencing life in the moment. Knapp makes great fun of his own duplicity and his cozy ignorance about his neighborhood as he sorts through the various emotions (or tremendous amount of writing material) that the death of Peter calls up.

Knapp is a dazzling writer. His words flow, flow and flow some more. He captures perfectly his own sense of leading a double life — the life he's living and the material he's hording. A curse? Yes, probably. But he's certainly blessed with a keen eye and great powers of observation.

COURTESY PHOTO - DEBORAH REED• The characters in Deborah Reed's latest book, "The Days When Birds Come Back" ($24, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), live on the Oregon Coast. It doesn't take a detective, or even an especially close reader, to figure out that the author probably does, too. Reed's painterly descriptions of the Oregon Coast are so vivid and real, so beautiful and lyrical that her writing is more like a visual art form. So, approach this book less as a collection of words on a white page and more like a painting.

An example: "Both homes faced the ocean, and waves could be heard day and night, a rhythmic crash that helped settle the chatter in the corners of June's mind. Settled her the way the bungalow always had, with its hollyhock garden and stained-glass windows and rooms that once smelled of piecrust and furniture polish and Granddad's musky lard soap ... the properties stood side by side on a square of land amid eight acres of old-growth conifers. Shady, untouched forest flanked the houses to the north and south. Elk, foxes, and bobcats wandered the soft pads of pine needles and emerald-colored moss, downy woodpeckers rattled the trees, and during summer, when the sun set and rose early, the sharp cries of coyotes cut across the small meadow and the darkest hour of night."

COURTESY IMAGE - 'The Days When Birds Come Back'A small complaint is the title, a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. It just doesn't capture the story for me. The novel expertly portrays the inner lives of its two main characters, June and Jameson. Both are in constant conversation with their pasts.

June is wrestling with more than a few demons. She's returned to the childhood home where her Irish grandparents raised her to repair it, and to try and remain sober. Jameson is the craftsman and a contractor she hires.

He's a kind of house whisperer who uncovers the ghosts of its past inhabitants as he takes the walls down to their studs. He's grieving, too, having lost his child to a random shooter in a convenience store.

When I first read this chain of events I thought it a needlessly sensational plot device. But, in light of the #NeverAgain moment and our gun issues, I've rethought that.

In Reed's stories, long-buried family secrets have a way of drowning her characters. Her previous book, "Things We Set on Fire," was also about people recovering from various types of trauma.

The beautifully written book "The Days When Birds Come Back" is about alcoholism, finding true love, and restoring the innocence of childhood.

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