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Review: The Woodpecker Menace By Ted Olinger

This charming slice of life from autobiographical writer Ted Olinger, set in Washington State’s Key Peninsula at the bottom of Puget Sound, is truly flavorful. Beautifully illustrated with scrawly ink blot style drawings from whimsily-named local artist Tweed Meyer, Ted Olinger has managed something rare and magical – to capture not only his own life in miniature, but that of the environment around him, in rich, deep language and poetic writing conjuring up the wilderness prose of Laurie Lee and Jon Krakauer – ten short stories like windows into Olinger’s life as he settles into Peninsula life with his young son.

Working as a part-time voluntary teacher, Olinger’s life is disrupted when a woodpecker decides to keep the family awake by drilling into their roof every night. But the woodpecker is only the start of life in a community filled with eccentrics: the anarchist who lives down the way with his dogs and gardening equipment, the hitchhiker who pays Olinger with organic vegetables, the spiritual gardening expert with tattoos up her arms and a delightfully precocious daughter named Clover. All this wrapped in an exquisite description of the Peninsula’s vegetation and wildlife as he drives the lost roads that only the locals know – a razor-thin salmon jumps across the road at the end of a thousand-mile journey home, a twenty-foot deep stone carved with native symbols, a multicolored garden of grasses : perfectly peppered with touching tales about the kids at the schools he works at. The slow reader from the hallway who forces a hot dog on Olinger in defiance, and somehow bonds, and a delightful description of a softball game from a father’s view – before time passes and changes Olinger’s emotional landscape and he finds himself navigating a new kind of life where his existence is hardened with fishing men and bourbon.

There’s something of Hemingway’s boating tales that’s not lost on me, and Olinger triumphs here because he sticks to the golden rule: write what you know. His knowledge of sailing and nature really do dig deep for the reader and communicate from print to the imagination in ways most writers never touch. I can see this book as a movie, something like “Adaptation”, which took Susan Orlean’s orchid hunting book “The Orchid Thief” and turned it into a wild script.

The anthology is beautifully packaged, with a local feel to the cover. I can imagine this book being sold in Washington bookstores and doing extremely well. The cover illustration in particular is striking, and, for a self-published work, really stands head and shoulders up above most self-packaged work today: the choice of paper, gloss and font all make for a quality product.

The stories draw the reader in and I really felt like I was experiencing the Peninsula as Olinger did: every morsel of light, sound and color jumps out of the writing and made me want to read on – in fact, this slender book took me only a few days to complete. Usually, at SPR we will give books to Goodwill after the review goes up – but occasionally, I slip the copy onto my own bookshelf as a gem of undiscovered beauty. In Olinger’s case, this is exactly what happened. Highly recommended.

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About Cate Baum

Avatar of Cate Baum
Cate Baum is a filmmaker and writer of self-published book “The Bull and The Ban” (under the name Tosko) and contributed to "Ole!", a book about 21st Century attitudes to bullfighting with Ernest Hemingway's grandson John and New York Times writer Edward Lewine. She is also editor and co-founder of Filmmaking Review, the sister site to Self-Publishing Review. She is married to SPR founder Henry Baum and lives in LA.

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