Best of Portland 2011: Best Reads

Joel Gunz and Amanda Westmont

Best Divine Dilettantes

If you're in the market for a religious experience, Amanda Westmont and Joel Gunz might be able to lend you some wisdom. The pair has been attending a different Portland church every Sunday since January and writing about their experiences in their shared blog, "A Year of Sundays" ( No spiritual gathering, from Buddhist services to Scientology, is off limits. (They're currently trying to get a mosque into the works.)

Following a landmark personal year, Westmont felt compelled to embark on some kind of project. "One of my New Year's resolutions was to figure out spirituality," she says. Westmont, who had been raised agnostic, felt disconnected from spirituality, and wanted to see religion from an up-close perspective. When she announced her intent to start visiting different churches, readers of her personal blog responded with an overwhelming number of recommendations. "My life policy is to say yes, so if you send me to a church, I'm going to say yes to it," she says.

Gunz, who had been dating Westmont for four months before they began the project, brought a different perspective. Raised a Jehovah's Witness, Gunz remained fiercely connected to his church until seven years ago. After leaving the church, Gunz wanted to see what else was out there. 

The pair attends each service together but write separate responses, allowing for a multifaceted and sometimes discrepant take on the experience. "I'm kind of approaching it journalistically," Gunz explains. "Like an anthropological study." Westmont, on the other hand, feels less objective toward the experience. "I'm looking at it emotionally," she says.

Blogging about religion has its perils; being so candid about such a personal subject has drawn flak from some readers. "Before we even went live with the site I thought, 'Are we going to piss everyone off?' and then I thought, 'So what?'' Westmont says, explaining that while they avoid putting down members of the churches they visit, they view many aspects as fair game for their honest observations.

There are no movie-set epiphanies to be found here, however, as the pair remains realistic about the project's outcome. "Maybe that's the journey itself: that I'm not going to find anything. And that's OK," Westmont says. "I don't feel any closer to finding religion, but I think I feel closer to people in general." NATASHA GEILING.

People Places Reads Bites Sights Then&Now

Best Local Twitter Account Part 1

Comedy Twitter accounts as a genre haven't been funny since @TheFuckingPope, but sometime in March this year, @ancientportland came along, and the Twittersphere suddenly became hilarious and relevant again. The mysterious tweeter behind the moniker concocts fake facts, anecdotes and quotes about "ancient" Portland, creating an entire alternate history to explain how our fair city became the place it is today: "In antiquity, Mall 205 was a lively trading post, busy with Clackamites, Greshamites and Portlandians. It's now a sad ruin. With a Target." And the real story behind Willamette Week? "Willamette Week began in 1697 as Rev. Eli Willamette's Weekly Broadsheet," @ancientportland informed us. "Every issue dedicated to sins of Drunkenness, Vulgarity and Onanism." You can't argue with the facts. RUTH BROWN.

Best Indie iPad App

Drop into any publishing industry conference this summer and you'll hear one word, repeated over and over: iPad. Print media's oddly singleminded obsession with Steve Jobs' magic tablets has mounted to a shrill keening, driving magazines from People to The New Yorker to pour millions into developing iPad apps that look and feel more or less like their print counterparts, but with more annoying ads. But you know what iPads are really good for? Not magazines—zines! The indie publishing spirit that gave birth to the Independent Publishing Resource Center and Reading Frenzy has found a new outlet in the iPad, and the local leader of the pack is Letter to Jane, a journal of film essays, photography and interviews with interesting people published by Portlander Timothy Paul Moore. Moore's plenty ambitious—his first issue included an interview with Aziz Ansari and Yoko Ono—but what really sets it apart is design. Since the second issue (the first was printed just before the iPad's debut in January 2010), Letter to Jane looked and felt not like a ho-hum export of a product designed to look good on paper but something altogether new and beautiful. Want a look at the future of digital publishing? Download Moore's third issue, "Moral Tales," for your iPad or iPhone (or do like I did and borrow a coworker's). At 99 cents, it's cheaper than a copy of The Oregonian and far more pleasant to look at. BEN WATERHOUSE.

Best Congressional Earmark

U.S. Rep. David Wu made an $800,000 appropriations request this spring for an "urban battlefield robot" for the Oregon National Guard: "Supports the procurement of the TALON SWAT/MP robot to perform explosive/forced entry of buildings, reconnaissance, and improvised explosive device disruption and destruction. The robot is specifically equipped for scenarios frequently encountered in urban areas and can be configured with equipment including a loudspeaker and audio receiver for one- or two-way communications or night vision and thermal cameras." If he can get us a test drive, we'll forget the whole unwanted sexual behavior thing. BEN WATERHOUSE.

Best Place to Send Used Dictionaries and Dating Guides

Every Tuesday night, the volunteers of Portland Books to Prisoners ( gather in a Northeast Portland garage to respond to literary requests from inmates around the country—like a Santa's Workshop for convicted felons. Dictionaries are the most requested books, says Alex Fish, the group's longest-serving volunteer, followed by sci-fi, Westerns, history and instructional guides for trades. Less predictable are requests for Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, as well as dating and travel guides. Finding the books isn't a problem, says Fish—the program receives well over a hundred books every week through donations or drop boxes around the city—but finding enough money for postage is a constant struggle. Even if people don't want to support Books for Prisoners out of compassion, he says, they should do it out of selfishness. "Anything we can provide them with—whether it's entertainment or an opportunity to educate themselves—is worthwhile," says Fish. "Because most of them are going to get out and be, if not your neighbor or my neighbor, someone's neighbor. So it's in everyone's best interest." RUTH BROWN.

Best Local Twitter Account Part 2

As a reporter for KEX and KPOJ, Felicia Heaton spends a lot of time listening to police and fire scanners. She picks up a lot of entertaining gossip, most of it not newsworthy. What to do with the 800 megahertz one-liners? Well, what else is Twitter good for? Heaton posts the best of the scanner chatter to @ShitMyScnrSays. A sample from one week in June: "There's somebody there who says his pants are on fire." "Report of a man with a stick violently beating on a bunch of bushes." "We're trying to get a vehicle description but they're too busy screaming and yelling at each other." "Says he was attacked by 3 transients. He doesn't know why. They threw a can at him." BEN WATERHOUSE.

Best Scare Tactic Inspired by a Children's Song

There's nothing like a catchy childhood tune with politically modified lyrics to remind you of your legislative obligations—and the high likelihood of your impending plummet to a watery death. That seems to have been the mindset of the quiet activist who plastered the Sellwood neighborhood and surrounding area with all-caps stenciled signs proclaiming "Sellwood Bridge Is Falling Down" just in time for the highly anticipated (and failed) May vote on Measure 3-372, which would have funded a replacement bridge. To really get the message into people's heads, each initial "Sellwood Bridge Is Falling Down" sign was followed by a subsequent trail of "Falling Down...Falling Down...Falling Down," so just as you had finished the last little sign, you were suddenly crossing the crumbling infrastructure. Who knew it could be so easy to hum a political ditty while holding your breath and praying for gravity's mercy? NATALIE BAKER.

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