It is my pleasure to bring you the third annual New West Best Books in the West list. Today and tomorrow, I’ll be running down the best books set in the American West or written by authors from this region that have been published since I put together last year’s list. As usual, I’ll break my selections down state by state. I normally stick to the Rocky Mountains, but this time I threw in Alaska and Washington, the settings of several of this year’s exceptional books. And I’m adding a new twist: on Wednesday I’ll narrow this list down and announce my picks for the top five books of 2009 set in the West.
In 2005, Steven Rinella won an annual lottery that Alaska holds to grant a handful of hunters permits to kill a wild buffalo. The real winners of that lottery are the readers who have been able to enjoy Rinella’s tale of that buffalo hunt in his fascinating, entertaining book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon (Spiegel & Grau, 304 pages, $15). Rinella, a former Missoula resident, examines the iconic buffalo from a variety of angles, packs the book with fresh facts, stories, observations and lore about buffalo. Rinella could probably write about dirt and make it interesting—he sure makes buffalo chips seem intriguing. “The perfect specimen,” Rinella writes, “has the circumference of a baseball cap, with folded layers like a sheik’s turban.”
In Mattox Roesch’s debut novel Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same (Unbridled Books, 317 pages, $15.95), an L.A. gangbanger named Cesar starts a new life in rural Alaska. As the book opens, Cesar’s Eskimo mother decides to leave his white father and L.A. behind after his brother is sent to prison for murdering two 15-year-olds who were trying to leave his gang. She moves with Cesar to the village she left twenty years earlier, Unalakleet, Alaska. Cesar is focused on earning enough money to return to L.A., but his cousin, the exuberant Go-boy, does everything he can to convince him to stay. Through Cesar’s eyes, Roesch creates a richly detailed portrait of this town—from its plywood buildings, to its annual salmon counts, to a common malady known as “seal finger”—that is authentic and refreshingly unlike any typical depiction of Alaska.
I have a variety of books to recommend from Colorado writers this year: a short story collection, an inquiry into animal behavior, a journalist’s report on the experiences of young Mexican immigrant women in Denver, a memoir of harrowing personal experience, and an art book.
The funny, sensitive stories in Episode by Robert Garner McBrearty (Pocol Press, 140 pages, $14.95) blend realism with experimentation. McBrearty writes with great heart and can play all the notes on the scale of humor, at times achieving the zaniness and over-the-top personalities of a T.C. Boyle story, at other moments working in the wistful sad-funny key of Thomas McGuane, and including some amusing experimentation reminiscent of Donald Barthelme. Sports, plumbing, and family life are themes that unite McBrearty’s stories, but each is surprising.
Dogs have evolved to read and interpret humans’ facial expressions; cats have not. Chickens are happy to peck continually at the same piece of string installed in their cages (which prevents them from pecking at each other), while pigs need a constant rotation of novel items for contentment, particularly fresh straw. Black cats tend to be more relaxed and social than orange cats. Colorado State University professor Temple Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 342 pages, $26), coauthored by Catherine Johnson, is packed with fascinating tidbits like these. If you’ve ever wondered what an animal was thinking, Grandin supplies plenty of answers for specific species, and her insights about animals often carry over to that most difficult to understand species—humans.
Helen Thorpe‘s perspective as the wife of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper enriches the story of ground-level immigration drama that she tells in her first book, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America (Scribner, 387 pages, $27.99). In this moving, intelligent, and nuanced inquiry into the situation of illegal immigrants in America, Thorpe follows four engaging west Denver girls as they navigate graduating from high school, gaining admittance to college, and graduating from college, some without legal American status. This sharp and intensely personal narrative provides a riveting portrait of the city of Denver from the perspectives of all its inhabitants, legal and illegal, revealing the intimate lives of some human beings at the center of the fraught political issue of illegal immigration.
Critics across the country agree that Columbine by Denver journalist Dave Cullen (Twelve, 432 pages, $26.99) is one of the best books of the year. Publishers Weekly wrote: “In this remarkable account of the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting, journalist Cullen not only dispels several of the prevailing myths about the event but tackles the hardest question of all: why did it happen? Drawing on extensive interviews, police reports and his own reporting, Cullen meticulously pieces together what happened when 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold killed 13 people before turning their guns on themselves.”
New West book reviewer Paula Younger wrote that Colorado writer Irene Vilar’s Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict (Other Press, 222 pages, $15.95) is “a personal, harrowing story about one woman overcoming a history of trauma, neglect, and self-mutilation to become a woman who can love and take care of herself, as well as her children…There are moments of beauty and tenderness throughout the book.”
Finally, a great book for art lovers is Colorado Abstract: Painting and Sculpture, with essays by Westword art critic Michael Paglia and former Rocky Mountain News art and architecture critic Mary Voelz Chandler (Fresco Fine Art Publications, 319 pages, $85). It features an essay that considers Colorado’s history as a hub of modernist art, information about the current Colorado art scene, and the work of 52 contemporary Colorado artists.
I have two novels set in Idaho to recommend this year:
Nampa, Idaho native Vestal McIntyre packs the life of a whole town into his accomplished debut novel, Lake Overturn (Harper, 444 pages, $24.99), set in the fictional Eula, outside of Boise. The characters are fresh and distinct with richly imagined inner lives, and they intersect with each other in unexpected ways. McIntyre writes about people in every level of Eula society with sensitivity and insight, from Abby Hall, the privileged Stanford-bound daughter of a lawyer who is nursing her dying mother through her final days, to Lina, the Mexican-American woman who cleans the Halls’ home, to Lina’s trailer-park neighbor Connie, an intelligent, devoutly religious single mother, to Wanda Cooper, a woman whose hard-knock beginnings led her into pain pill addiction but who seeks redemption and comes heartbreakingly close to achieving it. Lake Overturn is the sort of novel you can lose yourself in, a book you’ll want to pass to your friends so you’ll have somebody to talk about it with.
In Boise novelist Mitch Wieland’s God’s Dogs: A Novel in Stories (Southern Methodist University Press, 275 pages, $22.50), Ferrell Swan, a sixty-year-old retired Ohio schoolteacher sets out to live alone in a cabin in the Idaho desert for many of the same reasons hermits have been taking to remote outposts for centuries: he seeks solitude, time to reflect in the wilderness, a chance to engage in the physical labor, and above all a break from his interpersonal failures. In heading to Idaho, Ferrell left behind three ex-wives, an angry stepson, and the many social obligations that come with teaching high school in the same community for decades. But the poor guy doesn’t get much of a break: figures from Ferrell’s past come to his cabin, and he must contend with them and his past in this contemplative novel.
Montana writers were busy this summer. My three favorite books from the state in 2009 all came out in July:
The Wild Marsh (2009) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pages, $26) is Rick Bass’s most personal account of his life in the Yaak valley of Montana, a journal of his observations about living in the wilderness, presented in month-by-month fashion. Some of the most insightful and heartfelt passages address a topic he hasn’t dwelled on much in previous work: his daughters and his role as a dad who wants the world for his kids, a world he hopes will be as full of wild animals, plants, and berries as the one he has known. The Wild Marsh makes for a soothing counterpoint to last year’s searing Why I Came West, in which Bass eloquently discussed his anger and frustrations over trying to preserve the wilderness.
In her second story collection Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It (Riverhead, 219 pages, $25.95), Helena native Maile Meloy expertly draws the reader along toward unexpected places. Some writers achieve their effect on the reader through surface finery: poetic frills, dazzling description, or a quirky voice. Maile Meloy doesn’t go in for that sort of thing, which is why when she gets you by the throat or heart, as she does in every story in, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, you never see it coming. Many of the stories in this collection are set in Montana, but even when the stories occur in the sparsely populated state, Meloy skips the nature and zeroes in the people, portraying how they yearn for and torture one another when placed in close proximity. The collection was chosen as one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2009.
The title story of Missoula writer Kevin Canty’s collection Where the Money Went (Nan A. Talese, 191 pages, $25 ) sets the tone and theme for the book, with its wry, sad-funny accounting of a busted-up marriage. “When the thing was over, Braxton sat down at the kitchen table of his apartment and tried to figure out what they had done with the money,” it begins. In less than two pages, Canty provides a clear picture of this family that formed, consumed, and then dissolved, spending money on “cars, landscaping, clothes, vacations” on its way out of existence. Most of the stories revolve around a lonely male narrator who made a hash of some prior romantic relationship or is about to trash his current one. It would all be pretty depressing if Canty weren’t so funny. Although the stories sometimes feel like they’re shambling along, with one incident leading to another, their satisfying endings reveal that all their moving parts have been working in concert; they often have a classic shape that reminds you of the story-writing rules laid out by past masters.
New West book reviewer Paula Younger also praised Tree Spiker: From Earth First! to Lowbagging: My Struggles in Radical Environmental Action (St. Martin’s Press, 252 pages, $24.99) by Missoula’s Mike Roselle with Josh Mahan. Younger wrote: “Mike Roselle is a co-founder of the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network, Earth First!, and the Ruckus Society. Tree Spiker details his life as an environmental activist and outsider agitator. In his acknowledgments, Roselle notes that this book doesn’t completely cover the movement or even his memories, but that we should think of it as ‘a series of campfire tales and late-night bar talk.’ And that’s exactly how it reads: like sitting next to a great storyteller and hearing his fascinating experiences.”
Check back tomorrow for the second half of my best Western books list, with books set in New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states.
Did I miss any of the best books set in the West this year? Please school me: list your favorites in the comments.